Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter - May 21 2017

The Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 21, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Paul stood in the place where the Greek philosophers of the day were accustomed to gather.  This was not his choice.  He was brought there by people who were questioning him.  Was he in trouble?  It’s unclear – but he had been kicked out of two other communities before arriving in Athens, so he may have had some cause to be nervous.  Plus, many of those who would read the Book of Acts might remember that this was where Socrates was brought, and ordered to death for his heresy in introducing a new god.[1]  Furthermore, Luke notes that Paul was less than thrilled with all the idols to so many gods that-he saw there. 

Yet none of that stopped him, as Luke makes clear.  Instead of telling them they were wrong to honor so many gods, he stood up and met the Athenians where they lived, and acknowledged their interest in and desire for religious knowledge.  The Athenians were willing to entertain pretty much any god of which they became aware, and even left room for those they did not know – in this case an “Unknown God” that Paul immediately adopted and proclaimed as the God of Israel.  This appropriation of the local culture in the service of the Gospel was not all that unusual a practice for Paul.

In another place, we can read that Paul adapted his approach to his audience:  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.”[2]

Christianity itself has done this over and over again – adapting itself to local cultures to expand its reach.  Thus we see the adoption of local shrines and their rededication to Christian saints, the adaptation of the Roman festival of Saturnalia as the date of Christ’s birth; the adaptation of the Celtic spring festival Eostre to be the day of resurrection; the translation of the Bible into local languages all around the world, and so on.

But sometimes, the culture changes the church in more substantive ways.  One of the biggest changes of this nature occurred in the 4th century, when Constantine made Christianity the “state religion” of the Roman Empire. 

From being an outsider faith, suddenly Christianity and the church – or, one should say – churches, because there was not a lot of unity at this time – were backed and supported by the Empire – Church and Empire became one.  And the Church, over a fairly brief period of time, began acting like it.  Especially as the Roman Empire slowly disintegrated over the next few centuries, the Church, both in Rome and in the East, stepped in to keep civilization going.

So much did the two become one, in fact, that author/historian Brian McLaren has written “It would be better to say that Constantine converted Christianity to the values and mission of the Roman Empire than to say the reverse.”[3]

But what did that mean for the faith we learned at the feet of the apostles like Peter and Paul? 

In McLaren’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration, he argues that Christianity became more about right belief than right action.  He rather mockingly points out that Jesus never said, “’By their beliefs you shall know them’ or ‘This is my command, that you believe the right doctrines,’ or ‘Behold, a new systematic theology I give unto you.’”[4]

It also became about absolute power, but I’ll tackle that another day.

But we all know, if we’ve read any history at all, that there have been times in the Church when it was all about doctrine, right belief, submission, and control, rather than the freedom that Paul extols through the forgiveness of sin accomplished in the death and resurrection of the messiah of God.

Such freedom is not, as I have mentioned previously, the option to do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want, for as long as we want – all in the name of God.  It was never about that.  Never.

We find what Jesus expected us to understand and to do in, among other places, chapter 13 of John’s Gospel – that is, love and service.[5] 

Freedom has only and always and eternally been about the freedom to love and to serve, the freedom to turn our backs on our fallen nature and accept that we are beloved of God, called by God, and enjoined by God to love God through service to others, caring for one another.

What Jesus actually said was, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[6]

Paul told the Athenians, now is the time to recognize that the unknown God you do not know, is the one, only, and true God who created all things, in whom we “live and move and have our being,” whose offspring we are.[7]  Therefore, turn to him – or, in the language of scripture – “repent” – and leave your ignorance behind.  He is the source of all creation, of all life, of our life, the One who has set the boundaries and the times of all people – but now is the time to come home to the God who made us, to be judged by the one whom God raised from the dead.

That One whom God raised from the dead assures those who follow him and trust him that the Spirit abides in them, and us, and will be in them, and us.  He assures them, and us, that we will live.  Those who keep his commandments “are those who love” him and are in turn loved by God.

It is God’s love that binds us, God’s love that makes us, God’s love that heals us, God’s love that leads us, God’s love that holds us, and God’s love that helps us to face whatever must be faced – death or life, pain or comfort, need or abundance.

This is not empire.  This is, quite simply, the realm of God.  Whether we have power and influence or none of either, we dwell in the realm of God. 

Who needs the empire?  It’s time to give up the idea that we have to run the world; all we have to do is love God and love neighbor.  That’s hard enough, surely, for anyone. 

 

[1] Michael Joseph Brown, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2; Kindle Loc’n 17192.

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:19-21.

[3] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent) © 2016, p. 243.

[4] Op cit., 19

[5] Gail R. O’Day, John, in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press) © 1995, p. 733.

[6] John 13:35.

[7] Acts 17:28.

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