Sermon for Easter 5 Narrative Lectionary

Acts 17:16-31

How many of you remember reading stories from Greek mythology in high school or maybe even in college? Stories of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hermes, Artemis? If you’re like me, you probably thought they were fun stories, but could not believe that anyone ever took them seriously. But after my recent travels to Greece and to Turkey, where I saw all sorts of ruins of temples to all sorts of gods, I can tell you this: all of those fun stories that we had to learn in school were, once upon a time, deadly serious. I think I finally started to understand this when I was climbing up the steep hill at Delphi, where the most important temple of Apollo was, and heard stories about how people would make this climb in order to hear a prediction about their future that was very hard to decipher. For example, one Greek general wanted to know if he should go to war against the Persians. When he came to the oracle, he was told that if he crossed the river, it would mean the fall of a great empire. Assuming that to mean that it was the Persian Empire that would fall, he took it as a sign to attack. However, when he did, he fell in battle, and it was the Greek Empire that fell that day, and the Persians who were victorious. And yet, people still climbed that hill to seek out any hint of the future that the oracle might give to them.

Today we find Paul in the city of Athens, a city which not only worshiped all of those Greek gods that we had to learn about in school, but that also had schools of philosophers, some of which we also may have read or at least learned about in school. Names like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle should sound familiar to all of you. When we visited Athens, we were told about the mythological origins of the city: the god Poseidon, who was the god of the ocean, argued with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and of war, over who would be the patron of Athens. It was decided that the one with the best gift for the people would be the patron. Poseidon gave water, but it was salty, and the people couldn’t drink it or use it. Athena, however, gave the gift of the olive tree, and so she became the patron of the city of Athens, which was named after her. Because she was the goddess of wisdom, the people of Athens valued wisdom, and that’s why you had all these people in the city who, as Luke writes, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Think of walking around Athens as being similar to walking around a university campus, but not just any university—think more like an Ivy League school, such as Harvard or Yale.

So, Paul arrives in this cultured and educated city after being kicked out of Thessalonica and Berea, because, the people in those places said, he was acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. There was probably some truth to this accusation: in my sermon last week, when we saw Paul and Silas imprisoned at Philippi, I mentioned that every good member of the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge the emperor as divine, make an offering in his temple, and say, “Caesar is Lord.” For the Christians to run around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” was treason to the Empire. So, Paul flees to Athens and is cooling his heels there waiting for Silas and Timothy.

And Luke tells us that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. Now, I’m a little confused by this statement, because Paul lived in this Greco-Roman culture where every city had at least one temple, and more often than not, more than one temple, to some god or other. My guess would be that Athens probably had more than the usual number of temples and idols in it, and that is what disturbed Paul so much. If you travel to Athens and go to the top of the Acropolis, where the Parthenon (the temple to Athena) is located, you will also see a temple there that is dedicated to Nike, the goddess of victory, another one that is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, and the remains of a smaller one to the Roman emperor that was plopped right in front of the Parthenon. Furthermore, there are also remains of other temples to other gods in that area. So, perhaps Paul was thinking, “OK, I’ve seen idols before, but the sheer volume of idols here in one place is ridiculous. God is calling me to witness that there is only one true God in this place.”

And so he does. He argues first in the synagogues with the Jewish people and the God-fearers, those non-Jewish people who were intrigued by the Jewish faith, and he debates with the philosophers who have no interest in the Jewish faith and no knowledge of it. And apparently he makes enough of an impression that they bring him to the Areopagus—which translated means “the hill of Ares”, who was the Greek god of war—to make his case for what he is witnessing to. When I was in Athens, I got to stand on top of this hill of Ares—which is basically a huge rock—and read today’s story. And from where I stood as I read Paul’s speech, I had a perfect view of the Acropolis with the ruins of all of those temples standing on top of it. And I got chills—because now I better understand what Paul was talking about with all of those idols, and the case he was making for one God who created all of us and for Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.

And, when we read Paul’s speech, we see that it is indeed a good example of how to witness to people who have not heard the good news. Remember, Paul is standing in a group of Athenians who, as educated as they are, have never read or heard of the Hebrew Scriptures. They don’t know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or their wives and children; they don’t know of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah or any of the other prophets, and they don’t even know about David or Moses. So how does this Jewish man witness to these people about his God and about what God has done through Jesus? He finds the lowest common denominator. He does not condemn all of the idols that he is so distressed by. Rather, he acknowledges that the Athenians are indeed religious; they want to appease the gods, and they even have an altar “to an unknown god” just to cover all of their bases. And he takes that “unknown god” and tells them that what they do not know is now being revealed to them: the one God who created heaven and earth, and he makes the case, using some of the Athenians’ own poets, that all of us are God’s children. Only from there does he begin to talk about the resurrection of the dead, and that’s where he loses most of the Athenians.

Paul’s speech on the hill of Ares in Athens is a great model for us as we witness to Jesus in a world that, although it sees church as irrelevant, is still very spiritual and is still desperately in need of hearing the good news. When we encounter someone who doesn’t share our faith, do we condemn what that person believes without hearing them out? Or do we listen, as Paul did, and then find something that we have in common and use that to witness to our faith in Jesus? Several years ago, I went to a comic book convention with my brother and sister-in-law. It was fascinating to see all of the people dressed in colorful costumes and to wander around the booths and admire the art and to see different celebrities from the comic book world, TV shows, and movies. And the question that I came away with was, “How would I witness to my faith in Jesus with this particular group of people?” When I asked this question of a friend, he said, “Well, that’s easy. Characters in comic books are always being killed and then brought back to life. There’s your ‘in’.” So I could perhaps start a conversation like this: You know how they killed off Batman in this particular story line and then brought him back to life over here? Pretty cool, huh? Well, I believe in someone who actually was killed in real life and then was raised from the dead. And then see where the conversation would go from there.

This is a key point when we witness to people in our culture who have little or no contact with Christianity. There are so many people out there who have had bad experiences with the church, because the church has focused so much on being right that we have forgotten how to love one another. Witnessing to other people about Jesus is not about condemning them and telling them that their beliefs are wrong. Even though the Apostle Paul was distressed by all the idols in Athens, he knew that condemning them outright was not going to win them over to one God. Witnessing to other people about Jesus means listening to them, listening to their stories, and then finding something that our story has in common with theirs, linking our stories together, and then saying, “I have faith in Jesus, and I would like to tell you my story and what it has in common with yours.”

Even with this brilliant witnessing strategy, Paul did not win everyone in Athens to his faith on that day. Luke tells us that, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” Paul then leaves them in peace, but some people followed him, and Luke tells us that some Athenians believed, including a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Jesus worked through Paul on that day to win the hearts of a few people, and with those few people, the church in Athens was born. Not everyone was converted on that long ago day, and that’s okay. Sometimes we who are still in the church struggle when we see our congregations getting older and getting smaller, and we wonder if it makes a difference when we witness to Jesus. I’m here to tell you that yes, it does; but we may not see the harvest in our lifetime. But have faith that the seeds that you sow will one day bear fruit. So let’s get out there, listen to other people’s stories, and then share with them why our faith means so much to us. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative Lectionary

Acts 16:16-34

It’s good to be back after an extended time away traveling through Greece and Turkey. And it’s especially exciting for me to be preaching on today’s text from Acts, because the setting for this story is the first archaeological site I got to visit in Greece: Philippi. Just prior to today’s story, Paul and his companions have traveled from present-day Turkey to Greece in response to a vision that Paul had from the Holy Spirit. There, Luke tells us, Paul met a woman named Lydia, a prosperous merchant who was a dealer in purple cloth, and her heart was open to the Word of God that Paul proclaimed, and she became a believer in Jesus. Philippi was a city nestled in a valley; Paul would have taken the Roman road from the port city of Neapolis over some high mountains to get there. Philippi was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia, in the northern part of present-day Greece, and many retired veterans of the Roman army lived there as a reward for their service. This was a place steeped in Roman culture and where most of the people worshiped the Greek and the Roman gods.

When I’ve read this story before, I’ve never quite understood why Paul got so annoyed with the slave girl who was telling everyone that they—that is, Paul and his companions—were proclaiming a way of salvation to the people. After all, you would think that Paul would want all the help he could get. But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination was most likely a priestess of Apollo, one of those who received oracles from that god. And the girl’s reference to the Most High God very well could have been a reference not to the one God that Paul and his companions were speaking about, but rather a reference to the Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Paul knew that having that slave girl following them and crying out after them was really not going to help him at all, because then he would be seen as just another messenger of the Greek gods rather than the one God that he was proclaiming. He also probably wanted to free her from her enslavement: not necessarily to her human masters, but more so from her enslavement to the pagan gods. Furthermore, having a demonstration of the power of the one God over the pagan ones could not hurt at all.

And yet, this act of liberation for a slave girl results in physical imprisonment for Paul and Silas. Let’s take a look, first, at the accusation that the owners of the slave girl level at Paul and Silas: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” In the Roman Empire, the emperor was considered divine, and every good member of the Empire was supposed to periodically offer up incense to the emperor and acknowledge that the emperor was lord. The only people that got a pass on this were the Jewish people, because of their belief in one God. But that didn’t mean that non-Jewish people could adopt Jewish customs and stop acknowledging that the emperor was divine. Furthermore, for this new sect of Christianity to say that Jesus is Lord, not the emperor, was downright treason. So we can see that, even though the owners of the slave girl were upset because they had lost their means of making money when Paul drove the spirit out of her, they knew that they had to charge Paul and Silas with political treason in order to get them imprisoned.

So, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. When you visit Philippi, the tour guides will show you a room underneath the ruins of a church that was supposedly the place where Paul and Silas were imprisoned; that is, however, not true; the archaeologists have determined that the prison was likely in another place and the underground room used for something else entirely. Wherever Paul and Silas were imprisoned, however, Luke tells us that they were witnessing to the other prisoners by praying and singing hymns, when suddenly there was an earthquake. On our trip, we discovered that earthquakes are very common in that area, and that an earthquake is probably what caused most of the buildings in the archaeological site of Philippi to now be in ruins and that settlement abandoned. But it sounds like, in this story, the jailer was not so much frightened by the earthquake itself. Rather, he saw that the doors to the cells were open and he thought that the prisoners had escaped. The honorable thing to do in this culture in this case was to kill yourself, because you had failed the responsibility given to you by your superiors. And suicide was more honorable than being executed for failing your duty. But when Paul and Silas call out to the jailer that they are all still there, the jailer’s response is to ask them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

When someone in a Bible story asks a question like that, this is the question I want to ask: Saved from what? What did the jailer want to be saved from? The obvious answer would be that he wanted to be saved from death by his own hand, but when he saw that the prisoners were all still there, he should have known that he was, indeed, saved from that fate. The Christian answer would be that the jailer wanted to be saved either from his own sins or from hell—but this was a man who, most likely, was steeped in the Greco-Roman culture and simply did not think in those terms. There was no heaven or hell in Greek belief like we think of heaven and hell; after death everyone ended up in the underworld called Hades, which was kind of a shadowy, twilight existence. So what, then, did the jailer want to be saved from?

I’m actually not sure, but why don’t we try this? In this story, there is a lot of playing going on with the idea of freedom and captivity. The slave girl in the story was very obviously captive: captive to her owners, and captive to the spirit of divination that caused her to cry out after Paul and Silas. Then, through the power of Christ, Paul sets her free from her bondage to the spirit of divination, only to have his physical freedom taken away by being thrown into prison. But in prison, Paul and Silas show that, while they are physically being held captive in a jail cell, they are free to sing hymns and pray to God. And when the doors are broken open by the earthquake, they could have walked out and had their physical freedom, but they chose to remain captive in order to save the jailer’s physical life, and then received the opportunity to set the jailer free. What if the jailer wanted to be saved from his captivity to the system that he was enslaved to: to be set free from that system that demanded he kill himself if he failed in his responsibility to keep the prisoners in jail? And what if Paul and Silas told him the good news that, among other things, Jesus had come “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”? That’s directly from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth, in Luke 4, the Gospel that was written by the same person who wrote Acts. What if the salvation that Paul and Silas proclaimed was not about salvation from sins so that the jailer could go to heaven, but was instead about freedom from a sinful human system so that the jailer could live a full and abundant life in Jesus here on earth?

One of the things that became clear to me on this trip to Greece and Turkey, traipsing around ruin after ruin of old cities and learning about 1st century Greco-Roman society was this: society in the 21st century in the United States is very similar in many ways to society in the 1st century Roman Empire. As the Empire then was hostile towards the budding Christian movement, so too we are surrounded by a culture that has become disenchanted with the church, many times because the institutional church has been so caught up with being right that we have forgotten how to truly love one another and witness to that love of Jesus, causing many people to be hurt and to fall away. And in other cases, it is because the church has focused so much on where we are going in the next world that we have forgotten that the better part of the witness of the Scriptures is telling how Jesus has come as an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven here on this earth and now in this time. Jesus’ call to us is that in loving one another and in doing what is best for one another, salvation has already come and has set us free from the systems that would oppress us here on this earth.

So, how are we doing at witnessing to this Jesus who has come and liberated us from oppression? Are we acting as though we are free, or do we still labor under our bondage? If we were thrown into prison for setting another person free with the good news of Jesus, would we react by singing hymns and praying? Or would we loudly and obnoxiously assert our rights and demand to be let out? And if an earthquake came and knocked our chains off and opened the doors, would we immediately run out, or would we recognize that the welfare of another person might be at risk and stay physically imprisoned for that person? Because being a follower of Jesus does not mean being comfortable and just getting along with the systems that are in place. Being a follower of Jesus means that we believe that Jesus has brought freedom from oppression to us here and now, and we want to proclaim that freedom from oppression to everyone in our neighborhoods. And sometimes that means speaking up against oppressive laws, advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and being willing to give up our physical freedom for the well-being of another person.

The earthquake in Philippi on that long-ago night changed everything for the jailer. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has broken in on our sinful world like an earthquake, and that has changed everything for us—not only with the promise of resurrection in the future, but also for our life here on this earth. So let’s start acting like Jesus has made a difference in our lives. Let’s go out from here and be bold in our witness to others, proclaiming that Jesus’ salvation has come for all of us here and now, and that now is the day when freedom from oppression has come for us and for all humankind. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter

John 20:1-18

It must have seemed like a very cruel April Fool’s joke, even though in 1st century Palestine there was no such thing as April Fool’s Day. Mary Magdalene had been there with Jesus through the horrible crucifixion. She had stood there with Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, and another woman named Mary; Mary, or rather, Miriam, was a pretty common name for women at that time. She had watched for hours as Jesus was slowly tortured to death by hanging on that cross; she had seen him give the care of his mother into the hands of the disciple whom he loved; she had seen him thirst; and finally, she had seen him die. And on top of all that, she had witnessed the Roman soldiers perform a final act of barbarity on her rabbi by driving a spear into his side, just to make sure he was dead. She came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning—not to anoint Jesus’ body, for, according to John, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that—but to say goodbye to Jesus and to mourn for him at the tomb. So to arrive and to find the tomb open and the body gone must have sent Mary Magdalene into further shock. Resurrection was the last thing on her mind—even though Jesus had talked about resurrection in his ministry, Mary probably assumed that he was talking about resurrection on the last day. No, in Mary’s mind, a grave robber has come and taken Jesus’ body for some evil purpose, and she runs to tell Peter and the other disciple that the body is gone.

But before we get further into the story, I’d like to take a step back and talk about who Mary Magdalene was and who she wasn’t. Back when Jeff first announced to the choir that he wanted us to sing “Hey-sanna, Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday, someone laughingly brought up the song that Mary Magdalene sings in that production, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. And I said that that song would never be sung in this congregation. Why? Because nowhere in Scripture does it ever say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. So, why is she often portrayed as a prostitute? Well, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women disciples who followed Jesus and cared for his needs, as well as those of the other disciples. Luke says that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary. And right before that story is the story of a woman who led a sinful life anointing Jesus’ feet. Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily in the year 591, made the mistake of saying that the unnamed woman who led a sinful life was Mary Magdalene, and since then, she has been portrayed as a prostitute in the Western church. In the Eastern Church, however, Mary Magdalene has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles—she was the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and without her, the other disciples would not have heard the good news.

So let’s go back to the story that John tells, of Mary going to the tomb and encountering it empty, with no body of Jesus anywhere in sight. She runs and tells Peter and the other disciple, who come running to the tomb, and they confirm that well, yes, the tomb is empty. But they don’t do anything about it! They shrug their shoulders and go home. Yes, John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved believed, but what did he believe? The next line says that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So perhaps this other disciple simply believed Mary’s story that the body was gone. We don’t quite know.

But now we see Mary standing outside the tomb, weeping. She had already come to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death, but now she has even more to mourn: Jesus’ body is gone and she does not know what has become of it, and the other disciples seem like they have no will to try and discover what has happened. Mary’s whole world has come crashing down around her. But then she looks into the tomb and sees two angels there who ask her why she is weeping. Well, that seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? If you’re at a tomb, it means someone you love has died, and you know what? You might just be sad about that. But Mary answers as if it’s nothing unusual to be questioned by angels sitting in a tomb, and says that they have taken her Lord away and she does not know where the body is.

Well, then she turns around and sees Jesus. You know, we don’t always understand why Mary does not recognize Jesus, and why she thinks he is the gardener. Was Jesus carrying a hoe or a spade or wearing a hat to keep his face shaded from the sun? That’s the image that I have when it says that Mary mistakes him for the gardener, which is kind of funny. But we don’t know how resurrection changes the appearance of someone. And it may simply have been the fact that, when someone dies, they usually stay dead: Mary simply wasn’t expecting Jesus, the man she saw tortured to death, to be standing there in front of her speaking to her. Perhaps also blinded by her tears, she does not see Jesus clearly and does not recognize him.

But then, he says her name, “Mary.” In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” By simply calling Mary by her name, Jesus cuts through all of the grief and all of the doubt, and Mary instantly knows that this is her Lord and her Master, her great Good Shepherd, calling to her and telling her that he is, in fact, alive once more. And Jesus is not just a spirit, but is resurrected completely in the body. When he tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” the better translation of that would be “Stop holding on to me.” In her joy at seeing Jesus, I want us to picture Mary grabbing hold of Jesus in a big bear hug, and Jesus saying, “Okay, okay, it’s okay, you can let go of me now.” And then Jesus tells her to go and tell his disciples what she has seen, and Mary, joyfully named as one of his sheep and given the authority to do so, runs and tells the disciples that she knows now why there is no body in the tomb: she has, in fact, seen the Lord.

And so, my question for all of you is the same as the one that the angels and Jesus asked Mary Magdalene: Whom are you looking for? Why are you here today? Is it just something that you’re supposed to do, to go to church on Easter to make your family happy? Is it just something that you do out of a sense of duty? Or is it that you want to find hope? Have all of your dreams been shattered, and you don’t know where to turn next? Are you hoping against hope to hear some good news in your life? Or do you want to see Jesus: the Jesus who was crucified, who died for us, and who now lives again?

For those of you who are here to make your family happy or out of a sense of duty, I say to you: Rest easy, for you have now fulfilled all righteousness. But beyond that sense of fulfilling an obligation, I pray that you have also encountered the risen Christ and I pray that you would hear him calling your name and welcoming you into his community as a sheep of his fold. And if you would like to find out more about what it means to be part of this community that follows Jesus, please let me know after the worship service today and I would be happy to talk with you further.

For those of you who are here because your dreams have been shattered, you don’t know where to turn next, and who are hoping to hear some good news in your life, welcome. We are a people of hope, and it is our business to spread that hope to all of those whom we meet, both inside this church building and outside of it. The good news is that Jesus loves you: it doesn’t matter who you are now or who you were in your past. It doesn’t matter if you have enough to eat or are scraping to get by. And it most definitely does not matter what color your skin is or who you choose to love. Jesus loves you, and meets you with that abundant love and grace, calling you by name. We are a community who follows Jesus Christ, the one who is risen from the dead and who promises us resurrection as well. Please let us know how we can be as Christ to you and how we can walk beside you in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.

And for those of you who are here because you want to see Jesus: it is my prayer every week that somehow, during our time of worship, you do encounter the risen Christ. That encounter does not have to be in the sermon, although I am always very flattered and moved if that is where you see Jesus. But you can also encounter Jesus, and I certainly pray that you do, in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion; in the beautiful hymns that we sing and the music that we hear; in the laughter and the chatter of the children who worship in community with us; in the readings of Holy Scripture, and in the liturgy, which also has words taken from Holy Scripture in it. And I pray that you also see Jesus in the face of the person sitting next to you, and that you can lean on that person for material and spiritual support, and that they can lean on you for the same, in our journey together here on Earth.

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene served as Apostle to the Apostles, and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. The commission that Jesus gave to Mary on that long-ago day has been passed on to us. We have seen the risen Lord, and we are charged with telling everyone this great, joyful news. My prayer is that each one of us would take this commission seriously and tell others about our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But we can do this joyfully, letting the love that Jesus has shown us spill over into our relationships with others, and we can do it with laughter. Today is April Fool’s Day in the secular world, but what is foolish to the world is wise to us. Jesus, who once was dead, has been raised from the dead, and that’s no foolin’. Amen.