Posts

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Family in the House of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Philippians 3:4b-9
Matthew 5:21-22

 

Philippians 3:4b-9

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

 

Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.


 

 

“You have heard it said…But I say to you.”  Matthew records Jesus as saying this over and over again, in succession.  The teaching we read today merely starts this series of teachings.  Jesus is re-framing things for his listeners.  Jesus is contrasting our ways with God’s ways.  Over and over again.

Basically, for everyone who has studied the law and scriptures and who think they know something about holiness, goodness, and truth, Jesus is shining a brighter light, revealing the flaws in their thinking.  It’s as though the people of God have been trying to work and see inside a dim room, but when Jesus comes, he throws open all the curtains and the light of day comes streaming in.  All of a sudden what was once believed to be white is seen for the yellow-stained color it is.  All of a sudden what was considered black catches the light to reveal a deep blue-ish purple.

You see, in the light of God’s truth and presence, the things we once viewed as holy are uncovered for the pale reflection of holiness that they are, and the things we once viewed with disgust and judgement, we can now begin to see the beauty in.

God is like that.

 

So Jesus is waking the people up from their slumbers.  Jesus is turning on the brights.  And the people have the chance now to finally see themselves and one another in the light that God sees them.  God’s holiness is not attainable.  God’s righteousness cannot be achieved.  God’s goodness is far above what we pass off as good.  And even in the blackest of sinners, God’s fingerprints can still be seen, there are still glimmers of light.

 

This teaching, emphasized over and over again by Christ, can be seen in the movie series, Star Wars.  There are heroes.  They are often clumsy or afraid.  They may not have the faith they need at times.  The sometimes fail and miss their chances.  They are far from perfect.  And then there are the “bad guys,” as we often say, who do heinous things at the expense of human life and creation’s vitality.  They exploit and control.  They deceive and trap.  They use their life force for evil instead of good.  …And yet, the riveting parts of the stories are where that glimmer of goodness inside them steps forward.  Where the “bad guy” sacrifices himself to save another.

Goodness.  In the darkest super-villain.

This is what makes these movies so compelling.  This is what tugs at our heart-strings.  The characters are not one thing or another.  They are not flat.  They are not only good or only evil.  They are a complex mosaic.  They grow.

And so Star Wars shows us people much like ourselves – full of dichotomies and complexities – sometimes doing good, sometimes doing harm…

And we relate.

 

While we are ever tempted to label and dismiss one another…  While we are certain we are right and someone else is wrong…  While we stoop to calling one another names…  God sees things in a different light.  Apart from Christ’s own sacrifice, even the best behaved among us is a sinner, with evil in their hearts.

And so Jesus’ words call the people to suspend their judgements.  Jesus’ words call the people to humility.  Jesus’ words call the people to listen and to open their hearts to learn.  Because as long as we think we already know something, as long as we are convinced we are right, as long as we feel justified, we are living an illusion.

 

The truth is:  none of us know it all, none of us are right, none of us see clearly, none of us has the corner on the truth.

 

As much as it may not seem fair, Jesus is RAISING the standards of the religious communities of his day.  Rules that perhaps before felt challenging or even impossible, are now that much more impossible.  It is at once inspiring and defeating:  God’s ways are beautiful and wholly pure, but we dreadfully fall short of God’s good way.

And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.

Could it be that Jesus is toppling over their human constructs of goodness and evil in order to make room for the truth?

Could it be that Jesus is pulling back the curtains on their partial understandings in order to open their eyes to wonder and concern?

Could it be that Jesus is encouraging the weak and challenging the strong in order to help each and every one of them see their utter and complete need for God’s mercy and grace?

 

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is turn on the news and in a few short minutes, we can name a handful of individuals worse behaved than ourselves.

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is score higher on a test than someone else, and the feelings of superiority begin to bake in.

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is pass someone holding a card-board sign on the side of the road and wonder what it was they did wrong…

 

We are skilled in our judgements.  And yet our judgements are flawed.  They are flawed to the core.

 

Paul also spoke to this flawed way of thinking.  And he too sought to re-orient his listeners and their judgements:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Christ reorients our hearts.  Christ shows us the dinginess of our greatest gains and achievements and invites us to lay those down in exchange for a that higher righteousness that only God can give.  For we cannot achieve God’s holiness on our own, but we bear the imprint of our Maker and we are loved beyond belief.  And our lives, no matter how stained and fractured, are of great value to God.

 

Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?

Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?

Have we set aside jealousy and competition?

Have we stepped out of the rat race and into the flow of God’s unbounded love?

 

Christ is calling each of us

to come in,

to set down our loads,

to pull up a chair,

to know and be known…

For our God has called you “daughter.”  Our God has called you “son.”  Our God has called you “friend.”  You are family in the house of God.