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Bishop Michael Rinehart

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Easter

May 21, 2017 is Easter 6A

Acts 17:22-31 – Paul at the Areopagus/Mars Hill in Athens. Altar to an unknown God. In him we live and move and have our being, as your own poets have said…

Psalm 66:8-20 – Make a joyful noise to God all the earth. Come and see what he has done.

1 Peter 3:13-22 – For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.

John 14:15-21 – If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.

Mars Hill

On his second missionary journey (Acts 15-18), in 50 A. D. Paul arrives in Athens, the philosophical center of the universe. Plato established a school there, just outside the city gates, in 387 B.C.

Paul would have heard Plato’s ideas filtered through Cicero and Seneca, who believed that virtue was its own reward and that righteousness was a human quality. They believed righteousness was a craft that could be learned. In The Republic, Socrates says that righteousness is beneficial to rulers (whereas Thrasymachus says that crime does pay). But Paul teaches that righteousness is unattainable by humans. Righteousness is not a human quality but a divine quality.

For Paul, to reflect on the law is to contemplate the huge gulf between human perception of what is good and our ability to attain it. (Romans 7). No one can do good except by the grace of God. The world has gone awry. The condemned criminal, the crucified righteous one, becomes not just the savior of Israel, but of the whole ruined cosmos. The powerless tentmaker is laying the foundation for a European religious/political/cultural upheaval: a confrontation between Caesar and Christ. The exalted divine emperor versus the crucified powerless criminal.

Aristocracy versus the people.

The Areopagus is the Hill of Ares (or Mars). It is a spur, jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis, and used as a place for legal processes and debates. The pictures here was taken by Pastor Don Carlson on the LEAD trip “In Search of Paul” April/May 2014.

The first is from the Areopagus (Mars Hill), looking up at the Acropolis. The second is from the Acropolis looking down upon the Areopagus (Mars Hill).

Temple of Poseidon (Neptune) on the acropolis; can be seen from Mars Hill.
Temple of Zeus, as seen from Mars Hill.
Temple to the gods, Augustus and Roma, which the Romans built directly in front of the Parthenon.

 

The legend had it that Mars here cleared himself of the murder of Hallirhothius, son of Neptune, hence its other name: Mars Hill. (A. N. Wilson, “Paul,” p. 156).

Here we have a study of interfaith dialog. Paul respectfully interacts. He does not denigrate their religious beliefs. He affirms their religiosity. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way (v. 22).”

Rather than smashing the idols, he picks one. Looking through their pantheon, their “objects of worship,” he points out an altar to “an unknown god.” Let me tell you about this unknowable deity you worship. He doesn’t exclude, he incorporates. Later there will be other things to work out, but this is a beginning conversation. One step at a time.

Let me tell you about the God who gives life, who doesn’t live in shrines, “in whom we live and move and have our being, as your poets have said. We too are the offspring.”

Paul is quoting Epimenides and Aratus (a Stoic), their own philosophers. I find this a fascinating lesson in interfaith dialog. Paul makes his case for the gospel not by trashing their beliefs and philosophers, but rather by quoting them. He immerses himself in their thinking and uses their symbols and ideas. Imagine having a respectful dialog with Muslims and quoting the Koran to them. One cannot dialog without immersing oneself in the other’s worldview.

Paul is building bridges, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus did not trash her beliefs. “Yeah, you worship on this mountain and we worship on that one, but the days are coming when we will worship God in Spirit and truth.”

The apostle who wrote the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, follows closely the Lord of love, who taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Shemah, Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:36-40). In the coming Sunday’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” This phrase “my commandments” or “my commandment” only appears four times in the New Testament, all in John (14:15, 21 and 15:10, 12). What is Jesus’ commandment? John 15:12: “My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you.” And how did Jesus love his disciples? To the end, as a shepherd, as a servant, washing their feet, and in the end by giving his life. “No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Living in the love of Christ means sharing our faith in a respectful, loving way. “Love does not insist upon its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Here then is Paul’s proclamation of God in Christ, his apologetics in Athens, according to Luke.

An Athenian creed if you will:

  • God made the world and everything in it
  • God does not live in temples made by humans
  • God is not served by humans, as if God needed something
  • God gives life and breath to everyone
  • God made every race from one person
  • God set times and fixed the limits of the places where humans live
  • God is somewhat hidden, so that we must search, but those who do inevitably will find God (Echoes of Jesus: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” This is also picked up in Luther’s lectures on the Deus absconditus, the hidden God).
  • God is not far, not removed (as the Greek gods are)
  • We live and move and have our being in God
  • We are God’s offspring
  • Even pagan poets understand this
  • This God is not made out of handcrafted silver and gold
  • This God calls us to repent
  • God will judge the world on judgement day
  • God has appointed Jesus to be that judge
  • Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this

This kerygma has considerable shades of Luke’s theology (it is Luke’s document after all), but we still get a glimpse of Paul’s missionary preaching and approach through the eyes of a third party.

This text may help us think through how we talk about the gospel to unchurched folks out in the world, who are nevertheless religious. At our synod assembly Dr. Michael Pasquier reminded us that most of those “nones” (no religious affiliation) believe in God, pray and believe in ghosts.

Even more, for the preachers, I hope it will remind us that we do not preach to a homogenous group as we sometimes imagine. Every Sunday we are preaching to a pluralistic community with a wide range of beliefs. In our increasingly secular society, we must imagine ourselves standing before the Areopagus, speaking in love about the God of Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being.

April 16, 2017 is Easter Sunday

Maundy Thursday – April 13, 2017 

Holy God, source of all love, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. Write this commandment in our hearts, and give us the will to serve others as he was the servant of all, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 – The command to celebrate Passover. This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – Paul’s understanding of Holy Communion. I received what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread…

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – The washing of the disciples’ feet and the new commandment to love one another.

Good Friday – April 14, 2017

Merciful God, your Son was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself. Grant that we who have been born out of his wounded side may at all times find mercy in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 – The Song of the Suffering Servant. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…

Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Hebrews 10:16-25 – I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. New covenant.
OR
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 – Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, let us hold fast to our confession.

John 18:1 – 19:42 – John’s passion: arrest, trial, crucifixion.

Easter A – April 16, 2017

God of mercy, we no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ, and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon. God shows no partiality. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day…
OR
Jeremiah 31:1-6  – I have loved you with an everlasting love. I will build you again. Vineyards will once again be planted in Samaria.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 – On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Colossians 3:1-4  – So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is.
OR
Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon. God shows no partiality. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day…

John 20:1-18 – Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb… Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
OR
Matthew 28:1-10 – But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

Resurrection

If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted on to Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.
–Archbishop Oscar Romero, March 4, 1979

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection,
not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.
—Martin Luther

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
—Paul, Philippians 3:10-11

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
—Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22

No Bones About It

A few years ago, a documentary called The Lost Tomb of Jesus claimed that the bones of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had been found. A tomb discovered in the suburbs of Jerusalem had some ossuaries in it (an ossuary is a bone box) that had the names “Jesus, Mara, and Yoses” on them, which could be translated “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Could this be the Holy Family? Was this a challenge to the notion that Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven? If he had risen and ascended, there should be no bones, right? No bones about it.

The documentary was produced by Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, Abyss, Titanic, Avatar). After raising the Titanic, was Cameron trying to sink Christianity?

The makers of the documentary claimed to have done DNA testing on the bones, discovering that Jesus’ bones and Mary’s bones are not related. So this was not Mary, the mother of Jesus. More likely, said the documentary, Mary Magdalene. Now why would Mary Magdalene and Jesus be buried together? Unless, of course, they were married. (This destroys Dan Brown’s thesis in The Da Vinci Code that Mary Magdalene sailed to the south of France, but never mind).

But wait, there’s more… Jacobovici and Cameron claim one bone box read “Judah, son of Jesus,” which led them to believe that Jesus had a Son – shocking news. Could it be? Could Jesus and Mary Magdalene have had a son together?

Well, as you can imagine, there are quite a few problems here. Usually when archeologists make significant finds, they publish them in professional journals, like Biblical Archeology Review, not on a sensational cable T.V. “documentary.” So this thing smells more like a Geraldo Rivera publicity stunt than a significant archeological find. But this has to be legit, right? Why else would James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici make the program? Certainly it couldn’t just be for the money… Could it?

Another problem: Middle Eastern archeologists say it is very unlikely that a family from Galilee would have a family tomb in Jerusalem.

Another problem: The tomb had 200 ossuaries in it. And the names Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were pretty common names back then. Hebrew University archaeologist and epigraphist Leah DiSegni said it would be like finding a tomb today that said “George” on it and asserting that it must be the tomb of George Washington.

Another problem: The ossuary was not dug up at an official excavation, where a team of scholars could scrutinize it. It turned up at an antiquities dealer.

Another problem: When Cameron and Jacobovici unveiled their limestone boxes, lo and behold, there were no bones in them. When questioned about this, they said the bones had been “lost.” Therefore no DNA testing can be done on them (But, the filmmakers claim that they already did their own DNA testing).

In other words, Cameron and Jacobovici found the same thing the women did in John 20: An empty tomb. It is the empty tomb on which the question of Jesus is founded. Christians do not claim to have special knowledge of Jesus’ demise. They do not claim to understand the resurrection or the nature of life after death. We simply proclaim a hope to which Jesus pointed: that this life is not all there is.

In fact, in the midst of a Nietzschian universe, in which humans are insignificant animals in a backwater corner of the universe, the Christian gospel proclaims the audacity of hope – a world that offers more than we can see or imagine.

It will probably interest our people to know that only one set of bones of a crucified man have ever been found. Of all the thousands of people the Romans crucified, we have only uncovered one skeleton ever of a crucified man. This is because the Romans discarded the bodies of the crucified in Nazi-like piles for scavengers. One body was found in 1968. His name was Yehochanan. He was between 24 and 28 years old. The spike was still in his ankle. His arms had not been nailed but tied to the cross. His legs had been broken to hasten his death.

Do the existence of these bones negate the hope of his resurrection? What is this fascination with the bones of Jesus? Perhaps it’s our wrestling with the incredulity of the resurrection and our struggle/fascination with the story of the women at the empty tomb.

On the first day of the week at early dawn, the women went to the tomb with spices they had prepared. A friend of mine likes to call these women the Spice Girls, after the 1990’s English pop group. The first witnesses of the empty tomb were these women. The first proclaimers of the resurrection, the good news that still has people like James Cameron riveted today, were these women, who did not cower in the face of the crucifixion. Mary was the first to find Jesus’ tomb, not James Cameron.

The Gospel of John makes little to no effort to prove the resurrection. The gospels were not written for skeptics, but for believers, in churches that had already been worshipping and serving in their communities for years, if not decades. This we know with relative certainty, both with the eyes of faith, and also historically: Jesus was crucified. He died. His corpse was taken down from the cross. He was buried. Three days later, his tomb was found to be empty. There is little here with which anyone can argue. I am aware that there are still some out there who want to suggest that Jesus’ very existence is myth, but they are on the fringe. The historical existence of Jesus is vastly more plausible than the existence of Socrates, and many figures in antiquity.

So, after the empty tomb, the rest is a matter of faith. I say faith, not belief. For Christians, this is not a philosophical question. The mystical presence of Jesus is one of personal experience, or not. When Paul had his vision of the risen Christ, it was a mystical presence, not the triumph of a philosophical proposition.

The preacher must remember that the Easter Sunday congregation is filled not only with believers, but also skeptics who have been dragged to church on this cheery spring day. There is no reason to doubt the story of the women at the tomb. As A. N. Wilson says in Jesus, A Life,

…no first century Jew, wishing to invent a good case which depended to some extent on evidence, would have chosen to contact female false witnesses… If the disciples had chosen to invent the story of the empty tomb, they would have said that the first witnesses were Peter, or James the brother of the Lord, or the rich men Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (p. 241).

In any case, within 300 years, Constantine would gather Christian bishops from around the empire, who would in turn proclaim Jesus to be “God from God, light from light, very God from very God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This Jesus, noble martyr, healer of the people, victim of injustice, is exalted as an expression of God’s love (John 12:23, 15:13), as Mark Allan Powell says in Introducing the New Testament.

Even an existentialist theologian like Tillich, following Kant, finally has to admit that the agape love shown in Jesus’ ultimate self-sacrifice results in a transcendence that cannot be explained. This agape love is not finite; it is infinite. This, however, is also a statement of faith.

The more orthodox, traditional N. T. Wright also acknowledges the challenge of the resurrection in modern thought. At the same time, he suggests that postmodern thought offers us a way through. “Where modernism thought it could know things objectively about the world, postmodernism has reminded us that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge.” (From his blog: The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma). Reality is not all it’s cracked up to be. Deeply flawed, we simply must look beyond this veil to see Truth. The resurrection points us to that Truth.

Wright, who believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, acknowledges that there is no consensus in the church or in the Bible on what happens to people when they die. To reduce it to a one-stage journey to heaven or hell is a distortion of the message of hope. Our proclamation must have enough humility to leave room for the unknown mysteries of life.

I’m not suggesting that you preach the poles of Wright and Tillich to your congregation or the world. One cannot hurl doctrine at a postmodern world. We cannot pretend to construct or deconstruct modernity. What we can do is proclaim a story that still has transformative power today, a life-giving story of hope that invites us into a relationship. We proclaim a story, one that still has people looking for Jesus’ bones today.

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