Being a Christian in a Diverse World

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2023. The scripture readings are Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21.

A priest, a rabbi, and an imam go to Israel . . . It sounds like the set-up for a joke, doesn’t it? But this Christian happed to be Pope Francis, and the rabbi and imam were friends of the Pope’s from Argentina, and they were making an historic visit to Jordan, the Palestinian territory, and Israel a few years ago. 

I was reminded of the Pope’s visit, as I’ve been reading and preparing for our Sunday morning series on Christianity in the Middle East. On Monday, May 22, (not tomorrow night, but the next week’s Monday night), we will host the Rev. Canon Faiz Basheer Jerjes, the priest from St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, and Sinan Hanna, Chief Administrator at St. George’s.  Dinner will be at 6, and a talk and discussion will follow.

When Pope Francis made that historic visit to the Middle East, (just as he did in 2021, when he visited Iraq), the Pope made the Vatican administration nervous. Francis has a knack for complicating things, for doing things differently, for adjusting his message to the ears of his hearers, and risking whatever it takes, to share the love of Christ with others. What the Pope was doing, and often IS doing, is not so radical in that it departs from the core of our tradition. His methods are so traditional as to seem new, as he follows St. Paul, who of course, was simply following the way of Jesus.

We see this aspect of Paul in today’s Epistle.   Paul is preaching—that’s normal enough. But here, the context for Paul’s preaching is as important as the content.  He’s in Athens, Greece, at Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill). It was a great place of meeting. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another.

Many different gods, many different philosophies, all came together there. But notice how Paul preaches. It’s very unlike most of his preaching elsewhere. In other places, Paul draws on the long tradition of Judaism, showing how Jesus fulfills the traditions and hopes of Judaism. But he knows this won’t play well in Greece. Here in Athens, while people might know a good bit about Judaism, it isn’t infused into their lives the way it might have been elsewhere. Here, Paul needs to speak in a way that is more familiar and accessible to his audience.

To vastly oversimplify what Paul is doing, we could say that he does at least three things: he listens, he looks, and he loves. He listens to those in front of him, he looks for connections, and he loves them as children of God.

Paul listens. He listens enough to know what people believe. He admires their religious beliefs. He notices that they had a shrine to an unknown god. And though many people feel as though Paul is making fun of them here, I wonder. I wonder if he isn’t simply engaging them and inviting them to see his point of view.

Paul looks for connections and finds them in the beliefs they can all hold in common, in their questioning, in their seeking the truth and looking for God.

Paul loves his audience. Having listened to the Athenians, and having made some connections with them, Paul moves on to be able to offer them his own understanding of the love of God. Still showing them respect, resisting the urge to belittle or discredit the beliefs they already hold, Paul uses what they believe to link them to the love of God. It’s not a mushy, personal affection that Paul feels with the individuals there. Instead, it’s a realization that each one is made in the image of God, and God loves each person as God’s very own daughter or son. And so Paul offers them the sense he has of God’s love and presence. And in the presence of God’s love, there is room to grow.

This threefold way of relating to people is something we all might try from time to time, not only with those who are different from us, but perhaps and even especially with those who are similar but with whom we have trouble communicating or relating.   

First there is the opportunity for listening. Listening means not talking, not judging, not assuming we know the mind and heart of the other, but really allowing there to be space. Had Paul approached the Athenians with his own agenda, assuming that they were hell-bound pagans who didn’t have much of a belief system at all, his audience would have sense this, and they would not have listened.

Second, there’s the chance for looking. In her book, An Altar in the Word: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “Many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do” (p. 6). We can look for connections, for something in common. We can do this even when we are angry with another person or disagree in an almost violent way. If we’re able truly to listen, surely there is something we can find in common, something we share, something we understand in a similar way.

And finally, even when we’re sitting across from someone we genuinely may not like, or not understand; we can envision that person in the presence of God. We can ask God to love this person, even when we’re unable to.  On this Mother’s Day, I remember a senior warden in the church I served in Washington. Nancy had no children of her own, but she acted like a mother to family, neighbors, and anyone and everyone who came through the doors of that church.  When someone was especially difficult, or when some disagreeable politician or criminal was mentioned, after all the hatred and venom  was aired by other people, Nancy would take advantage of the silence, sigh, and say, “Well, someone’s their mother.”

And that said it all. Nancy was remembering and remind us that God’s love is maternal and paternal beyond all our experience and imagining, and if God can find it within his heart to love the worst and most awful, God embraces us with that same transforming and redeeming love.  

Christ promises us help. “If you love me,” he says, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Jesus knows that it’s hard work listening to others, looking for what’s in common, and really loving others as children of God, but Christ promises we’re not on our own in this. He is with us- through the power of the Holy Spirit, who encourages, strengthens, and fills us with all spiritual gifts.

Saint Paul had a dramatic setting for engaging people who were different from himself. For most of us, that setting is less dramatic though just as difficult. It involves our family, our coworkers, and our fellow parishioners. As we move toward the Feast of Pentecost in a couple of weeks, may we be open to this Spirit of Christ to help us listen, look closely, and love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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