Philosophers learn about an unknown God and disciples receive the Spirit of Truth.
This Sunday’s readings are not very homogeneous—apparently. You decide.
They start with the apostle presenting God’s case to a world of humanists, include a meditation reminding us of the holocaust, continue with Christians whose sufferings in the world imitate their Lord’s, and culminate with the Spirit of Truth imparting to disciples the commandment to love one another in the face of all.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is the well-known preaching of Paul to the Athenians. This is the one model sermon in the New Testament for approaching the non-Jewish intelligentsia of the Roman Empire. The previous narrative (Acts 17:17-21) shows Paul seeking to engage Jews in their synagogues in Athens, but also as encountering Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the market places. The intellectual leaders become interested in this new celebrity and he is invited to make a public discourse at the forum.
Paul is able to begin with the Athenians’ admission of an area of ignorance. They have erected an altar dedicated “to an unknown god.” They thereby admit there is at least one mystery they have not unraveled, one being before which they still stand in ignorance. Paul tells them that he has come to present knowledge of what had been unknown – the unknown god will be proclaimed to them.
He is able to refer to classic Greek poets to establish that God is creator and all people are creatures of God (17:24-29), but something new has indeed come about. There is a “now” in Paul’s sermon that is the turning point from what all philosophers know to what must be proclaimed by prophet and apostle. The first proclamation is that of judgment. “…now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (verse 30), the message of a John the Baptist.
How the imminent judgment will come about is the climax of Paul’s speech. “[God] 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” (verse 31). If the notion of the world facing a judgment by righteousness was not entirely new to the Greeks, the notion of the judge as one raised from the dead was, indeed, “foolishness” to the Greeks (I Corinthians 1:23).
Our reading stops at this point, but we may note that the polite gentlemen of the academy in Athens, rather than stoning Paul, rescheduled him for later discussion on a date that probably never came (verse 32). There is also the modest note that at least two Athenians (prominent in later Christian circles, no doubt) responded to Paul and became believers, Dionysius the Areopagite and the woman Damaris.
The reading from the Psalm has three rather different moments, one spoken by a sorely-tried Israel (verses 8-12), one spoken by a great lord presenting multitudes of animals for sacrifice to God (verses 13-15), and one in which this great lord proclaims his salvation received from God (verses 16-20).
We will dwell a little only on the first moment. It opens as if it were addressed to the world—“Bless our God, O peoples”—but as it continues it is clear that it is the Israelite people who are speaking.
For you, O God, have tested us …
you brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (verses 11-12, NRSV).
As modern Christians read and reflect on this passage, we may be reminded of the Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. Normally that day of remembrance falls around now in the Christian calendar, but because Easter was very late this year, Yom HaShoah, the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, came some time ago (May 1st).
Nevertheless, given the Lectionary readings in the Easter season, it is important to emphasize that all Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death was reversed and transcended after Jesus’ resurrection.
I Peter 3:13-22
The Epistle reading continues in First Peter. The Christians of the late first century who are addressed in this letter have to suffer for their faith. The apostle emphasizes that their suffering is not punishment, but they suffer even though they do good. They should always conduct themselves blamelessly so that there can never be any doubt that their suffering is undeserved (verses 16-17).
The apostle then expands on Christ’s suffering because, in suffering, he bore the sins of others. The impact of Jesus’ work of salvation is ever-widening in its effect, and among those others for whom Jesus died are sinners of all ages. The writer thinks about the people caught in the world-judgment of Noah’s flood. Only eight people were saved in the ark; all the rest died in the world flood. The spirits of those drowned sinners lay in limbo until the spirit of the risen Jesus went to them to announce good news (verses 19-20).
People in the apostle’s time do not face the world flood, but they have baptism to save them with the resurrected Jesus.
And baptism, which [Noah’s flood] 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… (verses 21-22a, NRSV).
That exalted Christ now rules over all angels, authorities, and powers who have exercised tyranny and suffering over all the peoples (verse 22).
Such was the way the apostle gave comfort to the righteous who suffered for their faith in Asia Minor.
In the Gospel we continue to overhear Jesus’ instructions to the disciples about the time after he is gone. They will be known as Jesus’ disciples because they love one another (John 13:35), and when they thus live by love they are keeping Jesus’ commandments (14:15 and 21).
Though Jesus is leaving, the disciples will not be alone. Jesus will send them the Advocate (or, in Luke’s language, the Holy Spirit). This Advocate is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you…” (verse 17, NRSV). After Jesus is gone, the disciples will be in the world but not of it, kept separate by the power of the Spirit. “I will not leave you orphaned… In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (verses 18-19).
The presence of the Spirit is also related to keeping Jesus’ commandments. Jewish tradition counted 613 commandments in the Law that the faithful Jew was to keep. Our passage views the keeping of these commandments as encompassed in a living relationship to the Lord Jesus and as fulfilled when a truly reciprocal love between the Lord and the believers is realized. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (verse 21).
In the world but distinct from it, the will of God through the ages is accomplished in the full life found in mystical union with the risen Lord.