Acts 17:22-31 – the Old Testament? – narrates a telling moment in early Christianity. Does the preacher dare to preach on one of history’s great sermons? Or do we ponder how he did it for our own enrichment and preach on a different text?
When Paul arrived in Athens, the Parthenon was already nearly 500 years old; the golden age of Pericles and Socrates was long past, and yet the city was still an architectural wonder - and virtually all the grand marble structures had some religious purpose. The classic pantheon of Greek divinities (Zeus, Athena, Hermes) were worshipped in addition to gods imported from various peoples all over the world.
Paul was mortified - but the citizens of Athens must have been puzzled by his mood. They had countless gods, but weren't all that serious about any of them (except perhaps Dionysus, the god of wine and parties!). What was strange about Paul was not that he was a religious person; Athenians could prove their religiosity by simply pointing to the urban landscape. But Paul was zealous, daring to say his God was the lone true god, and all the others were fakes, zeroes. Theirs was a civil religion that accommodated everyone and offended no one - except Paul!
Paul’s tone is important: he does not condemn, despite his inner feelings. He connects, he invites. He “argues,” but the Greek is identical to our word “dialogue.” He establishes common ground what he can about their culture while luring them into something richer and more noble. Can today’s preacher achieve the same?
He goes to them, in the agora, the marketplace, the shopping mall of Athens. Can the preacher get out to prepare the sermon, maybe after conversation with random people in a shopping mall? To continue the conversation, Paul’s critics walk with him uphill to the Areopagus, Mars Hill, the stone court where generals decided whether to go to war or not. Paul comes peacefully, and suggests his God isn't limited to Athens or any other place or vested interest, but is for all people, everywhere, in every age.
In a way, Acts 17 asks if Christianity is intellectually respectable, as Paul makes his case before the most educated, cultured, philosophically sophisticated people in the world. Paul does his best, but knows he will never win the day on reason alone. Christianity is not unreasonable, but the Gospel embraces far more than reason can begin to grasp. Reason is faith’s greatest block, isn’t it? Paul proudly admits that the Christian message is “folly to the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:19): a poor peasant, executed but coming back to life? No wonder in the philosophical mecca of Athens Paul was mocked as a “babbler” (Acts 17:18).
A few Athenians converted, others couldn't accept the Gospel message; but notice the word of hope from many of the unconverted: We will hear you again about this (verse 32). Can we be faithful, can we articulate the hope that is in us, but with perseverance and patience, and in a way that even skeptics might want to hear us again?
John 14:15-21 teases out what agape love is all about. “If you love… you keep commandments” sounds conditional. But let’s be clear: Love has its conditions; love has its rules. Love isn’t a mood you feel or don’t. If I love my wife, I know the rules that bear witness to that love. We aren’t saved because we’re fastidious rule-keepers.
And John’s rumination on the coming gift of the Spirit after Jesus’ departure is just astonishing. No systematic theologies to consult, Jesus was barely gone, and John writes with such tender wisdom about the mystery of this Spirit. Clearly, it’s not some emotional titillation, which many American Christians would pervert the Spirit into being. The Spirit is your Advocate – and you’ll need a good one. And the Spirit is all about Truth – which is entirely up for grabs or viewed as nonexistent nowadays in our culture of warring political ideologies. There is Truth. There are facts. And not just facts but the deeper Truth that is the way things really are with God and God’s world. To get at this, I like to quote the popular historian David McCullough: “You can have all the facts imaginable and miss the truth, just as you can have facts missing or some wrong, and reach the larger truth. ‘I hear all the notes, but I hear no music,’ is the old piano teacher’s complaint. There has to be music. The work of history calls for mind and heart.”
In my Birth book out last month, I have a chapter on Adoption. We might fixate on the nuclear family, but the Bible is obsessed with language and images of foundlings, orphans, adoption. Check out this blog I posted (scroll down to the bottom half!) during Pentecost for a quick summation of how all this plays out, relying much on the insights of Kelley Nikondeha in Adopted.
Evocative as Acts 17 and John 14 are, I believe I will go with the Epistle. 1 Peter 3:13-22 reveals how tough things were on early Christians, and thereby how the life of faith today is a walk in the park, eliciting more yawns than harsh critique. So how does our text’s counsel apply? Maybe you can say those who dare to live a radical faith have their troubles, or you can grandstand or confuse people by pointing to how mad people get over your political ideology. Let’s linger over a few intriguing items here.
“Harm” has become a big word, from “First do no harm,” to the controversial but crucial “harm reduction” in substance abuse treatment, and then the “Reduce Harm” movement in Methodism – all 3 inviting people to courageous action to minimize harm to others. 1 Peter’s question: “Who will harm you if you are eager to do good?” I’m tempted to answer “Lots of people,” especially in this realm of the defense of the harmed. So today, doing good, not being a believer per se, can stir up trouble. Joel Green comments: “It is precisely by doing good that the righteous attract unwanted attention.”
Maybe this text is a way to talk about issues that matter to you without nagging or condemning. So you simply observe that those who are trying to do good, sheltering immigrants, advocating for gun control, lobbying against abortion, striving for racial reconciliation, whatever it may be (and if you do a list, zigzag left and then right as I just did to avoid people thinking you’re just pasting faith on top of your agenda) do bear some misery – although you have to own that in the biblical world you could be imprisoned, beaten, or shut out of work, whereas today you’re more likely to get blasted on Facebook. The text reminds us of Jesus’ suffering, and this solidarity ennobles suffering and induces the strength to bear it.
The RSV invites us to “sanctify” Christ. He’s already holy, of course… The verb, hagiasate, a quote from Isaiah 8:13, and the same word as “Hallowed be thy name,” means to reverence, to treat as holy. Live in a way that doesn’t embarrass Christ; tempt him to take pride in you. The “Be ready to make your defense” envisions being on trial, or pressured to renounce your faith. For us, is this finding yourself in awkward conversation where a neighbor make a chilling racist comment, or someone blasts a Mexican yard worker?
Does this entail the simple skill of being able to give testimony to why and what you believe? I worry I’ve not helped my people enough to be able to articulate the simple basics of why and what they believe – and my church people who are glib and eloquent on this are too often the smug types who have all the answers and are all too eager to download their spiritual genius into others. I think of Lillian Daniel’s Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony or Tom Long’s Testimony as wise explorations of this, important for our people even if it’s only a quick mention in this Sunday’s sermon.
I remind my people periodically that the Creed matters because it was devised to give people simple ways to talk about their faith. Every Sunday’s recitation is a little practice session. And this “defense” 1 Peter prepares us for isn’t dogma so much as a personal naming of to whom we cling; it’s not propositional but “the hope that is in you.” The average Christian needs to be able to say without being shrill or sappy, “My hope is in God” or “I believe Christ is with me.” And that “in you”: 1 Peter’s Greek is en humin, plural, really then “the hope that is in y’all.” We have good company as we believe, defend, bear witness and make testimony. We’re good listeners; we stand with others. And it’s always “with gentleness and reverence,” not cockiness or judgment!
Speaking of the creed: verse 19 poses huge challenges with its mystifying talk of Jesus preaching to “spirits in prison… who disobeyed in the days of Noah.” Pseudepigraphical books like Enoch dwell on bound “fallen angels,” reminding us that even back in the first century, Christians believed some very curious things. Over time, the belief that Christ “descended into Hell” emerged, and has survived in many creeds. I included a chapter on this in my book The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship. This descent is lovely to explore, raising questions about death and mercy, and the fate of those we spoke of in last week’s blog who don’t believe in Jesus as the way. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Tolkien’s allusion to this, when Gandalf plummeted into the abyss while battling Balrog, is unforgettable: “You Shall Not Pass!!!” – which can be an intriguing entrée to people otherwise baffled or uninterested.
** Here’s an excerpt from TheLife We Claim, if you’re interested in the Descent Into Hell:
The Creeds devised by the Church cannot seem to make up their minds: should “He descended into Hell” be included? or not? The 1 Peter passage seems tantalizingly to suggest that between his burial late in the day on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, Jesus went down into the underworld to save those awaiting judgment. Many New Testament scholars construe the 1 Peter passage differently: if we sort through Genesis 6:1-4, Isaiah 24:21, Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4, and 1 Peter 3:19-20, we glimpse a belief held by first century Jews, that disobedient angels were thrown into a pit and locked up – and that Jesus’ preaching mission was to these evil powers. Still, the Church has historically taught that Jesus “descended into Hell” – a doctrine that “need not be explicitly grounded upon specific biblical texts; rather, it must rely upon a reading of Scripture as a whole.”
Hell, we know, is not a fiery cavern down in the earth patrolled by red men with pitchforks. Jesus’ journey there is symbolic, intimating that all people, in this life and even beyond this life, are offered the love of God. Even the grave does not silence God’s call. “What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who – perhaps through the fault of those very Christians who have been charged with its proclamation – have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these delivered to damnation? Do they remain forever shut out? The Christian faith can say ‘no’ to this urgent question. What took place for mankind in Jesus also applies to the people who either never came into contact with Jesus and his message, or who have never really caught sight of the truth of his person and story” (Wolfhart Pannenberg). God is relentless, unfazed by time, space, or death itself. Even the pit of Hell is owned by the unquenchable love of Christ; the abyss is not bottomless, but has an opening to heaven. Or so many thinkers have argued, unable to make sense of the idea that God could love everyone with infinite power and wind up losing even one. Perhaps Christ’s descent into hell opens a window for those who have never heard of Christ, or have heard it from terrible people.
“In view of what Jesus had seen the last few days of his life, maybe the transition to Hell wasn’t as hard as you might think (Buechner).” Many theologians have claimed that Christ descended into hell the moment he cried “My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross; “No more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God, and when you call upon him, not to be heard (John Calvin).” Jürgen Moltmann thought it really began in Gethsemane when Jesus’ request that the cup be removed was denied. Whichever side of the grave your Hell may be on, “there is no depth, no darkness, no unraveling of reality, which God’s Son has not shared” (Nicholas Lash). No matter what Hell I go through, God is in the teeth of it with me, descending into whatever abyss I have fallen. And, if Jesus descended into Hell, then I as a follower of Christ, and we as the Church of Christ, must follow, and seek out those whose Hell is palpable and devastating, and we become the embodied love of Christ for those who think they are totally sealed off from God.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis imagined Hell as a dingy, dark place, the weather always overcast. People mull about, hanging their heads, depressed in this bureaucratic nightmare of a place. Curiously, they can leave as any time, but they prefer to stay in Hell. Accustomed to the place, they stay, relishing Hell’s activities calendar, including theological discussion groups where they talk about questions like what happens to people in Mongolia… Lewis provides us with some short quotations from Hell’s residents: “I don’t what any help. I want to be left alone. I’m in charge of my own life” – common sentiments in Hell. As Lewis surmises, “There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There’s always something they prefer to joy. There are only two kinds of people in the end. Those who say to God, ‘They will be done.’ And those to whom God says, ‘They will be done.’ And all that are in hell chose it.”