The Adventurous Lectionary – The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 21, 2017

The Adventurous Lectionary – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 21, 2017
Bruce G. Epperly
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:18-20
I Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

My teacher John Cobb referred to Christ as the way that excludes no authentic spiritual way. In our pluralistic age, as Cobb describes it, we need more rather than less theology. Although our theological perspectives need to be fluid, contextual, and open to change, the variety of theological and spiritual perspectives available to seekers and church members alike call the adventurous preacher to claim her or his role as the theologian of her or his congregation, sharing theological insights in open-spirited and accessible ways. This week, I focus primarily on Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. Although 2000 years old, this speech addresses our pluralistic, post-Christian time, and to those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.’

Today’s scriptures invite us to consider the scope of divine revelation and salvation. As the reality in whom we live and move and have our being, God’s wisdom touches all of us. Death and the afterlife are part of God’s vision of salvation. Those presumed lost and unaware of Jesus’ mission are still objects of God’s love and recipients of Jesus’ ministry. Indeed as I Peter proclaims, Christ goes to the depths of hades, seeking the salvation of those who perished centuries before his time. Could it be that death is no impediment to God’s love and that God’s love embraces the deceased, despite their waywardness and unbelief? Our hope is not in our own efforts or the exclusivity of our faith but in God’s everlasting love that invites us to be lovers as well.

One of my favorite passages from scripture, Paul’s speech in the Athenian marketplace of ideas speaks to our current spiritual landscape. Like the Athenians, we live in a pluralistic time, with many options for worship and spiritual practice. Anyone with an internet connection or cable television can become a digital pluralist. Christians need to share their good news in light of the world in which we live in all its wondrous diversity.

Paul speech reflects his understanding not only of Christ but of the aspirations of his listeners.
Paul affirms their spiritual quest, noting how religious the Athenian people are. He even alludes to an “unknown god,” and suggests that Christ is the one for whom they have been looking. He proceeds to use some of the grandest words in New Testament theology, rivaling John’s prologue in its universality, and even going beyond John 1 in his appropriation of non-Christian language to describe Christian truth. In perhaps the only place in the scriptures, Paul explicitly quotes Greek philosophy to describe God’s nature as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Moreover, in contrast to sin and redemption theologies that focus on human unworthiness, Paul positively cites non-Christian wisdom to affirm that we are “God’s offspring.” Created in God’s image, we can awaken God’s Spirit at any time.

God is constantly influencing our lives, and is responsible for the life-saving wisdom of non-Christian religions. As John’s Gospel suggests, there is a unity between humankind and God similar to God’s unity with Christ. While Paul assumes that Christ is the fullness of salvation, Paul – like the author of John’s prologue – recognizes that God’s wisdom is broadcast generously throughout the world. Paul’s evangelistic message begins by citing a point of contact between Jesus Christ and non-Christian traditions. Wherever truth is to found, and in whatever culture it emerges, God is its source.

From the perspective of Acts 17, healthy evangelism involves finding common ground with the seekers in our midst. We are not called to be patronizing or one-up on those with whom we share good news. We are one in the spirit with seekers and doubters, privileged only by our awareness of God’s love which also embraces them.

Psalm 66:8-20 contains some problematic passages that require interpretation if they are to be included in worship. God is to be praised for God’s deliverance of the people. Yet, God also appears to be the source of their torment. God has “tried us,” “laid burdens on us,” and “let people ride over us.” This juxtaposition of praise and torment begs questions such as: Are our offerings a type of barter insuring God’s good will? Is God’s loving response conditional, based on our attitudes and worship?

Three points emerge from I Peter 3:13-22. First, the author counsels followers of Jesus to know their faith well enough to defend it in public. Our mission to the world embraces heart, mind, and hands. We need to be able to share the good news of Jesus and that means a commitment to theological reflection. We need to know what we believe and why. This means that the church should be a place of theological reflection as well as spiritual practice. Second, the author asserts that the scope of Jesus’ salvation embraces the underworld as well as this lifetime. Jesus preaches to persons living in Noah’s time as if to say: death is not a limit to God’s love. God’s care for the lost extends beyond the grave. Third, the resurrected Jesus now reigns with God in heaven. Christ is exalted and one with the Father/Creator. His sovereign love goes beyond the boundaries of life and death and east and west, embracing all things in heaven, earth, and below.

The words of John 14 describe Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, an advocate who will abide in his followers. The Spirit is not an external reality, but the voice within, whispering to us in sighs too deep for words. While the Spirit is not limited to Christian faith, faith opens to the guidance of God’s Spirit. We experience God as our deepest reality, truly the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus proclaims an intimate interconnectedness between God and us. “I am in my Father, and I in you, and you in me.” Christ is our deepest reality, sharing with us the same divine wisdom that comes from his relationship with the Creator. Jesus emphasizes the importance of love in knowing God: in following Jesus’ path of love, we discover and reveal God’s true nature to the world.

Today’s texts describe the relationship between love and knowledge. Love opens us to understanding the ambient God in whom we live and move and have our being. Love is not limited by culture, space or time, or even death. God’s salvation is intended to embrace all creation. God is the ultimate universalist, generous in love, salvation, and search for the lost.

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  • jekylldoc

    No less than the relationship between love and knowledge! Not as textbook explanation, obviously, but as hard-won insight and even intuitive sense. The Spirit, the Comforter, gives both: love and knowledge. How can this be?

    The traditional explanation was that the Spirit imparts supernatural insight. And sometimes I suppose it feels like that (but let’s not get into the epistemology). The true nature of the matter seems to be closer to “the heart has reasons that reason does not know” (as Pascal put it). The Spirit moves us to understand in ways of the heart, rather than sticking to what we can prove and rely on and deduce. The seeming randomness of life’s to and fro come together in a sense of what matters.

    And yes, surely, the same process is at work when agape love gets involved in other traditions. I’m not sure it adds anything to be able to use Christological theology to guide our love or to have a sense that the transports of worship participate in this knowing. But I do sense that these two traditional ideas about the relationship between love and knowledge capture important wisdom.

    • charlesburchfield
      • jekylldoc

        That’s a good one. It reminds me of the claim in physics class that the floor exerts a force upward against the furniture – the “pushback” from within may not be evident, but it is reliable.

      • CarolGJ

        Unfortunately, despite what google searches may show, that’s not a quote from Camus. He did write, “in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer” in his essay, “‘Return to Tipasa.” But the rest of it is not Camus.

        • charlesburchfield

          You’re right! Quick search just now confirm. Nice sentiment though I thought at the time. I am not a scholar of camus. I was introduced to him in the early 70s reading the plague. I’ve been a fan ever since. Lately I’ve been happy to find memes on the Internet to kind of punctuate my posts. That’s how I found this here bogus camus quote. Fake-news!

          Here is one you might like from c.s.Lewis:
          My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
          C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity