The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 17 May 2020

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

I’ve made a change here, moving the Collect from the end of our study to a point at the beginning so that we might begin our study in prayer.

The Collect

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.

Background: Ancient Greek religion

The first reading for today gives us a brief glimpse into ancient Greece and Paul’s understanding of their religious life. Perhaps it would be good to see the context of those remarks in order to better understand his observation. The religious life of Greeks was varied, offered among a group of Olympian gods and goddesses. The cultus that accompanied their worship depended on local custom and myth. Added onto this was the philosophical world, especial the Platonic and Stoic seem at points to entertain the possibility of a single deity. As was true in the Mediterranean world, the wide world of gods and goddesses could be transformed by local deities, or as in Roman times, religious customs, gods, and myth could be adopted from other cultures. This wide-open approach to religious life seems to be evidenced in Paul’s experience. 

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.”

Here we hear Paul speaking fully from his Jewish background. He is off put by the many Greek deities, but he sees an aspect of Greek religious life as something to his advantage as a preacher. He either describes the Greeks as “religious” or “superstitious”, both are possible in the Greek. It is likely that he means both. He begins with the God of creation, the God who made the Greek people and who is spoken of in their culture. He quotes the Greek poet Aratus, a Stoic who lived in Cilicia. The quote is from his poem, an opening invocation to Zeus. He makes a broad appeal and it is only at the end that he even indicates the life and resurrection of Jesus (who is not named in our reading). If you read the verses that follow you can hear the Athenian’s response. The argument that Paul makes, however, is universal – that they have already known the God of all creation. Now he wishes to introduce to them the Son, the Risen One.

Breaking Open Acts:

1.     How wide is your spirituality?
2.     Where does Christianity fit into your religious life?
3.     What do you think of Paul’s appeal to the God of Creation?

Psalm 66:7-18 Jubilate Deo

7      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.

This psalm of thanksgiving, does in its parts, anticipate Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus. The author celebrates acts of God, especially the rescue of Israel at the Reed Sea (see especially verse 6). Our reading invites the people to rejoice and to give thanks. The comment that especially relates to Paul’s sermon is in verse 8: “Who has kept us in life, and not let our foot stumble.” But there is testing as well, trials, and refinement “as silver is refined.” Yet it is God who leads them on – thus the thanksgiving which is described in verses 12 through 18. Some have seen the trials alluded to in these verses as being the years in exile. That seems unlikely, however, due to the scenes set in the Temple, and the sacrifices there. Or, perhaps, these scenes are meant to trigger the memory of a Temple-happy people, giving them a mental context for their hymn of thanksgiving.

Breaking open Psalm 66:

1.     What acts of God do you celebrate?
2.     How have you been protected?
3.     How have you been tested?

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.

This second reading seems to relate in a certain way to aspects of the psalm for today. One commentator entitles the section (3:13 – 5:11) as “Responsible Suffering in the Face of Hostility”. Paul’s intent here might serve us well in our own time with our current difficulties. In some respects our Christian message is anti-cultural, so Paul says: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Paul anticipates for them the suffering that the world is going to so willingly offer to those who follow Christ. He offers a couple of examples – first of Jesus’ descent to the dead where he “makes a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Noah serves as an example as well, in his patience as he awaits God’s judgment and salvation. Finally there is the example and reality of Baptism – a sign of cleansing and of resurrection.

Breaking open I Peter:

1.     How is your faith anti-cultural?
2.     How do you defend your faith?
3.     What resurrection have you experienced in your life?

The Gospel: Saint 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.”

Here St. John anticipates the coming of the Spirit, whom he calls the “Advocate.” The words of the Gospel, “to be with you forever,” remind me of another title for the Spirit, the paraclete, the one who stands beside – a presence. Jesus also sees the world as a place that may not recognize God, nor the Spirit of God. There is a promise offered here, the eternal presence of this Spirit with God’s people. There is a complicated relationship of Jesus and the Father, the people and Jesus, and Jesus in the people. The knot is perfected in the law of love and in the revelation of God to the world.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1.     How does God stand beside you?
2.     What does the word “advocate” mean in this context?
3.     How do you envision the relationship God has with you?

General Idea:              Knowing God

Instance 1:                   Knowing God in the wideness of Religions (First Reading)

Instance 2:                   Knowing God in God’s acts (Psalm)

Instance 3:                   Knowing how to reveal God to others (Second Reading)

Instance 4:                   Knowing God through the Spirit’s presence – in ourselves and in others (Gospel)

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller



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