Rev. Keenan Kelsey Noe Valley Ministry PC(USA) May 17, 2020
Acts 17: 22-28 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since it is God who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and who allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’
We join Paul this morning in Athens, on his second missionary trip, spreading the good news of God in Christ. Earnest and committed and eager follower of Jesus Christ, Paul is trying to explain God.
Imagine, trying to explain God! Have you ever examined your own personal idea of God with the purpose of explaining God? We aren’t evangelicals, so we don’t think in terms of convincing people, but do we know ourselves, and our faith, well enough to talk about, describe, or explain God?
The first time I had a sense of how important this could be was when, years ago, Noe Valley was working on the creation of a Tri Faith Center. I realized that to live with two other faith traditions, we would have to be able to talk about our own in a convincing and personal way. The interfaith interaction would require each of us to take a bold step toward knowing and owning our own faith. Who is God, specifically Creator God in Christ, carried by the Holy Spirit?
Paul certainly did not have any trouble explaining God. “Athenians!” he calls “I see that you are very religious in every way” Paul has already taken a tour of the city and noted the many altars and idols, so he continues: “I even discovered an altar upon which had been inscribed, ‘To an unknown god’” Paul declares “that which you worship in ignorance, this is what I am proclaiming to you today!”
This God is not unknown at all! I bring you a God whose primary characteristic, is the Creator who made the world and all things in it, from the universe itself, to our very selves, the people. God gave us life.
Paul’s second declaration is that this God made from one blood all the nations. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. This is a God for everyone, a close God, never far from any one of us.
And finally, “in God we live, and move, and have our being.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1)— God is with us and keeps us wherever we go (Genesis 28:15).We are of God, God’s children, God’s own. “As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’”
For Paul, our very existence depends utterly and absolutely on God.
How we think about God matters, because it will guide our living. It will determine our own actions in this world.
To clarify that, let’s hear our second reading, where we hear Jesus speak at the end of the Last Supper.
[Jesus said], If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, who will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees the Spirit nor knows Spirit. You know the Spirit, because the Spirit abides with you, and will be in you (John 14:15-17)
If you know our one God– Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit– then you will be prepared to embrace God, and be embraced by God. Jesus tells his disciples, is, If you love me, you will keep my commandments… They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”
I think this a little confusing, because actually, in all his ministry, Jesus only gave one commandment, one ultimate statement. Earlier that very evening he declared it: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Once before he had made it clear. During his travels, a lawyer had asked what is the greatest commandment? He replied. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This is our sole commandment, and we are asked to obey. Love and obedience. According to Jesus, the two are inseparable. We can’t honestly claim to love Jesus if we don’t obey him.
Do you find that jarring? Is it just me, or are we supposed to find the juxtaposition of love and obedience in this text a bit overwhelming? Obedience can be a hard word.
But for Jesus, it is a beautiful word. It is the single word that leads to freedom. This is a passage of freedom.
Think about it. We all want freedom in our lives, yet every freedom is based on something, some value or internal law or compulsion. We most often seek freedom from doing things, but Jesus offers us a freedom to do certain things. The holy paradox is that obedience to God equals ultimate freedom to obey God.
Constitutional freedom means obeying the laws of the land, not the freedom to follow our own consciences wherever they lead. Others are always involved and impacted.
Freedom to obey our strongest appetites– for drink, sex, power, revenge, possession of things, whatever– leaves us the freedom of an animal to take what we want when we want it, but not the freedom of a human being to be fully human.
Choosing one freedom always requires giving up another. So if freedom is ultimately determined by which master you choose to follow, it becomes even more essential to choose the right master, the right teacher, the right savior, the right compass, the right way. Knowing God helps you know life.
An old prayer speaks of God “in whose service is perfect freedom” God leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become. The only freedom Jesus’ commandment denies us is the freedom to destroy ourselves.
The remaining question is, then,: Do we love one another as Jesus has loved us? Or do we not? . Love is vulnerable-making, and maybe I’d rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and maybe I’m naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and maybe I feel safer and holier policing my borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and I am just so darned busy.
But Jesus didn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He said, “This is my commandment.” Meaning, it’s not a choice. It’s not a matter of personal preference; it’s a matter of obedience to the one we call our Lord.
Mercifully, of course, there’s more to the story. We don’t have to love all by ourselves. We don’t have to do the impossible on our own. This commandment is accompanied by a promise: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
The Advocate is God’s own Spirit, God’s own heart, living within us. This Spirit, Jesus promises us, will be in us, making possible the startling, counter-intuitive obedience which is love. This Spirit will abide within and among us, creating holy places where authentic, self-sacrificial human love can take root and flourish. The Spirit’s resources are inexhaustible. Long after our natural stores are depleted, the Spirit of God will love in, among, and through us.
Love me by keeping my commandments, Jesus says. These are finally not two separate actions. They are one and the same. We love because we are loved. We obey Christ because we are in Christ. The love we are commanded to share is the love we are endlessly given. “You in me, and I in you.” The definition of love.
May it be so, Amen.