Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Small Step for Jesus' Disciples, One Giant Leap for the Early Church...

Our readings for this sixth Sunday in Eastertide come from Acts 17:22-31 (though I would recommend expanding this to include verses 16-21 and 32--we will do this on Sunday!), 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21. They can be read here.

It doesn't take much for us to jump from last week's Gospel reading in John 14:1-14 to this week's in John 14:15-21; in fact, in our last Bible study at church I heard one person express frustration that these passages were divided at all--like much of John's Gospel, they flow into one another and need one another to be fully heard! John 14:15-21 continues Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples, giving them another reason to trust him--that another Advocate will be sent to them so they will not have to journey alone even after his imminent bodily departure from them. It's a nice appendix to Jesus' words of reassurance from last week.

The Acts reading, however, requires a giant leap of time, imagination, and context for us to enter into. Last week, a man named Saul approved of the death of Stephen, outside of the gates of Jerusalem; this week he stands in Athens, Greece, with a new name and a new mission--to take up the work of proclamation for which Stephen had been killed. While all of our other readings from Acts this lectionary year come from chapters 1-7 this one randomly propels us all the way to chapter 17. While all our other stories from Acts the past few weeks (and in the next two) took/will take place in Jerusalem, this one puts us nearly a thousand miles northwest of there. Previously the Gospel has been proclaimed to Jews or, at least, people who knew Jewish ways; now we find the Gospel being proclaimed to Stoics and Epicureans, to people who fill their marketplace with idols to every imaginable God, for whom Socrates was more familiar than Moses. We have leaped forward with the Gospel into a whole new world, one that's far from the home base out of which we've been operating.

Since we'll be operating in a new cultural landscape with this portion of Acts this week, I thought we could have a quick lesson on some of the strange terms in this passage which help us understand where Paul wasas he carried the news of Jesus somewhere it had likely never been before. So, here's a quick vocab lesson (I am indebted to the New Interpreter's Bible for much of this info):

Among those Paul meets in Athens are “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers." Who were these guys? Here are a couple of incredibly oversimplified intros:

Epicureans believed that the avoidance of pain and suffering is the true aim of this life. They felt that a personal, provident god–a god who could make a practical difference in the outcome of a happy life–simply does not exist, so religious devotion does not matter as much as living a life of simple pleasures. Epicureans would not have thought much of all the idols in Athens, most likely, since they didn't expect any of these gods was expected to intervene and make a difference.

Stoics, meanwhile, were guided by their analytical observations and careful reasoning. They sought to live in harmony with the cosmos because they believed the deity was in all things--the "live and move and have our being" reference that Paul drops would have made them cheer and nod in agreement, it probably came from one of their writers! Yet the idea that God could be personalized in someone like Jesus would have been deeply troubling to them and, like the Epicureans, the idea of any life beyond this one seemed a ludicrous concept.

Paul's encounter with these groups led him to the Aeropagus--an elevated, open-air site just to the west of the acropolis in Athens (see picture at right--anyone want to join me on a field trip?). The Areopagus was the equivalent of a city assembly or council that would hear public debates and give verdicts. Paul may well have been taken there to determine whether he has the credentials to bring his “strange teaching” into a place as sophisticated and learned as Athens, where he wanders as a strange curiosity but not necessarily one with any credibility.

Paul's trip to Athens is a bit overwhelming, especially when it takes us so far out of the context we've been in before, into a world of strange new terms and unfamiliar settings. It makes me wonder how Paul's engagement of this whole new context might challenge us as Christ's church to not just move in logical, linear ways, but be willing to immerse ourselves in places totally foreign to us--to deeply encounter and hear what our neighbors think, to open ourselves up to their judgment rather than passing judgment on them, to speak with conviction what we believe even if people look at us like we've grown approximately seventeen heads. To continue our "Growing up" theme from last week, where might this text challenge us to move from tentative baby steps to giant leaps for the sake of living out Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves?

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