Friday, May 27, 2011

For the Defense -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

For the Defense

            Apologetics isn’t something that progressive Christians often engage in; at least we don’t call it that.  Apologetics is that theological discipline that seeks to offer a defense of the Christian faith.  When I think of this word people like Josh McDowell come to mind.  He presents the evidence and demands that we decide for or against the evidence, which is stacked in favor of his position.  But, we live in an age when matters of faith are in question.  Like Friedrich Schleiermacher two centuries back, as well as Paul two millennia ago, we face our own set of cultured despisers.  We face questions that range from the intellectual to the moral.  How can you believe in fairy tales?  asks Richard Dawkins.  Or, how can you believe in a God who allows pain and suffering, such as being experienced by the people of Joplin, Missouri?  What kind of God is this that you’re proclaiming?  There is something of the apologetic in the texts for this week.  Paul is in Athens debating with the philosophers, while in 1 Peter we read the call to be ready to make our defense when called upon.  Finally, in John we hear Jesus remind his disciples that even as he leaves, he will send to them the Paraclete (the advocate), who is the Spirit of Truth.  So the question is posed – are you ready to make your defense?

            In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens and in the course of his wanderings through the city begins to engage folks in conversation.  He goes to the Areopagus, the place where judgment was passed, and gives a speech.  He wants to give a defense of the gospel in terms that these Athenians would understand.  He draws upon their religious sensibilities and their philosophical acumen.   He starts with theology – noting that in his journey through the city he had discovered a shrine to the “unknown god,” a sign that the Athenians wanted to make sure every option was covered.  Paul then offers the God who created the world and everything in it – the Lord of heaven and earth – the God who needs no earthly home.  Unlike the henotheistic/nationalistic deities that the Athenians worshiped, this God was the one who set the national boundaries and stood above all boundaries and deities.  Paul doesn’t make a straight-line defense of monotheism, but he does suggest that the one they worshiped in ignorance was the Creator of all things.  Though we grope after this God in our ignorance, the truth is that God is not far from each of us.
            Paul doesn’t stop with theology.  He goes on to philosophy – something the Athenians loved.  He draws from a Greek poet who had written of deity, that “in him we live, and move, and have our being.”  This aspect of Paul’s defense is reflected in Paul Tillich’s idea that God is the Ground of Being – even Being itself.  We have our existence in God.  We have within us what Calvin called the “spark of divinity.”  There is no need for idols of silver and gold, for humanity bears the image of God, and thus we bear witness in our own lives to God’s presence and reality – thus, and here Paul brings his message to bear on the listeners – you are without excuse, you have enough evidence of God’s truth to live accordingly.  Listen to that inner voice and you’ll know what God desires of you, so that on the Day of Judgment you’ll know the truth, of which God has given assurance by raising Jesus from the dead.  I wish I could say that Paul’s apologetical preaching in Athens was successful, but there’s no evidence that he planted a church there.  The Athenians didn’t rally to his cause, nor did they run him out of town.  To them, he was just another odd ball philosopher talking religion.  Paul’s experience should be a warning to us that intellectual defenses, though necessary, often fail to hit their mark.

            Nonetheless, be ready to make your defense, as the first letter of Peter tells us.  If someone asks you, tell them why you believe.  In this letter, the focus is less philosophical/theological and more behavioral.  If you do what is good you have no need to fear or be intimidated.  Speak with gentleness and reverence.  Keep a clear conscience, so that when you’re maligned or questioned, it won’t be because of your behavior.  In fact, because of your behavior you will put your questioners to shame.  The author of this letter does recognize that suffering is a problem to deal with.  If we suffer make sure it is as a result of doing what is right rather than doing what is evil.  And in this regard he points the reader to Jesus, who suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous, so as to bring you to God.  He died in the flesh, but was made alive in the Spirit.  There isn’t anything here about an elaborate atonement theory – just the recognition that Christ suffered for righteousness, and in doing so serves as a model for their (our) behavior in the face of misunderstanding and even persecution.
Now, something needs to be said about the verses that follow.  1 Peter raises interesting questions that may puzzle the modern reader.  We may wonder what he means by Jesus preaching to the spirits who are in prison who didn’t obey in former times.  We’re not told here if these are human beings who failed to obey God prior to the coming of Jesus or whether these are angels/demons.  Whatever the case, verses like these at least spur our imagination!  The discussion moves on through Noah to the question of baptism.  Thus, even as the family of Noah is saved through water, so we are saved through baptism – not as a washing away of dirt, but as an appeal to good conscience.  In this statement we reflect back to Peter’s point that we are to represent our faith through our conduct.  In so doing, we give witness to Jesus, who now sits at the right hand of God, with the angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.  All of this is likely part of an ancient hymn to God, but it points out the importance of our behavior to our witness – that is our defense of the gospel.

In John’s gospel we find a text that is familiar to many because it is often read at funerals and memorial services.   In this passage that John places in the Garden, Jesus is making his farewell speech, and he promises that even though he will depart from them, he will go and prepare a place for them.  Yes, in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and Jesus promises that he will return for them.  So, simply because he departs from them, doesn’t mean they are orphaned.  Jesus is the representative of the Father, who is within him.  Thus, even as the Father is in Jesus and we are in him and he is in us “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17).  These texts have this sense about them that God can be best described theological in “panentheistic” terms.  Not that God and the Creation are identical, but we are in God, even as God is in us.  That seems to be the message that John’s Jesus wants to leave with us.  The question then is how this is to be experienced. 

The Johannine passage begins by setting out the parameters of Christian life:  “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Simply saying “I love you” to Jesus isn’t enough – it needs to be demonstrated in one’s behavior.  Remember 1 Peter!  But we don’t go on this journey alone.  Jesus after all promises that we’ll not be left orphaned, even though his followers will no longer see him in the flesh.  The promise given here is that Jesus will send an Advocate (Paraclete).  I realize that this word has different nuances – comforter and helper being two of them.  But in line with the theme of the day, it seems that the more “lawyerly” advocacy sense seems appropriate, and according to Craddock and Boring it is probably the best rendering of the word.  You see this sense reflected in the further definition of what this Advocate is to be for them.  The Paraclete is the Spirit of Truth.  The problem is that the world neither sees nor hears this Spirit, but they (the disciples, the recipients of this gospel, and those who keep the commandments of Jesus) they know the Spirit of Truth, and as a result the Spirit will abide in them, and they in the Spirit. 

In line with the overall theme here of giving a defense, it would seem that John is making it clear that because the Spirit – the Advocate – dwells in us, and we dwell in the Spirit, then the Advocate makes the case in and through us to the world.  In our behavior (keeping the commandments of Jesus) we demonstrate the presence of God in the world which we live.  I’m all for an intellectualized faith, but it’s clear that by itself, such a faith has little relevance to the world.  Some will judge the faith on the basis of its intellectual foundations – though the Athenians didn’t seem overly impressed and Schleiermacher’s cultured despisers haven’t gone away – it appears that the best defense is one’s life – living the life that reflects the Spirit of Jesus who lived and died in faithfulness to God’s vision for the world.  Is this a call to works-righteousness?  No, I don’t think so.  The full measure of the gospel includes grace, but it also includes expectations that we will live in a way that reflects the person of Jesus, who reveals to us the person of God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”  

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