Why are we here? What’s the point of life? These big questions have been around since our beginnings and we all ask them at some point in our life.
Whether it’s the child becoming an adult, or the adult confronted by the cruelty of life as they grieve a loved one – why are we here is a question that persists.
In the ancient world the Greek culture was one in which these kinds of philosophical questions were discussed.
Learned men (as they were then) gathered at the Areopagus in Athens to engage in dialogue and it is where we find Paul in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
I imagine him to have listened to the different discussions learning about the different strands of Greek culture and belief. And yet he is there not just to listen but to speak and so is asked ‘May we know what this new teaching is you are presenting.’
Paul’s speech begins by identifying their devotion to the search for meaning. He directs them to consider an altar he has seen dedicated to an unknown God declaring that ‘what therefore you worship as unknown. This I proclaim to you.’ At the end some scoff but some want to know more.
Paul has sought to address the searching heart of his neighbour in words that speak of the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ and yet as he knew well himself words would only go so far.
After all his own experience, meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus had transformed his life. So, Paul knew that if those who heard him were to get beyond their rational mind then they would have to be open to experience.
But what is this experience I’m talking of? Well this is where things get a bit tricky because we get into the realm of mystery something we often find difficult
And religious experience is notoriously difficult to pinpoint or define, yet I think we’ve all had those experiences in life we cannot quite explain.
Moments when we are lifted beyond ourselves.
Moments that linger and make us stop and think.
Perhaps when we are out the garden, or on a mountain top, or seeing the blossom of the apple tree.
Or when we are writing some words,
or when sitting with a friend
or when a child is born or surprise us as they grow,
or when we are caught by a lovers gaze,
or when we inexplicably feel peace when chaos seems all around and so on.
These moments fleeting as they sometimes are a gift from God, they are the spark of grace given to ignite our faith.
In the language of the Gospel today they are prompts of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit given to move us from the head to the heart, from idea to belief.
They invite us to believe that there is a God in whom as Paul said ‘we live and move and have our being.’
A God who in the words of Jesus describing this radical inter-connectedness between God and each one of us says that ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’
The other day I came across the word somethingness, a word used to describe what many believe, they believe in something but they are not quite sure what.
Part of my work as a priest is to try to speak into that belief in somethingness in such a way that the ground is cleared for the possibility of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
And whilst I might hope that carefully crafted sermons, and words for poured out at baptisms, weddings and funerals might help – they only go so far.
At best I hope they might help someone think about things differently that a new space be opened up in their lives, a space for experience. For an encounter with the living God.
Of course some will scoff, some will walk away just as they did in Paul’s time but some will want to know more.
If Christianity were just about ideas, it would have died long ago. Ideas only take us so far, experience as Paul knew well was central to following in the way of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean this experience is guaranteed or in any conventional sense reliable for sometimes we feel God close, sometimes God seems distant.
Yet whatever the experience we are content to live with this mystery, frustrating as that might sometimes be. For as Jesus said ‘The kingdom of heaven’ something of which we experience in our lives ‘is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.’
Once by faith we move beyond the language of somethingness into affirming that God is alive and at work in the world.
And that in Jesus we have found the pearl of great price that enriches our life then life is changed.
And we live with the expectation that God will show up in our lives.
The how, the where and when of that will always be a mystery. Yet the purpose of the spiritual life, something we have hopefully thought about a bit more over the last few weeks is one in which we seek to create fertile soil. So that when those moments of experience come, they will take root and bear fruit in our lives.
Why are we here? The question persists. The answer will always be provisional and open ended.
We are not God and yet for me the words of the Westminster catechism, a summary of Christian belief from the 17th century always seem so apt.
To the question, ‘What is the chief end of humanity?’
Comes the answer ‘Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.’
May we give glory and enjoy our life with God ‘In whom we live and move and have our being.’