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 star phenomenon, 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 in the 1800’s, it discovered that the denomination’s name meant, in Chinese, “Complaining Elders Gather.” 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. And 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 persecuted people for saying these exact same words.
Paul was a religious zealot – hyper Jewish orthodox - and, being raised in Tarsus, a Greek city, he had had to develop a hard shell to resist pagan influences. To him, Christians were a plague, an infection; heretics abandoning the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob 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 Christians, 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 for it 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 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.
And how did he face this violent end? He echoed the words of Jesus and said, "Lord, receive my spirit. Do not hold this sin against them."
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 inside that when confronted on the Damascus Road by Jesus, he realized what he had done and Stephen’s witness hit home. It is no coincidence that the word "martyr" is the Greek word for "witness.”
Now, when he was preaching in Athens, Paul was really in foreign territory - 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 into their context and move from authoritative words to authentic witness. He had to show that the Gospel was not limited to people who spoke Hebrew. He had to show that, and bear with me here, the Gospel is greater than the Bible. Yes, 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 we have seen 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. Witnessing is the only way the Gospel is spread. The only way people 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.
Indeed, the story is told of Francis of Assisi going down to a village with one his monks. When they arrived at the village they engaged the local folk in conversation and passed their time helping the villagers with their work, sharing stories, having lunch and just being around. As the end of the day drew near, Francis said it was time for them to return to the monastery. Francis' companion, with great concern, said, "But when are we going to preach the Gospel?" Francis turned to him and said, "That’s what we’ve been doing.”
So, 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 world which doesn’t really know the Bible? Translate the Gospel into our lives and witness.
In the Name...