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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/25/2014

Every year during the Easter season the first reading for each Sunday comes from the book of Acts rather than from the Old Testament as it does the rest of the year. Acts, which pretty much everyone agrees is volume two of Luke’s gospel, tells the story of what happened after Easter. It’s the story of what Jesus’ followers were up to when he wasn’t physically present with them anymore; it offers a story about the growth of the Christian church.

Similar to the gospels, the question then is how much of Acts is intended as actual history and how much of it is intended to convey theological truth. Clearly it’s based on things that happened; a community of believers did form and grow against all odds because here we are. But then there are parts like what we had a couple of weeks ago that talked about the people holding all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the money to the poor and the thinking is that it’s more likely that that represents an ethical ideal based on the teachings of Jesus rather than a description of what was actually going on.

You also wonder about places where it talks about dramatic growth, like 3000 people being baptized following one of Peter’s speeches. It’s not impossible, but you wonder and you wonder about other places when you get “Day by day the Lord added to their numbers,” and “The number of disciples increased greatly.” It just seems too good to be true, again not impossible and clearly the believing community did grow, but they make it sound so easy; just proclaim Christ crucified and risen and the people will come flocking.

Today’s text though is a little different and I think, to our ears anyway, a little more realistic. First of all, it’s a classic mission text, an example of the right way to go about mission work, respecting people, trying to meet them where they are, acknowledging that they and what they believe have something to bring to the conversation. So Paul starts out by complimenting the people of Athens on how religious they are, essentially praising them for asking the right questions even if he does then go on to tell them their answers are all wrong but still he starts on a positive note. However, this story doesn’t end with “And about 3000 persons were baptized that day” or anything like that. Instead, in verses that the lectionary chooses not to include, you get “Some scoffed, others said, ‘We’d like to talk about this some more,’ and some did become believers.” Mixed results in other words, results that seem much more realistic and true to our experience.

This is really a great text for us to think about because the people Paul faced in Athens probably come as close to being like us as any group you can find in the Bible. Athens represented a pretty sophisticated crowd and with such a crowd even Paul, without much question the greatest evangelist the church has ever known, even Paul only had mixed success.

For us though, this should make us think about who are the people of Athens in our world and what do we say to them? In his sermon at Synod Assembly Bishop Skrenes noted that the groups least receptive to religion of any kind these days are young people and smart people, because they see religious people as being bigoted, narrow minded, out of touch, anti-science, anti-intellectual, homophobic, judgmental and there are probably a few more adjectives you could add like irrelevant, but you get the drift.

I would suggest that these are the groups, the young and the smart, who represent our Athenians because many of them are at least thinking about things. More and more I think there is another group out there for whom questions about God and religion are not even on their radar but it’s the ones who are thinking about it, even if they are cynical and dismissive, who are most like Paul’s Athenians.

But then, what do we say to these people? First of all, we can take a page out of Paul and acknowledge that a lot of what they say is true…of some religious people…unfortunately some who have the loudest voices. Some religious people do fit the profile I described a minute ago largely because they take the Bible as a literal historic and scientific account of things thus ignoring a massive amount of scientific, historical and theological evidence to the contrary. So we can affirm the position of the skeptics that the Bible has been misinterpreted and misused and because of that, religion has been misused; it’s been harmful.

Second though, and perhaps more important is to continue to make the point that the popular conflict between science and religion is just plain wrong. It’s not a conflict, it’s not either/or, you don’t have to make a choice between one or the other because in this modern world, to be fully human, in religious terms to be who God wants us to be, we need both. I think that those young and/or smart people that Bishop Skrenes talked about tend to think that science and technology and human intellect are all we need and can provide all the answers we need thus making religion and faith in God obsolete. In reality though, we address different questions, we seek different kinds of truth, both of which are necessary! So the answers of one group don’t contradict the answers of the other, instead each serves as a complement to the other.

All of that is, I think, part of the conversation, a part that takes a cue from Paul and his approach which honored and respected the beliefs of the people of Athens. But then what? Paul’s next step was to proclaim what he believed about God as creator. Then he issued a call for repentance raising the specter of judgment, judgment by one whom God had raised from the dead, although he didn’t specifically name Jesus as the one. Some interpreters have suggested that his failure to name Jesus was the reason for Paul’s mixed results with the Athenians; they say Paul should have just boldly preached Christ and Christ crucified as he did in other places and then he would have gained all kinds of followers.

I don’t know. I don’t know about Paul’s time, but in our time I’m afraid that if all we do is offer formulaic, for lack of a better way to put it, Jesus clichés, we’re not going to get far with the Athenians of today. The Jesus talk will come, it has to, but I think we do better if we take our lead from today’s lesson from First Peter where it says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” An accounting of the hope that is in you; I talk a lot about how we are people of hope in a world that seems filled with despair, a world in which many don’t seem to find much hope. The challenge though, for me, for you is can we put that hope in words without just resorting to the Jesus clichés, without just saying the things we know we’re supposed to say.

I can only answer for me, but my hope is based on my belief that the Bible reveals truth, truth about God and truth about us. The substance of that truth is that the God revealed in the words of the Bible, the God revealed to the imaginations of those who wrote those words, is a God of new beginnings and second chances, new beginnings and second chances that I desperately need. My hope is based on the belief that this God tells me that I’m OK, I’m forgiven no matter what, that God will never give up on me, that my life means something. My hope is based on the belief that this God works through the brokenness of life and transforms it. For me, this is truth, in the words of one of my seminary professors, this is the way things really are, and because this is the way things really are, I can never lose hope.

I also believe in the accomplishments and knowledge provided by science and technology and human intellect, but those things are not the source of my hope. They tell me a lot about the world I live in, they make my life better and easier, but they don’t tell me about forgiveness and love and second chances, things I need to know about if I’m to remain hopeful. They provide knowledge but they don’t necessarily provide wisdom and meaning.

For me, what I’ve said represents the beginning of an accounting of the hope that is in me; it’s the beginning of a conversation with the Athenians of today. In response to what I’ve said some might scoff, wondering how I can seriously think there’s truth in an ancient text like the Bible or even believe that there is a God. I can’t do much about that; such scoffing effectively ends the conversation. But others might be like that second group in Acts, people who said they’d like to hear more. With them there’s the opportunity to tell some of the stories, especially the story of the crucified and risen Christ which is the central story of our faith, the central story of new life and second chances out of brokenness, the story that we celebrate throughout this Easter season. From that, who knows? Some of them might follow and become believers; they too might find hope, hope that they didn’t think was possible.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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