Sermon, May 21, 2017
So Paul goes to the Aeropagus to debate with the thinkers there about Christianity.
The last time we saw Paul – last week – he was still named Saul. In the long recitation of the death of Stephen, we heard a small glimpse of this man who would become so pivotal in the Christian faith. Stephen was dragged outside the town square and people left their coats with a man named Saul, who approved of the action taken against Stephen.
It’s quite a jump for the lectionary to go from that person, Saul who is a Sanhedrin, or member of the Jewish ruling class, and a Roman Citizen who approves of the first death of one of the disciples to this man, a man making a persuasive argument for Christ in front of the Athenians.
In the intervening chapters, Saul continues to persecute the budding Christian community and is on the road to carry a letter condemning a community of Christians in Damascus when he is struck blind by a vision of Jesus and the voice of God saying, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He then spends three days in blind amnesia and when he is nursed back to health, he is certain what he has been doing against Christians is against God. Once recovered, Saul who is now renamed Paul becomes the most effective advocate for Jesus throughout the world. In fact, save for the 4 gospels, the book of Acts, and the last book of the bible which is called Revelations, all the other writing in the New Testament is written by Paul or someone who was pretending to be Paul. Following his conversion, Paul traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean region, going from what is modern day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Greece, and as far as Italy. The scripture we know comes from letters that were addressed to communities in the far-flung locations he visited; Romans to the community in Rome, Corinthians is addressed to those in Corinth, a town in Greece; Ephesians to the community in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey, and so on. After he visited and helped found small communities of Christians, he would then write them when he heard of their troubles and try to give them guidance or a pep talk in a letter.
Paul was obviously a very accomplished orator and writer. His letters, when read in full, are packed with comfort and warmth and diplomatic chastisement or encouragement to communities dealing the normal challenges of trying to get along. I’ve been listening to the musical Hamilton, and I think the Apostle Paul and Alexander Hamilton had a lot in common. Hamilton was such a good writer that his hometown in the Carribean started a fund to send him to college after just one published essay, and Washington recruited him during the Revolutionary war for his ability to persuade Congress to provide funding. As the rap lyrics in the musical go, ‘Hamilton’s skill with the quill was undeniable’.
Anyways, back to Paul. He’s journeying about, proclaiming the gospel, gaining followers and enemies, and gets stuck cooling his heels in Athens. Now, Athens was a capitol for thinkers in the ancient world. It was a hub of philosophy, political and religious thought..
This place Aeropagus is still a tourist destination in Greece. It was the seat of the supreme court of Athens – in fact it was where Socrates was summoned to answer questions on his philosophy. Here we see an echo of that episode; Paul debating with the strongest minds of his day and age on what is right to believe. It was the marketplace of ideas. This speech by Paul is as if he went to MIT and gave one of today’s TED talks. And he does it expertly. First, he finds common ground. He recognizes all in the audience as seekers, people who give reverence to an unknown God. And, he agrees that we are all God’s offspring.
But then he abruptly changes his tone, declaring that God has appointed one man the righteous judge. Paul denies that God exists in stone or metals that have been formed in God’s image – in fact that God does not exist in anything that is crafted by human hands. But instead, God exists in human bodies, since we are all God’s offspring – and especially in one that has been raised from the dead. And here is the pivot point, where some become believers, and some scoffers. The resurrection presented no less of a challenge then as it does to us know, centuries removed. Even the disciples could not imagine it.
In our Gospel lesson in John, Jesus is still giving his farewell speech to the disciples. This same night he has broken bread and blessed the wine, washed the feet of each of his disciples, and commanded them to love one another as he has loved them. This is the same night he expels Judas, tells of Peter’s denial, and is questioned by Thomas. He tries to offer comfort to a group of people whom he loves, who would go with him if they could, by telling them that another, a comforter, an Advocate, a holy spirit of truth will reside with them, and in them, forever as long as they keep these commandments.
As confusing as it is for the disciples, these mere humans, to grasp the death and resurrection that is to come, they must have been doubly confused by this talk of an Advocate. We often use the words, ‘holy spirit’ to name the entity Jesus says will come after him; but the Greek translation uses the word Parakletos, which generally denotes someone who comes to your aid when called. What is here called the advocate is also called translated as counselor, comforter, helper, mediator, or even broker in different translations. What is clear is that few have been clear on how to refer to the Holy Spirit.
But! The words they have used – and the word that Jesus used – are all derived from verbs. To advocate, to counsel, to comfort, to help, to mediate, to broker; these are all action words. Jesus was a man of action. Unlike Paul, he wasn’t a master of persuasion or debate. As we know, he had a tendency to lose in a court of law. But there is hardly a scripture passage where Jesus did not meet need with action. Whether you were looking for answers, looking for bread, or looking for healing; whether you were a seeker of knowledge, or a beggar on the roadside, or a woman needing healing; Jesus responds with love in action.
Love one another as I have loved you.
We are all God’s offspring, and in this discourse Jesus says that as the father lives in me, and I in you, so the Holy Spirit – the advocate, the mediator, the counselor, the broker, the comforter – these action words abide with you, abide among you, and abide in you. True life made available through Christ means his community will continue to see Jesus even after he has gone because Jesus lives in their actions, in his commandment and their fulfillment to love one another. This is the practical side of what love looks like, in action, out loud, in community. These action words that show up in the activity of our lives. The word of God and Jesus are inseparable, in the same way as loving Jesus and doing the commands of Jesus are inseparable. Finding continuity between the time of Jesus’ earthly presence and the time of his absence depends upon loving him, and in that, keeping his commandments.
Love one another as I have loved you.
We resurrect Jesus each day through our actions to keep his commandments. We resurrect Jesus in our giving – food for the food pantry, long-sleeved shirts for farmworkers, financial donations for the good works of our community like SASA, and One Great Hour of Sharing that provides funding for disaster relief and refugee services all over the world. But we resurrect Jesus not only in our charity. We also resurrect Jesus in our advocacy. Like the Holy Spirit, we are able to advocate for others – to comfort, to mediate, to counsel, to broker. And advocate is sometimes simply a good listener. An advocate can sometimes be a voice for the voiceless, like CASA is for children in the foster system, or social workers are for troubled teens. An advocate may be a fighter, putting their voice and life on the line for an invisible injustice. An advocate may help mediate or broker a solution to a problem.
Parents are notorious advocates for their children, but we also have a responsibility to be advocates for others our community who are in need of aid. Whether it’s seniors or the disabled in our state who may lose services in our communities, or children in our schools being forgotten at home or bullied at school, people in our nation who are being pushed around by greed or debt, by poverty or probability, by power or profit. Even for those people we don’t know, when we speak out for truth and justice, we are embodying the Holy spirit in our world to try to bring about the kingdom of God.
Love one another as I have loved you. A wise philosopher once said, ‘Justice is what love looks like in public’.
Jesus leaves behind an advocate that will work on our behalf, but he leaves it in us so we can work on each other’s behalf. The Holy Spirit, like the Father and like Jesus, not only abides with us, but abides in us. And when we call for help, the advocate will come to our aid. And when others call for help, we can be the advocate they turn to, if we love one another as Jesus commands.
Amen and Amen.