Sunday, May 28, 2017
Acts 1:1-8; Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
[After our Scripture reading, we will all read aloud a portion of the Pentecost story, in our own voice at our own pace. Each of us reading, but not in unison.]
As a child, growing up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, this story was very familiar to me – particularly verses 1-4. We used to joke about how, if a Pentecostal Holiness person dropped her Bible, the spine was broken so that it would hit the ground and automatically open to Acts 2. But, honestly, we mostly read verses 1-4. In fact, I think many of us memorized Acts 2:4, second only to John 3:16 – and a close second! We read this verse and memorized it because it was, for us, the proof positive that everybody was supposed to be “filled with the Spirit” and “speak in other tongues.”
As an adult, living and working in the Presbyterian Church, I have found numerous persons who have had various encounters with the kind of experience that my Pentecostal roots would talk about. Some have had that deep abiding sense of God’s presence in a way that was very palpable and life-changing. Others have had the experience of ‘speaking in tongues,’ which is one of those things that you can hardly understand, much less explain to someone who has not been there. Others actually admire and have a longing for the kind of zeal and zest that Pentecostals have – the enthusiastic worship and the boldness for evangelism. And even the most starchy and anti-Pentecostal Presbyterians among us at least appreciate that, in some way, we are supposed to be a church that is “filled with the Spirit.”
So, this morning, I’d like for us to spend time with our Pentecostal brothers and sisters in the first four verses of this story as we ask, “What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?”
This story begins with an incredible phrase, which as close to literal as possible reads: “In the fulfilling the Day of Pentecost …”. It is a very awkward phrase, which most translators and commentators simply treat as a calendar reference, like, “When the day of Pentecost had come …” That makes the story more readable, but I believe that we lose something powerful about this story when we translate it that way. The narrator says that what happened that day in Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the Day of Pentecost. So, before we read on, we should make sure that we know what the expectations were for the day of Pentecost, in order to see what exactly is fulfilled by this story.
The Day of Pentecost was an annual Jewish celebration and began as a harvest feast. Back before Jerusalem became a large city, with lots of people living there, the people of Israel were mostly agrarian people, farming communities with large, family-owned fields. As subsistence farmers, the city was not where the people lived. It was where they would gather on occasion – perhaps to worship, perhaps to decide matters of the common good, or perhaps to visit the market to barter and exchange goods. One reason people would make a pilgrimage to the city each year, was for the Feast of Pentecost, also known as the “festival of weeks.” The word Pentecost is based on the word for “50,” because after the celebration of the Passover, the people would count of 49 days – that is seven weeks or seven sevens – and the next day, the 50th day, they would celebrate. It would be about the time that the grain had been harvested, so they would bring two loaves of bread, which the priests would ‘elevate’ and wave around as part of the celebration. It was a reminder of how dependent these farming folk were on God’s gifts of rain and sunshine, in order to have as successful harvest.
Of course, anyone who has ever farmed knows that farming is a perilous activity. One can depend on rain and sunshine, but not always in the right proportions. Flood and drought mean that every now and then a crop is ruined. And when one’s crops are sustenance crops, it is a tragedy. Food is scarce, prices are high, and one has nothing to pay anyway, because the farm is all one has. So, you mortgage, sell, and many folks eventually lose their land and become landless squatters. It happened a lot, which is why the celebration of Pentecost was not just a liturgical event. It had ethical implications. In the book of Leviticus, where the instructions for how to celebrate Pentecost correctly are given in minute detail, the tone changes to the responsibilities of those who are enjoying a full harvest: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
So, the practice was that when the harvesters would walk through the fields gleaning the wheat and gathering them in sheaves, the landless folk would be waiting. After the harvest, they would go on the land and anything that remained or was dropped was theirs to keep. (That is where the phrase “2nd Harvest” gets its meaning.) What the celebration of Pentecost said was that the reapers were to reap in a way that the poor and landless would have plenty and not scarcity. They were not to reap efficiently, but sloppily. If they dropped a sheaf, they were not to go and pick it up again. And there was no protest – “Hey, but that’s MY wheat!” because the Lord God had given them the land and the dirt and the rain and the sunshine. The liturgy, then, gave the people the right disposition for their ethics. If you thank God for the abundance, then you have no claims for hoarding. Be generous as God is generous.
That’s what the Day of Pentecost was all about – recognizing that every good gift comes from God and then turning around and living with that kind of grace. So, when the narrator says that what happened in the book of Acts was “the fulfilling of the day of Pentecost,” it means that it is more than a “spiritual experience” or a liturgical moment. It is the realization of a community that is given to grace, where the laudable phrases of our worship are not empty but filled with meaning by living toward justice.
By the time we get to verse 4, when the narrator says that “all of them were filled,” now we have some content for what that means. Each person in that house was an embodiment of that Spirit of justice, mercy, and grace. Each of them found their tongue and began to speak – as the crowd later attests – of the mighty deeds of God. The narrator later describes the community as a community that held all things in common and where nobody was deprived of anything. What it means to be filled with the Spirit is to participate in that fulfillment of God’s vision for justice, security for those who have food insecurity. It is a way of living that sees everything as a gift from God, not so that we can say, “See, God provides for us and not for you,” but that we can say, “God provides for us, so, here, now God provides for you.” It’s radical because we like to think that we are self-made people and that everything we have is ours alone and woe be to anyone who tries to say otherwise. Perhaps one reason why this Spirit blows in with such force and power is because it is radically changing our psychology and our sociology. Everything is God’s. Including me. Including all that I have. And including those who are without.
May God’s Spirit blow into this place, transforming us into the kind of community that lives toward a grace-filled justice. May we say, on this day Pentecost is fulfilled and each of us is filled with that Spirit. Amen.
Acts 1:6-11; John 17:1-11
May 27/28, 2017
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
[Prior to reading John 17:1-11. “It is Jesus’ prayer that we will be one. To do that, we need a whole new way of seeing the world and seeing one another. I pray that we will have that before we leave this room today.”]
I was listening to a fascinating interview once while driving down the freeway into Des Moines. Of all things, it was Terri Gross – whose show “Fresh Air” is celebrating its 30th year of broadcasting this month – interviewing a baker. It was a man who bakes bread for a living. Bread baking is a bit of a lost art in our time, when it is so easy and convenient simply to grab a loaf along with everything else at the market. And while some of you may still, occasionally or regularly, bake your own bread, most of us have simply given up on the process because it can be so time-consuming and can actually turn out pretty badly if we don’t do it well. So, this interview was fascinating because here is someone who bakes bread each day, walking through the process and identifying not simply the recipes or the steps, but the whole nature of what is happening to the ingredients as they are mixed together into one common ball of dough.
And, it’s a little bit horrifying. There’s the carbohydrate starch, whose granules are being attacked by the enzymes in the flour. There’s the yeast, which is a live, single-celled fungus that is dormant until it comes into contact with warm water. Once reactivated, yeast begins feeding on the sugars in flour, and releases bubbly carbon dioxide that makes bread rise. In the same process the dough produces alcohol, which is why it smells like beer, and that alcohol is turned into gas during the baking that makes the dough rise even more into a loaf. And meanwhile there are two proteins that get bonded together making a stretchy, gummy gluten, which is why all of these little bubbling explosions don’t simply release out into the world and keeps all of this activity inside of the dough except for those occasional crater or two that pops through the surface. And we dignify this whole process and call it “fermentation,” but we know that underneath that doughy surface that that final, beautiful crusty finish – there’s like this miniature nuclear war taking place right there in our kitchen!
And, it can go badly. Left to their own devices, all of these chemical interactions in the dough are actually aiming toward destruction. What we call “putrefaction” is the same process of fungi feeding off proteins and decomposing them into a million little pieces, releasing putrid-smelling oxidized gasses. And that’s when the baker said something that was so profound I literally took the next exit in order to park somewhere and write it down. He said, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.”
That is probably the best, brief description I have ever heard of what it means to live in time: That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.
We experience that fine line all the time. Think of the difference between ‘growing up’ and ‘growing old.’ It’s the same process, only at one point it leads to muscular development and at another point it leads to muscular degeneration. The various ways that we speak of “aging” are nice ways of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of the difference between a “classic” piece of furniture and a piece of junk. What we call “antiquing” is a dignified way of saying “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of those so very groovy those psychedelic-covered new “Living Bibles” from back in the 70’s when people in orange turtlenecks and bell-bottomed pants thought they were the neatest thing in Christianity since the cross necklace. And just imagine all of the churches across the nation now hiding them somewhere because nobody wants them any more than we want to use the word “groovy” and you can’t simply throw away a Bible. What we often call “church closets” is a way of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” To live in time means that those very same things that seemed once to be bubbling up with new life become the same process degenerating into decay. And it happens to everything that we know – whether we are talking about matter or ideas – so much that we simply accept it as how life is. “Time” is our way of naming that line between fermentation and putrefaction.
Into this normalized expected way of life comes a radical Christian doctrine that defies everything that we know. It’s called “eternal life.” I know. The phrase “eternal life” sounds like a bit of a letdown after I called it a “radical doctrine that defies everything we know,” but that’s partly because we seem to have this phrase all wrong. Let me offer how it is that I think we often hear this phrase and then let me offer another way of hearing it, which I believe capture its real power, particularly as Jesus uses it in his prayer that we have read together.
I think when we hear the phrase “eternal life” we often have in mind the “Energizer Bunny” version of time. Time that just keeps going and going. It’s as if we see time as a solid horizontal line. There’s History over there, but our line begins when we were born ‘here’; we had this tragic experience ‘here’; we finally achieved this goal ‘here’; we had this wonderful blessing ‘here’; face a challenge “here”; went through a change “here”; and finally we die ‘here.’ Aft that, the solid, horizontal line become a broken line where we guess that, either immediately or after the great resurrection day we will continue to live on and on as time keeps going and going and going. And, frankly, the farther out it gets the harder it is to imagine because we’re so accustomed to time as that journey from fermentation to putrefaction. And, to be honest, I think our deepest apprehension may be boredom. Even though the idea of being in the full presence of God and being overwhelmed with glory and alive with praise and worship is beautiful, even that sort of beatific moment seems like it might get a little old after about thirty-seven million years. But, that is, I think how we most often hear the phrase, “eternal life.”
But, what if the phrase “eternal life” pointed not to life in time that just keeps going and going, but life apart from time itself. What if synchronicity – things happening at the same time – and sequence – things happening one after the other; and past, present, and future; and tomorrow, today, and yesterday; and now and then and back then; and all of the other ways that we have grown accustomed to knowing time itself were transcended into what the theologian Paul Tillich famously called “the eternal now.” What if the end is the beginning and the middle and everything in between. What if all of the regrets from yesteryear that cause us pain right now and those fears of tomorrow that cause us anxiety right now were all melded into one single, ongoing way of being called “blessed.” The phrase “eternal life” is not a way of resigning ourselves to this march of time, just for a lot longer than any of us can imagine. It points to something greater than time itself, loosed from the bondage of time, transcending even that process from fermentation to putrefaction. Chris and I had a glimpse of this when one of our children was a maddening, stubborn, and mule-headed two-year-old. And one day, just as I was battling against the desire to throttle him, I looked at her and said, “This is the same personality that will one day allow him to stand up to his friends and say ‘no’ to drugs.”
Or, think of it this way. We tend to think of that timeline as flat. What if eternal life does not intend to length of the line, but the depth of that line at every moment. Every single moment that we experience is not just a step between the last and the next, but is a moment that is filled with eternal meaning, filled with eternal purpose, filled with God’s own presence. It would mean that, even now, even in the most apparently mundane moment of life, even in the storm or the dark or the confusion or the boredom, even then each moment is filled with eternal significance. Because in that moment, God is in you, you are in God, God’s purpose is being worked out in your life, you are a carrier of God’s own spirit.
Before Jesus prayed to God that his followers may be one, he thanked God that God had given him the authority to grant eternal life to his disciples. And he said, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So I want you to look hard around this room. Every person you see here is living in eternal life. I invite you to look hard at the persons whom you love, with whom you are close. Look them in the eye and don’t stop until see it! Don’t stop until you see the eternal written all over them. And the next time you look into a mirror, you look hard at that persons looking back at you and don’t stop until you see it – that person is filled with eternal life. And it doesn’t matter if you are having a bad day or are in a dark place – remember, Jesus is praying for a bunch of losers in this prayer! It is true because God is faithful, not because we are strong. And when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of someone you love and see the eternal there; when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of the one in the mirror and see the eternal there; then you’ll be able to go out and see the eternal in everyone – the casual friend, the stranger, even the enemy. When we see the eternal in each moment, eternal life in each person, then we can be one, as Jesus and God are one. And that is Jesus’ prayer for you today. Amen.
Monday, May 22, 2017
Being the Mystery
June 1, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Yesterday was a very difficult day in the life of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. For those of you who are new to the world of Presbyterian-speak, a “presbytery” is the local collection of Presbyterian churches, who work together and live together in a covenant relationship. Our presbytery, Los Ranchos Presbytery, geographically covers about 2,000 square miles and has about 56 churches. I say “about 56 churches” because yesterday’s meeting involved 3 of those churches gaining permission to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joining another Presbyterian body, which is more conservative theologically and biblically than they perceive the PC(USA) to be. But, I also say “about 56 churches” because there is new life that is constantly forming around us, and some of those expressions of new life are not your typical “church” but also very much like a “church.” Some of them will never – by design – be a “church” and others are on their way to becoming a very good, strong, and dynamic “church.” So, we’re “about 56 churches” and we will swell and recede and do all the things that living bodies do. But, yesterday was hard, because we voted to give 3 of our churches permission to leave.
Many of you have been in this process far longer than I have and, in fact, some of you have been personally affected by the dynamics of this process along the way for many years. I’m deeply sorry for your pain. But, I must admit, if these differences are what brought you here to be part of our worshiping community, there is an upside to it all, from our perspective. St. Mark, by our leadership over the years and our current commissioners to the Presbytery, has a significant role in all of the controversies. In this presbytery, we might be called the “loyal opposition.” In other presbyteries where I have been a member, we would have been part of the majority. Some in this presbytery have said that we have a “prophetic voice.” Others view us as the kind of church that makes them want to leave the PC(USA) in the first place. At every step we are called to exercise both the force of our convictions and the humility of knowing that other churches, likewise, speak out of their conscience.
Yesterday, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, First Presbyterian Church in Westminster, and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, were all dismissed from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos and the PC(USA) to become part of a new denomination called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. There is a lot to the story – much of it procedural, political, theological, and economical – but yesterday’s actions were the result of a long, painful journey. There is more to come for our presbytery – seven other churches are in the process of being dismissed – and there is the possibility that yesterday’s actions will be reviewed and perhaps overturned by a higher branch of our church’s accountability. So, the story is not over and the folks at these churches will not just disappear. So, there is some way in which we will continue to live –together or at least side-by-side.
It is all very maddening and I am full of opinion about it. But, please understand, it is not my place nor my intention to go to a presbytery meeting that is fraught with very different perspectives, then to come back here and give you all my perspective as if that is the only one that matters. (That is such a temptation whenever one preaches, because I preach out of the same set of convictions from which I speak at a presbytery meeting.) At the same time, your commissioners and your leadership attend these meetings as your commissioners and your leadership. As such, while we act and speak according to our own conscience, we are there because you have invested us with the right of representation. So, we have some obligation to share with you what has transpired and to speak of what it means for us in our journey of faithfulness to God. And I have the call to interpret it biblically and theologically before God and before you, knowing that I can never speak beyond my perspective.
Our reading from the Gospel of John today is often called “Jesus’ prayer.” John does not have “The Lord’s Prayer,” like we see in Matthew and Luke. Instead, there is a whole chapter – chapter 17 – that is given as a prayer. You may notice that I am using qualified language to talk about this prayer, because, frankly, there’s a lot about this prayer that makes me think it is much more than a prayer. For example, the first three verses could have been spoken by anyone, since every reference to Jesus is in the third person. The first person voice doesn’t kick in until v.4. So, while our Bibles often subtitle this chapter “Jesus prays for his disciples,” the first three verses very easily could have been called “The Disciples pray for Jesus.” Verse three is curious also. It is an explanation of what eternal life means. (It means, in this prayer, to know “the one true God and Jesus Christ whom [God] sent.”) Why would Jesus need to tell God what ‘eternal life’ means? And, finally, Jesus’ language in this prayer indicates that he is not actually stopping in his conversation with his disciples and offering this prayer, the day before he is arrested and put to death. Jesus says, “I have completed what you sent me to do” and “I am no longer in this world” during this prayer. That wouldn’t make sense for a prayer that is given on Maundy Thursday.
My suspicion is that while this prayer has the literary setting of being a prayer from Jesus to God, it is intended for the community for whom this gospel was written. John’s first century community and we, not God, to have ‘eternal life’ defined for us as ‘knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.’ The church, not Jesus, needs this prayer. We need this prayer, because something marvelous happens in this prayer.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus over and over proclaims that he and God are one. Those claims sounded haughty then and sound haughty now. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” “The father and I are one.” “What is mine is God’s and what is God’s is mine.” Jesus claims a close identity – “oneness” or “sameness” – with God repeatedly throughout this gospel. And, of course, it is in John’s gospel that Jesus uses, over and over, the language that God used when speaking to Moses from the burning bush, “I AM.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It was an audacious claim then, and it is an audacious claim now. If you struggle with it, that only means that you are taking it seriously, because it messes with our neat boxes of the difference between God and humanity. It is an audacious claim, but there is another claim in this prayer that may be even more audacious.
Jesus’ prayer has a petition. It is not, “God, may I be one with you.” That is the assumption behind the prayer. Jesus’ request is that we – the church that prays this prayer with Jesus – may be one, just as Jesus and God are one. If there is anything more audacious than the claim that Jesus and God are one, it is the claim that the church is one. It means that despite all of our differences, despite all of our brokenness, despite all of our struggles, the prayer for the church is that we might be one, as Jesus and God are one. That is why we each are invited to take a piece of the bread and a share of the cup: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us, sharing the same loaf and same cup as the one Body of Christ. That is why we sing together: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us lifting our voices in one song. And that is why we pray a confession of sin: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, yet we fail miserably at it.
I’m sure it is everyone else’s fault. But, of course, therein lies the problem. And that is why Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one, is always a prayer and has never been a full reality. It is a desire, a partial truth, a noble aspiration, and an impossibility. Which is to say, it is a prayer. And, in a world of conflicting religions, multiple Christian churches, deep cultural segregation in worship, deep theological conviction – even among Presbyterians – we can only make this a prayer, filled with hope and confession. “That we may participate in the mystery of being one.” Amen.
From Gazing to Gathering
June 5, 2011
John 17:1-11; Acts 1:1-11
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Regardless of what the calendar says, it must be summertime because I’ve been out of town for the last two weeks at weddings. Last weekend, I had the privilege of marrying Michelle Soper and her delightful husband T.J. Witucky in Phoenix. The weekend before that we were gathered with Chris’ family in the Twin Cities as Chris’ youngest sibling and only brother Matt married a wonderful woman named Danielle. Now, that was an interesting weekend, for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with making a covenant, grooms, brides, or anything even remotely romantic. In case you missed it, the two weeks ago marked the end of the world.
By now, we’ve all gone back to ignoring him, but two weeks ago Harold Camping received an inordinate amount of attention by being the latest false prophet who has taken a smattering of poetic Scriptures literally, mixed in some numbers from the Scriptures with a kind of magical amplified meaning, and baked a bold prediction of the world’s end. I had a lot of fun ridiculing Mr. Camping’s biblical interpretations, his post-modern mathematics, and his predictions. It’s not that I enjoy ridiculing people. In the main, I think ridiculing is a fairly low form of entertainment. But I don’t know how else to encounter the ridiculous other than to ridicule it. You can’t ignore a message that is broadcast over thousands of “family radio” stations and then reported in virtually every news medium around. You can’t reason with a position that ascribes certain meanings to simple numbers as their starting point. And when this admixture is proclaimed as “the Word of God” with such bold arrogance, there are very few options left. The biblical prescription for a prophet whose prophecy proves not to be correct is to stoning (Deuteronomy 18:20). I don’t really have the stomach to stone anyone, so I opted for ridiculing him instead. In fact, here’s an interesting thing about living in the age of mass media. We don’t even need to look at Harold Camping and proclaim, “You’re dead to me,” because – now that May 21 has passed without the “rapture” or the end of the world – most of us are no longer even paying attention to Harold Camping.
This morning, I’d like to reverse the strategy for just a moment and to try to take Harold Camping seriously. Please understand, I’m not saying that I agree with his biblical interpretations, his quirky mathematical symbolism, or his predictions in any way. But, here are some things about Harold Camping’s failed prophecy that may sound more familiar to us. He is convinced that our world is on a path of destruction. He is convinced that, though the world be destroyed all around us, “salvation” means that we (the “saved”) will escape that fate. And he is convinced that the Bible holds the key to the future. And, I would argue, that many people in the Christian church hold these convictions in common with Harold Camping. So, while his asinine date-setting proved him to be false and foolish, Harold Camping’s convictions are probably why this tiny slice of foolishness became so inescapably popular as a focal point of discussion, whether one was for or against it.
It is not just latter day fools who pay an inordinate amount of attention to the “end of the age.” It is written in the human spirit to speculate about such things. We can do so on a personal level, when we come to grips with having to die. Or, we can do so on a larger level, when we see the forthcoming end of a church institution that has meant a lot to us over the years, or we see the utter fragility of an economic system that is so pervasive that its failure seems to be the end of life as we know it. We can speculate realistically about the loss of an indigenous language or a local custom that is no longer viable in an age of globalization. We can speculate about the relationship between the buildup of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere and its potential destructive effects on our atmosphere. And, with a purely scientific and not a religious perspective, it is even possible to speculate about “the end of the world”, the implosion of the universe, the destructive mass density of black holes, and so forth – because with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve actually witnessed the effects of such cosmic events all around us. The point is, it is because we are rational creatures, not because we are foolish ones, that we can think transcendent thoughts and speculate about what might be, rather than simply living with what is. It is human, not simply religious or philosophical, to speculate about the fragility and finitude of human existence.
Setting aside the arrogance and the voodoo mathematics and the awful biblical interpretation, in one respect, Harold Camping is not just the latest in a string of bad biblical interpreters. He is simply one of us – a person who cannot avoid trying to understand what it means to be able to think about eternity while living with finitude.
Of course, speculating about the “end of the world” goes far back in the biblical tradition. It does not go as far back as speculating about the “beginning of the world.” The creation stories in the Scriptures are far earlier poetry than any speculation about the “end of the world.” But, there were some provocations, some signal events, during the history of Israel that caused them to think beyond the moment and to speculate about the “end of the world.” Approximately 160 years before the birth of Christ, the people living in Jerusalem experienced an atrocity that was so hideous that it not only evoked images of the “end of the world,” but it also became one of those fixed moments in Israel’s memory that was a way of naming the world afterwards. It was their “Pearl Harbor” their “9/11,” their moment when all of them agreed that, from that point on, nothing could ever remain the same. In fact, I would argue that it was even more significant in their thinking than Pearl Harbor or 9/11, because it seemed at this moment in their history, everything in which they believed had fallen apart. God promised them the land and the Greek empire had overrun it. God led them through the king and the Greek empire had killed him and installed a puppet on the throne. Those two things had happened before in their history, but the third thing was the most shocking. God’s presence was in their temple, particularly in the holiest interior part of the temple, and a Greek general named Antiochus IV Epiphanes had entered that holy place and offered an unclean pig as a sacrifice to Zeus there. In their view of the world, such a thing simply could not happen. Antiochus Epiphanes should have been struck dead right then and right there. But it did happen and he did not die and the world as they knew it, right then, was shattered.
It was here, in the bewilderment of this moment, that the second half of the book of Daniel was written. For any of you who were raised in a tradition like I was, you’ll know that the second half of Daniel is the most significant Old Testament text for talking about the “end of the world.” And it is significant, not because Daniel predicting things that are bound to happen sooner or later, but because it set a pattern for thinking faithfully about the “end of the world.” For Daniel’s community, the current situation with the devastation of Antiochus Epiphanes was not compatible with their view of God and God’s way with the world. In order for God’s way to be re-established, it required the destruction of the Greek Empire and its hold over them. That is what the second half of Daniel envisions, with mythological vision. Two hundred years later, for the writer of the Gospel of Mark, the situation that was incompatible with their understanding of faith was the destruction of the Roman Empire which, once again, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and all that it meant to them. For Mark, God’s way would only be re-established with the destruction of the destroyer. That is the compelling vision behind the book of Revelation as well.
What these communities imagined was not the “end of the world” as a functioning habitation for life. It was more like the way REM describes it: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Only, for Israel and for the early church, they did not follow by saying, “And I feel fine.” They followed by imagining how in the world God could be faithful to them in their time of crisis. And what they imagined was the destruction of the destroyer.
That is what we hear in our reading today of that moment when Jesus is taken away from the disciples. They ask him whether now is the time that the kingdom will be taken from Rome and restored to Israel. But, Jesus doesn’t answer that inquiry. Instead, he sends them back to Jerusalem to await the empowering of the Holy Spirit. And after Jesus is taken up from them, the story describes the disciples gazing into the heavens. Again, they are being human, wondering about the future, the end of the world, the great overarching meaning of it all, and so forth. As Luke describes it, two men in white apparel ridicule them, asking why in the world they are staring at the heavens when they ought to be in Jerusalem awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. It is an amazing and sobering moment. Instead of gazing into the heavens, the disciples are called to gather so that God can empower them to be witnesses to the world. Instead of watching a cosmic fireball or a white rider in the sky come down and defeat the wretched oppressors, God calls them to gather together, to be empowered, so that by living as witnesses they can fulfill the Reign of God.
It falls to us as human being to speculate about the “end of it all.” We are wont to stare into the heavens and to imagine a scenario when justice finally overcomes injustice, when good finally overcomes evil, and when the world finally becomes a place hospitable to the peaceable kingdom. But the way of faithfulness is not in speculating and guessing, even if we call it “prophecy.” The way of faithfulness is to gather together, to await God’s empowering Spirit, so that we might be scattered throughout the world as faithful witnesses to God’s love and forgiveness. May God draw our vision from the heavens to the earth, fill us with God’s own empowering Spirit, and send us into the world as faithful witnesses. Amen.
Monday, May 15, 2017
Acts 17:16-31 (John 14:6)
May 25, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Our Scripture reading today is a fascinating story of Paul’s encounter with the people in the city of Athens. This is all taking place about 300 years after Alexander the Great brought the Greek Empire into being, but that Empire was supplanted by time our story takes place by the Roman Empire. Still, Athens continues to glow – even if it is an afterglow – as a religious and intellectual center. Some historic descriptions say that the roads in Athens were so populated by idols, monuments, cairns, and the like that someone traveling from point A to point B was constantly negotiating around one religious thing or another. Athens was a place where religions intersected – the narrator of Acts mentions Jews, Epicureans, and Stoics specifically – and where new ideas were welcomed. As such, a story set in Athens is more representative of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that we might associate with modern diversity than some of the stories set in Galilean villages or Jerusalem. So, enter Paul, known as “the Apostle to the Gentiles,” who had received a calling to cross over as a missionary into this area where Paul’s Jewish heritage was just one faith among others, and his Christian message was new.
Many people would assume that Paul’s encounter with this religiously and philosophically diverse people of Athens would be controversial. After all, we associate terms like “evangelism” and “missionary” with this kind of self-righteous one-directional approach that says “I’m right and you’re wrong, so let me help you out.” And, frankly, one of the challenges that I have with this story is that many of the folks who translated this story from its original Greek text to English – and almost all of the commentaries that go on and on about this story – see it exactly that way: A confrontation. And that disposition toward this story has shaped the way that it has been translated for year. For example, when Paul begins his message in v.22, the King James Version has been presenting him for 500 years now as saying, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” Now, if that is the opening salvo, then of course what follows is going to be a confrontation against superstitious belief. But, the word that the KJV translates as “superstitious” is interesting. It appears just this once in the Scriptures and it is a conjunction of two words meaning, “fear or reverence” and “deity.” With this word in the superlative form, it can mean “too superstitious” if you assume that Paul is speaking critically. But, a less presumptuous translation would be that Paul says to them “I can see that in every way you are very religious” – which is how most modern translations interpret it. My point is that we can – with enormous biblical integrity – see this encounter between Paul and the Athenians as an instructive, meaningful encounter between the Christian message and other belief systems. But, to do so, we have to unravel years of wrong impressions that have shaped the way this story has been told. So, let’s do it.
Our reading began with the narration that Paul is spending time in Athens, waiting for two of his friends to come and join him in his missionary journey. The narration – in our Bible – reads that Paul was “deeply distressed” to see that the city was full of idols. That’s quite a statement. It’s also quite a judgment, because the word translated as ‘distressed’ could also mean ‘intrigued.’ Its most neutral meaning would be ‘stirred,’ but there is noting in this text to decide whether it is a distressing stir or an intriguing stir – that judgment is left up to the translator. Let’s say – for the moment – that Paul is not distressed, but intrigued. Then what?
Then, v.17 in our Bible reads: “So [Paul] argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Well, it stands to reason that if Paul is distressed by what he sees that he will argue with those who live there. But, that word that is translated “argued” is used often in Acts and is sometimes translated “reasoned” and elsewhere as “preached.” It is the Greek word διαλέγομαι, which literally means to ‘talk through’ and is the word from which we get our English word “dialogue.” So, instead of seeing Paul as “distressed” and, therefore “arguing” in the synagogue and marketplace, this text could be saying that Paul was “intrigued” and “conversed” with people daily in the synagogue and marketplace. They are not necessarily confrontational terms and, in fact, could be quite the opposite. In fact, I want to suggest that it should be translated as something other than a confrontation.
First, Paul maintains the integrity of his faith. He is heard conversing in the synagogue and marketplace proclaiming the good news of the resurrection of Christ. So, some of them take him to a place called “Mars Hill” or “the Areopogite.” (It is translated two different ways because “Ares” was the Greek god of war, who became “Mars” when the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon as their own.) This is the place where, in Greek mythology, Ares was taken to defend himself for killing one of the gods who was trying to violate his daughter. It took on the aura of the place where people offer defense of their thoughts and actions. So, Paul comes to Mars Hill to explain, defend, and proclaim his faith. And he does so frankly. He tells them that as he was studying and contemplating their many religious items, he saw an altar with the inscription, “To the unknown God.” And that is the itch that Paul wanted to scratch. This ‘unknown’ God he proclaims as the creator of heaven and earth, who formed the world and everything in it, in order that we would grope, seek, and find God. So, the way that Paul maintains the integrity of his faith is to affirm the search, the longing that he perceived in them, and to proclaim the gospel as the fulfillment that they seek.
Second, however, is a less-appreciated thing that Paul does. He quotes two of the poets from those other religions – approvingly. In fact, one of those quotes has become many Christians’ favorite quote from the book of Acts: “In God we live and breathe and have our being.” His point is to say that the constructs that we make, reflecting our longing for God, can never be confused with Godself, because God is the source, not the product of that longing. It is a marvelous affirmation and assertion.
I don’t want to gloss over this whole encounter and pretend that they all held hands and sang “Kumbayah” together. There were some who thought Paul was babbling. There were some that listened and wanted some time to think it over and meet again. Surely there were some dilettantes, who were just happy to be doing such a cool, philosophical thing. But, there were others who began a companionship with Paul and followed the gospel, finding the message of Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of what they sought in their philosophy and religion. And they were able to hear that, because initially Paul was willing to hear them. In fact, Paul was willing to learn from them, to allow their religion and philosophy to broaden his own grasp of God and God’s way with us.
I remember a seminary professor of mine, who told me that he was never quite able to embrace the Christian faith, until he spent a year abroad studying Buddhism. It was not that everything he heard he found ridiculous, so he came running back to the Christian faith. In fact, it was the opposite. He learned ways of thinking about life and faith that had never grasped him before, and it gave him a greater appreciation for the Christian message. In some ways, I think Paul’s encounter with the pagan religions on Mars Hill invite us to see faith – not as the adamant refusal to allow any other religious voice to have meaning – but as a trust in God’s faithfulness, even when our opinions are challenged and changed.
You and I are charged every week to leave this place with the intention of sharing the joy and justice of the gospel. May we, to whom God is faithful, have the courage to fulfill that charge by listening first, even to those whose way of knowing God is different. Amen.