We’re a long way from rural Galilee this Sunday. The gospel has come far in a very short time (from Palestine to Greece). As it travels it puts on new clothes to fit in with the locals. This acculturation of the word should not be confused with compromise. The kerygma remains intact even as it models new fashions in hopes of attracting a suitor. This acculturation also should not be confused with superficial pretense. The gospel is not trying to lure adherents through a false presentation of itself–the truth is the gospel has always come to us with clothes on. There is no pure gospel that stands apart from culture. The Word has always been incarnate. It is always enfleshed, always dressed up, it always finds a starting point of connection for our benefit.
Paul’s sermon before the Athenian Aeropagus is unlike anything else we read in Acts. It is the only major sermon in Acts delivered before a polytheistic audience. It is the only major sermon in Acts that quotes no scripture (Paul does manage to quote two pagan poets: Epimenides and Aratus). Paul’s Athenian audience was known for its intellectual acumen. If this were a modern U.S. missionary story it would be ‘Paul goes to Cambridge, Mass.’, or ‘Paul goes to New Haven, Conn.’ (that’s Yale people).
Yet even as the gospel goes to new and intriguing places in rapid fashion, and adorns itself with new clothes, it remains the ‘good news about Jesus Christ.’ Paul concludes his sermon by proclaiming the bodily resurrection. For some in Athens there was no amount of clothes that could make bodily resurrection intellectually attractive. They ‘scoffed’ at Paul and his ‘new’ ideas. Others decided the foreign idea in familiar clothes was worth a second date.
Our preaching of the gospel will meet similar reaction. As we proclaim the ‘unknown God’ we will do so in word and deed that is familiar to our listeners. At the same time we will point to the centrality of Jesus and the miracle of the resurrection as the hope for God’s promised future. The resurrection will be a dividing line. For many the resurrection will not pass the intellectual plausibility test and they will conclude that nothing dead can be made alive. For others the acculturation of the gospel, and the testimony about the resurrection, will be the promise of hope that they too–though they are dead–can be made new again.
Psalm 66 functions as a response to our Acts reading in that it promotes the mission of proclaiming the goodness of God to all the earth. Earlier in the Psalm the psalmist will invite ‘all the earth’ to hear the psalmist’s thanksgivings (verses 1, 4). The psalmist implores the people, “come and hear…and I will tell what God has done (verse 16).” The message the psalmist wishes to share about God is that God brought life out of death: “…we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (verse 12). The psalmist proclaims the same God that Paul proclaimed to the Athenians–the God of resurrection.
1 Peter says a lot about suffering. This shouldn’t at all surprise us, for the Christians of the first century were a weak minority, and often persecuted in official and unofficial ways. Further, Christians worshiped a suffering messiah who suffered for doing good. The readers of 1 Peter were encouraged to view their current suffering as producing a special bond between themselves and Jesus. We are Christian both in our emulation of all that Jesus did and said, and we are also Christian in receiving the world’s punitive reaction to Jesus’ prophetic work. When we receive this reaction we are not to lash out in our anger and sin, for “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (verse 17).
1 Peter asserts that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (verse 18). This is the eschatalogical hope of all who suffer–though they maim and kill the body, they cannot kill the Spirit that re-enlivens the believer.
Our gospel lection reminds us that in our proclamation of the faith Jesus will not “leave us orphaned” (verse 18). We will be given an adoptive care taker who will serve as a wise and nurturing parent leading us to maturity in the faith. The one Jesus will trust with our care is the “Advocate” and the “Spirit of truth.” The word advocate (parakletos) means one who is called to another’s side in order to offer assistance. The Spirit of truth is the Spirit present and available to those who believe, but hidden from the world.
We struggle with our understanding of the Spirit. Sometimes we reduce the Spirit to the sum of our religious ‘experiences’ manifested in moments of ecstatic rapture. At other times the Spirit is ambiguously defined as a subjective notion that something exists in the great beyond. John tell us that the Spirit “abides in us” providing us help and truth. John is adamant that the Spirit makes an objective difference in the life of the believer–a difference not found in the world. The Spirit is what “sets apart” (sanctifies) the believer. The early church mandated the reception of Spirit by believers (cf. Acts 8:16ff). It is this same Spirit today that imbibes us and allows us to fall in love with the person and will of God.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider your presentation of the risen Christ to our postmodern, post-denominational, post-christian, post-everything world. How does the gospel “dress up” to meet the complex needs of our global humanity? How does the word put on flesh and live amongst us? How do we fight our way through the jaded skepticism that cries out in defeat, believing that the dead can never again see life?
The death of Jesus’ body resulted in life in the Spirit. Do you feel the advocate’s presence, helping us find new ways to engage the world? Our gospel boldly declares that the Spirit is within us and is making an objective difference. When the Spirit came to us as believers we were forever changed. The Spirit is deconstructing our former selves and reconstructing our future selves into the untainted image of God. We are not left “orphans”–we are adopted heirs of the kingdom. It is time to apprentice ourselves to our parent in heaven and proclaim the resurrected Christ in every way we can imagine, with the help of the Spirit of Truth.