Being a Witness for the God We Know, Easter 6 (A) – May 21, 2017

[RCL] Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

The Book of Acts is filled with miracles, visions, and dreams, and in it, the author, Luke, helps us establish the identity of God and shows how the Gospel of Jesus Christ was spread to every corner of the world.

In addition to teaching about the identity of God, Luke has much to say about the power of the grace of God and the initiatives God takes in forming witnesses for mission. Luke penned for us a road map to being a witness for the God we know.

The second part of the Book of Acts focuses on the story of Paul. And that is where we find ourselves on this Sixth Sunday of Easter. Paul said to the people of Athens, “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’” (Acts 17:22b-28a).

We are familiar with Paul; he is known for his eloquent speeches and great witness to Christ, and there is much we can learn from him. Following his conversion experience, he became one of the greatest teachers ever, one of the greatest evangelists ever. Paul’s view of the spiritual life can serve as a foundation for a contemporary evangelical spirituality.

Paul knew God. Paul was in right relationship with God. And when you are in right relationship with someone, you want to defend them at all costs. That is what Paul is doing in Athens. He realizes that the Athenians do not know much about anything because they do not know the first thing about the God he serves.

And he goes on to do something very important that we in the modern Church can recognize, understand, and appreciate. Even though he was deeply distressed by all the idols of the city, he did not get up on that large rock and point his finger at the people of Athens, telling them that they would go straight to hell because of their idol worship and their non-Christian ways of living. Rather, he speaks to their culture, through their culture, in a way that acknowledged their worthiness as children of God. He was a true witness of the God he served.

Paul begins to tell them about this unknown God that they already are trying to worship. Note that Paul does not condemn the Athenians for who they are; nor does he begin with what separates them, but with what they have in common. Remember that the next time you are a witness to the God you know.

Paul knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He knew God as the One who keeps promises. He knew God as a God of a second chance, and a God that saves, a God that can convert. He knew God as a God of love. Paul told one group that God was a “living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea” (Acts 14:15), and he told the people of Athens that he was the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Who do you know God as? Who do we know God as? We cannot tell of something or someone that we do not know. As Christians, we know God as a way-maker, as a provider, as the author of our books called Life. The God we know is fair and just, generous and good. Our God is a loving, healing God. A right-on-time God. The God we know is a forgiving, gracious God because heaven knows we do not get it right all the time. We know God as Redeemer, Reconciler, Restorer and Resurrector, just to name a few.

That is who we know God as. And the God we serve proves this over and over and over again. The God we serve places the right people in the right places to make things happen at the right time, giving us unmerited favor. And the God we serve makes a way when there seems to be no way.

Sadly, there are individuals who do not know this God. Painfully, the knowledge of the God we know is not everywhere you turn, because people do not really know who God is, and what God has done, and can do. God, for some, is only a God to question or blame or accuse or even curse when things go wrong. Many people believe that God is some sort of vengeful deity that must be appeased by good behavior, just in case! But that is not the God that Paul proclaimed.

As Paul tells us, there really is a God who loves everyone, especially you and me! And yes, our enemies as well. A God who came to serve us. Our God, who has given everyone life and being, and is interested in every little part of your life, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

God’s love, care, and identity have been made abundantly clear in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. That God should be known by everyone!

And therein lies our responsibility as Christians. We must bear witness to the God we know. In the person and work of Jesus, all the doubts and fears and anxieties over the “unknown God” happily disappear. God is not a distant, uncaring God. God is a very close and personal God.

So who do you know God as? Who do we know God as? Do we live, move and have our being in God?! We cannot tell of something accurately if we do not know for ourselves, first-hand. You cannot give directions to a place if you do not know where it is. Similarly, we cannot share a God we do not know for ourselves with others, or people will get lost.

We are charged with being a witness for the God we know. We are charged with telling somebody about this God. Tell people about the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ. Our God should no longer be unknown. Our God is too good and too generous to remain that way.

God is the God who is known by loving-kindness to us, shown in the One who lived and died and rose again, so that we too might live with God. Each time we approach God’s altar, we are saying, “We believe. We believe in a God whose only begotten Son died for us all.” We are saying, “God, You are in me and I in You.”

But it does not stop there. When we make our way to God’s altar and ultimately out of the doors of the church, that is where the real work begins. We are all called to be witnesses to the God we know – and our lives, our beings, our very essence should always, always reflect that.

It is like the hymn writer penned, inspired by the Song of Mary, mother of Jesus,

“Tell out, my soul, the glories of God’s Word! Firm is God promise, and God’s mercy sure. Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord to children’s children and for evermore!”

We have got work to do. Amen.

 

The Rev. Arlette D. Benoit Joseph is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Before seminary, Rev. Joseph worked as a Marketing Analyst for UPS Mail Innovations in Atlanta, Ga, where she managed Account Representatives and their Customer Care Department.

 She was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta and now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Ga., as Associate to the Rector. Rev. Joseph also serves as Campus Missioner for the Absalom Jones Center of the Atlanta University Center. She serves as a consultant to the The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries by planning the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults and works with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop and promote The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — an initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

 She also serves on the Diocese of Atlanta’s Commission of Ministry, as the Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries of The Episcopal Church and as a boardmember for FORMA – a network of Christian Formation professionals. Rev. Joseph is passionate about Christian and Spiritual Formation and the spiritual and mental wellness of clergy.

Originally from the twin island Republic Trinidad and Tobago, Rev. Joseph enjoys Caribbean cuisine and outdoor activities with her husband.

 

Download the sermon for Easter 6 (A).

Paul: Appealing or appalling?, 6 Easter (A) – 2014

May 25, 2014

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Many Christians have mixed feelings about the apostle Paul. Paul can be challenging to deal with; some New Testament writings attributed to him express negative views of women and other minorities, and his tone can be pugnacious and argumentative. But if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, we have to come to terms with Paul. For one thing, even though the gospels appear before Paul’s letters in the New Testament, Paul’s writings came first. It is indisputable that Paul is our first Christian witness.

To borrow a phrase from biblical scholar Marcus Borg, sometimes Paul is appealing, and sometimes he’s appalling. Whether Paul is appealing or appalling can depend on which Paul you mean: Biblical scholars recognize that not all the letters in the New Testament that bear Paul’s name were actually written by him. These scholars distinguish between Paul’s genuine letters and the so-called pseudonymous letters attributed to Paul. First and Second Timothy and Titus bear Paul’s name but were not written by him, and they contain most of the sexist things Paul supposedly said. In fact, in Paul’s genuine letters, he argues for a radical equality of all believers, male and female, based on our adoption into the body of Christ through baptism. For example, in the letter to the Galatians Paul writes that, in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is a good example of the appealing Paul.

We also see the appealing side of Paul in our reading from the book of Acts today. In this reading, we encounter Paul preaching to the elite of Athens on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, the center of Athenian government. Notice how Paul tailors his message to connect with the Athenians in a way that they can hear the Good News he is trying to share. He is preaching to an entirely pagan audience, so he doesn’t rely on his usual references to the Law of Moses or the Old Testament prophets – what do these people know about Moses? Instead, Paul quotes a couple of Athenian poet philosophers. Paul compliments how religious the Athenians are, with their many idols, noting how this indicates the natural desire within everyone to seek after God, hoping to find meaning in the world.

Paul is concerned, however, that all these idols will prevent the Athenians from making a connection to the Living God he is telling them about. Our culture is no less littered with idols than Athens was in the first century, and I wonder what Paul would make of 21st century America, if he came to preach to us? Our idols are less literal than the statues Paul found in Athens, but they serve the same purpose. They are markers of our search for meaning, but all of them, in some way or other, fall short of this goal. An idol, by its very nature, stands in the place of God, occupying a place of ultimate concern in our hearts and preventing us from connecting with the true and living God. What is the ultimate concern in your life? Many of us spend our time worried about money, or appearance, or power, and we allow these worries to become idols, taking up all the space in our hearts and not giving God any room to live inside us.

Paul says to the Athenians that they are looking for God in the wrong places. God is not contained in little golden statues, or indeed in anything that springs from the “art and imagination of mortals.” Paul would say the same thing to us. God is not to be found in anxious worries about money and appearance and power.

Where should we look for God then? Paul tells the Athenians that the Unknown God they have been searching for is within them. This unknown God is the source and supporter of all, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” God is radically present to each and every one of us, and we find God in the communities and relationships we build with others, each person a bearer of the image of God.

Most of all, God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Paul’s final testimony to the Athenians about his embodied vision of God is to tell them about Jesus. God has given us “assurance” of God’s embodied presence among us “by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” Not just spiritually – Paul’s claim is that God restored Jesus’ earthly body.

This was a sticking point for the Athenians, as it is for us. Greek philosophy held that the physical body was inferior, impure – all of Greek philosophy pointed in the direction of escaping this dirty physical existence into a world of pure spirit. It was absurd to imagine a God who entered into human flesh, to live and die as one of us. It’s not surprising that many of the Athenians listening to Paul’s message scoffed; they simply couldn’t imagine a God like this, a God who would succumb to the dirt and sweat and suffering of this life, just so we could know him better.

And yet, this is the God Jesus reveals to us: a God willing to walk with us even when the road gets rough. A God yearning to be with us in the simple, ordinary things of life, in bread broken and wine poured. A God embodied in community that spills forth into the world in abundance and love.

If you are looking for God today, look at one another. God’s image is revealed in every face you see here today, and everyone you encounter outside of these doors. Like Paul, we are called to go into the world and share God’s Good News with everyone we encounter – and in language they can understand. Just as Paul adjusted his message so the Athenians could encounter God, we are called to talk about God’s love in today’s vernacular so that everyone can hear it.

In the gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. Jesus says that this Spirit will abide with us and live inside us. If we open our hearts and invite God’s Spirit in, no idols we make will be able to withstand the truth of God’s love. We think money will make us happy, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that happiness cannot be bought. We think that power and control are important, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that kindness and love are more important by far. And it is God’s Spirit living in us that inspires us to go into the world and share God’s love as widely as possible – even if it seems the world cannot or will not receive this message. The world may not know God’s Spirit of truth and love yet. But it will, if we allow God’s truth and love to live in us, and speak through us.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

We are blessed, 6 Easter (A) – 2011

May 29, 2011

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21 

“Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.”

That feels good. Let’s say that psalm verse out loud, together: “Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.”

How great it is that our God – the same God who took on flesh and lived among us, who was betrayed, tortured, killed, and buried – rose again and still, in spite of our continuing sinfulness, loves us. Not only does God continue to love us, God chooses to abide within us still. It’s all good news!

It’s not only good news – we’re also given some helpful direction in how to share this news with others. Paul helps us with that most difficult of all church concepts, evangelization.

Paul treats the Athenians with courtesy and seriousness. “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.” He didn’t stride into their space and begin by tearing down what was sacred to them. Paul took the time to walk around, see who they were and how they prayed. He noticed the altar to an unknown god, and he built on this. Brilliant! His thoughtfulness allowed the Athenians to hear him with open minds. What a lesson for us all. We’ve all probably had the experience of feeling diminished when someone comes into our communal worship life and immediately begins to change things without learning about us.

This is the way of love. Take the time to investigate the history of a place or a people. Learn about the things that are sacred. Appreciate the things that others hold dear, even if these things need to be dusted off and fixed. Remember, God has chosen to abide within us – everyone of us. This demands that we treat each other thoughtfully and, as Peter says, with gentleness and reverence.

Peter continues offering to his hearers and to us a look at what our life might be as we follow Jesus. While today’s readings sound, overall, like very good news, Peter reminds us that good news doesn’t automatically mean an easy life. Human nature will always be, well, human, with all the foibles and sinfulness, joys and sadness, sickness and health, death and life that living in the natural world brings. No matter how hard we try to do good, we have our weaknesses and we all sin.

The thing that might seem most odd to us is that when we do right we often suffer for it. It’s not terribly reassuring to hear that when we suffer for doing good it’s a blessing. Suffering is not pleasant, whether it’s as simple as having our feelings hurt or it’s the ultimate price of losing our lives. The church has long told the stories of those who have lost their lives for their faith – sometimes gory, frightening stories that make us cringe just thinking of what the martyr suffered. We have martyrs even today who have lost their lives to gain eternal life. Archbishop Romero of San Salvador was shot and killed while celebrating the Eucharist by those who hated the poor. We have people like Mother Teresa who cared for the poorest of the poor and lived a life of self-denial and, at times, self-doubt.

We do good, but sometimes we suffer for it. It doesn’t seem right. What keeps us from just giving up and caring only for ourselves? It has to be the focus of our readings today: love. It has to be the understanding that God loves us and that God’s love is a deep, abiding love, not a shallow, fickle love.

God’s love is our strength in suffering as well as in joy. So often we’re tempted to wonder where God is when disaster strikes. We hear people ask where was God when the tsunami struck Japan or the earthquake leveled Haiti. We wonder where God was when tornados tear ragged killing wounds across our beautiful communities. We may even question how God could let something like that happen. Did God make it happen?

Those questions might even be too hard to wonder about. Where would we go for comfort if our God abandoned us like that?

What our passages today remind us is that the heart of God suffers with us. The abiding, strengthening heart of God wraps us in love and compassion when very human things or natural things threaten to overwhelm us. That love is often seen in those good works we thought about. A letter from an American woman living in Japan speaks eloquently of the love that overcomes suffering:

“The Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.”

This is God’s abiding love pouring from person to person, heart to heart. Jesus told his disciples that he would not leave them orphans and they would also be sent an Advocate to be with them forever. God doesn’t cause our suffering; God gives us gift after gift to help us deal with life. The blessings Peter talked about include God’s presence in each of us. God’s spirit stays with us, no matter how we behave. God is there to help, guide, comfort, and love.

Today it is all good news. We are blessed. We are loved. With the psalmist we can say with rejoicing:

Bless our God, you peoples;
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
Who holds our souls in life,
and will not allow our feet to slip.

Good news, indeed!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.