Grace Episcopal Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)
Acts 17.22-31 Psalm 66.7-18 1 Peter 3.13-22 John 14.15-21
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery story Silver Blaze the following exchange takes place between the Scotland Yard’s Detective Gregory and Holmes, as they discuss the circumstances of a murder:
Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
We sometimes get an important clue from the dog that doesn’t bark, and we get just such a clue in what happens when Paul preaches in Athens. If you read on until the end of ch. 17 in Acts, you will find that Paul succeeded in converting some people. But if you read through all the rest of Acts, and in all of Paul’s letters, you won’t find any reference to a church in Athens. It seems Paul’s mission failed in Athens, as compared to Corinth, or Ephesus, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, or Colossae. Why?
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery the dog didn’t bark because the killer was known to him; he was not an intruder. To get a clue as to why Paul’s mission in Athens came to little we have to look at what is different between Paul’s evangelism in Athens and in those places where he either founded or grew a church. We have to look at what Acts does not describe. It does not describe Paul living and working in Athens. What it does describe is Paul engaging in argument with the Athenians; it describes Paul using the Athenians’ way of thinking, and appealing to them using reason.
So, what’s the problem? Are we not called to meet people wherever they are, and to use their own logic to persuade them to listen to us? We are indeed. For example, if I encounter one of those many, many people who believe that faith and science are in some way incompatible, I won’t get very far by citing Scripture to them. If a person does not invest Scripture with any authority, what does he or she care about what the Bible says on a given topic? And, if I testify from my own experience of faith, this won’t be thought very persuasive, because most people in our society think that truth is somehow subjective, and that there is not an external standard against which to compare and test experience. On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is a guest of mine (which seems unlikely), and he says (as he does in his book The God Delusion) that “evolution proves that God does not exist,” my first and best response might be to point out how his statement is not scientific; how it does not apply the scientific method; how no testable hypothesis is stated.
We don’t often get to sit down with someone to carefully examine their reasoning and pick it apart. And yet, in St. Peter’s words from the epistle, we must “Always be ready to make [a] defense to anyone who demands ... an accounting for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pet. 3.15). When we combine Peter’s teaching with Paul’s relative lack of success in Athens, it’s evident that sitting down and picking apart reasoning generally won’t get us very far. So how do we make a defense of the faith? How do we testify? As usual, Jesus gives us more than a hint.
Listen again to Jesus’ words at the last supper. “If you love me you will keep my commandments. [and] [The Spirit] will be in you.” He goes on to say, “In a little while the world will no longer see me ... but you will see me ... [and] will know that I am ... in you”. What Jesus is telling us is that if we love Him, if we do acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior, we’ll pay attention and do what He commands, which means that we will be seen to live differently. When we are seen to live as disciples we testify that God is in us, and maybe some in the world (like those few in Athens) will start examining our “argument” (that is our lives) to better understand the why behind it.
The worship of God is not about trying to be better people. By being in church we will, in fact, become better, but that’s not why we’re here. We gather in worship because God commands us to. God commands us to keep the sabbath holy, and He says “Do this in remembrance of me”. So the first thing that is different in disciples is that we are seen to pay attention to God. We are seen to choose God over other options, like sleeping late, or working in the yard, or kids’ sports. Keeping God’s commandments is a statement of belief, a testimony to faith, and sometimes the world pays attention. When we testify to our faith consistently sometimes the world pays attention enough to want to know more about the faith, and it is only then that we get to do what Paul did that worked in places like Corinth and Thessalonica. We get to live and work alongside people who experience what is different in how we live, in what we do, and then they may even listen to what we have to say.
God is infectious, but most times someone who doesn’t know God does not get infected unless he or she is in close and continuous contact with someone who already carries God within. Jesus says of those who keep His commandments, “I will love them and reveal myself to them”. And guess what? When we experience God we get to share this experience with others, that they too may come to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him.
Think for a minute about the people you know or have known whom you considered to have had a deep faith. Did they do great works of godly power? Maybe. Did they testify and argue eloquently, converting the hardest of hearts? Maybe. Did they write great works of truth and build new congregations of believers? Maybe. You may have been so blessed as to know one or more people who did do some mighty work, but for most of us it’s more likely that the people we knew to have had true and deep faith did very little that looked outstanding. What they more likely did was be faithful in little things but in all things. They were faithful in how they lived–in study, in service, in worship–and it was in this practice of the faith that you received the strongest testimony that God was within them.
When God is within someone they become an icon of Christ. Jesus tells us that when we love Him and obey Him, that God abides in us. An icon is not a picture; it is not a representation; it is a window through which one looks to experience a different reality. Are you a window through which a little bit of heaven is revealed? Are you a window through which a little bit of Christ can be seen? Unless you are seen to practice your faith, you can’t be. But when you are seen to choose God in how you structure a day and a week, in how you instruct children, in how faith is not something in which you are passive, then you reveal faith as something alive and to be shared. And guess what? When faith is shared among believers, then it is that God is truly with us. When Jesus says that we will receive the Spirit, when He says “I am coming to you,” He’s addressing us, not me. Our translation gets this right by adopting a plural pronoun. “[T]hose who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
We can only be those in whom God abides when we come together in His Name. We cannot, any of us, keep God for ourselves. We testify best to the hope that is within us when we are together. That’s right, Peter says the same thing. When he enjoins readiness to testify to the hope within, he uses “you” in the plural, “y’all”. We cannot give others hope on our own. We cannot be an icon of Christ on our own. We cannot reveal God within on our own. But together we can. When we gather in God’s Name and serve in God’s Name, when we give at least as much as we get, then we testify powerfully. We testify to each other and reinforce each other in faith. We testify to those who have no faith.
You know what the alternative is to practicing our faith together? It is words alone. It is me or you or another saying on our own how I believe. Like Paul in Athens I may persuade someone, even a few; but we will do more. The dog that doesn’t bark because everything is familiar (which means worldly) will bark. The accepted worldly routine of those who do not know God will be interrupted by that bark. The world may still reject the truth, but our barking will not allow the world to be indifferent to the truth. The world may try to muzzle our bark, but only because it can’t ignore it. Woof, woof.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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