This week we have been reminded that summer is just around the corner. And I have had a number of conversations in which I have been asked: are you getting away this summer? Do you have any plans for travel? And I have been following a number of different friends on Facebook who are traveling this week – some for business, some for vacation: New Mexico, Hawaii, Peru.
And this week we heard in the first reading what is probably St. Paul’s most famous sermon, preached in the context of travel, of a journey – his second, big trip; this time through Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. Paul’s purpose for this travel, of course, was to share the Good News of the Gospel, to tell what God has done in and through Jesus for humankind and all creation. That news is for both Jews and Gentiles – non-Jews.
In every town he visits, Paul goes first to the synagogue (if there is one) and shares his story. He also goes to the marketplace, the town square, to a place a prayer by the river – where ever people gather in that community. And he doesn’t travel alone; he always has companions – sometimes Barnabas, sometimes Silas, Luke, John Mark, Timothy,and others he meets along the way.
But Paul’s mission journeys are not like being on the campaign trail, where the candidate’s bus rolls up in front of a factory, or town hall, or school at 10:30 in the morning, welcomed by a crowd that an advance team has put together, the speech is delivered, a few hands are shaken, a few babies kissed, and local fare sampled, and then the candidate gets back on the bus and moves on to the next stop. Instead, Paul and his traveling friends arrive in town, unannounced, and find their way to the synagogue by asking questions, by talking with people, taking the time to see and hear and understand what the community was like.
In fact, no two of Paul’s sermons that we have in the Book of Acts is the same. The motivation is the same, and the goal is the same: to tell the Good News of Jesus as the sign and agent of God’s ancient purposes and promises coming true. But each time Paul tells it in a way that reflects some of what he knows and has learned about the people who live in that town – what their lives are like, what it important to them.
Today we find Paul in the city of Athens, that great center of learning, religion, and government in ancient Greece. Prior to this he had been in the cities of Thesselonika and Beroea, where his preaching had caused such a disruption in the synagogues that street riots ensued, forcing Paul to flee for his safety. He arrived in Athens, early and alone, to wait for the arrival of Silas and Timothy. With time on his hands, Paul walked the streets of the city, as well as sharing his story in the synagogue and market-place. He got to observe, and hear, and know what was important to the people who lived there. And then he incorporated everything he learned into the way he framed his conversations and sermons.
What did Paul learn about the people of Athens? He learned that they were very spiritual, that they were open to exploring and hearing about new ideas and practices – including religious ones. Paul learned that Athenians prized statues and shrines as vehicles for worshiping their multiplicity of gods, including a shrine he found ascribed “To an Unknown God.” And he learned that they love to debate and test new ideas in public. In fact, Paul delivered this sermon from the Areopogus – that rocky outcropping near the Acropolis, where court cases, especially those involving homicide, were heard and debated by the city council and leading citizens.
When we look at Paul’s sermon we notice that he applies what he has learned. He appeals to the Athenians’ sense of spirituality. He tells them something new – equating the Unknown God of the shrine with Yahweh the God of the Bible and telling the Lord’s story in a way that builds bridges, rather than creating divisions. Until the very last minute – and then Paul isn’t shy in the least about saying…in God’s time, the world as it presently exists will be judged - calling for repentance: “now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
It’s that reference to Jesus’ resurrection that then proves to be a stumbling block for some. The resurrection, after all, is about salvation and renewal of physical human life through the one who is God incarnate, divinity with flesh and blood, a messy human life. This is a far cry from the various Greek philosophies and religions that longed to have the spirit escape the body and be free from it.
Paul seats his preaching in the everyday, lived reality of his hearers. He tells them that the God who made heaven and earth and all things – including human life and society – wants that creation and life to be renewed, redeemed, made whole, Spirit-infused, and that the project for doing so launched in the resurrection of Jesus.
The Athenians didn’t want a messy, flesh+blood+Spirit God who gets down in the dirt with us. There are lots of contemporary people who feel the same way, who think that “being spiritual” separates us from all the pain and difficulty of life –including our own bodies. But that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s not the God revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead, the God we know and love and serve wants to be intimately involved with his Creation, including human life and the common good that we humans share.
So the story we live and tell about God will always be about real human lives – our joys, our sorrows, our pain, our hope, our celebration, our challenges. That is why, like Paul, we need to know our context, our neighborhoods, our communities; taking time to find out who lives and works and worships, and plays in the places where we “live and move and have our being.”
To be a faithful follower of Jesus is to be curious – in a loving way – about the people and the community around us; to offer our prayer, and energy, and good will for the flourishing of others as we are able. To be faithful also means listening to the way the Holy Spirit speaks to us through conversations, through what we observe, through our own thoughts and flashes of insight and inspiration as we seek to serve God in our community. And from our listening, we are sometimes called to speak God’s truth in love, to be ready with our own words about what faith in God means to us – “the hope that is within us.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called and invited Christians throughout the world to join him in prayer for our local communities during the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost: May 25-June 4. The effort is called “Thy Kingdom Come” and its purpose is to pray for God’s kingdom to come more fully in our midst – both in physical and social well-being, and in praying for people to find and be found by God. Committing to pray daily for our neighborhoods and communities is a way of listening more closely, of becoming more attuned to them, as well as for friends and neighbors who need to know God’s saving, healing love.
There is a website that describes the Archbishop’s invitation and offers resources for individuals, families, and churches: www.thykingdomcome.global. I’ll send the link to the parish this week, along with short prayer “starters” for each day. Take a look at the website, see if there are some suggestions for prayer and community concern that appeals to you, think about what you observe in your neighborhood – where you live, shop, work, and play – and imagine how lives would be blessed, and people would act if the Kingdom of God were to be lived more fully in that place.
I hope that you will join me in this prayer effort, but even more, I hope and pray that each day you will grow in your own faith and love and service for Jesus and for this world God has made. Amen. Alleluia.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation
May 22, 2017