Tag Archives: secularism

Sunday, August 9th

ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. 

I heard a sermon not too long ago in which the preacher relayed an illustrative anecdote I can still recall-a rarity in preaching. He told us about how he was seated next to a fellow on a flight out of Chicago who immediately noticed his clerical collar, pegged him accurately as a minister and began ragging on the church. The church is full of hypocrites, the church is judgmental, the church only cares about its members, etc., etc. The preacher replied, “Yes, and you don’t know the half of it. As an insider, I can tell you it is worse than what you think. But let me tell you about the wonderful God who loves these judgmental, hypocritical and selfish people!”

Though clever, I think that response was a bit disingenuous. This week our psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” According to the Letter to the Ephesians, the church exists solely to make that appeal to the world through its existence as a counter-cultural community. It is within the Body of Christ that God’s good gifts and God’s good intent for all creation are revealed. It is within the church that the Bread of Heaven is made available and life grounded in what is eternal can be glimpsed. If Jesus isn’t making a difference in the lives of people who follow him, then why should anyone else bother with him? If the church merely reflects the same secular values as everyone else, the same racial segregation found in our schools and neighborhoods, the same preoccupation with meeting budgets, maintaining property and raising money as any other civic organization, why even waste time visiting?

Let’s be clear about one thing. The church is a holy people, but holiness is not to be equated with moral superiority. To be holy literally means to be “set apart” for a unique purpose. A saint is rather like a recovering alcoholic and the church is in many respects similar to an AA meeting. We are people who recognize our addiction to an unsustainable consumer lifestyle supported by a ruthlessly destructive and inequitable economy. We are a people struggling against an ingrained belief in the necessity of violence to preserve peace. We are a people striving to be honest about our mortality, our limitations, our prejudices and the destructive consequences of our sins, all within a society that is constantly lying to us about these things. By the grace of God, we have been set free to pursue life within a culture of death. We have received the gift of sobriety and we need support from one another to hang on to it. When Paul tells us “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10), he means to say that the church exists to let the world know that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” There is another way to be human.

Too often, the church offers tranquilizers instead of transformation. Your “vocation” is your job, however demeaning, ethically dubious or brutally exploitive it may be. The church peddles a therapeutic gospel helping you to deal with your circumstances in an inhumane world rather than delivering a bold proclamation causing you to long for the kingdom of heaven. As one worshiper put it recently, “church helps me get through the week.” Valium does the same thing, more or less. But is a spiritual coping mechanism the best we have to offer? Is that worth sacrificing a leisurely Sunday morning with a fresh bagel, cream cheese and the New York Times? Our lessons for this week seem to be saying, “Come on, people of God. We are better than this.”

1 Kings 19:4-8

Once again, the lectionary in its wisdom has given us an indecipherable fragment of a much larger story. The time was the ninth century B.C.E. The place was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Unlike the Southern Kingdom of Judah where the Davidic dynasty reigned over a more or less stable monarchy, Israel was governed by a series of dynasties succeeding each other through coups and violent revolutions. The King in Elijah’s day was Ahab, but the power behind the throne was his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. Jezebel was determined to uproot the worship of Israel’s God and replace it with the worship of her own god, Baal. Under the queen’s orders, the altars of the Lord were being destroyed and the priests of the Lord were being executed. Elijah was sent with a word for the King: “As the God of Israel lives before whom I stand, there will be neither rain nor dew for three years except by my word.” I Kings 17:1. When the drought came as Elijah warned, the King was determined to kill Elijah. Elijah spent the next three years of his life as a fugitive, hiding in the wilderness and living in exile. When the three years had ended, Elijah appeared to Ahab once again with a proposition. “Tell you what, your highness: you and your prophets of Baal build an altar to your god with an offering on it. I will build and altar to the Lord. The God who answers by consuming his offering with fire is God indeed.” Ahab accepted the offer. The story of the dueling gods is a gripping tale that you need to read in its entirety. (I Kings 18:1-40). For our purposes, it is enough to note that the Lord answered Elijah’s call with fire. Baal was a no show. After this demonstration, Ahab appears to have been convinced that the Lord was indeed Israel’s God. Jezebel, not so much. When the queen learned of the outcome of the contest, her determination to kill Elijah hardened into a campaign against him. Poor Elijah was on the run once again. That is where we find him in our lesson for Sunday.

Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die.” Vs. 4. Can you blame him? Three years living as a fugitive until finally he can get a hearing before the king. After such a spectacular demonstration of God’s lordship over Baal, you would think the issue had been settled once and for all. Instead, this remarkable sign only hardens the opposition to Elijah and the God he proclaims. Everything he has done seems to have been for naught. His whole life seems to have been wasted. This is midlife crisis on steroids! We are then told that Elijah was “touched by an angel.” But the angel has no message of hope, no promise of better things to come and no clear direction for him. The angel, however, does provide what Elijah needs most at the moment: food to continue his journey-wherever that might lead. The bread does not change Elijah’s desperate situation, but it gives him strength to go another forty miles. Vss. 6-8. And that is the end of the story.

OK. That is not the end of the story, but it does constitute the end of our reading. I encourage you to read on to find out what else happened. I Kings 19:9-21. Initially, I was somewhat miffed that the lectionary did not give us that story here or in the weeks to come. Yet I am beginning to think that maybe the lectionary folks actually got it right this time. I have to say that the angels that have appeared in my life seldom came with solutions to all of my problems. Most of the time, they have given me just enough of what I needed to take the next step. I think of my brother-in-law Bill, who spent three days with me at University of Washington Medical Center when my wife was gravely ill. Or I recall the court officer who once clapped me on the shoulder as I stood in the Union County Courthouse rotunda during a break in a difficult trial and said to me, “You look like you got the weight of the world on your shoulders. You ought to know your shoulders ain’t big enough for that. You got to let the Lord Jesus take that load off you.”  These angels did not take away the challenges I faced or remove the obstacles in front of me. But they gave me just enough encouragement to take a few steps more. I think that is very often how God’s assistance comes to us. We don’t get what we pray for. We don’t get what we want. We get what we need and sometimes just barely that.

Psalm 34:1-8

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. The psalmist recognizes in his or her deliverance from harm and danger the saving work of God. This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. See my post for Sunday, July 26, 2015 for more on this poetic technique. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 34 in its entirety.

Use of the acrostic form suggests to me that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. Perhaps I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced I see only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have never made a choice in my life that I felt certain was inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.

As I noted last week, prayer is a fluid sort of thing in Hebrew worship. This psalm is an individual confession and testimony of faith addressed to the worshiping congregation. Though not spoken directly to God, it is nevertheless a prayer in the sense that it gives glory to God and expresses the psalmist’s heartfelt thanks for God’s deliverance. At the same time, it is offered to strengthen the confidence of the worshiping community in God’s willingness and ability to save. The psalmist invites the congregation to join him/her in magnifying the Lord and exalting the Lord’s name. vs. 3.

The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This invitation ties in well with the gospel lessons for both this week and last in which Jesus tells the crowds who came seeking him that he, himself, is the bread of life. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in God’s promises to provide all things necessary.

Ephesians 4:25—5:2

For my general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. This letter has much to say about the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive intent for the world. Having discussed the church’s role in the earlier chapters, Paul now turns to life as it must be lived within the church.

“Therefore put away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor.” Vs. 25. I believe it was Dr. Stanley Hauerwas who commented that this verse just about sums up the whole of Christian ethics. Clearly, truthfulness is at the center of life in Christ. There is no better testimony to the importance of truthfulness than the New Testament. The gospels do not tell the story of a strong church led by heroic personalities. They are unsparing in their portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as flawed and broken people who, each in their own way, failed their Master in his greatest hour of need. The epistles reveal a church divided by bickering, power struggles and disputes over doctrine, practice and morals. We tell these stories on ourselves not because they make us look good (they don’t) or because we are trying to conceal the skeletons in our closets (the skeletons are on full display in the living room), but because they tell the truth about us who follow Jesus. We are broken people in need of judgment, forgiveness and healing. Like recovering alcoholics, we need each other to help us remain sober. Nothing threatens our sobriety more than lies, secrecy and self-deception.

Sometimes I think the church fails to speak truth to the world in a straightforward and convincing way because we have failed to speak it effectively among ourselves. Though nearly every Christian denomination has issued numerous statements condemning racism, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the United States. Sad to say, my own Lutheran denomination ranks disgracefully low when it comes to racial and cultural diversity. See The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups. This reality has taken on renewed urgency in light of the recent string of killings by police officers of black men and the racially motivated murder of African American worshipers at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We cannot continue pretending that the systemic racism permeating our culture does not also penetrate our church. Racism is a grievous wound to the Body of Christ desperately in need of healing. Healing cannot happen without a frank diagnosis delivered through truthful speech.

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor doing honest work with his hands, that he may be able to give to those in need.” Vs. 28. That might seem a tad obvious. Should a disciple of Jesus even need to be told not to steal? Perhaps, though, the issue is more subtle. The thief is enjoined to labor at “honest work” and to do so “with his hands.” Thievery is hardly limited to pick-pockets and check kiters. The greatest degree of theft in our culture is entirely legal. The Wall Street barons whose wantonly reckless and willfully deceptive practices drove our nation into recession went largely unprosecuted. It is standard practice for disability insurers to employ harassment, threats and endless paperwork against claimants they know are often too sick to persevere in the process. As an attorney, I often wondered whether assisting property and liability insurance carriers in avoiding payment of claims was “honest” and productive work. I wonder, too, whether the production of inherently lethal products, such as hand guns, constitutes work that can be done by a follower of Jesus. Though Christian faith of some sort seems like a prerequisite for election to the nation’s highest office, I wonder how one can claim Jesus as Lord while carrying on his/her person the codes for activating thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying entire cities.

Maybe it is time for disciples of Jesus to consider whether there are not professions or jobs with particular commercial interests that are incompatible with faith in Jesus. Perhaps we should reflect on what constitutes “honest” work. In my own Lutheran tradition, we seek to help people see their work as “vocation.” But does Jesus call us to produce or maintain weapons of mass destruction? Does Jesus call us to labor for firms whose sole purpose is to maximize profit, even at the expense of human welfare, the environment and global peace? Too often, I think, there is a vast disconnect between what we say about the sanctity of work and the way it is experienced by far too many people. Perhaps Paul is challenging us to ensure that our work is, in fact, honest, productive and contributory to human well-being.

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying.” Vs. 29. Edifying speech is pretty much my job as a parish pastor. Over the years I have gotten pretty good at it-when I am on duty. When I am home with my family, among friends or with fellow clergy, not so much. Of course, we all need to “vent” once in a while. But I tend to think that we do that entirely too much in our culture and more than we should in the church. Edifying speech aims at building up the Body of Christ. As noted in the previous paragraphs, edification requires truthfulness and the truth is often painful. Yet the end game for all speech is to “import grace to those who hear.” Vs. 29. To that end, “bitterness,” “wrath,” “anger,” “slander” and “malice” are to be excluded. Vs. 31. Moreover, the truth is never merely the sum of the facts. It is always to be spoken with kindness. Vs. 32. Within the Body of Christ, the posture toward a fellow believer is that of Christ himself-infinite forgiveness.

All of this should give us some insight into what Paul means when he challenges us to be “imitators of God”? Vs. 5:1. Usually, when we accuse someone of “playing God,” we mean that this person is exercising authority he or she does not have. Or perhaps we mean that such a person is overreaching his or her limits and making decisions that affect the lives of people who have no input or say in those decisions. That figure of speech betrays a profound misunderstanding of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The God and Father of Jesus Christ does not exercise overbearing power, but walks among us as the man who gave his life for the sake of others, suffering death rather than defending himself with violence. If we would truly “play God,” the proper model is not the CEO, but Jesus.

The most remarkable aspect of this letter to the Ephesians is its refusal to distinguish between the church’s inner life and its cosmic mission. According to Paul’s thought as expounded in this treatise, they are one and the same:

“Ephesians is supremely concerned about the unity of the Church. The writer exhorts the Church to maintain the unity it already possesses and stresses that the essential ingredient for achieving the harmony of unity in diversity is love (4:1-16). For him, the quality of the Church’s corporate life has everything to do with fulfilling its role in the world. As it embodies the unity it already possesses, the Church fulfills its calling to be the paradigm of the cosmic unity which is the goal of the salvation God provides in Christ (cf. 1:10). This role of the Church is outlined in 3:9, 10, where its existence is seen as God’s announcement to the principalities and authorities in the heavenly realms that he is going to make good on his multifaceted and wise plan for cosmic unity. Because the Church is the one new humanity in place of two (2:15), the one body (2:16; 4:4), it can be depicted as providing the powers with a tangible reminder that their authority has been decisively broken and that everything is going to be united in Christ.” Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, World Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word, Incorporated) p. xciv.

John 6:35, 41-51

The gospel lesson continues the dialogues set in motion by Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand at the beginning of chapter 6. Last week Jesus explained to the crowd that came seeking him after the feeding that he, himself, is the bread of life; the bread which comes down from heaven. Now the crowd begins to murmur. No doubt John would have us recall the murmuring of the children of Israel in the wilderness when they were hungry. For reasons that escape my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have chosen to exclude verses 36-40. That is a shame because simple-minded people like me need those verses to get the full impact of what follows. So, for my fellow simpletons, here are the missing verses:

“But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:36-40.

Now you can see why the crowd was murmuring. What is this mad man talking about? He didn’t come down from heaven! He came up from Nazareth. We know his family. We know the neighborhood where he grew up; the school he went to and the girls he dated. Where does he get off telling us that he came down from heaven? This is actually a very important question. Jesus’ answer is about to turn everything we think we know about God, heaven and eternal life on its head. In the first place, asking how Jesus could possibly be the Son of God is altogether the wrong question. It is wrongheaded because it assumes we know who God is apart from Jesus, his Son. It assumes that we can somehow find our own way to the Father. It assumes that we come to know God by being taught about God rather than being taught by God. It is through trusting in Jesus that God is made known. It is through fellowship with Jesus that the Father draws us to himself. You don’t start with your understanding of who God is to figure out what to think about Jesus. You begin with Jesus who draws you into knowledge of the Father.

John is also unapologetic about Jesus’ obvious human origins. Yes, Jesus is a flesh and blood person that can be touched. He is the living bread that can be “eaten.” That will be the topic of next week’s gospel. That is the way in which the Father draws us to himself. Whoever believes in Jesus both knows the Father and has eternal life. Note well the present tense, “has.” This is not the promise of some future blessed state. Life that is eternal begins now for all who believe. To live eternally is to live out of trust in Jesus doing those things that matter eternally. Unfortunately, we in the church have not always fully appreciated this present sense meaning of eternal life. We have tended to think of eternal life as synonymous with “after life,” or some notion of “heaven” as a strictly future reality. But Jesus would have us know that discipleship is not about passively waiting for eternal life as we sweat our way through this vale of tears. Discipleship is acknowledging that new life is ours today; the kingdom of God is now; and life that is eternal is life lived in fellowship with Jesus.

The humanity of Jesus was a barrier to the crowds’ acceptance of his claim to be the bread from heaven. But if the idea of God in the midst of dirty diapers, adolescent crushes, soil and the sweat of hard labor is difficult to swallow, that only demonstrates how much we have to learn from Jesus about God, about heaven and about eternal life.

Sunday, May 25th

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.

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.

Acts 17:22–31

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.

Psalm 66:8–20

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.

1 Peter 3:13–22

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.

John 14:15–21

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?