A Sermon about Living the Gospel in New Times and Places
Today, in our reading from Acts, the book we always read from during the season of Easter, the book that tells of the spread of the Way, the Jesus movement, from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean world, we get to overhear a short sermon from Paul in the city of Athens, the ancestral seat of all things sophisticated - fantastic arts and architecture, poetry and plays, athletics, and the Greek language spoken by Paul himself, the language of the empire. Athens was the home of the great philosophers. Its streets were lined with temples, statuary and monuments, and rhetoricians (of which Paul is an excellent example) honed their craft every day in the public squares.
And Paul was there, having a few days off, waiting for the heat to blow over after some unpleasantness in Thessalonika.
Paul walked along in this legendary city and saw the temples, and statues and mosaics and, perhaps, shook his head, thinking, “These people are headed in the wrong direction. I wish that they could see the light, and perhaps I can help them see it.” But in a brilliant, and I must say somewhat uncharacteristic move for Paul, instead of condemning them, Paul looks to find common ground with the Athenians.
As he speaks, he engages them by meeting them where they are and treating them as legitimate conversation partners in their different approaches to God. How often do you see that?! These days it seems that to find common ground with those with whom we differ only gains us the accusation that we are not being true to our own team; discussion seems to be set up so that there is always a them to our us and the object of any conversation is simply for our side to win.
Paul is not interested in playing that kind of game here. He meets the Athenians where they are. He recognizes that they are religious people who exhibit public piety. And he starts the conversation by praising those things, instead of condemning them and castigating their practices. He quotes from their own cultural canon and expresses appreciation for the things they appreciate. He speaks as one who also gropes for God, and who understands their yearnings to find God, too. He approaches them with the attitude that their culture contains the means of ascertaining religious truth. Again, how often do you see that?!?
And then he urges them to hear his story, a story about a God who has acted in history by raising Jesus from the dead, Jesus, the one who came to reconcile the world to God and us to one another. He speaks the Gospel to them, but in a way that seeks to find resonance with their culture and understanding. He interprets the story using new language, new imagery, that moves beyond its home base into a world far away from Palestine.
This doesn’t change the basic truth about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for the world’s salvation. But the Gospel always has to find new words for new circumstances. The culture the Gospel encounters is always changing, always evolving, and Christians and the church have to find new ways to speak to the changing world. And this is not easy.
For one thing, we know that we stand somewhat apart from the world - we are in the world but not of it, as is often said. Sometimes we feel tension about that and find ourselves unsure how to stand apart without simply rejecting, or how to take part in the world’s business and pleasure without losing our souls. We wonder where the lines are and get caught up in what sometimes amounts to trivia in the face of the cosmic story of salvation. Is drinking a little sherry OK? Is buying Elvis Presley records OK? Is Facebook OK? Are mosques in our neighborhood OK? Are we selling out to the world if we aren’t constantly drawing lines and more lines?
And then there is the problem of having one’s faith challenged through an encounter with something entirely unexpected. In-laws of another race or faith tradition. Teenagers. A diagnosis, a death, an announcement of some reality we aren’t ready to face. (Feel free to insert the reality you weren't ready to face here.)
Every generation has to do this. To find ways to live out the Gospel in whatever situations we encounter, which means we need to be open to other people’s realities. From the Gospel of John we know that the Holy Spirit is the one who leads us into all truth, who helps us test things out, who helps us be true to the Gospel in whatever new situations we encounter. The Spirit is trustworthy if we will but listen for the Spirit’s promptings. Jesus reminds us today as he told his disciples on that night before he died that the Holy Spirit is like Jesus himself, the Spirit is another advocate who abides in us. Who guides us. Who whispers of love to us, who helps us see past the surface and into the heart of things. Who helps us speak and live that love to those who need to hear and feel it.
And Paul’s Athenian sermon reminds us that we ought to do so in a spirit of generosity and openness; to be willing to see new ways the story can be told and lived. To remember that Jesus came so that everyone might have life abundant and not be afraid to see the possibility of life in places that may at first challenge us.
The church’s history, right up to last week, is riddled with examples of rigidness, of drawing lines to say who is in and who is out. It is so easy to fall into the same old trap of thinking there must be winners and losers, that for one person to be right another has to be wrong, that we have to line up on one side or the other, that we cannot stoop to finding common ground or else we betray our cause.
The saddest thing I read in the media frenzy about the folks waiting for the Rapture was the story in which some parents told their children that they would be left behind when the parents were taken into heaven on May 21st because the children did not believe as the parents did. I cannot imagine how those children will not feel that their parents betrayed them. Jesus told his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned. Would that those parents could have done the same.
I am sure those parents were wrong. And yet, in light of our story today, I wonder how might we speak to those parents with compassion, to find common ground, to respect their dignity as children of God and appreciate their faith in hopes of being able also to speak to them about a God of love who does not leave children behind?
And on this Memorial Day weekend and this week after yet more devastation from tornadoes, let us remember not only those who have died in service to our country but also let us remember that there is nothing loving about picketing soldiers’ funerals with signs that blame gay people for those soldiers’ deaths. That there is nothing loving in proclaiming on your website that those who died last week in Joplin were struck down by God because Americans are more and more coming to believe that same sex love can be true love. I admit I have a lot of trouble imagining that I have any common ground with the people who are picketing in Joplin today as our President visits that city, but I cannot preach God’s love without recognizing that we are all children of the same creator. I am sure that they are wrong, and yet, I have to wonder how I might speak to them with compassion about a God who does not hate and cause death but weeps and grieves with those who weep and grieve like Jesus at the grave of Lazarus.
This doesn’t mean we don’t speak our own truths, but it does mean that we do so with humility, with a generosity of spirit. God is love. Jesus says, if you love me, you will keep my commandments: And Jesus commandments are all about love. Love God, love neighbor, love one another as he loved us.
We must have the courage to speak and live the Gospel of love in ways that others can hear in the places where they are - which may well be dark, sad, and lonely - even twisted - places as well as situations that are just different, things we just don’t understand in the way my grandparents couldn’t understand Elvis. The world is full of people who are lost and desperate to find acceptance and meaning in their lives, and if our response is to simply draw lines between ourselves and them, we have failed to live out the good news about the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
We don’t need to be afraid of new places and new realities, because the good news is the same as it always was - that ours is a God who showed through Jesus Christ that love - not rules, not dogma, not even doctrine but love - is stronger than fear. That love is stronger than betrayal. That love is stronger than death.
For this is our Easter proclamation: Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!