Preached Sunday, 21 May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter at St. Margaret’s of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON
Texts for this Sunday Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 68:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
Want to stay true to the faith you were brought up in? That’s fine. Want to convert to another world religion? Go ahead. Perhaps one of the new religions might suit your needs? Perhaps you have heard about some guru with some teaching that everyone is talking about, or some new book on spirituality that everyone is talking about, or maybe some teaching about guardian angels? Go for it. Or, maybe you think all this spirituality is just a bunch of nonsense, and you want to dedicate yourself to science and reason, because they are the most sensible way of explaining the world. Hey, that’s your right. Just don’t go pushing your faith down other people s throats. Try to get along with other people.
This description of the religious landscape could just as easily describe our own time as it describes the time of the Apostle Paul. The world that we see in our first lesson, from Acts 17, is like our own world in that it is pluralistic. Pluralistic in this context simply means multiple faiths and beliefs living side by side, offering a kind of marketplace that believers could search to find the belief that best suited them. The Book of Acts has numerous examples of conversions, of which Paul (formerly known as Saul) is the most well known, but there are others, including the Ethiopian eunuch or the Roman officer Cornelius and his family. These are believers who were attracted to Judaism, but then become followers of Jesus when they hear the gospel.
Some of you may have friends and family members who have converted because they have found another faith to be convincing and satisfying. I can think of an Anglican friend who became an Orthodox priest, or a young man raised in the United Church who is now a Muslim imam. You may also know someone who has converted in order to marry their loved one. Many people seem to have no problem in combining bits and pieces of different faiths and spiritualities, like the Christians I have met who also believe in reincarnation or the healing power of crystals. Then of course there are those who reject religion as being irrational, and then ironically profess to be atheists with a kind of religious fervor.
People make these sorts of choices because of the basic human need for meaning, for a belief or a worldview that makes sense of the world, which calms our fears and which helps us decide how to act. It helps that we live in a country that protects our freedom to believe and to choose between beliefs. Many in the world don’t have that luxury, and thus the many Christians who are now fleeing the Middle East, or the young Russians who are being jailed for disrespecting the Orthodox Church which is now the same as disrespecting Russia and Putin. I think it is safe to say that most Canadians value our tradition of religious freedom and tolerance. Most of us, I think, don’t care what other Canadians wear on their heads, we just care what’s in their hearts.
At the same time, we need to be honest that pluralism poses a challenge for us as Christians. For those of us of a certain vintage, that challenge may be our sense of unease that the Christian country we grew up in has faded away along with that prayers and bible readings in public school or laws against Sunday shopping are gone. That feeling is understandable but I think we need to guard against nostalgia, because I am not really convinced that there ever was a truly Christian Canada. Sometimes it’s easy to think we see religion when what we really see is culture and force of habit. However, for those of us who are clear that we are followers of Jesus and faithful believers, the real challenge of pluralism is about messaging. How can we faithfully proclaim the gospel message to others without offending them or suggesting that their faith isn’t real or isn’t good enough? I can tell you that this is a real problem for my employer, the Canadian Armed Forces chaplaincy. We used to be a Christian organization, and now we are a multifaith organization, serving military members that range from Sikhs and Baptists to Mormons and atheists. It can be a challenge for our chaplains who come from more conservative Christian churches. It can be a challenge for us, too, as we go from St. Margaret’s to our workplaces, circles of friends, and extended families.
The story of Paul in Athens gives us a model of how we as Christians can act and speak in a pluralistic society. We can draw several lessons from how Paul shares his faith with the Athenians, and the first lesson is to know the culture you’re in. Athens was a centre of philosophy and learning in the ancient world, a crossroads where peoples and beliefs would come together and compete with one another. It was a marketplace of beliefs. Luke (the likely author of Acts) tells us that “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new (17:21). That description sounds a little tongue and cheek to me, as if the Athenians are swayed by whatever trendy belief or idea comes into town. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The second lesson we can draw from Paul is to meet people where they are. Earlier in this chapter, we are told that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but in his opening words he hides his distress and even uses humour, by seeming to compliment the Athenians on how they have covered their bases by even acknowledging an “unknown God”. Normally we think of Paul from his letters as being dour and earnest and self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard for me not to imagine him smiling as he says these words. Paul then goes on to tell the Christian story, but in a way that an audience familiar with Greek philosophy would understand. God is a creator, the first mover who can do all things, who doesn’t need any praise or tribute from humans, who isn’t confined to any one temple of space, and who is a truth that can be searched for.
Notice that while Paul often uses references to the Hebrew scriptures when talking to his fellow Jews, here he doesn’t. He describes God in such a way that Greek philosophers could agree with, and even quotes “some of your own poets”. In other words, Paul is acting like a good guest, getting to know the Greek’s culture and speaking to them in a way they can understand. However, Paul isn’t afraid to draw sharp differences between Greek belief and his faith. You Greeks, he says, think of God like the Xfiles, like a truth that is out there somewhere, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him”, whereas for Paul God’s truth can be found very specifically in one person, Jesus, “a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
It takes nerve to be specific. Paul was probably doing ok with his high-brow Greek audience until he said that the truth of God could be found in one person who died and rose again. Elsewhere Paul acknowledged that this message of Christ, the cross and resurrection was “foolishness” to the educated Greeks (1 Cor 1:23). It can seem just as foolish today, in a world with so many choices and things to believe in, to say that we as Christians have found God’s truth in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, whom God raised from the dead as a sign of hope for all people but, my friends, if we don’t believe that, then why are we here?
If Paul looked for ways to relate his message to the Greeks of his day, then I think we need to look for ways to relate to our own culture today. Very briefly, I have some suggestions as to how we might do that effectively. First, I think we need to acknowledge that we do live in a culture of spiritual and religious choice, which means that we can’t condemn and criticize people for making the wrong choice. That would only come across as disrespectful, hostile and judgemental, which is exactly why so many people dislike Christians today. Instead, I think we need to use today’s Gospel reading from John as a resource.
John’s gospel reminds us that God is not a distant, abstract deity like the Greeks believed in. John tells us that God wants to be with us, not because (as Paul tells the Greeks) he needs anything from us, but out of love: ‘those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ (John 14:21). The gift of the Spirit’s presence in today’s Gospel is a sign that God will keep his promise, made in John 3:16, that God loves the world and is determined to save it. It is the promise of God not to abandon us, a sign of his love and compassion for those who created.
There are so many ways in which this message can be heard in our age of choice and uncertainty. Think of how many people fear the end of the world, either through war or environmental and ecological collapse. Some scientists say that we may only have a hundred years left on this planet. Others see a dark future where a wealthy few will keep their boot on the poor many. The rise of racial hatred and violence between religions fills many with despair. Some people say that this is a time like the end of the Roman Empire, and that is certainly true in the sense that we can no longer count on the Christian church to have a place of honour and respect in society. Let that nostalgia go, and focus on the power of the gospel in this dark time. We can tell the story of a God who created the world and gave us life out of his great goodness, who needs nothing from us but who wants to be in relation with us. We have a God who cares passionately for the poor, who gives everyone the right to respect and dignity because they are made in his image, who has promised that in the death and resurrection of his son he will stand with us and fight against the darkness of sin and death, and who will certainly win that fight. This is our story. Have faith in it, live it out, and trust that god will give you the wisdom and opportunity to share it with those who need to hear it.