Sunday, May 01, 2005

Easter 6 - Year A

In a farmhouse in Ontario, a candle burns at the centre of a makeshift altar draped with an embroidered tablecloth. Surrounding it are crystals, gems, leather pouches, a feather, a knife, tiny ivory skulls…The assembled women sit in companionable silence, trying to expand their awareness by working with occult spirit guides – angels and fairies – in the hopes of achieving [what they call] “synchronicity.” The healer explains that during her own dark night of the soul, she realized that the human world was torn and afflicted, the result of patriarchal authority which for centuries had drastically constricted the range of human experience. Now, she says, “We have to ground our energy in the earth, and restore primary nurturing communities.” And she too seeks. In Shiatsu and Reike. The human potential movement. Celtic spirituality. Goddess worship. Wicca. Path finders.


“What we really need is a spiritual version of acidophilus [a herbal purgative],” whispers Helen, a devotee of Salt Spring Island’s Ashtanga Yoga Meditation Centre, confiding why she’s enduring another round of yoga’s complex contortions. “There’s a lot that has to be scraped off our systems,” she explains. “We’re just trying to deluge our bodies and minds with more and more, and do we really need any of it?”

It turns out, Helen is a best-selling author and accomplished consultant, yet despite prosperity, influence, and all the conventional signs of success, she admits to being a very unhappy person, profoundly alienated from the world. So she seeks a different path. In Buddhism. Vedanta. New Age. Kabbalah. Angels.


It is a sweltering June evening at the Corel Centre, the venue for Billy Graham’s Ottawa Mission. Ben Heppner’s baritone voice rolls like a tide through the centre, “The mighty presence of God, worthy of praise, the Lord of Lords,” an a choir of three thousand singers sways in motion while middle-aged women and men, eating tuna sandwiches, popcorn, burgers, and drinking coffee, purposefully disavowing the mock seriousness of church. “Religion has been messed up for the last 2000 years,” offers Jim. “This is about a personal relationship with God. Billy is simple, practical, down-to-earth, no [nonsense].” Nonetheless, below the Centre’s rafters, draped with American and Canadian flags, is a cluster of vast video screens scanning, like a great eye in the sky gazing at the 27 000-strong audience.

As Billy Graham preaches – of the hell that people have made, of the end times drawing near, of the unmerited salvation offered by Christ – Jim intones “Amen” over and over, like most of the men around him. Before he leaves, Jim says, “I shopped around, I’m still shopping around – the men’s movement, tribal drumming, Promise Keepers. But Billy’s really got today’s pulse. I’m glowing again with new life, with all the [garbage] around.”

(the profiles taken from Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger: Canadians on a Spiritual Walkabout)

Three Canadians. Three seekers. According to author Peter C. Emberley, Canada is a nation of seekers. It is said that human beings are worshipping creatures. We want to bow down to something. A quick glance at the religion sections at Chapters give show you just how hard we seek the divine.

The D’vinci Code; The Bible Code; The Celestine Prophecy; A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom; The Power of Miracles; The Purpose Driven Life; the list goes on and on and on and on…

Standing at the spirituality section at Chapters, and reading the accounts of seeking Canadians, I feel like Paul standing in front of the Areopagus, looking out at the vast panorama of religions and spiritualities, and feeling, suddenly, very small.

For Paul, it was one thing to preach in the villages. Sure, they had opposition. But Paul and his friends saw great crowds drop to their knees and receive the message that they preached: salvation in Jesus.

But Athens was different story. As Paul entered the city he probably asked himself if the gospel could hold its own in the sophisticated intellectual environment of the university town. He might have wondered how his message would be received in the city of Pericles and Plato. Athens: the hub of intellectual achievement and the height of philosophical and religious inquiry.

If Paul was nervous he didn’t show it. He stood up and boldly addressed this vast, religious marketplace.

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

Was he making fun of them? Priming the pump? Or was he sincere?

“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god.”

I guess the Athenians were hedging their bets with this “to an unknown god” stuff. They wanted to make sure they acknowledged ALL the gods, lest they suffer the wrath of a snubbed deity.

Paul must have known what he was walking into. But whether it was holy arrogance or sacred inspiration, Paul spoke the unspeakable: that a grossly unnatural act took place; Jesus was raised from the dead. There was no precedent for this in their philosophy books. This couldn’t be explained by natural law. But Paul spoke, not with the eloquence of the philosopher or the arguments of the scholar, though he was both. He spoke the simple truth of God.

Of course, this message sounds unbearably exclusive. Many folks today want religion or “spirituality” on their own terms. I get why they do. Many people have had bad experiences with church. Some have been abused, spiritually, sexually, and other. Others feel that religious boundaries restrict true expressions of faith. Still others have, perhaps, seen too many cheesy TV evangelists milking old ladies’ money to pay for air conditioned dog houses.

But when does religion or “spirituality” or faith, become an accessory, not a rigorous engagement with the truth or an honest search for God?

What today’s text does not tell us is how the Athenians responded to Paul’s bold claims. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead,” verse 32 says, “some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them.

You might notice that there weren’t the mass conversions we’ve been hearing about for the last couple of weeks.


Some sneered. Others said they wanted to hear more about Jesus, but not now. Maybe later. No sense of urgency. Even Paul didn’t push the issue. He just gave his message, and left.

I wonder if that’s how we hear Paul’s message about. Sometimes we scoff. Sometimes we want to hear more but life gets in the way. And maybe Paul knew something most of us don’t; that sometimes the Spirit works instantly and other times the Spirit takes a lifetime. That faith is a process of fits and starts, peaks and valleys, and ups and downs. It grows and shrinks. Faith never stands still.

Paul knew all that. He trusted people’s journeys. But he never compromised the truths of the faith. He knew that Jesus really did die and he really did rise from the dead took Christianity out of the realm of philosophical speculation and placed it in flesh and blood human experience. He knew that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of history.

That why Christianity can never be simply a set of good ideas; a philosophical backdrop to our lives. But more than that, Christianity can never be the end result of our seeking after God. Christianity is the end result of God searching after us. When we were baptized, we were named and claimed as God own children, chosen to be God’s people in the world and into eternity.

So today we celebrate the choice that God has made in Kyra Jocelin Hawkins; receiving her into God’s family, clothing her with the garments of salvation. May her life be lived seeking what it means to live as a child of God.

Maybe that’s what Paul was trying to tell the Athenians; that faith doesn’t come from a life time of philosophy, but from the God who relentlessly seeks after us. Maybe Paul would tell our world that he see just how religious we are; but Jesus was raised from the dead not to give us “religion” or “spirituality.” But to give us life, breath, freedom, and salvation.

May this be so among us.


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