Monthly Archives: May, 2011
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Say what you will about Paul the Apostle – and there seem to be some very strong feelings of love or hate for the Paul we get to know from his writings in the letters of the New Testament – but this passage highlights how good Paul was at assessing his audience and applying his message just to them. Paul most often spoke at synagogues or gatherings of new Christians. In this chapter of Acts, he started by speaking at the synagogue in Athens. Those in attendance at the synagogue actually thought Paul was talking about two gods, one named Jesus, and a female god Anastasias (which is Greek for “resurrection”). And some Epicureans and Stoics began to deride him and debate with him as he spoke.
Epicureans were atheists, who saw no purpose in any belief in gods, especially in light of all the suffering in life. If gods existed, Epicureans thought they must not think much of humans to allow such awful things to happen. And they certainly did not believe in miracles, like the resurrection. Stoics based their theology around the mind of Zeus, the greatest and highest of the gods, and saw Zeus as reason (or logos, as the Gospel of John calls Jesus). Stoics saw virtue as the only good, and vice as the only evil. The wise Stoic would be indifferent to pain or pleasure, wealth or poverty, success or misfortune. They aimed to be self-sufficient and reasonable in any and all circumstances.
As we begin our passage, Paul had moved to a smaller, more intimate place, the Areopagus, or marketplace, to continue conversation with the Greek philosophers. This actually must have been quite an honor for Paul, a rare and unique opportunity. In verse 16 of this chapter, we find that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Yet, he had found a way to address that by the time he began speaking at the marketplace, praising them for how “religious” they were with all these objects of worship. He had seen the inscription, “To an unknown god,” and he used that to proclaim the one God as creator and Lord of all heaven and earth. He said that God creates humans with the need to search for God. And, instead of using scriptures that these philosophers would not know, Paul quoted poets they would know, and appealed to the Stoic reasoning in his argument. God commands people to repent in light of the judgment, Paul said, “by a man God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” He never mentioned Jesus by name, but rather described what God did through this man.
At this point, the Epicureans, who did not believe in resurrection, may have interrupted Paul, though the text simply says “some scoffed.” Others, perhaps the Stoics, were willing to continue in conversation at another time. Some even joined Paul and became believers in Christ.
Contrast this Acts passage with the John passage, which is just a tidbit of Jesus’ address to his disciples in chapters 15-17 before his impending trial and death. Paul was addressing an audience of non-believers and those who ruled their lives by reasoning. Jesus was addressing the people who had gotten to know him best, who had followed and marveled and learned, but who did not understand when Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). Jesus, knowing the course he would take to the cross, said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He told them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to be with them forever, and that the world would not understand, because the Spirit was not something that could be seen or known in a physical sense, but only by faith. “In a little while,” he said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:19). This would have been impossible for the Athenian philosophers to understand, and must have been hard for the disciples as well. We understand because we live beyond the resurrection. The universal language of Jesus’ words here would be, for all perhaps except the Stoics, the language of love. Jesus appealed to the disciples for their love for him, and, out of his love for them, he promised not to leave them alone even though he would not physically be with them anymore. We, of course, also accept these promises of love, as we read such passages as Jesus’ followers today.
But the Acts passage can cause us to reflect upon what, or whom, we worship. To whom do we erect statues or make idols? What is most important in our lives? What, or who, rules our lives?
When I preach on a holiday, I try to research the holiday a bit, and this week, I ran across some editorial cartoons about Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have died in the service of our country’s military. “Thanksgiving,” said one, “is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things we have. Memorial Day is a day when we pause to give thanks for the people who fought for what we have.” Another showed a family loaded up in a car, with surfboard, tennis rackets, fishing pole, and a cooler. Mom was assessing supplies, saying, “Hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, beer, soft drinks,…Honey, what are the flowers for?” The next scene shows the Dad out of the car at the military cemetery putting the flowers on a grave and saying, “To say thanks.” But the one that really struck me, especially after we have watched a North Carolina boy win on “The American Idol” this week, was one depicting a grandfather, with his military cap on and holding a cane, taking his grandson to the cemetery, where American flags dot each grave, and saying to the grandson, “I’d like to introduce you to a real ‘American Idol.’”
It is right and good that we honor those who have died in service for our country and for freedom for all peoples. Honoring, respecting is not quite the same as worshiping. Go to a Thesaurus to look up “worship,” “honor,” and “respect,” and you will find that “honor” and “respect” list similar synonyms, and each appears in the list of the other. “Exalt, regard, esteem, recognize, venerate, admire, adore,” and even “worship” also appear in these lists. “Adore” is also a synonym for “worship,” but there is a word that appears under “worship” that does not appear in these other lists. And it is “love.”
So to worship goes beyond to honor or to respect. Worship goes well beyond the reasoning that the Stoics hold so highly. To worship means to love. Worship also describes what we do here, of course, with a worship service, including elements such as prayer and song, Scripture and preaching, baptism and communion. But we worship because we love God.
So Jesus had it right, of course. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And because I love you, he said, I will send the Advocate to be with you in my absence.
In our busy, busy lives, there is much to adore, to honor, to even pursue. We can adore television and movie stars, or athletes; we can honor our vets and those serving in the military, our President and other world leaders; we can pursue success, wealth, or fame. When it comes to what or whom we love, we like to “find” love, or to “fall in love,” in some magical kind of way. But think about those things or people we may love or adore, or even “worship.” We want to know all about them, either by talking with them or by reading all about them. We put up pictures or posters of them. We go to their movies or ballgames, their concerts and gymnastic meets. We put a lot of time and energy into this kind of love or worship. You do, and I do. We all have things and people we love and adore.
But hopefully, such a study as of today’s passages makes us stop to think: Shouldn’t we put just as much time and energy into worshiping God?
After all, if we look at the John passage, we know that God loves us. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus, “I am coming to you….On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you” (14:18, 20). That is love expressed, my friends. The Bible is, of course, full of the language of love. God IS love, the Bible tells us. So if God loves us, we should also love God. And to truly love takes work. As many of you know, marriage takes work to keep it going. Relationships with our friends take work. So does our relationship with God.
The Epicureans and Stoics whom Paul addressed were far from understanding what it means to worship the one true God. Paul worked hard to meet them where they were, to appeal to what they would understand. And we can learn from him as we interact with others who do not think or believe as we do. Paul left behind his distress, perhaps even his anger, at seeing their idols, to talk with them in ways they would understand. Paul even left out direct references to God and Jesus. Yet we knew what he meant because we know God and Jesus. When we talk with the unchurched, or those of other faiths, we can respect their beliefs and work to address them in ways they might understand, even as we listen to them share their beliefs and thoughts. When we engage in conversation with those who differ in political or other views from our own, maybe we can take a lesson from Paul as well, to strive to understand them and respect them where they are.
To prepare ourselves to engage in such dialogues about our faith, though, means that we need to really know the God whom we profess. Paul, after a startling conversion on the road to Damscus, fell in love with the religion he had been persecuting before that experience. He fell in love with Jesus, one might say, and he spent the rest of his life teaching and preaching so that others might also know and love the same God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” he said in I Corinthians (12:13), “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” “There is one body and one Spirit,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” Eph. 5:4-6).
All peoples, all faiths, perhaps even those, in some sense, who claim not to believe in any faith, may be seeking and worshiping the same God. We have different names, differing ways of following, and different forms of worship. But it is the same God that we all worship. Our God is not “unknown.” Our God is love. Love may be the universal language that makes us all truly one.
On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who have fought wars to save others, let us also worship the one God who cares for all creation, who asks but that we love God and one another.
All glory be to God. Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth? Who would be there? What would you say? What would you do?
Remember with me back to Maundy Thursday. Jesus was troubled, John tells us. 1 So many things moved towards this moment, as the disciples made their way to an upper room. It was that last supper, before His arrest, the beatings, his tragic death the next day. And it was His last chance. John sets aside chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 for this farewell discourse, for these things Jesus says to his friends around the table. He sets the tone early on by taking off his outer robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water from a bowl over their dusty feet. He warns them of the coming trials, of one of their betrayal, and offers a new commandment, that they love one another: “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” 2 After that comes the interchange recorded in today’s text.
And while it is a wonderful one, too often this is a text you hear shouted. At a gathering last fall a friend of the family sat down, eager to pick the brain of the preacher. ‘What do you think of the Muslim threat?’ he asked. When I told him I didn’t feel particularly threatened as a Christian in the southeastern US, and that people of all faiths needed to work together to root out radical elements within all of their communities, a confused look spread over his face. I had not satisfied him. And then it came. ‘Well, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said. And the verse just sat there, hanging over us.
Because everyone is scared. He knew it, so he begins with words of comfort. Do not let your hearts be troubled, he says, by your fear, by the guards you know that are coming. Believe in. Trust in. Lean into my strength as the bills mount and the doctor calls back. In my Father’s house, he says, hospitality abounds, as does grace. And there are many dwelling places, he says, plenty of room, Lamar Williamson says, for those who find in Jesus the way to God. 3 He reminds them of promises made – that He is preparing a place, that He will come and take us to Himself. That Christ will gather us all together. This is welcoming, invitational language spoken at table with his dear friends. You know, he says to them, you know.
And then comes Thomas’s question. Thomas has gained a reputation because of his later questions, after the resurrection, when he needed to know if Jesus was really alive. 4 Thomas knew this was important. So much swirled around him, violence, economic anxiety, pressure, pressure, pressure. Lord, tell me. So much is unclear. Tell us. We HAVE to nail it down. We have to be sure. We have to know. This is the point at which I am sure Jesus smiled. He knew these friends, knew who was going to ask the question, who was going to shy away. Like the committees we are on – we know who is reliable, who has great ideas but forgets things, who is always fired up about something that no one else worries about. That’s what it’s like working with people, and we love them, we do. And Jesus leans in and looks him in the eye. Thomas, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. I have been here with you the whole time. In what is an amazing statement, He says that you don’t find God any other way, through something different that what you have known of us together. “There is an exclusive quality to this love,” Williamson says, again. “Like Israel’s walk with the God who would not tolerate the worship of other gods, and like life together in a faithful marriage whose partners forswear intimacy with all others.” 5 Not everywhere, not anywhere, but here.
We, as followers of this Jesus, are caught in a difficult bind when it comes to texts such as these. We want, so desperately, to be faithful to what we believe is true, but we also don’t want to shut ourselves off from the world He is even now transforming. We don’t want to compromise what we believe – nor should we. But too often Christians have used this text to put up walls instead of to break them down. I have a hard time believing that the most important thing this text has to tell me is that the Mormon family I sat with at the baseball game on Tuesday, or my Jewish friend from college, or my neighbor who confessed shortly after we moved in that she couldn’t remember ever actually walking in a church, are all destined for eternal damnation. That is why I will readily proclaim, with the church, that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.” But we must also say, right after that, that “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.” 6 We work as hard as we can, and we trust. This text comes as good, good news, and it is important that we let it be that good news, and not try and make it something it isn’t.
That is why the rest of the conversation, often left out, is so useful. After Thomas’ first question, Phillip keeps pushing. Show us, he says, and we’ll be satisfied. I have been with you this whole time, Jesus says. Whoever has seen me has seen God. And then comes something extraordinary. Jesus says, even if you don’t believe because I say so, if that is not enough; believe because of what you have seen – of blind healed, of lepers cleansed, of Lazarus walking out of the tomb. Believe, he says, because you have seen my work, because it is unmistakable, as children sing, as youth ask great questions, as we work in the shelter line and sawing up trees in yards in Raleigh, as we hammer nails for Habitat. Jesus looks into the disciples’ eyes, and says, “Thomas, you have just seen the way when I knelt and washed your feet. You have felt the truth in the Spirit at work around this table as we ate together. You have experienced real life through the words I have spoken. Phillip, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Live like I do, love like I do, and you will experience everlasting life.”
I don’t know how to explain love to you. I don’t have the words to describe it. I don’t know anything about love apart from the way the way my parents cared for me, from the embrace of a good friend, what I know from the feeling that gripped me when I saw my wife begin to walk down the aisle. When Ella Brooks, then Heath, were placed in my hands. As far as I know you can’t know love in theory, in any meaningful way, at least. I wonder if Jesus is saying something similar to His disciples here. Maybe that is what He is trying to help Thomas and Philip see. God is not something, someone far, away, Jesus says. God is here. I am here. You don’t get God any other way, out there – God in theory. That cannot be the way. God cannot be understood in isolation from the depth of human relationships, as God is, in the essence of God’s own self, love in action, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this Christ bears fruit among us as we gather together, laughing over meals, clutching each other in hospital rooms or beside the grave. When we sit together and listen and talk through something hard. The way isn’t out there, Jesus says. Look at me. Hold my hands. Feel, in your gut, our relationship. That is love, He says. And that is God.
I can think of few better ways that God’s love is made flesh than in the teachers we appreciate today. Those of us up front tend get all the glory, but it is these folks, on Sundays and Wednesdays, that form the backbone of faithfulness here. That way becomes real as art supplies are gathered, as behavior issues are tended to, as a teacher sits up late on a Saturday with curriculum and bible, struggling, learning. I learned of Jesus as the Truth through folks like Gene and Smith Wilson, and Tommy and Ed Hay. These retired couples sat with me, often the only kid in Sunday School those first few years in Black Mountain. In 5th grade, and much of 6th grade. I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I know of their faithfulness as they kept showing up, over and over again. One summer, years later, when I was escorting some 6th graders of my own in clubs in Montreat, a car pulled up alongside. It was Tommy, Ed’s wife. He had just died. And she rolled down her window and held out a book, an old Greek Lexicon, well used. Ed was a retired Presbyterian minister, had taken Greek at Davidson and done so well they asked him to help teach it when he enrolled at Louisville Seminary. She wanted me to have it. I think he would want you to have it, she said, and drove off quickly as the tears came. And we feel this life embodied in those relationships. I know how much my kids adore guitar man, how Heath looks forward to Daddy and Sissy Ketch, as he calls Susan and Jim, as Ella Brooks sits with Helen and Muff, Julie, Angela and Alice. These relationships are so meaningful, and they change things.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He says. He does not say the church is the way. He says He Himself is the way. And He says that the truth is not words, neither his nor anyone else’s. It is love embodied – love in action – that comes to us, and to the world, most fully in the person of Jesus the Christ. And through it all, as the unanswered questions grow, I believe that we are still called, each day, to follow. Not to hurl these words as a dart, not to decide things for others that are not ours to decide. But to lean into His promises, to trust, to believe.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- I am grateful to Lamar Williamson, who pointed this out in his book, “Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 178. When his friend Lazarus died (11:33), as His own death approached (12:27), and knowing that one of His disciples would betray Him (13:21).
- John 13:34.
- Williamson, 179.
- John 20:19-31.
- Williamson 182.
- From “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ”, a document commended to the church at the 2002 General Assembly, lines 155-168. http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/hopeinthelord.pdf