The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2017

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
I Peter 3:13-22
Saint John 14:15-21

Background: Areopagus

If you ascend the steps that lead up to the Propylaea – the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens – and turn around you will see the rocky outcropping to the north and west of the Acropolis. Its function in ancient times was a place for trying those who were accused of deliberate homicide. The name means “Ares Rock”, for it was here that Areas was, according to legend, tried for the murder of Halirrhothius, Poseidon’s son. Of interest was a temple at the foot of the rock dedicated to the Erinyes or Furies where murders could find a place of sanctuary. It has seen other uses as well, as a place where the council of elders of the city met. In the fifth century BCE, all the usual functions, excepting that of court to review murders, were moved elsewhere. The place and its various uses continued during the Roman period, as we know from Paul’s sermon there and its reference to the Altar to the Unknown God.

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, 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.”

Paul is impressed by either the religiosity of the Athenians, or is put off by the superstitious nature. Either is a possible translation of his characterizing them as “extremely religious.” The philosophers of the time might agree with Paul on the characterization of being superstitious. He uses the “Altar to an Unknown God” as the means to address the people, and begins his sermon by drawing his audience back to the beginning of time – to Creation. For it is this act that Paul sees the significance of the God of Israel, now open to both Jew and Gentile. This transcendence removes God from the realm of image, and depiction. His words are much alike the words of the heroic mother in Maccabees, “Look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence.” It is in God’s acts of creation and protection that Paul sees God’s love and generosity. The entire context of life, seasons, time, boundaries are a product of God’s design. There is a possible quote from Epimenides (6th Century BCE), “In him we live and move and have our being.” The other quotation from the Greeks is by the poet Aratus (310 BCE) who is quoted in these words, “We too are his offspring.” Thus Paul appeals to the Athenians from their own culture.

Breaking open Acts:
1.          Who is the unknown god in your life?
2.          How does creation link you to God?
3.         Do you use images of God to help you in your prayers and devotion?

Psalm 66:7-18 Jubilate Deo

     Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
8      Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.
9      For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.
10    You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.
11    You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.
12    I will enter your house with burnt-offerings
and will pay you my vows, *
which I promised with my lips
and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
13    I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts
with the smoke of rams; *
I will give you oxen and goats.
14    Come and listen, all you who fear God, *
and I will tell you what he has done for me.
15    I called out to him with my mouth, *
and his praise was on my tongue.
16    If I had found evil in my heart, *
the Lord would not have heard me;
17    But in truth God has heard me; *
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
18    Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, *
nor withheld his love from me.

The opening verses of the psalm call to mind God’s role in creation, and refer to the Red Sea experience as well. Our portion of the psalm rejoices in God’s presence and protection in the context of our lives. Some see in the verses on “you tried us…” as a reference to the exile, but others see this reference is being limited to the ordinary trials of life. We know from verse 12 that the Temple is still standing and being used, but this may have been added on to the previous verses (not the change of person in verse 12). The God of the psalmist is worthy of praise and offerings because it is this God who has saved the author, and has heard his prayer.

Breaking open the Psalm 66:
1.         Why is the crossing of the Red Sea important to the psalmist?
2.         Why does the psalmist want to offering praise and offerings to God?
3.        How is God present in your life?

Second Reading: I Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

“For what shall we suffer?” This is the question that forms the author’s musings on suffering. He proposes that Christians in doing good may suffer as have those who have done evil. Christians, therefore, should be ready not only to suffer but also be prepared to explain their suffering to those who may misunderstand it. The argument is this. Christians may suffer unjustly in the world, but this is just a mirror of the sufferings of Christ, who in his suffering overcame unjust suffering.

There is also a magnificent sermon on the role of baptism, using Noah and his family as an example of those who have come through the waters to salvation. Thus the Christian participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus in his or her own baptism. The connection of those saved is to the One who sits at the right hand of God, ruling over the world.

Breaking open I Peter
  1. How have you suffered in your life?
  2. How might that be a part of your living in Christ?
  3. How do you talk about your suffering?

The Gospel: St. John 14:15-21

Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Our pericope for today continues Jesus instruction to the disciples as a part of the Last Discourse prior to the Holy Week events. The first part of the Discourse (see last week’s Gospel) is characterized by the idea “Have faith in me.” This second part of the Discourse has a different idea, “love me.” The idea of loving Jesus, and keeping his commandments occurs three times in the entire pericope (15, 21, 23). Such actions have the promise of a deeper divine presence that will accompany those who love and keep. So here we are being shown the future promise of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, “he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This coming of “another Advocate” (I prefer the word Paraclete) reminds the reader that there has already been an Advocate and Paraclete – namely Jesus himself. His absence invites, then, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Although John places this discourse in the period leading up to the crucifixion, it has elements that seem to be post-resurrection. Reading them in either way may open up a different understanding and appreciation of the text.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you love Jesus in your life?
2.     How do you keep his commandments?
3.    Where is the Holy Spirit in your life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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