Easter 6A 2023
I’ve always thought that the Acts of the Apostles reads a bit like a comic book. This fits with the genre, too. A couple of thousand years ago, if you had money and wanted to spend it, you could purchase the collected acts of many different people and read about their exploits. The Acts of the Apostles is the only writing of this genre that made it into the Bible, but there are other historic documents, including acts of saints and martyrs, if you’re interested.
Following that theme, when last we left our heroes, we had heard about the prolific expansion of the fledgling Church—the Jesus Movement in first-century Judea—and we ended on the cliffhanger of St Stephen’s execution by an angry mob. In today’s reading, we begin with trepidation because we see St Paul heading to a public discussion in Athens. The city is one of the shining lights of the Mediterranean world, full of people and goods and gods and magic from every part of the Greco-Roman world. St Paul is going to try and convince these cosmopolitan people that the recent events in a backwater province of the Roman Empire should be of deep concern to them. Knowing how things went for St Stephen, we might well have racing pulses as St Paul begins his speech.
This is, of course, where a comic books or television serial would do a cutaway to another scene. Sticking to the theme, let’s spend a minute with the readings from 1 Peter and the Gospel according to John before finishing up with our brother Paul.
In this first letter, Peter writes to other Christians about the reality of suffering in Christian life. God has never promised that we will not know pain or that we will not endure trials. God’s promise to us has always been that we will not suffer these things alone; God will care for us, comfort us, love us, and suffer them with us as we go. Peter’s letter is, in particular, about the suffering that people inflict upon each other. He makes the case that, if it is likely that at some point other people are going to treat you poorly, then it might as well be because you were like Christ rather than any other reason. If suffering is going to be part of our week, then we ought to suffer for the good we have done, rather than for doing evil.
Peter also makes the important point that a Christian must always be ready to give an accounting of themselves and their actions. We hope, of course, that when someone questions us about why we did or said a certain thing, that we can point to Christ as the motivation. This is a good litmus test for whether we are doing God’s will or our own at any particular moment. When we act as Christ in the world there will be those who question us and want to know why we do things that seem to make no sense to them. Peter calls us to be ready to “defend” ourselves, but this is not about an attack. It is about an explanation. Be ready to defend ourselves by way of explaining to another the hope that motivates us, not by launching a counteroffensive. Indeed, Peter says “Do it with gentleness and reverence.”
When someone questions you, even if that questioning makes you uncomfortable. Even if it pokes at doubts you harbour. Even if the question hits you right in the sorest of spots, slipping like a blade through the social armour that we all put on when we interact with each other. Even then, make your explanation with gentleness and reverence. Peter is calling us to remember that being uncomfortable is not the same as being in danger. This is important and bears repeating: Being uncomfortable is not the same as being in danger. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being in danger.
This is true in physical context as well as in conversation. Passing by the scene of a traffic accident makes us uncomfortable but we know that there is probably little danger posed to us. Passing by our neighbour who lives in poverty, struggles with addiction, or has other obvious challenges makes us uncomfortable but is almost never a dangerous situation. Being asked a question about your actions is not the same as having your personhood questioned. Being asked why you love this Christ so much is not the same as an attack on your faith or on Christ. Responding in gentleness and with reverence for the person asking is our calling. Responding with gentleness, as Christ did when questioned; with reverence for our siblings made in the image and likeness of God; even with gratitude for the question that pushes us to explore more deeply the motivations behind our actions. This is how we respond when we are at our best, when we are most closely aligned with the will of God.
We have the blueprint and the directions for this blessed way of being with our siblings from and in Christ. In today’s passage from the Gospel according to John, Christ exhorts the disciples and us to keep his commandments. To live with the Spirit of God that has been given to us and to follow Christ’s example. The example of washing the feet of others. To sit and listen and share with the woman at the well, ostracized by all others. To welcome in over cultural boundaries the Canaanite woman whose faith healed her daughter. Even when beaten, humiliated, stripped and hung on a cross to die, Jesus uses his final breaths to pronounce forgiveness and blessing rather than curses and blame. Gentleness and reverence for the question of the repentant thief, even in his final moments.
But what about our hero St Paul, mounting the path to the Areopagus to tell the people of Athens about Christ? Paul begins by praising the people of Athens for the priority they place on things spiritual. They are a religious people and he can see how deeply committed they are just from walking through their city. With this in mind, they will surely want to know about the news he is bringing. With this gentle and reverent introduction, he shares with the Athenians the good news and hope we know in Christ.
We are told in the verses following this passage that, on hearing what St Paul had to say, some of the Athenians rolled their eyes and walked away before he had finished. Some others had questions for him, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other interested parties in Judea did for Jesus. Some others perhaps were intrigued and went looking for more information about this god from lands to the east. Some others perhaps felt the tug of the Spirit on their hearts, more than just curious, but did not want to be seen by their friends and so sought out Paul under cover of night, like Nicodemus seeking Jesus.
Surely St Paul was anxious about this speech. He says in his letters that he is not a good speaker. And he had certainly met opposition to his message in other venues. What if the Athenians were not disinterested but hostile to a wandering, stuttering tent-maker speaking of a foreign god? Though deeply uncomfortable—perhaps even in some danger—St Paul resolved that if he was to suffer today it would be for God and not his own fear and discomfort. He approached the Areopagus with gentleness and reverence and through him, God changed minds, softened hearts, and planted the seeds of a vital Church still flourishing today.
What wonders might God work through our gentleness and reverence if we have the courage to share them?