Sunday 21 May - Easter 6 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Easter 6 2017 – Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

+ ‘What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’

This is a striking story. Paul is in Athens, a centre of ancient Greek thought and religion. With a clever preacher’s trick he spots an altar dedicated to an unknown God and uses this to preach the gospel, even quoting the Greek’s own writers, Epimenides of Cnossos and Aratus. This teaches us a lot, but I want to move from Athens, past Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, to Aberdeen. Indeed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Aberdeen was a much more distinguished centre of scholarship and letters than Edinburgh, with its johnny-come-lately University. Paul uses the ‘Unknown God’ and the traditional Israelite argument against statue-worship to introduce Jesus, but another way of using this phrase, for Christians, is that prayer in Christ enables us to experience the Unknown God, the God who exceeds all our hopes and desires. 

One Aberdonian writer in the late seventeenth-century, Henry Scougal, son of Bishop Patrick Scougal, wrote about this Unknown God. Henry Scougal died young, aged 28 in 1678 but by that time he had already been a lecturer at Aberdeen University for ten years and Professor of Theology for four. His fame, however, does not come from his academic work but from one short publication The Life of God in the Soul of Man. A letter of advice to a friend who was having difficulties with Christianity, it advises him to go deeper in his spiritual life. Scougal begins by saying what true religion is not: it is not obsession with religious externals or emotional states, religious fanaticism and rebellion. He then located true religion in a quiet love of God and neighbour, in silent prayer and the union of the soul with God – in other words, in a gentle interior search for the Unknown God revealed to us in Jesus. It is not surprising that he did this. He was born at a time when Scotland was torn apart by religious wars. In the year of his birth Cromwell occupied Edinburgh, and throughout his short life Scotland was torn by religious strife and violence, killing for Jesus.

Scougal’s quiet Christian mysticism, however, had more influence than the men of violence. His book became a spiritual classic. There were many editions, one by John Wesley, and it was the occasion of the conversion of that other founder of Methodism, George Whitefield, who said, ‘I never knew what religion was, till God sent me Scougal’s excellent book’. There was a rich Christian culture in Aberdeen at that time, going back into the Middle Ages, and Scougal’s own faith had been nourished by Catholic writers such as Teresa of Avila. He also shared an interest in Christian Platonism with his contemporary, the Aberdonian Quaker George Keith. When Scougal died, his closest friend George Garden preached his funeral sermon. Garden and his circle of friends continued this tradition of quiet prayer and mysticism when they were driven out of the Church of Scotland after 1690 to become what we now call the Scottish Episcopal Church. I like to think that the tradition of quiet, ecumenical prayer and service in our church has its roots in Scougal and his Aberdonian friends. Even our interfaith interests have a root here. They published a series of books on prayer including the Sentences of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammad’s son-in-law. This was perhaps the first time Islamic spirituality, as opposed to philosophy, had been deemed useful for Christian readers.

This is all very interesting, it comes from some work I have been doing to prepare for teaching Scottish Episcopalian history this autumn to our trainee clergy at the Scottish Episcopal Institute. But what does it mean to us today? I had to ask myself the question: why should I encourage us this morning to think about prayer and the Unknown God, when we are in the midst of an election campaign and the world is a dangerous and unstable place? You might say, we need to act - not withdraw to look at trees and cultivate inner emptiness. You might also say, we have the gospels, God is revealed in Jesus so God is no longer unknown and we need to get out and change the world.

But look at our politics, look at our politicians. My own contact with politicians convinces me that in all parties most want to promote the common good, but in public they act as if their sole task is to humiliate the opposition. I am sceptical about the special qualities of politics in Scotland. The Holyrood chamber was supposed to be designed to avoid the adversarial debate of Westminster but First Minister’s questions is as much a cat fight as PMQs down south. Likewise in the church, next week is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and then follows our General Synod. Things are much more polite but when we touch on things like sexuality which affect our identity, then fangs are sharpened. Even in our community here, do we give the other the benefit of the doubt? Do we presume good will rather than ill? When we see pews moved do we immediately suspect a plot by the iniquitous vestry to introduce green plastic chairs?

When I look into my heart I see a tendency to evil. When I look around the world I see leaders in the biggest countries who habitually lie and I see the innocent suffer. We can counter this in public life, by using our vote, by action. But the best thing we can do is to ‘go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’. ‘In secret’, in Greek ‘kryptos’ which also means hidden, is another way of saying ‘unknown’. But the hidden God is also called Father. In today’s gospel Jesus says that he will be hidden: ‘in a little while the world will see me no more’. But he is hidden and revealed because, ‘you will see me… on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ he also says that ‘you know’ ‘the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive’, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you.’ God is hidden but if we give ourselves time and space for contemplation we will experience the life of the Holy Trinity within us. It is there already, you just have to shut up and listen. I can’t tell you how hard this is, but it is worth it. If we do just this, and pay attention to the unknown God, it will be hard to treat others with contempt, hard to put up with lies, hard to take ourselves too seriously and expect special treatment. We will have found the pearl of great price found by Henry Scougal in his turbulent century. You can often tell who prays, although they tend to have a sense of their own inadequacy. Our vote can make a difference, but listening to the life of the Trinity within us enables us to change the world starting with our own heart and soul. Try it, take fifteen minutes tomorrow morning and listen for the unknown God. Then try it again, and again, and see what happens.