May 17, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, May 17, 2020 in Easter, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 17, 2020

Let’s focus on the Acts reading some today, for two reasons. First because of what we just heard in John’s Gospel, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

It is still Jesus’ last night with the disciples, having washed their feet and broken bread together. We call it his ‘Farewell Discourse” and he’s telling them things they need to know. Their fear of being without him, of feeling rudderless or powerless is what he addresses here, the importance and tools of their ongoing work of sharing the Good News with others. They’ll be unsure or worry they aren’t getting it exactly right, afraid of losing the strength and comfort of his being present with him, and so he tells them that God will give them “another Advocate” – meaning the Spirit, the Spirit of truth, and they will know the Spirit of God because that Spirit will be with them and in them always.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, “Study how best to speak with each person you meet.” That’s the second reason to focus on Acts today, because what Jesus promised, the Advocate or Spirit of truth, is what Paul is speaking from here. He’s twice been driven out of town by mobs incited against them, and is now in Athens. Paul who never met Jesus in person and once persecuted Christians, is now a believer and Christ’s great proponent, a messenger of the Good News. Here he has been brought to the Areopagus, which was both the Athens council of elders and a hilltop near the Acropolis — think of it like the Supreme Court. The place was called Ares’ Hill because it was where the Greek god of war of that name stood trial for killing Poseidon’s son. Later it was called Mars Hill which is the Roman name for that same god of war. This how the writer of the book of Acts described what  Paul did, how he presented himself before the respected intelligentsia, politicians, and philosophers. He’s now been brought before them to explain this strange new teaching of ‘foreign divinities’ and resurrection. This is just the sort of thing they delight to discuss and argue about.

Here, Paul shines, speaking with them in a way they can hear, in a way which respects their culture. He accords them their religious observances and shows he’s paid careful attention to the objects of worship they value. Instead of denigrating them or forcing his belief in Christ Jesus from the start, Paul has listened and looked carefully enough to have read inscriptions,  considered where to find common understanding. He starts by coming alongside them rather than opposing as they might have expected. Paul’s words to them engage their own criteria for introducing a new religion in Athens, and more importantly invoking their altar “To an unknown god” which they already hold dear. He enters through their spiritual door inviting them to see how “the God who made the world and everything in it” is the one from whom all things come, including themselves and their allowed time in life. He implies this God is over all gods they know, a God so great that he can’t be contained in hand-made shrines and has no need of appeasing offerings which God gave them to begin with.

He has their interest, and then does something unexpected, garnering their attention further; instead of quoting scripture or reciting Jesus’ words to them, he quotes two of their own Greek poets! As if reaching onto our own hearts too, Paul associates these words we too have come to love; “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” Words from Epimenides, a 6th century BCE poet. And then from a 3rd century BCE Stoic philosopher named Aratus, “For we too are his offspring.” The God Paul speaks of is both enlivening their very beings, and in this greater God they (and we) are unified as “his offspring.” Notice that Paul doesn’t refer to Jesus until the end of his speech, and then not even by name. Is he already leading them to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him”? Are Paul’s words guided by that Advocate, the Spirit of truth Jesus promised?

Each statement of Paul’s speech leads them through a several small ‘conversions’ as they hear intelligent and cohesive reasoning. Each step leads them closer towards the possibility of believing in the risen Christ. As in our world today Paul recognizes the loyalties people have to their convictions, and how all people have a spiritual yearning (admitted or not) which we seek to answer through our core convictions and values. Certainly some will say they have no need of God, church family, worship – they say they find enough satisfaction in nature, hiking, sports, in social circles or common interest groups. We all enjoy these things, but can they become like the altar to the unnamed god? Be treated as if they were deities, idols or one’s religion? As a substitute for God many people eventually find how incidental they are, missing the depth, comfort, and promise of the risen Christ. We can pray when we’re scared or hurt or lost, but recalling a great game or even a beautiful hike doesn’t help me in a  crisis. A view might be spectacular, though who can see it and not wonder about the Creator? We thirst for the means to relate to God and to one another as spiritual beings, spoken or unspoken. Even if online!

We all know Anglicans typically have a reticence towards evangelism – and yet somehow ‘sheltering in place’ has given people courage to reach out, invite people to worship, help wherever we can. Sharing our faith isn’t as hard as we thought maybe. Perhaps Paul’s and the Apostles’ words once sounded too ancient, or we considered them so deeply embedded in the early church they don’t relate to our lives. (His ‘sheltering in place’ was in shackles in a cell!) As we consider ‘how best to speak with each person we meet,’ we can remember ‘we are all God’s offspring’ and lean into the knowledge that there is one God, whether known or unknown to those we talk with. Like Paul, it is our unique gifts from God which make us the only ones who can live and share our faith. There is no one right way except to do so in that spirit of truth Jesus said that Advocate, that Spirit, would be for us. The next two verses ought have been included; “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

Lately many people have talked about their immense pain when family or friends seem determined to share their views like missiles or to insist on abandoning all respect or connection when they disagree with one of us. Today’s readings may be instructive here, reminding us to seek first a common ground or one small thing to respect in each other. Then speak less about theories, news, and opinions, who’s right, and try to stay with both people’s lived experience, inviting each to use their own story—instead of the ‘shoot first’ method, or firing off someone else’s words or storytelling. Hear me when I say, no one needs to be present for cruel abuse, yet I also hope we never completely close the door to anyone. The gift of your unique walk with God may be what is most needed when least expected. What is your story of faith, and how does it guide you? Have you ever heard someone else’s?

We might think our story dull or unremarkable, but I think everyone feels that way at times, and yet I’ve never heard one of your faith journeys that wasn’t inspiring and thought-provoking. We are part of the enormity of Christianity, and countless stories of faith have come before us and will come after, and we get to be part of those too. As Episcopalians we can worship in Anglican churches across the globe and be welcomed, hear the familiar rhythm of the prayers even if in a language unknown to us, receive bread at the unfamiliar altar, and we know we are part of a great world-wide family. Our Anglican and Episcopal family is one that claims Desmond Tutu and Michael Curry as our own, also Charles Darwin, John Donne, Absolom Jones, Margaret Mead, Jane Austin, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine Albright, William Shakespeare, Jerry Garcia, George Washington, Julie Andrews, Bono, Queen Elizabeth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Colin Powell, Winston Churchill, Robin Williams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, twelve US presidents, and even Buzz Aldrin—whom we might recall fifty-one years ago took Communion as the first ever meal on the moon.

Jesus said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

You are how people see and know and believe he lives. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

View lectionary readings: