SERMON: “Talking About Faith”

ON 29 October 2017

Many of you will be more familiar with the work of Community Cupboard than I am. Now that both Sarah and Carole have moved on, it is run by a team of volunteers, mostly from St Mary’s and from Rose Hill Methodist Church. The people who come in need of food are known as Friends, and they are invited to select what they can use from good quality food that has been salvaged from supermarket waste. Friends are given invitations by organisations such as the Rose Hill and Donnington Advice Centre, although we don’t turn away any who arrive without an invitation. Friends often stay for a cup of tea or some beans on toast, and spend time chatting with each other and with the volunteers. If anyone is interested in joining the team, you would be very welcome to come along on a Wednesday afternoon to enjoy this time of fellowship with us and with our Friends.

Every so often the team stops to reflect on what we are doing and on how we are participating in God’s mission. I have only been involved since September, but since then a question has arisen several times, which is one that is faced by many churches and also by many individuals as we seek to live Christian lives.

The question is this: is it enough to demonstrate the love of Christ in what we do? Or should we also be talking about our faith? It is a question about evangelism. Some people feel quite fearful about sharing their beliefs because they don’t know how to respond if challenged. Some feel that it is wrong to shove their beliefs down other people’s throats (which always strikes me as a strangely apt image for a food bank). It is a question that this morning’s reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us to understand better.

Thessalonica was the Roman capital of Madedonia (which is now Northern Greece). From Acts 17 we learn that Paul went there with Silas as part of his second missionary journey. Whereas Acts says they were there for just three sabbaths, Paul’s letter implies that it was a rather longer visit, during which he lived alongside the Thessalonians, plying his trade as a tentmaker. This meant that he was not a financial burden to them, but also that they could see how he lived: Paul describes his conduct as ‘pure, upright and blameless’. The Thessalonians came to know that his motives were pure; that he did not approach them out of greed or in search of status. By living alongside the Thessalonians, Paul gained their trust.

But Paul, didn’t just go to live in Thessalonica and hope that people would notice his honesty. He went there to proclaim the gospel that Jesus, son of the living, true God had been raised from the dead to rescue them from the wrath that was to come (as he summarises it in his letter).

Most of Paul’s letter, though, is not about Jesus or God; it is not about the scriptures or the prophets. Most of Paul’s letter is about how to live well, and by living alongside the Thessalonians he would have learned what issues they faced and how best to communicate with them. The Thessalonians would have been familiar with schools of thought about living a good life. Paul was probably writing from Athens, and we know that he met and debated with members of different philosophical schools. Acts mentions Epicureans – who advocated a simple life in the pursuit of pleasure as the greatest good, and Stoics – who taught self-control as a way of life to achieve freedom from suffering. Paul taught the Thessalonians to live a life that was pure and holy, not on the basis of some philosophical school, but because it was the will of God.

Summing up: Paul worked alongside the Thessalonians, living a holy life and listening to them in order to learn how best to teach them to do the same. What can we learn from this?

Community cupboard gives us an opportunity to live alongside those who come there to receive food. We listen and we talk; we play board games and drink tea; and over time, people come to trust us and tell us more about what is happening in their lives. For example, last week somebody was talking to me about the death of her mother. She felt that the hospital had let her mother die by not monitoring her condition. This lady had a strong sense of justice that the hospital should be held to account, and also a strong sense of loss that her mother was no longer there to give her advice. Someone else was talking about not having enough money to top up their electricity card. He was having to make a choice between buying food or electricity. Then there was a lady talking about a visit to the dentist when a friend of hers arrived at the surgery having taken a drug overdose. She cut her appointment short in order to accompany the friend to seek help from a doctor, then took the friend home and persuaded the friend’s partner to remove the supply of drugs (not wanting to be caught with them herself).

I am still wondering how best to respond to these conversations. They are windows into situations that, in my sheltered life, I have not encountered before. But they speak of issues that are fundamental to human life and how we live it. How do we comprehend the death of someone who has shaped the person we have become? What do we value most in life, and how do our values shape the decisions we make? How far are we prepared to remove ourselves from the centre of our own lives in order to accommodate the needs of other people?

These are questions that we address in church through the richly symbolic and theological language of faith. We talk of God, of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit. We talk of sacrifice, of death and rebirth. We talk of sin and redemption. And when we think of evangelism, I suspect that this is the sort of language that comes to mind.

But when I hear volunteers talking with Friends at Community Cupboard, this is not the language that they use. They talk of hopes and fears. They talk of love and anger. They talk about what is fair and what is right. In short, like St Paul, they talk about how to live life well.

Maybe this is the answer to the question of evangelism: when we talk about life and about how we live it, we are talking about the gospel. We are not force-feeding it to our Friends any more than we are force feeding them broccoli. But by living alongside our Friends, we are prompted to reach deep inside ourselves – selves that have been formed by the Gospel of Christ – in order to talk about our experiences of life in a way that will be understood by the people we are talking with. And, like St Paul, we find that evangelism works in two directions. As we respond to new and unfamiliar situations, not only do we reach into our own lives to express what the gospel might mean to other people, but, in doing so, we come to understand it better for ourselves.

Each Wednesday, before the Friends arrive and after they leave, we spend some time in prayer and reflection. I would like to finish by sharing the prayer we say together at the end of Community Cupboard each week:

Gracious God, by whose blessing simple jars of water poured out wine of the finest vintage, continue transforming the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen