This is the sixth Sunday of Easter. The Easter message this morning is a message of life. We are called to live fully, fearlessly, joyfully at all times. What a message for this time of social isolation and pandemic; of economic disaster and uncertain future. Listen again, from our call to Worship:
In him we live and move and have our being. For we, too, are his offspring.
Paul used these words when he was addressing the pagan Greeks at the great outdoor mall of Athens 2,000 years ago. Paul was standing on a big soapbox, the Areopagus. The quote wasn’t from the Old Testament; nor from the words of Jesus. Paul’s quote came from a Greek poet named Aratus who’d written the verse two hundred years earlier as a Call to Worship Zeus.
But, no surprise, Paul knew what he was doing. The Areopagus Paul stood on is large rock outcropping that still stands above the Athens agora - marketplace - the center of what was then the crossroads of the Western world. Greece had the ideas and their contributions to civilization, literature, logic, mathematics and philosophy were brilliant. But Rome had the power. Rome had defeated Greece a few decades earlier. The Romans rebuilt Athens and Corinth, but under Roman control and the Roman thumb. The economy was improving, the new Roman buildings, temples and roads were impressive, but the Greeks were oppressed and dissatisfied. The Greek mind Paul addressed was a troubled mind.
Paul was a very good evangelist. He first reminded the Greeks they had always been searching for the unseen, unknowable God. While exploring Athens, among the pagan altars and temples dedicated to Zeus, Athena, Ares and the whole Greek pantheon, Paul said he found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” The known Greek gods were a capricious crowd. The Greek gods, like humans, were vengeful, angry and whimsical as well as very powerful. So, the Greeks, like other pagans, were in the practice of working hard to win their gods’ favor. That altar “to an unknown god” showed that the Greek pantheon of gods just wasn’t enough.
That day on the Areopagus Paul announced to the Greeks that their world was changed: Paul went on, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…
Wow. That “unknown god” turns out to be the source of all life and creation. What the Greeks had hungered for, searched for, groped for. That day, Paul announced the assurance that this God was close at hand and giving us full life.
Our readings today are the message of life; full and rich life. Jesus gives us the message of life in the gospel of John. “Because I live, you also will live.” We’re still hunkered down in a wrecked economy. We’ve got massive unemployment, stalled and broken businesses, we’re waiting for the crest of the first wave of plague, and fear that it’s all not over yet. We’re worried about how we’ll ever get back to where we were.
But we have life. I love our little church here in Aurora. You folks live. You have a clear idea of what Jesus taught. This is a congregation that loves and shares love, that knows each other and loves each other in spite of what you know. This is a church about love and commitment. Your commitment is to each other and to God. You have staying power because you’re running on spirit power, not human power. You have time and space for mission, profound charity, as a fruit of the spirit. But first and foremost you are about love and life.
Jesus taught us to trust God. When the devil tempted the famished Jesus to turn these stones into bread, Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” After the feeding of the four thousand who had come to see the miraculous signs and hear his teaching, Jesus reminded the people who followed him across the lake. “You came because you ate the bread and were satisfied… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Sure they ate baked bread. But no misunderstanding. Jesus himself is the real bread. Jesus is about conversion of life, repentance from sin and redirection of our lives, not about calories and carbohydrates. The real bread is to loosen the grip of our former worldly values. To let go of our clinging to the externals and to trust God. This is hard. That day on the Areopagus Paul exhorted the people of Athens, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Many years ago, as a new Christian, I wanted to retrace Paul’s steps - literally. Paul’s letters to the churches in Rome and Greece changed my life completely. I was lucky enough to stand on the Areopagus overlooking the agora in Athens, looking up at the Parthenon and down the slope to the restored temples and colonnades. As moving as that was, I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t tell you another experience that same day that moved me as much. I’ve been interested in Greek mythology since I was little and I’ve talked before about how I created Underoos and licensed all the characters: Superman, Shazam, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Batman, Supergirl, Iron Man, The Hulk. They’re all modern expressions of ancient Greek mythology. That day as I was walking up the long slope to the Parthenon, a nine or ten year old boy came skipping down the hill wearing a red T-shirt. As he got closer I saw the yellow lightning bolt of Shazam on his red Underoo. He was transformed. It all hit home. The timelessness and closeness of antiquity, mythology, Christianity and modern life. The transformation into something new and better. Mythology points to the reality of life transformation. It’s a form of the Easter message: repentance and transformation into new life.
That day on the Areopagus the Word of life came to pagan Western civilization. God isn’t looking for appeasement. God is not capricious. God doesn’t demand sacrifice, rituals and incense. Those are helps for us. God demands trust. Trust in him. God asks for the kind of trust a baby has in its mother’s arms. God asks for the kind of trust a swimmer has that when she leans back, arms out, the water will support her and she will float.
Jesus taught no credo. Creeds and rituals are important teaching tools, support tools. But supports are not the substance. All our religion can do is to point us to the light, to Jesus who in turn points us to the Father, to the Creator himself. God wants us to get to know him and come to love him. God doesn’t ask for appeasement. God needs no bribes, no gifts. He is the source of everything. Who are we to give him a gift? God wants us to bask in the trust and the fun, the joy, the ecstasy, the certainty that living in uncertainty while trusting wholly in God is satisfying. Satisfying beyond words.
Pope Francis - a good professional Christian - recently preached a homily on how God consoles us. The Pope described how God consoles us in closeness not empty or formal words - the Incarnation means God is with us, really with us humans. God consoles with truth - not wishing away fear and hardship, but speaking simple truth. And God consoles with hope - Christ has gone before us to open the doors and will come again to each of us to take us to Him. Closeness, truth and hope.
We trust in God, in whom we live and move and have our very being. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. Trusting God is being comfortable not knowing what will happen next, but living in the certainty, the surety that God is with us every moment, waiting for us to turn our attention to him. Whatever comes, God is ready. God is able. God wills our good. Scripture teaches us again and again, “Wait, wait on the Lord.” We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, in July, come September or next year. Whatever happens, God is there ahead of us. Wait for time and events to catch you up to where God already is. He knows the future. He owns the future. And he loves you.
Fear not. Trust God. He believes in you.