Sermon - 6 Easter
In the Name...
There is a saying that translators are traitors. This is because language is always subject to cultural idiosyncrasies. The Chevy Nova, for example, a car named for a word meaning “new”, had to have its name changed in South America because, in Spanish, “No Va” means “It won’t go.” And, when the Protestant Episcopal Church began to evangelize China, it discovered that the denomination’s name meant, in Chinese, “Gathering of Quarrelling Elders.” Hmm. Maybe the Chinese were on to something, there.
This morning's Scriptures presented us with the scene of Paul preaching in Athens, the intellectual capital of the pagan world. Luke comments that the Athenians “liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest new thing." And, he might have added, "believing everything and nothing." In Athens they worshipped Athena, Poseidon, Zeus, Ares, Hermes, and dozens of others. Paul has even found an altar dedicated “To The Unknown God”, just in case they missed one.
So, this altar became the starting point for his message. Paul did not say that their building of this altar was a good thing to do. But, he said it was good that they acknowledged that they didn't have all the answers. Paul says he can help them because he happens to know the Unknown God. It is his God to whom they have been reaching out and this is what he wants to tell them.
It's really quite a sermon and you can sense Paul's passion in delivering it which is why it's good for us to pause for a moment and consider just who is giving this sermon - a man who, not long before, had been killing people for saying these exact same words.
Paul was what we would call today a university graduate from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, an intellectual, a thinker. And, he was a religious zealot – hyper Jewish orthodox. To him, Christians were a plague, an infection. Heretics abandoning the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Law of Moses; for the teachings of some radical Nazarene.
That's why the conversion of St. Paul is one of the great moments in the New Testament. It's described in detail in the Book of Acts. The image of Paul riding along the Damascus Road, with warrants in his saddlebags to arrest the Christians who have fled Jerusalem, suddenly being stopped by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" has been depicted time and again in great works of art. Paul, himself, describes the event several times. It even has its own special feast day in our church calendar.
But, as dramatic as this event is, one wonders if the scene had not been set by another event which was one of our Scripture lessons, last week. The martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first person killed for the crime of being a Christian. The crime of being a Christian.
What's particularly interesting about Stephen is that he was what we might call a second-generation Christian. He was not one of the Twelve. He was, like Paul, a Jew raised in the Greek culture, not Middle Eastern. He had never met Jesus. He had never read the Gospels - because they hadn't been written yet. But, he had met Peter and he read the life of Christ in Peter's life. His experience of Peter led him to accept Jesus and, as one of the first seven deacons ordained by Peter, Stephen's pastoral and outreach work was noted in the community. His preaching gave people hope and vision. And for these things, he was stoned to death by an angry mob who considered him a heretic.
But, how did he face death? He didn't fight back, or complain about the injustice, or try to convince his accusers they had misunderstood him. Instead, he echoed the words of Jesus and said, "Lord, receive my spirit. Do not hold this sin against them."
You see, what Stephen learned about Jesus through Peter convinced him that in order to live as a Christian he had to get rid of worldly standards of behaviour in order to make room for God's standards. And that included going without the satisfaction of fighting back or bringing down curses upon his attackers.
The story of Stephen takes up two full chapters of the book of Acts. That's a lot of material. But, there's one little sentence in it, almost a footnote, which, I believe, is the main point of it all. The passing line that among Stephen's murderers was a man named Saul.
It is no small thing to kill someone. When I was an Army Chaplain, part of our training involved learning how the act of killing, even in a group context, affects the individual. The grace-filled witness of Stephen may have so unsettled Saul's spirit that it made him predisposed to accept Jesus when confronted on the Damascus Road and take up his new mission in life as Paul the apostle. It is no coincidence that the word "martyr" is the Greek word for "witness". What greater witness can any Christian give?
Being a Christian is more than being a nice, helpful, person. It's about living up to our full potential as being made in the image of God. It's about being filled with a peace and grace which is not a value of this world. It's about making Jesus the shepherd of both our lives and deaths. It's about being a witness in situations where most people wouldn't.
Paul was really in foreign territory when he went to preach in Athens - not just culturally, but, religiously. The Athenians have never heard of the Law and the Prophets. They could care less about Isaiah's Suffering Servant or the lineage of David. Using the stock mantra, "The Bible says..." wasn't going to go far with this audience. So, he had to translate the Gospel from words to deeds. He had to show that the Gospel was not limited to people who spoke Hebrew. He had to show that the Gospel is greater than the Bible because it is a message which transcends words.
In the Episcopal Church, we speak of the Apostolic Succession, which is the lineage of priests and bishops who have been ordained throughout history going back to Peter and the Apostles. I was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by a bishop, etc. etc. etc. I like to think, though, that today the Scriptures have shown us a different kind of succession and one which also goes back to the apostles, but, which is much broader in its scope. A succession of apostolic witness.
Peter to Stephen. Stephen to Paul. And Paul to a man named Dionysius, who, the Scripture records, was the first person who responded to Paul's sermon in Athens that day and asked to become a Christian. This is a succession which has never ended and in which we all participate. Not just a few leaders with funny hats. Witnessing is the only way the Gospel is spread. The only way people today come to know Jesus.
Why are we Christians? Because someone witnessed to us. A parent, a teacher, a friend. Who have we made Christians? Who knows? Paul had the joy of baptizing Dionysius, but, Stephen never knew how his witness was going to be remembered and by whom.
How can we be new Peters to new Stephens? How can we be new Stephens to new Pauls? How can we be new Pauls to a pagan world? Translate and witness.
In the Name...