The Adventurous Lectionary – Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 17, 2020

The Adventurous Lectionary – Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 17, 2020 May 7, 2020

The Adventurous Lectionary – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:18-20
I Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Theological reflection matters. Indeed, theology matters even more in times of crisis. Times of crisis bring out the best and worst of us, ethically and theologically. Many congregations, such as my own, despite lower revenues during this time of pandemic, when sanctuaries are shuttered, have increased their outreach to the larger community. The challenges we face inspire us to look beyond individual and congregational self-interest to expand the circles of care to include our neighborhoods, towns and cities, nation, and the world. When we say “we are all in this together,” we mean that we are all connected and that salvation is indivisible, the wellbeing of one promotes the wellbeing of all. Other preachers circle the wagons of salvation, promoting binary theologies that scapegoat, damn, and blame others for the reality of pandemic. Such theologies promote walls between saved and unsaved, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving, and open the church doors despite the potential for harm to their neighbors.

In this time of pandemic, 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 and healing presence touches all of us. Death and the afterlife are part of God’s vision of salvation. Those presumed lost and unaware of Jesus’ mission by soteriological elites 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 a world of wondrous diversity.

Paul’s 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 notes the reality of 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 or Jewish 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 be 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. Soteriologically and inspirationally speaking, we are all in this together.

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? This passage might inspire some to blame the realities of pandemic on the LBGTQ+ community or other infidels. In contrast, I believe that God does not intend to punish us, with pandemic, cancer, or any other ill. Rather, acts lead to consequences, not in a linear way but as factors that lead to certain outcomes. God did not choose the Coronavirus to punish us: if there are causes beyond nature for the crisis we are experiences or sufferings that occur they more likely are the result of nation-first ideologies, economic and ecological injustice, and the ineptitude and dishonesty of political leaders at home and abroad.

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 honest and thoughtful 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. In this time of pandemic, we need to lean on God’s grace, expanding our compassion from neighbor to stranger and beyond.

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. The love of God takes us beyond fear and denial to faith responsiveness to God in stranger and kin alike.

Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.

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