6th Sunday of Easter

April 27, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 66:8-20
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 3:13-22 or Acts 17:22-31
Reading 4: 
John 14:15-21
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Acts 17: 22-31
Engaging a Skeptical Pluralistic Culture in Effective Dialogue

Paul’s Mars Hill speech in the Areopagus occurs as a defining moment in his second missionary journey. Paul engages a pluralistic culture preoccupied with novelty (the preceding verse defines their itching to hear “something new”).

Some debate exists as to whether it is actually Paul who would have had time for this kind of seemingly “scholarly debate” or Luke who envisions this as Paul’s optimal response to the culture he found himself in. In either case, the scene clearly represents one of the earliest accounts of the church defining and interpreting its message in the skeptical, pluralistic culture of Greece.

First, Paul is “deeply distressed” (v.16) that the Jewish community, itself a minority in its diaspora, doesn’t have better boundaries about the abundance and acceptance of idols for the deity. The city is full of them, and yet the community of faith in the synagogue he first approaches doesn’t seem to have any better response to this than did Moses’ people when he descended from Sinai. Perhaps this Jewish community in Athens had decided to live and let live, outnumbered and coexisting as peacefully as possible, respecting others’ right to their own values. This should signal us to be aware of our context and responses today, especially if we hear these words as cosmopolitan members of first-world countries.

Paul’s first attempt doesn’t go well, even though it attracts some secular Epicureans and Stoics who belittle what they consider to be his untrained and unskilled rhetoric. (Another signal to we who often hear uncredentialed faith witnesses with apriori skepticism because they don’t speak in our idiom.)  He’s demeaned as a “babbler” a “seed-picker” who peddles irrelevant and irrational second-hand ideas. He appears almost like a man who acts as his own attorney and bumbles through all manner of self-induced entanglements because of his unfamiliarity of the laws governing the courtroom.

But because they are at least intrigued with novelty and the chance to dissect even an improperly formed argument, they haul or summon Paul into the middle of the marketplace where philosophical ideas are traded, much as they were by Socrates in his time. He gets a second hearing with a much broader audience. This time his speech, like that of Peter in Acts 2, has the character of inspiration.

As we overhear this speech, we must ask ourselves, “Where do we and how do we engage a skeptical culture in dialogue?” (The verb that Paul “argued” earlier in verse 17 was “dialegomai.”)

Paul begins with careful observation of culture and a preliminary, even if potentially ingenuous, compliment: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Based on his first reaction of disgust and distress, he could have begun with judgment. Instead, he strategically begins with affirmation.

He then selects an interesting religio-cultural anomaly: you even have a tomb dedicated to an “unknown god.” Ergo, you must admit there is something you do not yet have knowledge of – something you are agnostic about since the inscription reads “agnostos theos.” Paul transcends his personal distress with idols to use reference to one as a transition to the theological point he wants to score. History is often propelled with the force of the unknown – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also the Tomb of the Unknowns. What is unknown is often a more powerful incentive than what is clearly defined.

He even legitimizes interest in this tomb to the unknown as a sign of the universal “groping” ( v. 27) for the Ultimate inspired by the one God responsible for all of reality.

Being agnostic in some ways positions one better to hear and receive truth than the one who already knows with complete certainty.
Paul quotes and connects from familiar, recognizable sources as a basis for re-defining the type of deity he represents. His speech is all about deconstructing and then reconstructing common assumptions about the nature of God or the ultimate.

Developing the agnostic theme, Paul then indicates a divine clemency or amnesty for ignorance. “While God has overlooked the times of human agnoias (v. 30)… ” now times are different. Now is the time for another mindset – metanoia (repentance). Verse 30 clearly pits agnoias against metanoein. God now requires decision and action: a change of mind to replace a lack of mind. This is the prophetic witness of faith – our challenge to engage our own multi-cultural situation with a clear call for decision about a new way of thinking about what is ultimate power and authority for us.

Paul connected with his audience in a number of ways through establishing his credentials to argue such a case:

  • Jurisdiction: this is about a cosmic deity who affects the Athenians in ways far more intimate than any of their local idols.
  • Proper representation: Paul has been personally called upon to represent this deity to them.
  • Beneficial relevancy: This God could be of ultimate importance for Athenian life, given the far-reaching consequences of impending personal judgment.

Paul concludes his appeal with a decisive nonnegotiable claim: there is a universal day of fair, righteous judgment fixed, conducted by one who has been raised from the dead. All talk of pluralism has seemingly been reduced to one focal point, Jesus the resurrected one.

We are told some scoffed at the unfolding of his argument. Some took pause and adjourned for another day. Some, represented by Dionysius and Damaris, believed and experienced metanoia.

At this point, we recognize this text is NOT a paradigm for sustained interreligious dialogue; it is rather a confession and definition of faith set in the context of a Socratic dialogue.

Their desire for novelty comes with a price of ethical, responsible action. Whitehead was clear that novelty for novelty’s sake alone leads to the trivial, whereas novelty as the lure to greater complexity, beauty and intensity leads to greater truth and adventure.

What are the odds of making a reasonable faith appeal to a skeptical culture through engaging in interreligious dialogue? One in three? Two out of many? What are the costs of remaining too distressed to even engage or even try? And one question foreign to the text: Could Paul’s own religious life have benefited from any of the combined experiences of the disciplines practiced by the Stoics and the Epicureans? Much of Christian history seems to suggest their practices also informed Christian experience. If our faith makes us free, what can we learn from other faith communities, such as the Islamic faith experience, that would enhance our response to God?

Psalm 66:8-20
Where does Psalm 66 fit in this cycle of Easter lections thematically? It may be heard as a commentary on both the epistle and gospel lections.

The “testing” referred to in verse 10 may be exemplified in the 1 Peter text where there is suffering in those unjustly maligned. This testing is the opportunity to stay focused and on task to our mission of proclaiming faith rather than succumbing to retaliation and retribution which destroy the center of our being. We “went through fire and water” (v.12) and yet survived to thrive in “a spacious place,” an obvious reference to the Exodus and captivity.

The psalmist proclaims “God has not removed his love from me” (v19), and that concept is tested in 1 Peter 3:19 in extremis. God’s love in providing Christ seems to extend even to those spirits who were disassociated from God’s love in this life and now have passed on this life.

From the gospel, in our separation from the One who lived among us to help us dwell abundantly, God heard and experienced our grief and “has not removed his steadfast love from me” (v. 19). God has supplied consolation and an advocate to encourage us along the burdens of our way.

1 Peter 3:13-22
Is there hope for salvation from our past even beyond this life?

Christians have a reason to withstand unjust suffering without returning violence because Christ has shown the way and been vindicated by God in his resurrection.

Fearing the wrong power (v. 14) disorients us and leaves us discouraged and looking to the wrong god for the power that belongs to God alone.

Among the several perplexing and problematic verses, verse 19 has stood out as one of the few places in the New Testament where there appears to be a direct reference about universal salvation; namely, that Christ preached good news even to the “spirits in prison.” Recent studies indicate the type of proclamation suggested may not be exactly the kerygma with an expected response of repentance and belief as would follow if “the hound of heaven” had given a final appeal even to those lost in the afterlife. It may be that he proclaimed his own victory over suffering and death. Still, in a processive way of thinking every new occasion with its lure for feeling affords some opportunity of response that is highly conditioned by past responses and but not fully defined by the past. In such a worldview, it would not make sense for any kind of proclamation of the power of the Christ to ever occur without some opportunityto respond affirmatively, even if that response is within the most limited bounds. We may preach that the patient love of God is so long-suffering that it is good not just for those lost from the days of Noah but all the length of everlasting days we all miss the mark.

Baptism cleans us in the ethical sense that it makes us conscientious for the good (the text translates as “a good conscience”) and in this Easter season we are again reminded it is the power of resurrection which grounds our baptism. Baptism does not unilaterally make us aligned with God like a removal of something impure from us (v. 21). Rather, it creates a desire or awareness in us for our volition to choose what God chooses.

John 14:15-21
Farewells and the Problem of Succession:

In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus also deals with the problem of his successor. Every great leader has to answer that question for the betterment of his or her people. History shows as many disconnects as it does graceful continuities in the transfer of power from a particularly charismatic leader. The United States as a nation has wrestled with the problem of succession as it first defined Washington’s original presidency to end after two terms and not transition into another monarchy, and then as it recently tried to do with an uncertain, disputed outcome of a presidential election. Neither was unqualifiedly successful; but neither ended the experiment in democracy.

In verse 15 John’s Jesus promises “another Paraclete,” suggesting he himself was the first one. This next Paraclete continues the work of Jesus, keeps the truth of Jesus manifest, and “re-presences” Jesus for those who were not alive at the time of Jesus. This keeps his followers from being without another master and having to look for a successor (the literal meaning of the word “orphan” in v.18, is disciples without masters).

So, the work of the Paraclete of God is to make the events of the resurrection known beyond the time in which they occurred and to grant reassurance to all those who would choose to follow a master no longer physically available.

Although the Paraclete is described as a continuing manifestation of God’s Christ, several human founders of religious movements, including both men and woman, have written themselves into the verse as the successor to Jesus. That is always a problematic temptation. Yet, Jesus is his own successor, at least for those who move beyond their memories about him, and their reenactments of cherished moments surrounding him, to actually doing his commandments to love one another.

What legacy and encouragement do we leave?
As long as we are clear about the Paraclete not being another human leader, then a related subject may be dealt with. As Jesus was concerned with succession and legacy, so we today need also to be concerned with what legacy we leave as we have followed his commandments to love others as he loved them. What will succeed us in the pew, in the leadership of the church, in the continuing support for the missions we have given time, talent, and money to support? This Sunday’s gospel lection opens the subject of living legacies and the provisions we leave to insure that our own work continues after our lives have ended. Perhaps in interpreting Jesus’ provisions for what assures his work continues, we might also offer opportunities outside of the worship service for interested members to explore ways in which they too may have many more options that they ever realized were possible to leave a living legacy. This challenges us to consider that even within very modest means there are ways to insure our stewardship never stops when our heart stops.