This is a guest post by Phillip Borkett – a great friend of St Marys and of Sharrow, who has served as Minister at Highfield Trinity Church for twelve years. The following text is a sermon given by Phillip at a joint service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity held at Cemetery Road Baptist Church on 15th January 2017.
Acts 17: 16-34
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and ev
erything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
The first time my wife Penny and I drove through Sharrow was almost exactly 12 years ago, January 2005; I knew I was coming here as minster that September. It was Saturday afternoon, it was raining, crowds were converging on Bramall Lane, traffic was at a standstill, people were calling out to one another from car to car with cheery greetings, or maybe not so cheery.
Back in those heady days there was much optimism and inward investment. We had park rangers, street wardens, Sharrow Forum was expanding to explore new opportunities to work in the community, Mount Pleasant Park was to be remodelled and Lansdowne Estate refurbished, community groups were thriving, the Adventure playground was a key hub for young people, Sharrow school was to be rebuilt, the Sure Start centre was a huge success, there were intense discussions about a new community hub based on Sharrow Lane, the new student complexes were bringing fresh faces to the area, restaurants shops were opening on London Road, the multi million pound Medina Mosque was being built as a beacon of inter faith understanding. Alongside this, the cultural heart of this town within a city was beating fast with music ringing out from converted mester’s workshops and annually from Mount Pleasant Park. And the churches continued their witness – individually and together, notably on Good Friday and before Christmas.
Twelve years later, much has changed; most of the investment from statutory sources has dried up, Surestart has closed, many of those optimistic plans have evaporated, the makeup of the community has changed as new residents have found refuge here, shops have closed, restaurants closed and opened, and closed. A new Chinese investment is underway on the corner of Bramall lane, I could go on. Yet still the heart of Sharrow beats, the heartbeats of culture, of faith and of community.
I have learnt a lot from my time here in Sharrow and from those who live work, worship and witness here. I am so grateful to you all for the belief you have in this place and for your openness to discover wat God is doing and to join in.
As I have been thinking about some of the things I have learnt and maybe some of the thoughts I would like to leave with you, I turned again to the passage we heard from Acts 17.
Having experienced opposition in Thessalonica and Beroea Paul is in to Athens to regroup and await arrival of Silas and Timothy before the journey continues. Paul doesn’t just have a break and do some sightseeing his encounter with people of Athens I believe has helped me to appreciate how we can and must relate to the society, the community in which we find ourselves.
Went where the people were
Paul started in the synagogue but didn’t stay there for long, we quickly find him in the market place because that is where people were. Not just shopping centre but place for debate and conversation. Paul went here deliberately because he was open to conversations with people who thought differently, had a world view that he didn’t share.
For me, two of the most significant things that we do as churches together is the Good Friday walk of witness following the cross and the Living Nativity on the moor (which seems to get earlier and earlier each year). I am old enough to remember a time certainly where I grew up in London, when the world stopped still on GF. The solemn procession through normally crowded streets was conducted in silence because there was just no one around. Now it is different, the streets are as busy as on any shopping day (including Sunday of course) and we have opportunities to meet people on the way. A few years ago we started giving hot cross buns with an explanation of what Good Friday means; we began going into shop, nail bars, hair salons and betting shops with a bun and some good news.
Likewise, the Living Nativity is a wonderful opportunity to meet people who know nothing or maybe just a little about the story of Christ’s coming. This year, dressed as a wise man (!) I had wonderful conversations with a devoted Catholic, a committed atheist, a strict Hassidic Jew and a faithful Muslim.
My prayer for churches together in Sharrow is that these opportunities will not just continue but increase. I sense a movement throughout the Christian world that now is the time when we need to be more like Paul and get out from our familiar places of worship and be where the people are; praise God it is happening among our churches already but may this grow and develop.
So we need to be church with people whether on streets, in shops, alongside weekend revellers, among the homeless at soup run, we are church when at school or college, in the queue for the doctor’s surgery, at work, on the bus
Respectful of their culture:
‘How religious you are’ Not you have got it wrong by worshipping … or thinking that. Looked for what he as a person of faith had in common with them. Over last years I have begun to realise that Spirituality is alive and present in many of our neighbours. I was fortunate to have a sabbatical two years ago, which enabled me to attend music festivals and to spend time engaging with popular culture. I discovered that many songs, many movements of popular culture, contain a real yearning for the deeper things of life, an understanding that a divine other exists. Time and time again I encountered words of Scripture, sayings of Jesus and even Christian doctrine repackaged for a contemporary audience in ways that the creators of the music would never have intended.
And here in Sharrow, with our rich diversity of culture, music, faith and ethnicity we have numerous examples of the importance of spirituality. Spirituality is woven through the wonderful Sharrow Festival through music, food, performing arts, through relationships as well as the specific contributions of our faith community and not forgetting the fantastic refreshment tent!
Paul with his amazing story of conversion and his clarity of thought, and even with his single-minded determination, was open to the spirituality of others: his reaction to the people of Athens is an important lesson for us all – he began where they were: not telling they had it wrong. Expressed a real interest in them ‘I looked carefully at your objects of worship.’
Cynics say that Christians only interested in what they can get out of others but here’s example of getting to know people first – genuine interest in things that matter to them. We might br tempted to condemn modern culture but I feel we need to appreciate it.
My prayer for churches together in Sharrow is that you will stay alert to the changing culture in our town within a city and explore fresh ways of engaging with this.
And dare I even say, being prepared to change because as a church we have encounter those who see the world and think differently from ourselves.
Made connections: Made the message relevant to the audience
What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. After showing interest and gaining trust he had right to get into a conversation and then make connections between their interest and his. Star
ted from their philosophy. In which god is distant, multi-faceted and above all unknown.
For many years, there has been an argument about whether church should be relevant – I can remember that in my teens when seemed that ‘establishment’ was arguing against modern songs! I think we have now gone beyond that; from what I know of each church here in Sharrow there is a real desire to meet today’s needs and bring the gospel afresh to a generation that hasn’t heard it. Even if sometimes there doesn’t always feel the energy to do it.
Yes, ultimately this is what we are about. Of course we must relate to others and be open to what we can learn from them, of course we must debate and engage with the community, we must be prepared to get our hands dirty in sacrificial service to those who are in need, those who are struggling, hungry, homeless and marginalised, yes we must care for the oppressed, the poor and the newcomer. But as Paul reminds us we do this because of Jesus
Paul listened and observed, and because of his respectful engagement he was given the opportunity to explain where he was coming from:
So they took Paul, brought him before the city council, the Areopagus, and said, “We would like to know what this new teaching is that you are talking about. Some of the things we hear you say sound strange to us, and we would like to know what they mean.
And their reaction was realistic just as is the reaction of people today: we discover
- Some scoffed.
- Some wanted more debate.
- Some believed
My prayer for churches together in Sharrow is that as we engage with our amazing community, we may continue, through the presence of the Holy Spirit to have the confidence in the message of hope, love salvation and change that is at the beating heart of who we are, and that this heart beat might continue to be the life force of this diverse, multicultural, ever changing and spiritual community, this town within a city
Paul brought the message to the heart of Athens by relating the gospel to a poem, that was familiar to the citizens of the day. I finish with a poem that should be familiar to every citizen of Sharrow because it’s on a wall in London road for all to see. A poem that sums up the essential nature of our community and I think offers a cha
llenge to us as the body of Christ to consider how we might continue to engage with the people of Sharrow;
THE SHARROW FESTIVAL POEM
Many faces, different races
These are the places where nations unite.
Colour, vibrancy, people together
Look around and celebrate
The community starts within you,
Each voice speaks multicultural words,
Long may it continue.
Where we get on with our neighbours
Though we’re not all the same.
And it’s good to be different
We need more compassion
We need more kindness
Toward every nation.
A tiny world in miniature
a wonderful mélange of cultures,
a superb melting pot
of hope for all our futures.