Weekly Preaching: May 17, 2020

May 11th, 2020

Great texts this week. I'm focusing on the Epistle, especially the bit about accounting for the hope that is in you. Discussed below... but to underline how people, not just clergy, bear witness with words to the hope in us, I've asked a dozen people to shoot a selfie video saying "I am hopeful because..." We'll piece those together, and they'll be in my sermon. Oh, the pleasures of Covid-19 preaching!

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Acts 17:22-31 — the Old Testament text?  — 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; 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 what common ground he can with 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. 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.
"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
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, while 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?
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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. Though we aren’t saved because we’re fastidious rule-keepers.
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. 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" (The Course of Human Events, 2005).
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, and 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.
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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 three 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" (1 Peter).
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?
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. 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. 

What can we say May 17? 6th Sunday of Easter originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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