Sunday, May 25, 2014

Easter 6A

According to sociologist Peter C. Emberley, Canada is a nation of seekers. Religious seekers in particular. For those paying attention this will not be new, but he provides some fascinating data showing us just how religiously and spiritually diverse we Canadians are.

But while he offers particulars, he isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been noted before. Throughout history, human beings have been known to be worshipping creatures. We want to bow down to something.

We want to believe that there is something out there that is bigger than ourselves, and that we are not alone, flapping through the universe without any meaning beyond our fingertips.

A recent trip to the movie theatre or glancing through Netflix’s selection will give show you just how hard we seek the divine.

The popularity of the Noah movie, the line-ups at Heaven Is For Real, the Twilight series, or re-runs of Ghost Hunters and the various other media offerings of the supernatural and the divine, show us just how much we search for something larger than our initial comprehension.

Standing at the Spirituality and Religion section at Chapters, and reading the accounts of seeking Canadians, I feel like Paul standing at the Areopagus, as he did in today’s first reading, 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 was 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.”

A curious beginning. Was he making fun of them? Being sarcastic? 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.’”

Smart move by these Athenians. I guess they 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 and revealed who God is; 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: that it is Jesus who saves, and all the time, effort, energy, and resources that went into building these temples and shrines were a colossal waste.

Paul doesn’t hold back. He hits them straight on. Salvation comes from the God who brought a dead man back to life. Period.

Of course, this message sounded unbearably exclusive at Athenian sensibilities. And his message wasn’t met with anymore enthusiasm then as it does today. And for the same reasons. 

Many folks today want religion or “spirituality” on their own terms. They want to create their own faith. They want to search after God according to their own instincts and needs, their own pre-determined ideology and agenda, without the heavy hand of the institution bearing down on them.

And TOTALLY I get why they do. 

Many people have had bad experiences with church. Some have been abused, spiritually, sexually, emotionally, or in various other ways. Church was a place to sit up straight, mind your manners, and do what you’re told. It wasn’t, for them, a place of honest searching or for asking hard but important questions.

Others feel that religious boundaries restrict true expressions of faith, and want to re-draw the lines on their own terms, free from outside authority.

Still others have seen too many cheesy TV evangelists who fly around the world in private planes, milking old ladies’ out of their pension cheques to pay for air conditioned dog houses.

And others have seen churches use their authority to judge others, to bring down the hammer, to make people feel badly about simply being human, to curtail human rights, rather than set people free in Jesus’ name.

It no wonder why people stopped looking at church as the vehicle from which to search after God.

But self-styled religion, and or DIY spirituality doesn’t come without its dangers. 

When does handmade religion or “spirituality” or “faith,” become an accessory, rather a rigorous engagement with the truth or an honest search for God? 

When does a homemade spirituality merely re-affirm what people already believe, rather than transform people through the study of a tradition that others have lived and died for over generations, and how can a person grow through the challenge and support of a committed community, and offer that challenge and support to others?

Just as many folks today aren’t burdened by such probing questions, neither were the Athenians that Paul was preaching to.

“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead,” verse 32 says, “some scoffed; but others seemed mildly interested and said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. 

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 Jesus. 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. Expands and contracts. Faith never stands still.

Paul knew how messy life and faith could be. He trusted people’s journeys. But he never compromised the message of the faith. He knew that Jesus really did die and he really did rise from the dead, and these events took Christianity out of the realm of philosophical speculation and dropped it into flesh and blood human experience. He knew that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of history. The God of life.

That why Christianity can never be simply a set of good ideas; a mere philosophical backdrop to our lives; or just a moral framework from which to relate to others. 

And more than that, Christianity can never be the end result of our seeking after God, because our searching never ends. There is always more to learn. There is always more to understand. The more we learn the more find that we don’t know. The further we travel, the longer the road extends.The higher we climb the more our feet seem grounded to the earth.

That’s because it’s the height of human arrogance to say that we have the definitive word of who God is. It’s God who has that word, and God has named that word “Jesus.” 

But do we really understand that word? Does God translate that word into something we can understand?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. That’s why we keep searching, growing, climbing, falling, scrapping our knees, hitting the ground with our noses, and rising from our graves.

Our faith can so often be of seeking, finding, and then losing again. 

But more importantly, God never stops searching after us. Indeed, God finds us. Our faith is the end result of God searching after us, and grabbing us with a love that will never be let go. When we were baptized, we were named and claimed as God own children, joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, chosen to be God’s people TODAY and into eternity. 

That’s what we celebrate this morning as Breanna is received into the household of faith through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This isn’t just a one day event, but the beginning of her eternal life.

This isn’t just one moment in her years, this is the moment that gives meaning to ALL her moments. 

This isn’t just the initiation rite into an institutional church, but a celebration of what God is doing in her life, and a commissioning, where her gifts will be used for the good of the church and the healing of the world. 

That God has a claim on her, and we have an obligation to support her so that she can live her life as a witness to the God of love who called her by name, and given her a future of immense possibility.

Just like each one of you here. You who have sought after God, who have asked important questions, who have wondered about the God who is known and the God who is unknown, but still carry with you the trust that, somehow, in some way, we are not alone. And that we are loved. 

And from that love you want to do wonderful things for others, and serve the world joyfully.

That when your journey is over, you want to look at your hands, calloused and bloodied from building upon what God has already started, participating in God’s ongoing creation of a loving and just world, and celebrating the gift of life that we’ve all received.

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. And a life of us seeking after God.

Perhaps Paul would tell our world that he sees just how religious we are; but Jesus was raised from the dead not to give us “religion” or “spirituality.” But to give us life, and breath and freedom and salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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