View today's sermon on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXMAzRe-l9o.
John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-28 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, adapted
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 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.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Creator, and they will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her because she abides with you, and she will be in you.
24 The God who made the world and everything in it, they who are Lord of heaven and earth, do not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor are they served by human hands, as though they needed anything, since they themself give to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor they made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and they allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.
18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Creator, and you in me, and I in you.
28 For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are God’s offspring.’
21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Creator, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
As I was taking my early morning walk yesterday, the Spirit of Truth blew through me. Literally, a warm wind stirred my thoughts and inspired my words for today. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for abiding in me, for abiding in this body of Christ, and in this greater Body of Christ.
The Athenians that Paul was speaking to, like me at times in my life, sound like they were casting a wide net, hoping to snag on to something solid that they could believe. They did not know what god or gods to believe in so they believed in everything. And ultimately nothing.
I remember a conversation with the Pastor in our neighborhood Moravian church in Madison, Wisconsin over two decades ago. I couldn’t muster the courage to say out loud that I believed in God. When the Pastor asked why I was attending church and considering joining, the best answer I could offer was, “What if all these people are right?” I didn’t know who to believe or who to trust.
Many voices vie for our attention every day. These scriptures implore us to listen and heed the one true voice of God our Creator. These scriptures offer words of comfort and grace for each of us to take into our hearts and minds.
But who actually takes the time to listen? Sometimes the best listeners are a captive audience.
As I typed those words, captive audience, I was brought up short. Because captive audiences are not historically free or free-willed. Captive audiences are definitely inclined to be receptive to the outreach of the Advocate that Jesus promised; because they are in dire need of justice and mercy and they are not receiving those necessities from their human siblings. Or not enough of their human siblings.
It can be a blessing to be stopped in our tracks as Saul was, precipitating his conversion from persecutor of those following Jesus to champion of those following Jesus. However, it certainly does not feel like a blessing when in the midst of some drastic, unasked for change.
Saul was traveling on the road to Damascus when he was struck and blinded by a light while the risen Christ asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) His traveling companions guided him safely to Damascus where after a number of days, something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his vision, and along with it new insights. Saul recognized that he was wrong in his old beliefs and began to embrace a new way of life.
After Saul’s Road to Damascus experience, he underwent such dramatic change his name could no longer contain who he was and so he changed his name to Paul.
As Saul, he persecuted early followers of the Way of Jesus. As newly reformed Paul, he converted gentiles and some Jews to the teachings of Christ.
If I were to have titled this message today, it would have been, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” And the answer would be: everything, absolutely everything. Only love overcomes hate.
Paul must have felt the love of the resurrected Christ poured out over him and soothing his life wounds and healing him like a balm during his rest and recovery in Damascus. The Spirit of Truth must have hovered over him encouraging him to slow down and listen to the voice of change blowing in the wind.
Why does it so often take a dramatic injury or event to get our attention. Because we are too busy living our lives to take time for God, and as Pastor Jeff said a few weeks ago, we are like sheep nibbling our way lost.
I love the description offered by Luke in our Acts passage of searching and fumbling about for God. In my experience and in my observations, we don’t bother to fumble around for God until things start to go sideways.
Paul was speaking at the Areopagus. This could refer to the chief Roman court in Athens or the Areopagus hill west of the Acropolis (the highest point of Rome built as a fortress of defense). Paul may have been defending his message of Jesus to the powers that be in the Roman government, punishable by imprisonment or death, or he may have been speaking to a curious audience that was wondering and wandering and wanting more than their “unknown gods” could provide.
Our scripture cautions us not to worship false idols such as those known and unknown lesser gods with which the Athenians were fumbling. Paul, through his lived experience preached the wholeness available through abiding with Christ. Paul preached the wholeness that only the God of Creation can promise. Paul preached what Jesus promised; that we would not be orphans, that we are all God’s offspring.
What if we were to recognize that Christ is truly present among us when we keep his commandments to love and serve one another? What would that look like? Imagine a life without idols; a life with no false gods among us. No worshiping status, or power, or fame, or fortune. No worshiping the past. No more worshiping the gods of “it has always been this way.”
Are we willing to let go of old beliefs and behaviors when new truths and new pathways present themselves?
I am thinking how very brave our transgender siblings are. They are taking on and living into identities that they know to be true for them despite what society dictates.
How did Saul find the strength to remake his entire identity and become Paul? A parallel question comes to mind… How do our trans siblings find the strength to be themselves despite being persecuted by religions, governments, family, and friends?
Those who know that they need to live honestly, at all costs, could not do it without the love and guidance of the Advocate, who takes on the role of helper and counselor, alongside God and Jesus. Hopefully, alongside us. We need to show up.
[Studies show that it takes only one person to change the trajectory of a life. One person that shows unconditional love, support, and care can make the difference between staying in school or dropping out, between healthy and unhealthy choices. Sometimes the difference can be as dramatic as life and death.]
Saul experienced a dramatic shift in belief. We can too.
We are all of us, God’s offspring. We are made in God’s image and loved beyond measure.
God will be revealed to us. God is revealed to us. Let the scales fall from our eyes that we may see the world anew.
We are not alone. God does not leave us orphaned. God is in our every breath. God is in us and around us, in all of our human siblings, near and far, known and unknown, nonbinary, binary, agender, cisgender, intersex, gender nonconforming. Simply put, the God who is Love is in every body.
Once again, what’s love got to do with it? Everything.
Rev. TJ Mack – May 14, 2023