The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A), 17 May 2020
May 17, 2020 | by David J. Lull
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Acts 17.22-31||Psalm 66.8-20||1 Peter 3.13-22||John 14.15-21|
Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are my own translations.
Today’s readings lead us into the presence of God, especially in times of suffering.
Psalm 66.8-20 and 1 Peter 3.13-22
The authors of Psalm 66 and 1 Peter wrote about suffering and faith. For the psalmist, suffering was due to exile after defeat by a foreign power. The author of 1 Peter anticipated suffering due to the persecution of those who lived in accordance with their commitment to Jesus as their Lord. Both authors believed God caused or allowed suffering. For the psalmist, suffering was a means by which God tested a person’s or a whole people’s faithfulness. For the author of 1 Peter, God punished those who do evil deeds by causing them to suffer, but God also allowed, or possibly even willed, those who did good deeds to suffer, of which Jesus Christ was a prime example. For both authors, God was the ground of hope during times of suffering.
We also are living in a time of suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people think this pandemic is God’s punishment for any number of personal, social, or national sins. Others see it as the result of a combination of accidental contact with a novel virus in the animal world and careless human behavior, coupled with misguided policies that led to the failure to prepare and act swiftly. Human failures are contributing factors in most suffering. The sins we commit affect others and can even kill them. Those who sin against others might not experience suffering themselves. This injustice is part of our reality. That good people suffer undeservedly is also part of our reality.
The author of 1 Peter knew that. But at 3.17 the author goes further by saying when “someone doing good” suffers, it might be God’s will. The NRSV brings out one possible interpretation of this verse is ambiguous verse: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (italics added). The NRSV inserts the word “suffering,” which is not in the Greek text of this clause but could be implied. Contrast my translation: “It is better for a person who does a good deed—if God’s will perchance wills it— to suffer than for a person who does an evil deed.” I’ve preserved the Greek word order to bring out the ambiguity: Is doing the good deed or the suffering what could, perchance, be God’s will? Even if suffering is the implied object of God’s will, the Greek verb form (the optative mood) refers to an improbable possibility—that is, the possibility that suffering would be God’s will would be remote, theoretical and unlikely, and hypothetical.
Let’s weigh these alternatives. How likely is it that God’s will might be that those who are faithful to Jesus Christ as their Lord should do something good? That’s more than likely: it’s guaranteed! The other option is more complicated. How likely is it that God would will that they suffer because of some deed God willed them to do? Isn’t it more likely that God would will that they persist in doing something good that God willed them to do despite the possibility that they might suffer for doing it? As 1 Peter 3.14 says, those for whom Jesus is Lord shouldn’t be intimidated by the possibility of suffering! So, the focus of God’s will is that those who confess “Jesus is Lord” be faithful to Jesus as their Lord, even when faced with possible suffering. After all, that’s what Jesus’ faithfulness, even to the point of undeserved suffering, exemplifies. He was a righteous person doing something good for unrighteous people, namely, bringing them into God’s presence (3.18)!
The psalmist and the author of 1 Peter share a common response to suffering. Trusting in God, they both envision a future beyond suffering. Both turn to past acts of God that brought an end to suffering and renewed life. The psalmist turned to the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt (Psalm 66.5-7, where “passing through the river on foot” echoes the crossing of the Red Sea) for hope that their Babylonian captivity would end with their liberation (v. 12, where the “wide space” or “place of refreshment” is a metaphor for freedom).
The author of 1 Peter 3.18 turned to Jesus Christ “who was put to death in the flesh [i.e., as a human being] but then made alive in the Spirit [i.e., as a Spirit-being].” God’s resurrection of Jesus was a sign of hope. It offers assurance that, although God might allow the righteous to suffer, even to die as in Jesus’ case, suffering and death are not the end of the story. Beyond undeserved suffering, God provides new life. God’s resurrection of Jesus confirms the assurance that those who do something good, as Jesus did, are “blessed” by God (v. 14).
May these ancient witnesses offer us assurance of God’s loving kindness for all who do suffer and die, especially during this new Coronavirus pandemic. May they also give us hope to envision and work together and with God’s help for a better future beyond this pandemic.
“If you love me, you will obey my commandments.… Whoever has my commandments and obeys them loves me; and whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love and reveal myself to them” (John 14.15 and 21).
We have been told God is “unknowable” and “ineffable,” beyond human words and understanding. But those for whom Jesus is the decisive witness to the reality of God can and ought to say this much is certain: God is love (1 John 4.8 and 16)!
It is often said that the God of the gospel and the gods of the philosophers are not the same. That is true to the extent that philosophers fail to give a credible explanation of God’s love. Classical philosophy struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain how God could be evident in the love manifested by the crucified Jesus, because that would require God to be capable of suffering and of love. In our experience, love is a responsive interaction, a relationship characterized by shared experiences of pleasure, happiness, and aims and purposes. God’s love is different, however, not in kind but in quality. God’s love is also responsive and occurs in relationship with others. The difference is that God’s love, like Jesus’, is “a divine love all loves excelling.” People, with a few notable exceptions, practice love toward lovable objects and persons, and the scope of their love is limited (finite). God’s love, however, is qualitatively different from human love in that it is directed toward others without regard to whether they are lovable—rather, God practices love especially toward those who by human standards are unlovable (sinners), while also loving the lovable (the righteous). God’s love is also quantitatively different from human love in that it reaches out to an infinitely open and all-inclusive circle that embraces every creature: No exceptions! Unlike human love, God’s love does not waver between hot and cold, on and off, mercy and justice. There is no difference between God’s mercy and justice. God’s love is pure and unbounded. In short, the witness of the gospel is that no one’s love is greater than God’s love manifest in Jesus Christ, and that no other love is more worthy of our trust and obedience.
In the Gospel and Letters of John, loving Jesus is not a mere sentiment. It must be practiced as a way of life informed and formed by his commandments. “Love one another” sums up these commandments (see John 13.34-35; 15.12, 17; 1 John 3.11-24; 4.7-12; and 2 John 1.5).
The measure or standard of the love-command elsewhere in the Bible is the “self-love” found in Leviticus 19.18 (see Matthew 19.19; 22.39; Mark 12.31; Luke 10.27; Romans 13.9; Galatians 5.14; and James 2.8). A better standard is God’s love, to which Jesus’ love bears witnesses (John 13.34; 15.12; 1 John 3.16; 4.7,11-12). In Jesus, we see the most radical and generous practice of love: giving his life for the sake of others, that is, so that they may have life and have it abundantly, and that they may know and abide in God, and God may abide in them.
God’s love for the world is also shown in God’s “giving” God’s “only son,” Jesus, so that those who believe in him might have “eternal life” (see John 3.16). One meaning of “God gave God’s only son” is that God’s act of great love for the world was sending him on a mission to give believers in him “eternal life.” Those who “believe in him” believe Jesus incarnated God’s word and love (compare John 1.14 and Romans 8.39). In the Gospel of John, God’s “giving up” Jesus as the expression of God’s love for the world (compare Romans 8.32) is inseparable from Jesus’ own voluntary “giving up” his life for the sake of his friends (John 10.15, 17; and 15.13).
The love Jesus calls us to practice is Jesus’ and God’s love. The Spirit empowers us to practice this love by pouring into our hearts God’s pure unbounded love, which we have in Christ Jesus (see Romans 5.5 and 8.39). One of the ways this Gospel expresses the call to “love one another” is Jesus’ pastoral metaphor when he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” If, with Peter, we answer, “Yes Lord!” “Then,” Jesus will say, “feed and tend my sheep!” (John 21.15-17). In our own trying times, we are called to “feed and tend” Jesus’ “sheep” in many ways. May you stay safe, healthy, and strong in God’s love as you try to respond to the needs of others!
“I will ask” and God “will give you another Advocate-Mediator, to be with you forever—the Spirit bearing the truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither experiences nor knows him. You know him, because he stays with you and will be among you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me…” (John 14.16-19a; compare 16.16-24).
In all the Gospels, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances are fleeting and temporary. Mark 16.7 promises either a second, temporary, post-mortem appearance or a more permanent presence accompanying Jesus’ followers in Galilee. Matthew 26.32 has Jesus make this promise himself before his crucifixion, a promise repeated first by an angel (28.7) and then by the Easter Jesus (28.10). When the fulfillment of this promise comes in 28.16-20, at first Jesus’ appearance is fleeting and temporary, but then the Easter Jesus makes a second promise, but this time it is about his permanent presence: “I am with you all the time, until the close of the present era” (28.20). Luke 24.13-53 also tells a story about Jesus’ fleeting and temporary post-mortem appearances, but then Acts 1.3 says his presence was more than fleeting, lasting 40 days; nevertheless, it was temporary. In Luke-Acts, Jesus makes no promise of a permanent presence with his disciples. Instead, Jesus’ promise is that God would empower them through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24.49; Acts 1.4, 8 and 2.1-3), fulfilling Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2.28).
Only John says that Jesus’ post-resurrection presence would be in the form of the Spirit. Both Jesus’ post-mortem appearances and the presence of the Spirit are ways of saying that God ensures Jesus’ continued presence in his followers’ lives. The gospel resurrection narratives express the belief that God has chosen to lift Jesus out of all the past world, saying, “Listen to him!”
Let’s clarify a few things in John 14.16-17. First, translations of the Greek word παράκλητος (paraklētos), sometimes simply transliterated (“Paraclete”), include Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Advocate, and Companion. A case could be made for each of these translations and, in fact, each of these is an element in the use of this Greek word in this Gospel. Some of these, however, have misleading connotations in today’s English: a “comforter” is something you might put on your bed or make as a lap warmer; “helper” implies subordination; and a “counselor” could be a therapist. “Companion” is an apt term as a surrogate for friendship with Jesus, but its connection with “the truth” is not clear. The term that has the strongest implication of testifying to “the truth” is “Advocate,” for which “Counselor” is also apt if we think of it as a lawyer (see 15.26; 16.4-15; and my comments below).
Second, “the truth” in the phrase “the Spirit of truth” is an objective genitive: it is what the Spirit communicates, that to which the Spirit testifies (15.26; 16.4-15). I will take that up in a moment, but for now it’s important to remember that last Sunday we learned that Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life,” that is, he was the way that leads to the truth and life, but in this Gospel he is the truth and the life. That means “the Spirit that witnesses to the truth” is Jesus, both before and after his resurrection. For that reason, most translators render the third person pronouns with the personal pronoun “him.”
Third, “the world” in this Gospel always refers to the human world and specifically those who have not yet come to “accept” Jesus as the decisive witness to “the truth” because they have not yet had an “experience” of him and, therefore, could not “know” him. The Greek verb often translated as “see” refers both to the act of objective observation and to the act of intellectual or spiritual perception: “experience” seems to capture both senses.
Fourth, the personal pronouns, “you,” are plurals. That means this promise is addressed to the community: “the Spirit bearing witness to the truth” remains present with the community and will be present within the community.
Fifth, the future tenses in v. 16 and at the end of v. 17 are in tension with the present tenses in the rest of v. 17. The manuscript evidence reflects this tension: some have a present tense at the end of v. 17. But then the tensions between the future in v. 16 and the present in v. 17 would remain; besides, the best support is for the future tense at the end of v. 17. One attempt to resolve the tension is to interpret the present tenses as “proleptic”: that is, as almost or about to be true, as certainly going to be true.
Let’s return to what “the truth” is to which the Spirit will bear witness. The Spirit will testify to the truth about Jesus (15.26); that is, that “the world” held false views about sin, righteousness, and judgment, but Jesus spoke the truth about them (16.4-15), because the truth of which he spoke he “heard from God” (8.40, 47), his teaching was not “his own” but God’s (7.16-18).
- Concerning sin (16.9): “The world” believed Jesus was a sinner because he did not observe the Sabbath (5.9-18; 7.22-23; 9.16), but this Gospel says that sin is not believing Jesus speaks for God as God’s “son” (8.24; 9.41; 10.33; 15.22-27).
- Concerning righteousness (16.10): To most of the ancient world, Jesus’ death would have been proof that God condemned Jesus as a sinner, so that his execution was an act of righteousness and justice (see 16.2). The “truth” this Gospel proclaims is that his death was the “hour” of his greatest “glory,” because God did not abandon him to the realm of the dead but lifted him up to be with God, proving Jesus’ innocence and righteousness as well as God’s true justice (see 8.29; 12.23, 27; 13.1; 16.32; 17.1).
- Concerning judgment (16.11): To “the world,” Jesus’ execution was a just judgment, a victory for Jesus’ enemies—and, in the end, a victory for death. However, in this Gospel’s view, God is the one who judged Jesus and his enemies correctly: For executing Jesus, they stood convicted in the court of God’s judgment. By rescuing Jesus from death’s grasp, God defeated death.
“… Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14.19b-20).
Here Jesus restates his earlier claim that he is “the life”; that is, in Jesus is true, authentic, abundant life (see 14.6). This new life from Jesus is possible because he has it himself through his union with God both before his death and after his death. Because Jesus has returned to God, continuing his union with God, he is alive. Because he is alive—that is, because he has in himself true life, life through union with God—the same true life is possible for others through union with Jesus, who is “in God.”
This Gospel makes it clear that life informed and formed through being oriented to Jesus is thoroughly theocentric, God-centered. Fundamental to the understanding of this life is the image or concept of “mutual indwelling”: God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God; Jesus is in his followers and his followers are in Jesus; therefore, God is in Jesus’ followers and they are in God. This “mutual indwelling” helps us understand how Jesus, a historical figure of the distant past, can be present with and in us today. Because Jesus is in God, he can be alive today. God makes experiencing Jesus today a living and life-giving possibility today. One of the ways God does that is through the Christian church, especially through its proclamation of the gospel through sermons, liturgy, sacraments, and engagement by its members in acts of mercy, charity, and justice.
As Paul stood before the council on Mars Hill, he said, “Athenians, I observe you are in every way very reverent. For, as I travelled through the city and carefully observed your shrines, I even found an altar on which was inscribed, ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore, that which you revere—although you do not know it—I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.22-23).
Modern translations simply transliterate the Greek words Ἄρειος πάγος (Areios pagos) and combine them into one word, “Aereopagus.” This could refer to a place in Athens called “Ares Hill.” Or it could refer to what took place there: judicial and/or civic deliberations, or public lectures on philosophical and/or literary topics (e.g., see the reference to Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17.18). An example of an appropriate lecture would be one on the altar inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” For this big outcropping is the site, as legend would have it, where Ares, the Greek god of war (whose Roman name is Mars), was tried by the gods for killing Poseidon’s son. More importantly, it is located at the base of the western end of the Acropolis, on which stood two temples to Athena, the city’s patron deity, a temple to Athena and Poseidon, temples to Artemis, Zeus, Asclepius, and a theater and sacred precinct of Dionysus Eleuthereus (Liberator). Its name and location beg for a sermon about God!
The Greek word δεισιδαιμονέστερος (deisidaimonesteros, the comparative form of δεισιδαίμων, deisidaimōn), often translated “very religious,” has both a negative use, with the meaning “very superstitious,” and a positive one, with the meaning “very devout or reverent.” Coming as it does at the beginning of this Pauline lecture, where it should capture the “benevolence” of his audience, it must have a positive meaning: “you are very reverent people.” As evidence for his flattery, Paul reports he observed many shrines as he passed through the city.
This Pauline lecture segues from one of the city’s sacred monuments, an altar dedicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” For the Pauline writer of this sermon, the dedication on this altar would have had a double meaning. First, writers in the second-third century ce noted the existence of multiple altars dedicated to unnamed gods. Second, worshipers of iconic deities, the aniconic God of Israel was, oddly, “unknown”—without a name and without images. Paul was going to tell these very reverent people who the God was they revered, although unwittingly.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God, who is Lord over heaven and earth, does not live in handmade shrines, nor is this God served by human hands, like a god who needs something from people, because this God is the one who gives to everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17.24-25).
Paul began with the god every god-worshiper knew—the Creator of everything in the universe. He then explained to them something they should have known: The Creator of everything could not be housed in any domicile created by creatures God created. Stoic philosophers held that the divine permeated everything; that is, the divine lived in what the divine created, not in what humans created. Epicurean philosophers were more radical in their belief that the gods were removed from the world, in the sense that they existed outside the world and that they were not involved in human affairs on earth; therefore, shrine were nonsensical. Popular piety, contrary to modern stereotypes, did not involve the belief that an icon (“idol”)—e.g., a statue in a shrine (in Greek, the ναός, naos, a temple’s inner room containing a representation of a deity) within the temple precinct (in Greek, ἱερόν, hieron)—was itself a god; rather, the icon represented a god and/or a quality or trait of the divine.
The temple (ἱερόν, hieron) in Jerusalem also had its shrine (in Greek, the ναός, naos), which used to house the “ark of the covenant,” later replaced by an altar—without a dedicatory inscription! The ark and altar were not icons or images of God; rather, they represented the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people and, therefore, the divine promise and presence (Shekinah). That narrows the difference between iconic and aniconic understandings of deities!
A similar understanding of the ναός (naos) is when Paul described his messianic communities and their members as “temples” (νάοι, naoi) where “God’s Spirit” dwelled (1 Corinthians 3.16-17; 6.19; and 2 Corinthians 6.16). In John 2.19 and 21, Jesus calls his “body” a “temple” (ναός, naos), because God dwelled in him. Epicureans would have found these statements in this Gospel and Paul’s letters misguided “superstition”; however, they would have agreed with the Pauline lecture in Acts 17 where it says God doesn’t need anything from people and, therefore, it was pointless to honor God with objects “fashioned by human skill” out of gold, silver, or stone (Acts 17.25a; compare 17.29: “Since ‘we are God’s offspring,’ we ought not to think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human skill and thought”).
A common move by philosophical theologians is to assert that God lacks nothing in the sense that God’s being is self-sufficient. But the biblical God has “wishes” that are awfully close to “needs.” And this Pauline lecture is about a limited “inventory” of possible “needs.” For example, throughout the Bible, God finds pleasure in human praise, obedience, righteousness, and repentance; and the next section of this lecture says God created human beings to search for and find God, which implies that God needed, or at least wanted, creatures who would search and find God. Surely God finds pleasure in these human activities (which plants and animals share in their own way). When humans fail to do these things, it must make God unhappy and, in extreme cases, angry.
The God of the Bible does not fit the impassive, passionless, mechanical, substantialist model of objects. The God of the Bible has feelings! Even if the thought of affecting God by our actions is daunting and perhaps more than a little scary, the alternative is utterly depressing. If our actions cannot affect God, our lives cannot be in God in a way that that secures the value of what we do in and with our lives. We, along with everything else, would be without value.
Fear of angering God is tempered by knowing, trusting, believing God’s mercy and love. In these times when we have vivid reminders of the fragility and mortality of human life, may we have the confidence of faith in God’s love and mercy that God shares our sorry at the loss of life and our gratitude for so many acts of human loving kindness and medical and scientific skill!
God’s ubiquity — God’s presence everywhere — also is a well-known and traditional attribute of God. In the substantialist worldview, dominant in western intellectual history, God can be everywhere only as an object alongside other objects. But both in Stoicism and in the biblical aniconic view of God, God is not an object among created objects. Rather, God is in everything everywhere, so that a shrine (ναός, naos) is a visual example of God’s imminence and, when scaled up to infinity, ubiquity. God is imminent in all creatures, and all creatures enshrine the divine. That is why this Pauline lecture to Stoics and Epicureans affirms “God is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17.27). May everyone in these trying times find comfort in the nearness of God known by whatever name or by no name.
“From one person this God made all human nations to live on the entire surface of the earth, at the same time setting the assigned times and boundaries of their dwelling places. God created them because God wanted them to search for God, if in the remote possibility that they should grope around and find God—although in fact God is not far from any one of us. For ‘In God we live and move about and exist’; for example, even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring’” (Acts 17.26-28).
Here is a hint of the Creator’s intimacy with humankind, if not also with all creatures. God’s purpose of creating humankind was to create creatures whose purpose in life is to search for God. God wanted creatures who would search for and find God! Then, right away, we are told that searching for God is not easy. It is a hit-or-miss activity, like the game of pinning a tail on a donkey while blindfolded. I’m reminded of the saying, “even a blind pig will sometimes find a mushroom.” At least the blind pig has a sense of smell that can detect a mushroom as it forages in the forest. Our senses of sight and smell are not useless in our search for God, but they are not very useful. We cannot see or smell the biblical aniconic God. But Christian sacramental theology teaches that we can taste, touch, and see God in Christ in mundane things like bread, wine, and water, but only if we first hear the proclamation of the gospel.
Closer to this point in the lecture is the affirmation, “God is not far from any one of us,” because “we live, move about, and exist in God,” that is, “we too are God’s offspring”! It’s remarkable that this Pauline lecture draws on, not Jewish scriptures, the earliest versions of the gospel, or Jesus’ teachings, but from pagan poets! Going back perhaps to the 7th century bce, but quoted by philosophers in the 1st century ce, these ideas are best expressed by the Stoic Cleanthes in his “Hymn to Zeus” (4th-3rd century bce):
Thee it is meet that mortals should invoke,
For we Thine offspring are, and sole of all
Created things that live and move on earth
Receive from Thee the image of the One.
Something of the Stoic idea of the immanence of divine reason (“logos”) permeating the entire ordered universe and preeminently animating human beings continued in early Christian theology. Its appropriation and adaptation in the New Testament, however, is stamped by the Bible. The divine dwelling in human beings is not a “What” but a “Who” or, as the Jewish theologian Martin Buber said, a “Thou.” The God we seek is the God who loves, has mercy, judges, and redeems humankind. For Christians, the decisive guide to finding this God is Jesus. Stories of God’s raising him from the dead assures us that God considered him a faithful and trustworthy guide.
“Although God has overlooked the years of ignorance about such things, God now orders everyone everywhere to repent, because God has established a day in the future to judge all humankind justly by a man whom God appointed, furnishing proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.30-31).
Epicureans and today’s “atheists” would deny that we are accountable to God’s judgment. The biblical God, however, is, among other things, the final judge of every human being. That’s why fear is fundamental to believing in God. To mitigate our fear, the gospel proclaims that God “appointed” Jesus as the judge of all humankind—in other words, that Jesus is the decisive witness to the love and mercy in God’s judgment. The belief that God raised Jesus from the dead expresses the assurance of the truth of the gospel, namely, that the standard of God’s justice is Jesus. When Jesus forgave his executioners (Luke 23.34; compare Stephen in Acts 7.60), he spoke God’s word of radical mercy. The gospel is that we can strive to be perfect trying to do all the good we can, to all the people we can, as long as we can (John Wesley), knowing that when we fail, and we will fail, God, with radical mercy, will embrace us in God’s loving kindness and strengthen us every morning for the duration of this pandemic and beyond. Thanks be to God!
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).