Speak to our hearts and strengthen our will O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
I have always thought Paul’s missionary journeys, recorded in Acts, read like one of the old Mission Impossible TV shows. On the second of his three missionary journeys, the one we hear about today, he has been detoured by the Holy Spirit from going any further into the places he had planned to visit in Asia. Instead he returns to the Middle East, and places located primarily in the region along the Northern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea….getting into all kinds of difficulty along the way. He finally gets to Philippi, today’s Greece, where he converts Lydia and her household but he also angered others, so much that he is pursued by a mob of angry townspeople who beat him and put him in prison. After a series of mishaps, he eventually manages to get out of prison (with a little bit of help from an earthquake) and leaves town. He dashes through the cities like Amphipolis and Apollonia, preaching as he goes and arrives in Thessalonica, where once again he is attacked by angry mobs, so he fleas to the next place, Berea, where he should be safe, but the Thessalonians pursue him there — so he fleas to Athens – where we hear about him in today’s Epistle. Paul anticipated only staying in Athens for a short time…just until Silas and Timothy, who he had left back in Berea with the angry mob, could join him. Then he planned that they could all get back on the road and resume their missionary journey together.
Going to Athens is one of the few times Paul goes somewhere not because one of the nasant churches is in some type of trouble and not because he is planning to evangelize in a new city or region. He can relax and take in the sites of the city, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the graceful pillars of the beautiful buildings. As is his way, however, he can’t help but preach the word of God’s love and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ’s redeeming salvation. However, as is often not the case, in Athens he finds an audience that is eager to listen to him! They actually ask him to tell them about this new, to them, God, he speaks of. They are, after all, philosophers in the beautiful city of Athens, the home of Plato, Aristotle, Euripides and so many more. The Athenians love to spend their time in the pursuit of new knowledge — and Paul’s teaching about Christ’s resurrection is new information they are keen to hear about. They want to know what these things Paul is saying – mean.
Paul has seen the many altars in Athens that have been erected to various gods and has seen the idols of even more gods that the people there worship. He knows that the Athenians are polytheistic, that they believe in many different gods, in fact, I read an estimate that there were up to 30,000 gods being worshiped in Athens at the time Paul was there – the commentator said, somewhat sarcastically, that it was easier to find a god than it was to find a man in Athens. But Paul is pretty astute and deduced that the many gods and idols present throughout the city, and significantly the presence of one altar to the unknown god, signals that they are hedging their bets, if you will. Paul realizes that they are still searching for profound meaning in their faith, that they know something is missing. And that awareness, coupled with the Athenian’s desire to comprehend what Paul is talking about, indicates to him that the Athenians are ready to hear about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. So he teaches, explains and explores with them – and as it says later in Acts “some of them joined him and became believers”.
It can be somewhat easy to scoff at the Athenians and their worship of many gods and of their seemingly endless searching. But I think that there are many people today who feel as if something is missing in their lives, at least some of the time, if not all of the time. Many are searching to finds ways of finding meaning in this time of uncertainty in our nation, ways to deal with the resulting emotions of fear or anxiety, the lack of trust, the sadness, how to find meaning in the chaos. So we search, and often end up creating idols, in a misguided effort to fill what is missing – trying to find that meaning. Some folks try to find meaning in things like their possessions or jobs. We can be pretty good at creating and worshiping our own false gods …. and still some of us seem never to be satisfied. What is it we are searching for, what are we pursuing, where is the meaning?
When we dissect this morning’s Gospel a bit, we can find the meaning the Athenians were searching for; we can find the meaning that so many today long for. I want to tell you that it took me a while to understand how this Gospel shows us that. In this, part of Jesus’s Farewell Discourse during the Last Supper, he tells the disciples that he, the physical presence in this world of God’s love, is leaving. He says, “In a little while you will no longer see me.” Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask God to send The Advocate, who will guide, counsel, comfort and love the world’s people.
But at first reading, the beginning of this Gospel can sound as if Jesus is telling us that we will only receive the Advocate by keeping his commandments — that we must earn the Advocate. It reads: Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. And then at the end of the Gospel it can seem that Jesus is saying if you don’t keep his commandments you don’t love him and that if you don’t love him, God will not love you.
But note, there is a period between those two first sentences at the beginning of the reading, not a comma. There is no — Do this and Then I will do that. If the reading is heard as if there were a comma rather than a period, it could seem that there is a quid pro quo……..but even then it would require that we take this reading be taken out of the larger Gospel context, the whole of the Gospels, because we have been told by Jesus over and over again that God has already given us God’s love to us through God’s grace.
What Jesus is telling us in this Gospel is that we should keep his commandments because we love him, that if we love him we will want to keep his commandments – the keeping of the commandments is the outcome of God’s love for us, not the cause of it. It is through God’s grace that we have already been given that great gift of unconditional love that we don’t deserve and can’t earn.
Further, it is through our relationship based on the love of the Trinity, that we love each other. It is through that relationship that Jesus continued to reveal himself after he was gone because the Advocate is with us as part of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth — another gift from God. That Spirit of Truth that we can cling to in this uncertain, scary time. Jesus promised his disciples, and therefore us, that The Advocate will show and guide the way. In just a few minutes we will call upon that Advocate, The Spirit, to be present at the Eucharist – in our relationship with God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Advocate, as bread and wine.
What is it we are searching for, what are we pursuing, where is the meaning? How does this Gospel answer those questions the Athenians asked and that so many still ask at times? It is the love from God, made manifest in Jesus Christ and continued through the gift of the Advocate. It is love that is the grounding, the purpose, the end result, the meaning that can be found through the searching. It is love made manifest in Christ, and then continued through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. It is that from which we can derive the meaning that satisfies us, that fills what was missing. The recognition of that relationship, the joy and sustenance derived from that relationship, is what the Athenians were searching for, what some of them found when they were striving to understand what the message of Paul’s words meant.
And as Marcus Borg, the contemporary writer and theologian, reminds us in today’s world, “God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then our beginning to live in that relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”, and I would add also with each other through the help and with the love of The Spirit of Truth.
Thanks be to God. Amen.