With Us Forever
The news sources that I click on or listen to are saying that the American public today is entirely split in its social and political opinion, that we have never been more divided, and that the differences are so profound that we may forever be two Americas. I think, hope, and pray that this isn’t accurate, and that it is more the kind of dramatic journalism that seeks consumer loyalty with dire assessments and predictions. There would seem truly to be a tremendous difference of many opinions and beliefs across the country, a wide continuum of perspectives, rather than two neatly definable and opposing camps. I think it has always been this way, and that it’s not a bad thing. I’m intrigued by a statement I heard this week from a Republican senator about his worry that our country no longer has a shared central narrative about who we are as a nation. That makes me wonder what kind of conservations we all can be part of on the most local levels. Perhaps we might extricate ourselves from the trees, as it were, and take a forest level view – a horizon line view, a big ideas view. Perhaps if we talked about our founding ideals, like the meaning of equality, liberty, justice, citizenship, we might find a platform from which to explore our very different daily interpretations and experiences of our shared commitments. Just a thought – but I think it has influenced the lens through which I’m viewing our biblical texts for today. Both Paul in Athens and Christ with his disciples were trying to help those around them to hear what they were saying, to understand them. Paul was trying to convince people with different philosophical and religious opinions about the truth of God as the only god and Christ as the one who effected God’s salvation. Jesus was trying to help his disciples understand how they were to carry on their saving work after he was gone, and to believe that it was possible. Paul and Jesus spoke most intentionally in their exhortations, adopting the techniques and language necessary so that the other persons could hear them.
Paul stood in the Areopagus of Athens, a rocky area downhill from the Acropolis; it was a place were legal cases were heard. Paul was here to make a case. His opening statement, his exordium, contains some very nice words – flattery, you might say – in order to begin to earn the favor of his listeners. He compliments them on their profound devotion to their gods, easing his way into his oral argument that their objects of devotion, their gods, are actually very wrong. He gives his listeners a way to understand that they are naturally on the right track – he notes that they have shrines “to an unknown god.” These were not uncommon around the Roman world. My way of thinking of it is that people then were trying to cover their bases – they had innumerable other shrines dedicated to very specific gods, but what if there were others they didn’t know about? Rather than offend those gods, let’s put up an anonymous shrine to them, too. Paul uses this fact as a point of entrée – “Why, you do already have the only and right God in your sights! You just haven’t been exposed yet to its teachings is all! Allow me!” And Paul proceeds. Paul includes in his argument a quote from the poem, Phaenomena, by the Greek writer Aratus. Today we joyfully quote these biblical words, “In God we live and move and have our being” often without realizing that Paul is quoting earlier pagan poetry. (Actually, it’s an ode to Zeus.) Paul does so to help elide any sense of rupture or disjuncture from old teachings to new, and to help his hearers understand that what he is teaching them is graspable, is almost familiar, is non-threatening. In also quoting the words, “For we, too, are God’s offspring,” Paul gets to the heart of his message: if, as your own literature says, we are God’s offspring, how can that god be made of stone or even of precious metal, formed by human hands? The crafting goes, as we all know, in the other direction – God the Creator is the crafter of us and of all that is. (This is also meant as a major slam against pagan idols to any early readers or hearers of the Book of Acts.) Paul gets to his conclusion: the time of simple ignorance is over, the messiah has been raised from the dead, and you, dear listeners must repent and believe.
Throughout, Paul, who can share the gospel in multiple ways, has worked hard to do so in a manner that his hearers can best understand. He comes to them. He – and we – if we want people to understand us, do well to do our prep work and make it as easy as possible. Paul spoke in their style. He had paid attention to how they hear arguments; he did his homework. He acquainted himself with their most formative authors. He met them in their own language of rationalization and persuasion. He looked for openings in their current beliefs for a vulnerable portal for his own. In the end, he didn’t tell them that everything they’d ever believed was wrong, he told them that they had gotten much of it right along the way, and now the culmination of the unfolding process of their belief had been achieved, and achieved in Christ. Paul had clearly been listening carefully to the people of Athens in order to understand what they were truly seeking, how they had come to believe what they did and why they made the commitments that were so important to them. He listened to their hearts as well as their minds. And, critically, he proved that he was respectful of their thoughts. He was not dismissive or condescending, certain as he was in the complete superiority of his position. No one wants to listen to someone who puts down the things they value greatly, or who doesn’t take them seriously.
And then there is the example of Christ himself, who is in the midst of a longer discourse informing his disciples that he will suffer and die; yet telling them how their holy mission will ultimately be manifested. He needs them to continue the effort if it is to succeed. He needs them to understand. They are, not surprisingly, wondering how they could possibly continue without Christ and seemingly carry their project’s weight on their own human shoulders. And so Jesus tells them not to worry, because he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of truth.
Christ was speaking to followers who were trying very hard to understand and to live by the standards of the new realm he was ushering in, but it was challenging. They were fully marinated in the ideas (let us say the idols, the gods) of their day, which included money, empire, power, domination. Rome had these things, the Jews did not, and these idols defined in some way the reality of every person’s life. And in the midst of this total system of priorities and values Jesus wants to talk about... love. Love. And he spends his earthly ministry and teachings re-conceptualizing and re-grounding the concepts of wealth, dominion, power, empire, within the fact of love. He appropriates them, he turns the idols of the day onto their heads, he preaches an inverted way of living where the last are first and the first last, and the greatest of all things is love. He preaches his gospel to people in a way they can hear.
I was struck, in looking at our texts for today, by how opposite is the nature of the gods of the Athenians and the God of Israel. The Athenians must tend to and service their gods. They have to physically maintain their idols. Christ, meanwhile, testifies to the day when he will no longer be with us, but even then he will send the Advocate to sustain and guide us on our journey. No matter where that road takes us, the Advocate is “with us forever”! What a contrast – the idols that must be serviced (and let’s include wealth, power, empire, domination, so popular today) and the God who is self-giving, life-giving, sustaining us out of simple, holy love. To which set of ideas shall we dedicate our lives? The choice, so challenging in its implementation, is clear to me.
And so, friends, we find ourselves in an apparently polarized time, one that is as full as any society in history with competing idols, many opinions, and the hard work of listening to those with whom we disagree. The Apostle Paul has much to teach us about acquainting ourselves with the very human foundations and impulses and compulsions of our conversation partners. Christ is our guide in teaching the world that he and the Spirit of truth are with us forever, and so – not only do we not need to fear, we may trust in all confidence that through him, the possibilities for us all are endless!
Margaret Aymer, www.workingpreacher.com, Acts 17:22-31, May 21, 2017
Feasting on the Word, D.L. Barrett & B.B. Taylor, eds., Year A, Vol. 2, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 472-477, 490-495