Bible Study: 6 Easter (A)

May 25, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:7-181 Peter 3:13-22John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31 

The Book of Acts marks a shift from the gospel focus on the acts of Jesus to an emphasis on the life of the early church. This passage contains Paul’s speech to the Athenians in which he reveals the identity of the “unknown God.” The context of this speech provides a rich back story. First, the intellectuals and religiously devout of Athens ask Paul to make a speech after he had been arguing with them in the marketplace and city about their idolatrous ways. Verse 21 adds the disclaimer that the Athenians were always looking for and talking about the next big thing, so that’s why they wanted to hear Paul’s story. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t our culture today always looking for the next big thing as well? Paul gives the speech on the Areopagus, otherwise known as Mars Hill, an intellectual and judicial center for the city of Athens.

Paul begins by acknowledging the Athenians for their religiosity. One cannot help wondering if there is a bit of irony or negativity in Paul’s words. Or maybe he is being genuine, and perhaps the take-away is that sometimes the “wrong” kind of religiosity can hinder our faith?

Paul then reveals the identity of the unknown God as the creator of the universe. A particularly beautiful moment in Paul’s speech is when he explains that part of the purpose of humanity is to grope and sometimes find God, even though God is always near. It’s also thought provoking that Paul says God is not made by mortal hands or imagination. This means that we must seek to go beyond the limitations of our mortal minds to conceive of God in more limitless ways. The speech ends with Paul introducing and mandating repentance for all.

If you were in Paul’s shoes, pointing out heresies in the marketplace and then being asked to explain your faith, what would you say?

What is your reaction to the altar inscription of the Athenians, “To an Unknown God”? Do you ever feel like you worship an unknown God? Can you think of a time when someone revealed the identity of the unknown God to you, as Paul did with the Athenians?

Psalm 66:7-18 

This psalm is one of praise and thanksgiving. It opens with general exaltation, but by verse 7 the psalmist launches into a more personal story. I find it comforting that the psalmist begins by assuring us that God, who knows and holds our souls, keeps us secure, no matter what. So naturally, what happens next is we are tested, like “silver is tried.” But we hear in the psalm that we will come through all right to a “place of refreshment.” What follows next is something similar to Paul’s speech to the Athenians. The psalmist says “come and listen … and I will tell you what he has done for me.” I know that I, too, have been moved by praise to explain more what God has done for me and how thankful I am for the gifts I’ve received.

Have you been moved by gratitude to tell about God’s role in your life? If not, perhaps you could try thanking God for something each day for a week, and covenant to tell a friend about those gifts.

The conclusion of the psalm addresses purity of the heart in relation to prayer. How do you guard your heart against evil? Do you ever find that some habits pull you away from God and your prayer life? Do you think purity of heart enhances prayer?

1 Peter 3:13-22 

First Peter is the letter of the apostle Peter in Rome to the Christians suffering for their faith in Asia Minor. The early Christians were being punished for their countercultural ways. Examples of this radical faith can be found in 1 Peter 3:9, when Peter urges them: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing.”

Instead of biting back when someone makes a jab, Peter, like Jesus, encourages the people to “turn the other cheek.” I can’t help but find this relevant to a life of faith today. We Christians find ourselves in the minority again. Sometimes I feel like an exile in the land of “nones.” I encourage you to read Peter’s words as though they were addressed to you in this modern time. Often it’s not “cool” or socially advantageous to be a Christian. Sometimes it can be difficult, and sometimes, if we speak up about our faith, we will face some adversity.

Peter invites you to reframe the way you think about your suffering. Be in control of your mind; Don’t let yourself become the victim in every situation. (Although sometimes you need to acknowledge that role, too.) See your suffering through the lens of the light of Christ, not your own ego.

As with the two previous readings, we are told to be ready to make the case for our faith: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Are you ready to make such a defense? Perhaps begin your preparation by sketching out a brief outline of your faith life. What has Christ and Christianity meant to you? What have you given to Christ? How do you account for the hope that is in you?

John 14:15-21 

Jesus’ conditional opening sentence of this passage is positively haunting: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

The implication is one that could fill us with guilt. We must ask the hard question, “Do I love Christ?” If the answer is no, then we also aren’t following His commandments.

After this piercing question, the Holy Spirit becomes the leading figure in Jesus’ speech. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the Advocate, comforter, spirit of truth and even a parent figure when Jesus speaks of not leaving us orphaned. Here it is suggested that the Holy Spirit will come after Christ to remain in the world once Christ has left.

Verse 19 is a poignant announcement that “in a little while the world will no longer see me.” Grief floods my spirit just reading those words. But immediately following are words of hope, that “you will see me; because I live, and you also will live.” Here we are moving beyond literal understandings of the word “live” to a more metaphorical meaning. What does it mean to be “alive” in the spirit of Christ?

This entire passage reflects the intimacy that is the Trinity and our relationship to it: “I am in the Father and you in me and I in you.” I invite you to read these words of closeness with fresh eyes, thanking God for God’s divine indwelling within and among us.

Would you act differently if you truly internalized the message that Jesus is saying here that God is in you?

What is your relationship to the Holy Spirit?

Discuss your relationship to Christ and his commandments. Do you feel like you love Christ and keep his commandments? How can you connect with Christ more deeply?

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