The religion on the Greeks

“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” (Acts 17:22)

religious in greek

That’s one long word!

It seems as though religion has always been a neutral word, even if it can be taken with either positive or negative connotations.  When Paul begins his famous sermon in front of the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill for my King James friends), I tend to hear him with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.  “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” doesn’t exactly sound like a genuine compliment.  Of course, one could read it just as easily the other way.  A.T. Robertson says that “the way one takes this adjective here colours Paul’s whole speech…”  It would behoove the preacher, if she is looking at Acts this Sunday, to take some time an consider whether Paul means religious as a good or not.

The word Luke uses that gets translated as “religious” is that crazy long Greek word above.  Like it is in English usage, it can mean a genuine piety – devotion to one’s belief system.  Or, it can mean superstition or slavish rigidity to system of faith.  As Robertson notes, “Thayer suggests that Paul uses it ‘with kindly ambiguity.'”  The Vulgate and the King James Version both choose to read it negatively, translating the Greek to mean “superstition,” while most modern translations choose “religious” with all its inherent ambiguity.

So what are we to do with it?  First, I would say that I agree with Robertson in thinking that Paul wouldn’t have been helped by being overtly negative toward his crowd.  Paul was a smart man, and a wise preacher.  He had studied rhetoric and knew how to work a room.  I doubt highly that he would have chosen a word that undermined the religious sensibilities of the audience he was trying to convert.  Still, as I noted above, in his mind, I’m willing to believe that there is no way Paul would have held the religion of the Athenians on par with his beloved Judaism or the fledgling faith tradition of Christianity.  I’d be willing to suppose that Paul used this word, with all its ambiguity, very intentionally; in order to keep the ears of his audience open while not also betraying his own theological understandings.

This, then, is where we can learn a thing or two about evangelism from Paul.  As I noted earlier this week, evangelism requires that we be fully committed to the validity of our own faith tradition while entering into conversation with the faith of the other with humility and reverence.  Paul didn’t start a riot by calling the people of Athens no good pagans.  Instead, he lifted up their hunger for faith and communion with their gods as an opportunity then to think more fully about the God that Paul would present, whose Son came to redeem the world.

An important caveat

One of my most oft quoted lines from the Bible gets read every Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A.  I first fell in love with this sentence while in seminary.  The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hook, one of my homiletics professors, assigned us an off-the-cuff five-minute reflection based on 1 Peter 3:15b, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;”  It was an interesting challenge to offer that defense/account/answer to a room full of seminarians who were trained to think theologically, to reflect skeptically, and to offer critique of our work.  Over the years, I’ve come back to that phrase again and again: challenging not only myself to “always be ready,” but inviting my congregations to do the same.  We will never overcome the reluctance to be Episcopal Evangelists without embracing 1 Peter 3:15b.

This morning, however, I’ve noticed, maybe for the first time, that the sentence doesn’t end with verse 15.  Instead, there is a semi-colon.  This admonition from Peter (or likely someone using his pseudonym) brings with it a very important caveat that will make the hearts of Episcopalians sing while offering a strong critique to those street corner evangelists who decry the sinfulness of those who walk by, use the fear of hell to coerce, and suggest that only their way is the way of salvation.  Here’s the advice of “Peter” in its entirety.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

the-brixton-evangelist

The Greek here translates as “gentleness” or “humility” and “fear” or “reverence,” which points us to the two directions in which we must give an account of our hope.  First, we speak to other human beings who have experienced life and faith in ways that are different than ours.  When we tell them how the story of God intersects the story of our lives, we should always do so in humility, recognizing that our story is only our story.  No one person’s experience is universal, and we all have our own understanding of God and of hope.  When we share, we should recognize the power of the story of the other.  Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, we must recognize that we are telling the very story of God.  We should not presume to have all the answers, but rather, with fear, awe, and reverence, should be pointing always beyond ourselves to the power of God at work in the world and in our lives.

When we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence, we harm the gospel witness.  We should take this caveat, inexplicably broken apart by the oddities of chapter and verse, exceedingly seriously.  Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you with humility and fear.

The “The” Question

Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:5-6

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one of the most popular questions in search processes these days is how one handles the “the’s” in John 14:6.  While many liberal mainliners would like to simply ignore them and change Jesus’ words to read “a way,” the reality is that in the Greek, the definite article is there.  Jesus, at least according to John, claimed himself to be “the way.”  So, what do we do with that in an increasingly pluralistic society?  How do live into our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” while also “respecting the dignity of every human being”?

It is a delicate balance to hold on to the scandal of the particular of Jesus while also embracing the radical hospitality of Christ’s all encompassing loving embrace.  When we focus too much on the “the,” we lose focus on the grace of God.  When we focus too much on radical welcome, we forget that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  In recent years, the answers seems to be some sort of “lowest common denominator” spirituality that basically says, “if you are a good person, you’re ok.”  In this worldview, evangelism is unnecessary, so long as we all give to the Millennium Development Goals.  That’s not helpful either.  So, what are we to do?

i-am-the-way

First, I think we need to be honest about the “the.”  As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  We have found access to the Father through Jesus, and as a result, we are eager to help others find that access as well.  Recently, I have been a part of the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, which developed a tweetable definition of Episcopal Evangelism.

We seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – then invite everyone to MORE. #EpiscopalEvangelism

Our story is the story of Jesus.  That’s the only story we can tell.  That isn’t to disparage the story of our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or None neighbors, but rather to be honest about our hope and what we believe to be the source of our salvation.  Do we hope for conversion?  Absolutely.  Do we coerce? No.  Are we emotionally abusive?  No.  Do we use scare tactics?  No.  Embracing Jesus as the way doesn’t require that we drag others kicking and screaming, instead, it means being honest about who we are, where we place our hope, and inviting, gently and with love, others to experience that same gift of life.  It isn’t an easy balance to strike, but it is, I believe, our calling as disciples of the one who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.

A bad weekend for Acts 7

This weekend, at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the Bishop will make his annual visitation.  Not to brag too much, but it is exciting to have 1 adult baptism/confirmation, 1 confirmation, 1 reception, and 1 reaffirmation at 8 am and 7 confirmations and 3 receptions at 10 am.  What is really exciting, however, is that I won’t have to preach this week.  Of particular note will be how the Bishop will handle the story of stoning of Stephen with this good group of wide-eyed new Episcopalians.

saint_stephen_coloring_pages

Some things just don’t translate to a coloring sheet

Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a whole lot easier than President Trump would have us believe.  While an increasing number of people might look at us and wonder why we would believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and more people every day shake their heads at what is presented as the sacrificial love of God, we are free to exercise our faith on a day to day basis.  No one is telling us what we can and can’t believe.  No one is telling us that we can’t raise funds for charitable uses.  No one is telling us that we can’t gather to read scripture, sing praise, and offer prayers.  In fact, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the life of the average Christian American from that of the average None.

How then do we read this story of the Church’s first martyr?  What does it mean for those who are “singing up” on the day in which Stephen’s testimony leads him to be dragged into the street and stoned?  What should the life of the average 21st century American look like?  Is there anything we can really learn from the story of Stephen?

The answer is most certainly a yes, but maybe not from the 6 verses appointed for Easter 5, Year A.  If we look at the entirety of the story of Stephen, beginning with the despite between the Hellenists and the Hebrews at the beginning of chapter 6 and running through the end of chapter 7, there is plenty to learn from the story of Stephen.  It is a story about how the Church cares for those on the margins – especially those who are likely to fall through the cracks within the Church.  It is a story about discernment and how the Church calls people to ministry.  It is a story in which the apostles aren’t afraid to name gifts and talents that are required for the fulfillment of an office, which is a lesson the modern Episcopal Church could probably stand to have reiterated.

Most importantly for a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation: The story of Stephen is a story about how expansive ministry can become when we invite the Holy Spirit to be the source of our work.  The Bishop will lay hands on and pray over each of our candidates, inviting the Holy Spirit who has already begun a good work in them to renew their ministry, to grow their faith, and to propel them out in service.  It is a story that we all could stand hear with some regularity, reminding us that each member of Christ’s Body has a ministry, and that the Spirit equips all of us for service.

Abundance is more than a platitude

I preached this without notes at the Parish Picnic, so the audio on the Christ Church website doesn’t quite match the text below.


There are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who get to choose their own texts and those whose texts are chosen for them.  I am the latter.  Our Prayer Book in a section opaquely titled, “Concerning the Proper of the Church Year” requires that we use the lessons prescribed in the Lectionary.  Most of the time, I love being a Lectionary preacher.  It means that neither I, nor you, are subjected to my whim and fancy when it comes to preaching.  Even if I wanted to preach a sixty-two-week sermon series on John 3:16, I can’t, thanks be to God.  Of course, this also means that some weeks, I’m stuck with what is set before me.  For me, this comes to a head every Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is affectionately called (by some) “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Good Shepherd Sunday marks something of a transition in Easter season.  We move from resurrection encounters like Emmaus Road and the Upper Room back into stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.   On Good Shepherd Sunday, in each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we hear portions of John 10 totally removed from their larger context.  It is here that I have the most trouble being a Lectionary preacher.  I have long lamented that bad theology lurks nearby when we read the Bible out of context.  And yet, this is exactly what happens on Good Shepherd Sunday when we take a small portion on one long story and split it into three lessons read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter over three years.  In the end, all we get are fuzzy platitudes like “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

According to Massey Shepherd’s Commentary on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Good Shepherd Sunday is a nod to the early Church in which, during the first waves of persecution, the most common image of Jesus in artwork was as the Good Shepherd, carrying his fold through hardship.[1]  This is all well and good, I suppose, but without the understanding of that hardship, we end up with a Google image search full of sappy paintings of a handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus carrying a single baby lamb with a long line of well-behaved sheep queued up behind him.

the-good-shepherd-wallpaper1

Instead, I’d like to suggest that we reclaim Good Shepherd Sunday for what it really is: a portion of a longer teaching by Jesus in which he uses the extended metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds to explain why he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath day.  During this teaching discourse, Jesus calls himself both the gate for the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, indicating that he is the way into the Kingdom of God as well as the one who will lead God’s people there.  He talks of other sheep that do not yet belong to the fold who will come to hear his voice and follow.  He alludes to his crucifixion and resurrection, and how they are both completely within his power and control.  He promises that those who listen to his voice will follow him to eternal life.  All this is said in response to the Pharisees who find themselves so threatened by Jesus’ ministry that they will remove from the Synagogue anyone who claims him as the Anointed One.

This larger understanding of what is going on in John’s Gospel then helps us to understand what is happening in the specific portion that is appointed for Easter 4 in Year A.  This is especially true of the oft quoted but rarely thoughtfully considered promise from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life can be defined in really unhelpful ways.  Abundance can mean material wealth, but it seems clear from Jesus’ life that this isn’t what he meant.  Abundance can mean happy and healthy relationships, but again, Jesus didn’t seem to have many of those himself.  His healing miracles were often done to those who were socially outcast because of their infirmity, but as we hear in the story of the man born blind, simply being healed doesn’t guarantee restoration of relationship as even his own parents are afraid of what his healing might mean for them.  Abundance can mean power and prestige, but Jesus’ very undignified death on a cross seems to preclude that.  So, what does abundant life mean for this man who was born blind and has received his sight, but as a result has been totally ostracized from his community?  And what does abundant life mean for us, who can follow Jesus with relative comfort and ease in 21st century America?

I think we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to answer these questions.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were stayed in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  For the early church, as for us, abundant life in Christ is the life of faith lived out in intentional community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the regular pattern of gathering with other disciples.  The man born blind may have lost his community in the Synagogue, but Jesus returned to welcome him into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  It is in gathering as the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd that we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (symbolic here in this service, and really good barbeque to follow shortly), and pray for the needs of the world.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians regularly meeting together grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.  I might struggle with Good Shepherd Sunday, but even in my frustration, I am thankful for another reminder that abundant life in God’s love is truly experienced through discipleship in community.  When we commit to studying, to fellowship, to shared meals, and to pray together, we experience the fullness of abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 172.

Where the Shepherd leads

shepherd-with-sheep

A quick image search of the word “shepherd” will bring you any number of bucolic images of Jesus with a crook in one hand, a baby sheep in the other, and a flock of well behaved, perfectly aligned sheep following dutifully behind.  I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding, but I know enough to know those images are garbage.  Jesus didn’t teach the Parable of the Lost Sheep because sheep are well known rule followers.  Rather, as you can see in this photograph of a modern-day shepherd, sheep kind of do what they want, even as they reluctantly follow.  Notice in the back left, as a parcel of sheep veer off to find green pasture while those in front look eager to run off on their own.

This Sunday, we will pray not only that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, but that we might also, by God’s grace, follow where he leads.  That’s all well and good when the Good Shepherd is leading us beside still waters and right pathways toward the green pastures of Psalm 23, but what happens when the path of life leads us through the valley of the shadow of death?  Following the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean we will forever walk in green fields below bright blue skies.  There will be times when the grass looks a whole lot greener on the other side.  There will be moments when the path ahead looks dark and foreboding.  There will come a time when we have to make a real choice between following the Good Shepherd and forging our own path.  What happens when where the shepherd leads looks like a place we don’t want to go?

That’s where trust comes in, I suppose – trust that comes through an ongoing relationship.  When the path ahead looks scary, we can recall other moments when the shepherd safely brought us through moments of trial with care and love.  We can take solace in knowing that the goal is always green pastures and still waters, even if the natural course of life sometimes brings onion grass and dangerous rapids.  It isn’t the moment by moment promise of safety and security that God offers.  Instead, it is the ongoing presence of the Good Shepherd, who has a plan, who watches the skies, and who knows then and where to slow down, hold back, and wait for the storm to pass by.  The journey long, and arduous at times, but the Shepherd is good and there is a whole flock of other sheep who walk alongside to encourage us to stay the course toward the ultimate goal of life abundant.

What does abundance look like?

In 2010, the marketing team for DirecTV was hitting on all cylinders.  Back in those heady days, before Millennials ruined television with their tiny home, young-eyes-can-see-a-cell-phone-screen-streaming, cable cutting ways the war for our cable dollar between DirecTV, Dish Network, and your local cable monopoly was at an all time high, and TV ads where where the most compelling battles were waged.  One campaign, which was particularly ridiculous was the “Opulence, I haz it” ad in which a Russian sounding man strolled the gilded hallways of his mansion, surrounded by beautiful Russian looking models, soliloquizing on the joys of thrifty opulence and kissing a tiny giraffe.  Here, watch it for yourself.

I hate to admit it, but for the last seven years, anytime I hear Jesus talk about “abundant life,” my first thought is the “Opulence, I haz it” guy.  He, and the people from whom he stands in as a caricature, are, I’m afraid to say, the prevailing cultural image of “abundant life” for 21st century Americans.  Is this what Jesus had in mind when he told the Pharisees that he came to bring life abundant?

Of course not.

So, what does abundant life look like?  I think we find our answer in the idealistic narrative of the early Jerusalem Church in Sunday’s lesson from Acts.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were left behind in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  The first thing to note is that abundant living in Christ is only done in community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the pattern of regular gathering with other disciples.

It is in those gathering where we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (real and symbolic), and pray for the needs of the world.  Like owning a tiny toy giraffe, abundant life can be messy at times.  Human beings being what we are, relationships aren’t always perfect.  In three chapters’ time, the perfect community described by Luke in Acts 2 will be torn apart by the fear of scarcity and lies of Ananias and Sapphira.  Rifts happen, and we have to work at forgiveness and reconciliation, but there again, those things can only happen when we are committed to being together: to living in community.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians meeting together with regularity grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.

What is abundant life?  Do I haz opulence?  I have faith, and I have community, so I must be pretty darn close.