Saturday, May 9, 2020

Sunday 17 May 2020 - Easter 6


Preaching the gospel today / The importance of the resurrection / Our identity in Christ / The promised gift of the Advocate


They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father (John 14:21a)


Holy God, you feed us
with earthly and with spiritual food.
Deathless, unalterable, you have chosen us,
sinful as we are,
to hear your word and to proclaim your truth,
may we do so boldly and creatively,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21


Acts 17:22-31

Paul has a tough speaking assignment here. He has a listening audience in Athens but their ears want to hear novelties rather than the truth.

Astutely Paul takes up an opportunity within the existing worldview of the audience. In their love for religious speculation about a diverse array of gods and philosophies they have allowed for 'an unknown god' (23) as one of their 'objects of worship' (23). That is the ultimate 'covering the bases' in respect of pleasing all possible gods! So Paul picks up the concept of an unknown god and adroitly defines this god as the God of Jesus Christ whom he serves through preaching the gospel.

Actually, careful reading of the sermon shows that Paul continues to build bridges to his audience by not talking about Jesus whose name would have meant nothing to the Athenians.

Instead Paul talks about 'the God who made the world and everything in it' (24) - few would have disputed the general concept of a divine power as cause of the world's existence. He goes on to talk about the God of Adam and Abraham without invoking names and makes the point that this God is not confined to 'shrines made by human hands' (25). Offering an explanation for his gospel in this manner means we are unsurprised to find him quoting from local Greek poet-philosophers (Epimenides with shades of Plato, Aratus) (28).

Naturally Paul's God is different from the totality of gods already known to the Athenians so, eventually, he has to move his speech into new territory for his audience. If they agree with him thus far that there is a God who is their unknown god then they need to know this is not all about idle and interesting speculation: a day of reckoning is coming (31a) and it will be conducted by 'a man whom he has appointed' (31b). The assurance that this is so is that this man - obviously Jesus - has been raised from the dead (31c).

Two reactions follow: scoffing and invitation to hear him again (32), with the result that some become believers (33). By the time we get to verse 33 we think Paul has exhausted himself, this preaching has been very tough!

Two things are worth pondering deeply here. One directly relating to the importance of Eastertide.

1. The resurrection of Jesus is vital to Paul's argument. He speaks to an audience with a largely cyclical understanding of time (things go round and round and never come to an end). To them he says, Time is coming to an end; history has a point of completion. In support of that claim he cites a fact of history they are not aware of: God's appointed agent of judgment has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is not incidental to the story of Jesus. It is not just a happy ending after a very sad death: it is the decisive turning point in the plans and purpose of God for human history.

2. In a Godless Kiwi society, which is also pretty ignorant of who Jesus was and is (though prone to use his name profanely), what does Paul model in preaching the gospel which we could use in our context?

Psalm 66:8-20

The psalmist never gives up his faith, even though the toughest times are really tough. In fact, the psalmist can go a bit further: God has answered his prayers and done things for him. He will tell any who listen about this.

With a small amount of tongue in cheek, we could say that verse 12b is the favourite verse of the Anglican church. Perhaps especially in this past week when the Anglican church of these islands has resolved in its General Synod that we will be a church with a very wide view on seemingly opposing ideas, this verse especially applies: "you have brought us out to a spacious place."

1 Peter 3:13-22

We continue our reading through 1 Peter having jumped over 3:1-12. Why are the hard bits of the Bible left out of the lectionary?

This passage begins innocuously (13). This letter is addressed to Christians scattered, likely through persecution, so verse 14 likely applies. In which case, verse 15 is challenging: whether it is your mates or your persecutors asking you what makes you tick as a Christian,

'Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you'.

Obviously this implies that a sign of being a Christian is that we are ever hopeful. In practical terms that means we do not whinge, whine, or harp back in terms of the good old days. Instead we are always open to the future, believing that under God it will be better than today.

Further, as Christians we understand that we have an obligation to witness to Jesus Christ.

Verse 16 then says something about the character of our witness and the importance of keeping a 'clear conscience' in order that our persecutors may be put to shame. A comment in verse 17 about suffering for doing good then leads to an exposition of Christ and his suffering, picking up a theme already introduced in 2:21ff.

But here we are introduced to some thinking about what happened at the time of Christ's death which is unique to the New Testament: Christ as the risen spirit descended to the disobedient (i.e. evil) 'spirits in prison' (19-20). In turn this is linked to Noah and that leads to the theme of 'saved through water' (20) and thus to baptism (21). This passage is like a fast moving sermon in which many topics are introduced briefly, touched on profoundly, but never lingered on - not necessarily a great way to preach!

Verse 21 importantly says that Noah and his family's experience 'prefigures' baptism; and also says that

'baptism ... now saves you'. 

But the saving power of baptism does not lie in its literal effects,

'removal of dirt from the body' 

but in what it symbolises

'as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ'. 

That is, we are saved by what Christ has done for us, suffering

'for sins once for all ... in order to bring you to God' (18), 

a matter of the meaning of the Christ which is made apparent because Christ was raised to new life, as we now also are raised to new life. Baptism is the action done to believers which signifies what Christ has done for us.

The final verse is a clause of praise to this saving Christ who has suffered for us (22).

John 14:15-21

Continuing from last week's reading, Jesus - speaking in the hours before his death, looking ahead to where death will take him, and what he brings back after the resurrection to his disciples, in particular a life in which they are identified with him as he is identified with the Father - turns to practicalities of discipleship.

1. 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments' (15). This love is not a state of emotion but a series of acts of the will.

2. There will be a gift to the disciples of 'another Advocate' i.e. of another one to walk alongside them (lit: paraclete) as Jesus has been doing (16). This permanent presence is 'the Spirit of truth' or the Holy Spirit (17) who is beyond the world's comprehension (because they have not entrusted themselves to Jesus Christ so they cannot know the alternative who will be and do what Christ did) and will abide with them and will be in them (see, e.g., John 6).

Thus Jesus can say that he will not leave the disciples orphaned because, in the Spirit, 'I am coming to you' (18). Implicit here is also the coming or return of Jesus - temporarily - after the resurrection, which is also predicted in verse 19.

3. Most importantly, in respect of the resurrection, 'because I live, you also will live' (19b). As a consequence the disciples will, once and for all, understand the relationship - central to the characteristic manner of presentation of Jesus in this gospel - between the Father and the Son and the Son and the disciples (20). This is tied to the beginning of the passage in verse 21.

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