SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, you hold together all things in heaven and on earth. In your great mercy receive the prayers of all your children, and give to all the world the Spirit of your truth and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Try to imagine a multi-racial, multi-cultural, religiously diverse city serving as a commercial hub for what has become the last true global superpower. Imagine further that this city houses a prestigious university with departments in philosophy, law and all branches of known science. Imagine, too, that despite the presence of hundreds of houses of worship, traditional religion has become all but irrelevant to daily life. The common people still flock to these holy places for the high religious holidays, perhaps from a sense of nostalgia or a hunger for communal ritual that continues even when the belief system supporting that ritual is long forgotten. For the rest of the year, though, these places of worship stand vacant for most of the week. Only a few aging adherents come regularly to offer their prayers and gifts.
You might be imagining New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. I am thinking more of 1st Century Athens where we witness the first intellectual encounter between the Jesus movement and a culture well outside of Judaism. To be sure, there have been other encounters with gentiles. Philip brought the gospel to Samaria in Acts 8:4-25, but the Samaritans, though not Jews, were nevertheless worshipers of the God of Israel. They shared the same scriptures and many of the same traditions with their Jewish siblings. In Acts 10, Peter brought the good news of Jesus Christ to the Roman commander, Cornelius. But it seems that Cornelius was practicing Judaism to some degree already. Though the Jewish community would never have accepted him as a fellow Jew, he was nevertheless recognized and respected as a righteous worshiper of Israel’s God. Cornelius and Peter were speaking the same religious language in spite of their racial and cultural differences. By contrast, Paul’s audience at Athens appears to have been altogether unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish beliefs. Paul must therefore preach the gospel in a new key in order to reach his Athenian audience.
Paul begins by establishing some common ground. By making reference to an Athenian shrine for the worship of an “unknown god,” Paul points out how all of our efforts to understand, worship and get a handle on the true God always fall short. Much there is about God that remains a question mark. This is just as true for Christians as for adherents of other religions. Just as the image of God can never adequately be reflected in graven images and religious rituals, so also creeds, confessions and dogmas can never capture and bottle up the mystery of God. Thus far, Paul’s philosophical listeners find little with which to quarrel. They are far too sophisticated to believe literally in the Greek and Roman Olympian gods, much less in the images, shrines and ritual practices designed to placate them. So far, so good.
But then it finally comes down to Jesus. That is where Paul loses his audience. The notion that the fullness of God is revealed in a crucified criminal is no less preposterous than that God should dwell in an image of stone. In fact, it is even more preposterous. In the view of antiquity, human desecration of a temple demonstrated the impotence of the god to whom it belonged. If Jesus were truly God made manifest, his death on the cross could not have occurred. Moreover, if God is understood to be the God of all human beings who are God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), it makes little sense to insist that he is revealed through a preacher of only parochial significance to an obscure and subjugated race in the backwaters of the empire. If God were to raise someone from death (something few in the 1st Century doubted that God/gods could do), God would surely have selected someone whose greatness stood out and was evident to the whole world. The cross proved to be an insurmountable stumbling block for Paul’s listeners-as he must have known it probably would be. For the most part, Paul’s sermon drew only mockery and indifference.
“But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.” Acts 17:34. Though it does not appear that Paul was able to establish a functional church in Athens, he managed to make a few disciples. This is another of those many instances in which I would love to know more than what the Bible tells me. I want to know what happened to Dionysius and Damaris. Did they stay in Athens? Did they ever attempt to start a worshiping community on their own? How did they go about being and doing church in their pluralistic environment?
These questions are of more than academic interest to me. My context for ministry is nothing if not Athenian. You can’t walk for a mile anywhere in Bergen County, New Jersey without running into a church. Some of them, however, have been converted into theaters, concert halls and boutique malls. Those that remain as worshiping communities probably draw fifty souls or less on any given Sunday. At least that is the case for us mainline protestants. There was a time when the Bible was a well-known and respected source of moral authority in our culture. However much we might have argued about its meaning, its interpretation and its application, few even among unbelievers doubted its significance. Though the Bible has never provided a unified theology for the church, it once provided a narrative framework for moral argument in society. No more. Gone are the days when you could speak about the Prodigal Son, the Wheat and the Tares or the Lost Sheep” and assume that everyone knew the stories from which these figures of speech come. Most people still know that there are Ten Commandments in the Bible, but few can recite more than half of them. Though there are still a good many people who identify as “Christian,” there is among them a growing disinterest, distrust and outright contempt for traditional Christianity as practiced by our churches. I think I know how Paul felt as he stood before his audience at the Areopagus.
So I am naturally curious about the fate of Dionysus and Damaris. I would love to know what advice Paul might have given to them before they parted. I want to know how they went about being the church in Athens. Unfortunately for me, that story never gets told. Nevertheless, I know at least that the good news of Jesus Christ resonated with two people in that otherwise unreceptive Athenian audience. That is just enough encouragement for me to continue doing ministry here in Athens also.
This Sunday’s lesson is Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus. The “Areopagus” (“Ares’ Hill” or “Mars’ Hill”) is a low hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It was the seat of the earliest aristocratic council of that ancient city which tried capital cases and prosecuted claims of public corruption throughout the classical period of the Greek democracy. During the period of Roman domination in the 1st Century, the council was responsible for the discharge of significant administrative, religious, and educational functions. The atmosphere was very much like that of a modern university where teachers of various schools of philosophy, politicians and artists gathered.
As was his custom, Paul began his missionary work by visiting the synagogue where expatriate Jews gathered for worship. While the audience Paul found there was sometimes skeptical and even hostile to his preaching, they at least understood what he meant by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. But when some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers invited Paul to address them and their colleagues in the Areopagus, Paul was suddenly confronted with an audience that had no knowledge or understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures or the God to which they testify. It will not do for Paul merely to proclaim Jesus as Messiah because his audience would immediately ask, “What is a messiah?” If Paul were to assert that Jesus is God’s Son, they would ask, “Which god?” Paul must therefore speak the gospel to the Athenians in language and imagery they will understand from within their own religious backgrounds.
Paul finds his opening in a curious monument “to and unknown god.” Vs. 28. Such a monument can only reflect a recognition on the part of the Athenians that their many temples and shrines do not capture the fullness of the deity. Thus, in an attempt to ensure that their worship is complete, they must also offer worship at this shrine to such god or gods that they do not know. This “unknown god,” says Paul, is the one he has come to make known. Paul goes on to point out the foolishness of imagining that God can be captured in an image or enclosed in a shrine. Certainly, his Epicurean and Stoic listeners would agree with him on that point. Unlike the common folk, these philosophers did not believe in the existence of the Greek gods of the pantheon. Their understanding of divinity was far more complex. Paul even cites some Greek literary figures to illustrate the paradox (Epimenides and Aratus): though God is so near that “in him we live and move and have our being,” nevertheless God seems distant and our efforts to “feel after” God prove futile. Vss. 26-28.
In verses 30-31 Paul comes right to the point. God now commands repentance which is possible because and only because God has revealed his heart and mind in a man though and by whom the world is to be judged. When push comes to shove, Paul must return to his Hebrew scriptural roots and to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through whom they are properly understood. In the final analysis, Paul does not come to the Areopagus with a competing philosophy, teaching or morality. He comes not to teach the Athenians about God, but to invite them into relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the unknown and unknowable God becomes known. But this knowledge is not theoretical, but relational. It is not principally the nature of God, but the heart of God that Jesus reveals.
This remarkable psalm begins as an exhortation for all the earth to worship and praise the God of Israel and concludes with a declaration of thanksgiving by an individual worshiper for God’s deliverance. Verses 1-12 are spoken in the second person, suggesting the role of a worship leader. Verses 13-20 are all in the first person. This has led some biblical scholars to suggest that the psalm is actually a composite of two psalms. Others maintain that it was composed as a liturgy to be recited by a king speaking on behalf of both God and the people. Still others suggest that the final form of the psalm is the work of an individual incorporating an older liturgy of corporate worship as an introduction to his/her personal expression of thanksgiving. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 76. Whatever the case may be, there is no disputing that the psalm as we have it today constitutes a unified and thoroughly harmonious expression of thanksgiving.
Verse 8, where our reading begins, is a transition point in the psalm. Whereas the prior verses and verse 7 in particular speak of God’s power over the world at large and the non-Israelite nations (“goyim”), verse 8 addresses the “peoples” or “ammim.” This word usually denotes a religious group and here almost certainly refers to the Israelite faithful. Ibid. p. 78; See also, Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 470. Therefore, what follows in verses 9-12 must be viewed through the lens of Israel’s covenant with her God. That relationship often looks very much like a rocky marriage, ever on the brink of divorce, yet somehow managing not only to survive but even to thrive.
Verses 10-12 allude to the struggles and triumphs experienced throughout Israel’s history with her God, but the psalmist does not lift up any identifiable biblical event. The metaphors of refinement could apply equally to the sojourning of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the struggle to secure a place in the Promised Land, the suffering of the prophets under the monarchy or the Exile.
Again, the suggestion that God “tries” and “refines” us through adversity is problematic if one views God as somehow above the fray, engineering the minutia of history and sending heartbreak or tragedy wherever needed to perfect an individual’s character. But, as noted above, these are not words addressed to the general population. They are addressed to God’s covenant people called to be a light to the world. The journey from bondage in Egypt to freedom in Canaan cannot be made without suffering, sacrifice and loss. Neither can one enter the kingdom of heaven without sacrificing all else. Discipleship is a hazardous profession in which you can get yourself killed. Witness the fate of Stephan in last week’s lesson from Acts. This psalm, however, testifies to the joy and blessedness of covenant life in which one cannot help but learn through the adversity such a life entails how faithful, compassionate, forgiving and reliable God is.
This psalm is an illustration of how an individual’s reflection on God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout the biblical narrative is mirrored in that individual’s own life experience. It demonstrates how the Bible was intended to be read and interpreted. It is in the sacred narratives that we see reflected our own struggles and triumphs. Entering into the biblical story opens our eyes to the hidden depths of meaning, significance and the presence of God in our own life stories. That is what the Psalms are for. Faithful use of the psalms in our prayer life cannot help but illuminate the contours of our baptismal walk and remind us that our existence is directed toward the promised kingdom. We might have to walk “through fire and through water,” but we can be confident that we are not adrift without a rudder. God brings “us forth into a spacious place.” Vs. 12. Or, to put it in Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s household are many dwelling places…I go there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2-3.
This is another instance in which the divine wisdom of the lectionary makers lies beyond the scope of my humble, mortal intelligence. Verses 8-12 are critical to what follows and so I urge you to read I Peter 3:8-22 before proceeding any further. This section begins with a plea for the believers addressed in this letter to “have unity of spirit, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.” Vs. 8. Why is this so important? It is important because nothing the church does is nearly as important as what the church is. Let me follow that up with a quotation: “So the purpose of the church, the purpose of Christians, is to love one another across our diversity so that the world can believe. Our primary method is loving one another. Not verbal witnessing to non-Christians or devising brilliant arguments for the deity of Christ or doing great social service for the poor or even loving those in the world. Those things all have their place in evangelism-they’re important, in fact-but they aren’t the core of God’s method. They will come to nothing unless people see in us the love God has given us for each other, unless they see Jew and Gentile, black and white, husband and wife, academics and uneducated, living together in peace. That peace is the light set on the hill so the world can see.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, Reflections on How to Live as the People of God (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Wipf and Stock Publishers) p. 20.
That goes against the grain of everything we American Christians (who are frequently far more American than Christian) believe about church, faith and witness. We in American Protestantism have always viewed the church as an integrated part of society. Its purpose is to “march with events to turn them God’s way”-as if we knew what that was! See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #418, verse 2. Our job is to preach a conscience into society, lobby government to be just and shame business into behaving as much as business can be expected to behave. We are charged with transforming society in general and American society in particular. In this respect, there is virtually no difference in outlook between conservative evangelicals of the Christian Coalition of America variety and the social activism of mainline protestant groups like my own. Both seek to “turn events God’s way.” The disagreement is only over the turn’s direction and degree.
But what if Jesus really meant what he said in the Gospel of John, namely, that the way for his disciples to bear fruit is through abiding in his love and loving one another? John 15:1-17. What if unity of spirit and the common life of Jesus’ disciples are what give credibility to the apostolic witness as Luke maintains in the Book of Acts? Acts 2:41-47. It strikes me that “being” the church might actually get us into more engagement with the world than all of our frantic “doing.” Nothing is more unsettling and destabilizing than a countercultural community within society that practices an alternative communal lifestyle. That is the reason our attitudes range from discomfort to outright hostility and contempt for folks like the Amish. Why do they have to be so stand offish? Why are they so different from us? Yet perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves the same question the other way around: Why are we so different from the Amish? Why does the church fit so naturally into the Americana landscape? Why is it “weird” to be Amish, but not in the least remarkable to be a Lutheran, Anglican or Presbyterian?
It is precisely because the church was a community in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, etc. that it posed such a profound threat to the very hierarchical and socially stratified Roman Empire. So also I believe groups such as the Amish are so discomforting to us because their way of life threatens our culture’s high estimation of success, acquisition and the accumulation of status and power. Of course we do not persecute the Amish anymore. Instead, we have domesticated them and turned them into a sort of national oddity, a harmless tourist attraction. Nonetheless, our unease is still present and if it has not broken out into open hostility more often, that has less to do with our much touted “tolerance” than the fact that the Amish have had the good grace keep a low profile and stay out of the public square. 1st Century Rome could not afford to be tolerant of such countercultural communities at the frontier of its most vulnerable border. That is why Peter takes it for granted that the believers in Asia Minor will experience persecution and suffering. They will not have to hold committee meetings or hire top dollar consultants in order to find opportunities for witness and evangelism. It will come their way merely through their being church. Vss. 13-17. As I have often said before, the Amish witness in the wake of the Nickel Mine tragedy speaks more persuasively to the heart of the gospel than all the preachy/screechy social statements of all us mainliners combined.
Saint Augustine poses the question I have always had regarding this reading: “How, then, doth the Lord say, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments: and I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter;’ when He saith so of the Holy Spirit, without [having] whom we can neither love God nor keep his commandments so as to receive Him, without whom we cannot love at all?” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. VII (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 333. He answers his question by pointing out that the disciples already had the Holy Spirit in some measure, but not in the way and to the extent promised in the gospel. Ibid. 334. “Accordingly, they both had, and had [the Holy Spirit] not, inasmuch as they had Him not as yet to the same extent as He was afterwards to be possessed.” Ibid. When one thinks this through in accord with Johannine logic, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion. Jesus exclaimed to Philip last week: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” John 14:9-10. Jesus is in the Father currently. The Spirit is sent from the Father and by the Father. Vs. 16. Moreover, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of truth (vs. 17) and Jesus has previously declared himself “the truth.” John 14:6. The task of the Spirit is nothing else than to take what is of Jesus and declare it to the disciples. John 16:14-15. The Spirit, then, is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. The Spirit is therefore the means by which the disciples will “see” the resurrected Christ. Vs. 19. The Holy Spirit is therefore not Jesus’ successor, but his return. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he said: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” John 14:3.
Unfortunately, the lectionary has deprived us of a critical piece of this reading. In John 14:22-24 Jesus goes on to explain that, through his indwelling of the disciples by the Spirit, he will be manifested to the world. This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ declaration in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The disciples’ life together is the manifestation of God’s Triune love between Father and Son that cannot help but overflow into creation where it is embodied in the person of Jesus and, after his resurrection, among his disciples by the indwelling of his Spirit. This reading (in its uncut form) therefore looks ahead to Trinity Sunday just as last week’s gospel anticipates Ascension.
Most striking is Jesus’ assurance that he will not leave his disciples “desolate” or, as literally translated, “orphaned.” Vs. 18. I suspect that Jesus speaks these words to his disciples because, at the moment, they feel very much like orphans. Even with Jesus in their midst, the disciples are just barely hanging on and holding it together. They are the frightened crew of a small boat caught in the midst of a wild and tempestuous sea. Just as the storm is about to peak, their captain announces that he is to be with them for only “a little while,” and that “Where I am going you cannot come.” John 13:33. The trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion is foreshadowed here, but so also is Pentecost. It is to the disciples’ advantage that Jesus go so that the “Advocate” can come. John 16:7. This Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, is none other than the more intense and intimate presence of Jesus in their midst.
This lesson opens up a wonderful opportunity for talking about the presence of Jesus in the church. Of course, that will necessarily lead into a discussion of the experienced absence of Jesus in the church. Does the decline of our mainline churches signal Jesus’ “abandonment” of us? Is our culture’s increasing lack of interest in the church a sign of our failure to reflect Jesus, as so many critics within and without insist? Or is it rather the case that we are reflecting Jesus all too well and society’s disinterest, misunderstanding and hostility are signs of our effectiveness on that score? After all, Jesus warned his disciples that the world would hate them because they are “not of the world.” John 15:19. Is there some truth to both of these suggestions? Where and how is the Spirit working in the congregation? Does our congregational life mirror Trinitarian love? Is the world’s misunderstanding the “stumbling block of the cross,” or is it stumbling blocks of our own making?