Sunday 21 May - Easter 5
The continuing presence of Jesus, God is known through relationship.
Jesus said: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. (John 14:18, NRSV).
God who speaks in silence;
help us to wait in quietness.
When you seem absent,
grant us the faith that knows that you are there,
bringing to fulfilment all you have started.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Acts 17: 22 – 31
Psalm 66:8 – 20
1 Peter 3: 13 – 22
John 14: 15 – 21
Acts 17: 22 – 31
This passage gives us Paul’s defence of the faith before the Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus was a council of elite Athenian citizens who had jurisdiction over the religious teaching promulgated in Athens, and which sometimes acted as a court. This council met either in the market place or on the hill of Ares which overlooked the market place (hence the name Areopagus).
In the market place, Paul would have observed many statues and monuments to various Greek gods, while the Areopagus itself was nestled underneath the great hill of the Acropolis on which stood a number of temples, including the Parthenon, the temple of Athena.
While Paul’s speech uses many Jewish concepts (e.g. God as the supreme creator), and draws on biblical language, it also uses language and concepts which would have been familiar to his Athenian audience. For example, the idea that God does not need a temple made by human hands to live in, and does not need to be served by humans. Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, also maintained that the gods had not need of temples created by humans.
Paul also quotes from Greek poets. The line “In him we live and move and have our being” (v.28) may have come from the Cretan poet, Epimenides (6 BCE). The line “For we too are his offspring” (v. 28) is an exact quotation from a third century (BCE) poet, Arastus, though some scholars think it may be from Cleanthes Hymn to Zeus 4. Both were widely known and quoted and perhaps the fact that Paul says, “as some of your own poets have said”, shows that he is aware of this.
Having built rapport with his audience, Paul comes to the main point of his argument which is against idolatry. What is the point of humans, made in God’s image (this idea may be implicit, and certainly understood by Luke’s Jewish or “biblically literate” readers) and God’s “offspring,” thinking that the deity can be represented in any likeness created by them?
God will judge such ignorance on a day of judgment and through a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this (v. 28): Paul uses the Greek word, pistis, which in this case refers to a rhetorical “proof” or an evidential confirmation of something. The resurrection of this man (Jesus) from the dead is such proof. At this point Paul loses many in his audience.
Questions this account may raise for us in our contexts are these: What elements of our tikanga or our social context may we draw on to convey the message about Jesus? At what point (or points) does the gospel move beyond contemporary beliefs or ideas, or even challenge those beliefs?
What may be required, beyond intellectual persuasion and argument, to bring people to faith in Christ? (Reflection on the content of the Gospel reading may help here!) A link with the Gospel may be made by asking the question: how may God be known, and where does God “reside”? For Paul, God does not “reside” in a temple, nor can God be “captured” in an idol created by humans. God is known through Jesus Christ; a man who was raised from death.
Psalm 66: 8 -20
This psalm of praise speaks of a relationship with God. It is one in which God has preserved, protected and provided for God’s people, and specifically, the psalmist. Prior to our passage, the psalmist has referenced the exodus from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land (v. 6). Perhaps in vv. 6 – 12, then, the psalmist reflects on God’s salvation and protection of the people as a whole (over the course of their history to date?).
In the remainder of the psalm, the psalmist appears to turn to praise and thanksgiving for more personal help. He determines to offer thanksgiving sacrifices to God, who has heard his prayer, brought him out of trouble, and not abandoned steadfast love for him. There is, however, a reciprocal need for the psalmist not to cherish iniquity in his heart (v. 18).
1 Peter 3: 13 – 22
The writer has been urging his readers to live lives that honour God and follow the example of Christ (from 2:11, after outlining their current status). Immediately prior to this passage, he quotes Ps 34: 12 – 16 with its emphasis on right living; and being in God’s “sight”.
(The key to this passage, in relation to our theme, is in vv. 21 – 22, where there is a reference to baptism (prefigured by salvation for Noah and his family in the ark), which provides “an appeal to God for a good conscience”.
This is a difficult verse, but the Greek here could be understood as establishing a contract through baptism, and on account of the resurrection. In other words, we enter into a covenant relationship with God (a relationship based on “promise” – another way of understanding the word translated as “appeal”) as we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ by our baptism. In the blessing at the beginning of this letter, Peter speaks of this relationship in terms of “new birth” and “inheritance”.
On the basis of our salvation, and relationship with Christ (v. 15a – “acknowledge Christ as holy in your hearts”), comes the call to “righteous living”: the readiness to do what is good. Normally, Peter claims, this should stand you in good stead with others, but even if it brings suffering and you are maligned, realise that you are blessed.
It is in the context of doing good, and having a clear conscience, that one can be ready to give a defence, or provide reasons for one’s hope. In view of the emphasis on the fact that Jesus (who also suffered) is now in a position of authority (v. 22) we might see that hope to be for eventual vindication. Certainly, those who now abuse Christians, will find they are “put to shame” when good conduct is rewarded.
John 14: 15 - 21
This passage is part of the long discourse that Jesus has with his disciples (set in this gospel on the night before his crucifixion when Jesus is betrayed). The discourse is known as “the Farewell Discourse (or, Discourses)”.
Verse 15 speaks of keeping Jesus’ commandments. Previously, in 13:34, Jesus had given the disciples one commandment: that they should love one another as he has loved them. The plural here (“commandments”) suggests that what is really at stake here is the close relationship with Jesus, and with his Father. Just as the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and so has fulfilled the Father’s will, so the disciples in their love for Jesus must keep his word and fulfil his will.
In a sense, the first covenant between God and God’s people (Israel) was expressed as they kept God’s commandments. This was at the heart of the covenant relationship: but it could be summed up in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5, that they should love God with heart, soul, and might (NRSV) – with their whole being. (Later, by the time of Jesus, this was conjoined with love for neighbour as oneself). Just so, in the new covenant, love and faithfulness, love and “keeping” Jesus’ word and commandments were bound up together. This was expressed in relationship, just as the first covenant was meant to be.
This relationship with Christ formed and maintained through the gift of the Holy Spirit (this term is first used in v. 25): the Spirit of truth (recall Jesus has called himself “the truth”, cf. 14:6). John uses a term to describe the Holy Spirit which is unique to the Gospel: Paraklétos. This may be translated in various ways: “Advocate” (NRSV); “Helper” (alternative translation in NRSV; NIV); “Counsellor” (NIV/NLT/RSV). The role is of one who stands alongside to support, encourage, help and defend: perhaps we might say, to mentor and be a support person.
But, in terms of our theme, it is important to note that Paraclete is another Advocate. In other words, a replacement for Jesus, or another “Jesus”.
And Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned (or, abandoned); I am coming to you.” When he goes on to say that “in a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me”, we might think Jesus refers to his post-resurrection appearances. But I think that Jesus refers to an ongoing, permanent relationship that those who “keep [his] commandments” will enjoy.
This is both because he correlates the way he is “in” his Father, with the fact that the disciples are “in” Jesus, and he “in” them (v.20). And because Jesus will soon speak of both the Father and himself making their “home” (NRSV) with those who love Jesus (and keep his word; see v. 23). The Greek word translated “home” here (it might also be “room”, or “dwelling place” cf. 14:2) is related to one frequently used here to mean “abide, remain”.
So, all three members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in a relationship not only with each other, but with the faithful disciple. This disciple remains in a covenant relationship marked by keeping, or holding onto Jesus’ commandments and his word.