Isolated, But Never Alone

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

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.

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. The plaque pictured above markes the spot where on this hill a small amphitheater once stood. 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 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 I 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. This knowledge is not theoretical, but relational. It is not principally the nature of God, but the heart of God that Jesus reveals.

This 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 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? Perhaps Luke the Evangelist left these questions unanswered because he wants us to think long and hard about them.

These questions are not merely of academic interest. The isolation I imagine Dionysius and Damaris experienced following Paul’s departure from Athens seems a lot like what many of us believers in the northeastern United States feel on a regular basis. Like these two disciples, we find ourselves in the midst of a culture that is largely indifferent to the church and often hostile to the values of God’s reign it professes. Notwithstanding decades of dedicated ministry, innovative mission initiatives and faithful witness, our numbers decline and churches are closing. On top of all this, the covid-19 pandemic is now preventing us from meeting as the resurrected Body of Christ and robbing us of the sustaining nourishment of the sacraments and the inspiring power of corporate liturgy, prayer and song. How are we to be church under these constraints?

I believe Sunday’s gospel can help us think faithfully about this challenge. “I will not leave you orphaned,” says Jesus. “I am coming to you.” These words are enormously comforting at this time of institutional decline and particularly now as we are finding it impossible to seek Jesus where we have always found him in the past. In truth, nothing has changed. In reality, we have never been the ones to find Jesus. He always finds us. It is, of course, important to understand and believe Jesus’ promise that he will always be present where two or three are gathered in his name, where the good word of the gospel is publicly proclaimed and where the sacraments are offered. But it is critical to remember, too, that the sacraments are a “means” of grace and not grace itself. That is to say, they are gifts to the church given to strengthen its faith and mission. They are not requirements that we must fulfill before God can be present to us. So misconstrued, the sacraments are transformed form gifts of grace into works of the law.

A lot of my colleagues describe our inability to celebrate the Eucharist during this time of pandemic as a “fast.” I don’t think that analogy is particularly helpful. Fasting is spiritual discipline. It is a practice I may choose to sharpen awareness of my dependence on God’s provision and deepen my compassion for those whose hunger is not temporary and is not a choice. But I do not choose to refrain from public worship and the sacraments because I believe it will bring any spiritual benefit to me. Quite the contrary! I choose to refrain because I care deeply about the health and safety of my neighbors and, in these circumstances, love requires me to put my neighbors’ welfare ahead of my own spiritual hunger for corporate worship and the nourishment of holy communion. I can do that because I believe Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit of Truth and I know that the fulfilment of that promise does not depend on my being able to worship publicly or to receive communion.

So how does a struggling church sustain its life and mission in this time of pandemic induced isolation? How do we carry on without the liturgical practices that form and define our faith, enabling us to live in a culture of unbelief? I believe the words of Bishop Alan Gates, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, are instructive:

“The church defines a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’–something that we can see, or taste or touch, which communicates to us the ineffable grace and love of God. Through history the church has identified particular capital-S sacraments.  But those in no way limit the sacramental quality of an infinite number of other experiences we may have.”

The bishop goes on to describe a number of instances in which human encounters, though not “sacraments” strictly speaking, are “filled with the spirit of our Lord: with his priorities, his love and his ministry.”  These include meals, coffee breaks or book club discussions carried out virtually on Facetime or Zoom. You can read the letter in full at this site. So, too, Peter W. Marty describes how a young woman arranged with the activities director of an assisted living center for her children to visit with the residents. Of course, the children were not able to enter the facility, but they stood outside the residents’ windows and played tic-tac-toe with them using erasable markers on the window panes. He also relates a story about neighbors who lived for years in the same cul-de-sac but seldom spoke and never socialized. During the course of their quarantine, however, they began coming out every evening to sit at the end of their respective driveways and share a “happy hour” with cocktails and conversation. See The Christian Century, May 6, 2020, p. 5. We are not alone. Even in the midst of this isolating experience of quarantine, Jesus sends his Spirit to forge new bonds of friendship and bring new intimacy to existing relationships. There is sacramental holiness to be found everywhere-if we but have eyes to see it. We have not been left “orphaned.”

The home is one place where sacramental grace is found. To be sure, being quarantined with family twenty-four/seven can fray family relationships. But it can also give rise to experiences of healing, deepening and strengthening those bonds. In the spirit of Mother’s Day, here is a poem by Maya Angelou celebrating the nurturing bond between mother and daughter.

The Mothering Blackness

She came home running
back to the mothering blackness
deep in the smothering blackness
white tears icicle gold plains of her face
She came home running

She came down creeping
here to the black arms waiting
now to the warm heart waiting
rime of alien dreams befrosts her rich brown face
She came down creeping

She came home blameless
black yet as Hagar’s daughter
tall as was Sheba’s daughter
threats of northern winds die on the desert’s face
She came home blameless

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (c. 1971 by Maya Angelou, pub. by Random House Inc., 1994)

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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