Acts 17:22-31; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
“My dear Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in all things.”
In our reading from Acts this morning, Paul is standing in the Areopagus, an open air gathering place in the city of Athens (Greece, by the way…not the one up the road here…) addressing the his most educated audience thus far. And his most self-satisfied. “Preaching to Boston”…or Savannah…or Charleston. He begins talking to them “where they are”…using the objects, and literature, they already know and live with.
“I see how religious you are. How careful to honor all the potential gods and goddesses, even the ones you’ve never heard of.” They’re covered up in temples and shrines and altars in Athens, on every corner and in every public place.
“But now, Athenians…Let me tell you of something you ought to know…The One God, creator of all things, ruler of all things, has acted. Has done something so noteworthy that I have come all this way to tell you about it. All of these things we’ve made, and imagined, and cooked up that we think will bring blessing and keep away disaster—forget that! God is more than you—or any of us—can even begin to imagine. Certainly more than we can make up ourselves. God doesn’t need all of this stuff from us—God created everything in the first place. Everything that exists, and all of us.”
For the Athenians, this is—was—a new worldview. From many gods and goddesses, to one only. And one who not only creates all things, but then proves to be victorious over death itself by raising his chosen one, Jesus, from the dead.
Paul goes and meets his hearers where they are. He uses language they understand, quotes poetry they recognize, points to ordinary objects in the vicinity, and uses all of this to tell them about what God, in Jesus, has done. Is doing, even then.
What would it look like for the followers of Jesus, in 21st century America—in Augusta, Georgia—to meet people out there, where they live and work and hang out? Not expecting them to come in here, and learn our language and objects of worship, but going out and learning who THEY are, engaging them in conversation, where they are right now? I wonder…
When Jesus speaks to his friends in the gospel, he’s also using language they understand, and pointing out the reality they are living in already, to bring them further along in their faith. “Those who have my commandments and keep them are the ones who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
He’s just washed their feet—gotten down on the ground with a bowl and a towel— performed an action so embarrassingly servile that Peter is utterly aghast. “JESUS, Jesus, what are you DOING down there??” And then after all that, he tells them “Now look y’all—you saw what I just did? That’s what it looks like, in this kingdom of mine where you’re all so eager to have the second-in-command position. It’s not about having others doing stuff for you and you lording it over them; in fact, it’s the other way around.”
“If you love me, keep my commandments.” The English composer and musician Thomas Tallis set those words to music, several hundred years ago, and I can’t NOT hear the opening chords when I read these verses. And Jesus has already given his followers that new commandment, that Mandatum Novum (as it is called in Latin) from which we get our English phrase “Maundy Thursday.” Namely: Love one another, as I have loved you. Care for one another, as I have cared for you. This is what it looks like.
And when you do, I will be there.
He’s getting them ready, you see.
1) For the disciples in the gospel story, he’s getting them ready for his departure.
2) For the first hearers and readers of John’s gospel, he’s getting them ready for their own life and ministry, without those early disciples and apostles. The second, or even third generation of Jesus’ followers, are being reminded of what they have already experienced—that when they are gathered to worship, and when they go out into the world to serve in Christ’s name, he is with them. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, whom they already know, oh so well.
3) For us, two thousand years later and on the other side of the world, he is getting us ready, strengthening us, also. Reminding us of what we know—that we are not alone. That we are not left as orphans, but that we have a Father in heaven; we have an elder brother in Jesus; that we have a sister and companion in the Holy Spirit who blows where she wishes, and seldom in directions that we expect. And not always in directions, or ways that we even would choose, all things considered.
Now, we don’t have to say yes to all this. We can resist and refuse, of course…we always have that option. God will never force us to follow. We can try to go it alone, or have things our own way. But then…just maybe…we might discover that we are resisting and refusing God’s action, in our time, in and among and through us. Just because it makes us nervous, or uncomfortable, or challenges us somehow.
“Do not fear what they fear” says the writer of First Peter. “Do not be intimidated…but always be prepared to make a defense of the hope that is in you.” That hope we carry, and share (I hope we share!) when opportunity presents itself—that Christ suffered death, once for all (All means all, by the way. All. Everyone. No exceptions) in order to bring us all to God. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we all share in the fall of creation; as brothers and sisters of Jesus, crucified and risen, we all share in the resurrection and restoration. We didn’t earn it; we don’t deserve it; it is given because God loves us and will have us, even with and in spite of our resistances and hesitations and refusals.
This Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension. It is no accident that our epistle reading points in that direction at the end: reminding the hearers of their “...baptism, [which is] not the removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Because of the resurrection, death no longer has the last word. Because of the Ascension, our physical bodies and the created order itself are redeemed and brought into God’s dominion. Because of Jesus, the world itself is changed, and all of us along with it.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is good news worth sharing.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!