The Adventurous Lectionary – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2023
Bruce G. Epperly
I Peter 3:13-22
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. First Testament scholar Terry Fretheim notes that it is more important to ask, “What kind of God do you believe in?” than “Do you believe in God?” 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. Our theology needs to be healing and not abusive, open-spirited and not dogmatic. (For more on Christianity and pluralism, see Bruce Epperly, “The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism,” SacraSage, 2022.)
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 in life and death. 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. Nothing, not even death and dementia, or previous mistakes, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
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. Moreover many of us practice hybrid or inter-spiritual faith, supplementing our Christian faith with practices from other spiritual traditions.
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. Deep down, all persons seek the divine, and as Augustine says, are restless until they find their peace in the true God. In his speech, Paul 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. We can learn from our Christian mystics and the Bible and also from spiritual guides and scriptures of other faiths.
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 in relation to 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? We best not quote this scripture without challenging the image of God as opponent and abuser it apparently portrays. God is out to love us, not harm us.
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 God’s character. God’s power is loving not compelling. 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.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent books are PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE REVIVAL WE NEED and TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org