Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 25, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:8-201 Peter 3:13-22John 15:14-21

By Bruce Epperly

Today’s readings invite us to think theologically, and try to mediate Christian spirituality and theology with the unique challenges of our 21st century spiritual landscape.

Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus is a model for responding to seekers, spiritual but not religious persons, and the growing number of non-affiliated persons (or “nones”) in our culture. After observing scores of monuments to divinities in Athenian marketplace, Paul affirms his listeners’ quests and points them toward God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. While he is not uncritical of their polytheism and worship of human fabrications, Paul looks for common ground with his audience. Paul quotes Greek philosophy to affirm Christian wisdom: he proclaims, in the spirit of Greek theism, that God is the reality in whom we live and move and have our being. God is always speaking to us. God’s gentle providence inspires people in every culture and religious tradition. God cannot be encompassed by human creativity – and religious symbolism, including statuary – still God is revealed in every religious quest. The “unknown God” we seek is found in God’s inspiration in Jesus of Nazareth and the wisdom of the Christian tradition. God is more than we can imagine both in grandeur and intimacy, but we catch a glimpse of God in our own lives, for we are God’s created “offspring,” revealing God’s imagery and presence.

Psalm 66 is both hopeful and problematic. On the one hand, its imagery of divine testing and punishment implies a linear acts-consequences theology. A nation is punished when it turns away from God; its enemies become God’s instruments of retributive justice. When a nation returns to God, its fortunes are restored. This passage is problematic when universalized: it implies that we are completely responsible for the evils that torment us and those we love. Our impiety brings on divine punishment. In contrast, life presents us with a much more complex and complicated understanding of success and failure, and health and illness.

On the other hand, the Psalm suggests that prayer and religious piety open us to new possibilities. Confession unblocks the energies of life and enables us to experience greater abundance of divine life. Success is not guaranteed, but confession opens us to new pathways of divine blessing. What we do matters to God and can enhance or stall divine energies in our lives. God’s presence in our lives is conditioned in part by our values and actions. God does not punish, but works in accordance with the quality of our spiritual, economic, and relational lives.

I Peter 3:13-22 is theologically packed. First, the passage challenges us to make creative theological defenses of the faith, in gentle and loving ways. Like the apostle Paul in Athens, we need to be theologically astute, able to respond creatively to the challenges emerging from our cultural and religious situation. Theology is contextual and responsive, and we can bold in proclamation and open to the insights of the world beyond the church. Second, the passage implies that suffering may be God’s will. This begs the question: How does the notion that suffering is God’s will square with the notion that Christ seeks abundant life for all creation? Where does God’s benevolent will fit in when people are unable to surmount their sufferings, and are emotionally, physically, or spiritually devastated by the God-given challenges presented to them?

Finally, the words of I Peter invite us to consider the following question: What are we to make of Christ’s proclamation to the spirits in prison, in Sheol? Does this mean that the stretch of God’s aim at salvation extends to the afterlife? Will all be offered healing and wholeness beyond the grave? Is there an implied universalism in Peter’s understanding of Christ’s proclamation in the underworld?

John’s Gospel sees love at the heart of following Jesus. Those who claim to be Christ’s followers place love in its many forms at the heart their lives: they reach out to strangers and seek healing for all creation. God is love and we are most aligned with God’s vision when we embody God’s love in daily life. Love is also a gift from God. Jesus promises the Spirit, an advocate, an inner voice and energy, to guide our own spiritual journeys. We are never left alone or without insight. The one in whom we live and move and have our being constantly speaks within our lives, giving us guidance and courage. This is good news for preachers and congregations as we seek to be faithful to God’s vision in our pluralistic spiritual environment.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of over thirty books in theology, ministry, scripture, healing, and spirituality including, Process Theology: A Guide for the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God. He may be reached for conversation and speaking engagements