May 29, 2011
Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly
I Peter 3:13-21
The lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter invite us to reflect on Christian faith in a pluralistic, postmodern world. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus will be the lens through which we will understand this Sunday’s scriptures.
I believe that Acts of the Apostles can be read as a postmodern gospel. Acts describes a spiritual movement, without its own formalized scriptures, creeds, or institutions, making it up as it goes along in lively and creative ways. Similar to today’s Christianity, the early Christian movement emerged in a pluralistic context. This pluralism even extended to the many diverse stories that were first orally circulated and later inscribed about their Savior Jesus. While the early Christians proclaimed a living Christ, their faith was experiential rather than doctrinal in nature. Content with what Catherine Keller and others have called “polydoxy,” their faith was many-faceted, fluid, and unhindered in outreach.
Paul’s speech at the Areopagus addresses the religious pluralism of his time. Paul observes the religious diversity of the Areopagus, embodied in statues dedicated to a multitude of deities. He recognizes the lively and novel spiritualities vying for allegiance in the marketplace of ideas. He even notes a shrine, dedicated to an “unknown god.” In many ways, today’s North American spiritual landscape reflects the same diversity as ancient Athens. Christianity no longer has a preferred status for young adults, or even baby boomers, as the film Eat, Pray, Love demonstrates. Rather than seeking spiritual nurture in the mainstream Christianity of her youth, Elizabeth Gilbert finds insight in following a Hindu guru. A far off ashram is preferable to the neighborhood church in her quest for spiritual transformation. Moreover, many of our own – and our congregants’ spiritualities – are eclectic and synergistic, joining a variety of spiritual techniques and texts with our Christian faith and prayer life.
Paul’s speech is profoundly Christological in nature, yet nuanced in its affirmation of spiritual diversity. What is unique about Paul’s speech is that he invokes Greek philosophical insights to express Christian theological truths. Quoting Greek wisdom as Christian truth, Paul claims that God is the reality “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Paul’s Areopagus speech asserts that God is beyond imagery (apophatic) yet revealed in all things (kataphatic). Rather than being stingy in revelation, God is prodigal, providing many pathways experience the divine. While Christ is the center of Paul’s teaching, his words surely inspired the later Logos theologians, the theological parents of the church, who believed that wherever truth was present, even beyond the Hebraic and Christian traditions, God was its source. Though Paul sees other pathways as half-way measures, in contrast to many of today’s pluralistic Christians, myself included, he nevertheless affirms that people can “grope” and find God in these other paths. This is a far cry from those theological positions that assume salvation can only be found through an explicit relationship to Christ and his church.
Paul’s words are good news in a pluralistic, postmodern world. Paul does not denigrate other traditions but places them in a Christological context. He shares the good news of Christ, but only after he listens to the insights and hopes of his non-Christian companions in the Areopagus. Paul’s words remind us that we do not need to be afraid of diversity either among Christians or in the spiritual marketplace. While we, like Paul, can justly critique and differentiate our Christian vision from other pathways, our critiques emerge from theological appreciation rather than denunciation. In contrast to Barth, we can find a point of contact between God’s revealing and the human quest for meaning. Grounded in God’s global revelation, this point of contact enables us to grow in relationship to other spiritual pathways while proclaiming that Christ responds to our – and potentially everyone’s - quest for meaning in our post-modern, pluralistic age.
The reading from Psalm 66 portrays the vision of an intimate, listening God. God “gives heed to the words of my prayer.” God’s steadfast love is revealed in God’s caring and intimate companionship. Life is a call and response in which our own spiritual commitment and integrity enables God to more active in our lives.
The reading from I Peter invites Christians to share their faith in the marketplace of spiritualities in a gentle and relational fashion. God is patient, and not quick to condemn. This was true in the days of Noah, and also in our time. God is not out to get humankind, but desires that all experience grace through Jesus Christ. One of the primary ways, the author of I Peter asserts, that we share the good news is through our integrity and spiritual depth. Our calling is to “sanctify Jesus as Lord” by glorifying God in our embodiment and values.
I Peter notes that God’s grace is unhindered even by death. Christ seeks wholeness for those who did not believe in former times. This brief passage makes for an interesting homiletical trajectory. It implies that death cannot thwart God’s aim at healing and wholeness. God will continue to reach out to us and our loved ones beyond the grave. Accordingly, no one is beyond the scope of salvation. This is good news, as I’ve discovered in many pastoral care contexts, for those whose loved ones have died as result of suicide or have been unable to place their trust in a spiritual reality. Further, an imaginative reading of this passage suggests that we continue to grow in grace and relationship with God beyond the grave. Heaven is not a static state, but a continuing realm of spiritual and relational evolution in companionship with one another and God.
John 14:15-21also portrays God’s fidelity. God will send the Spirit of truth to be our companion. The Spirit is intimate, abiding in those who follow the pathway of Jesus. In the same manner that Jesus is intimately related to the Parent, so we are intimately related to Jesus. In the words of John 15, Christ is the vine and we are the branches. We can’t help but be connected to the vine, but when we truly open to the energy of God, flowing in and through all things, we will bear much fruit. John 14 affirms that love is the pathway to experiencing God’s energy in all its transformational power. Love opens the door to the heart of God and enables us to consciously align ourselves with the Spirit of truth moving through our lives.
God is always near. God’s power in our lives is, as theologian Thomas Jay Oord suggests, defined by love and not coercion. God desires wholeness for all creation and has prepared pathways among the world’s many religious traditions.
In a postmodern, pluralistic context, theology becomes more rather than less important. But, the theology that we proclaim in light of today’s scriptures is holistic, joining mind, body, spirit, and relationships, and practical, inspiring loving hearts and actions. Our theological visions inspire others precisely because they embrace the whole of life and portray a loving, generous, and intimate God, who desires that all creation experience the fullness of life.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is availabale for lectures, seminars, and retreats.