Around this time every year I begin to feel like we are forgetting something; like something is being left out of our worship service. It is because during the Great 50 Days of Easter, we do not have an Old Testament lesson. I grew up in a congregation that loved the Old Testament, and I don’t mean that in a law-and-bible-thumping way. I learned stories from that half of the bible as a child and young adult and they were fascinating and full of adventure, intrigue, drama, and miraculous amazement. There are good ecclesiological reasons for omitting it during the Easter season but, well, the truth is, I MISS THE OLD TESTAMENT READING!! Ok, there, I said it and it’s pretty much out of my system.
Sort of. How long, O Lord, how long until it returns? Trinity Sunday, is God’s reply. Several weeks away.
So between now and Trinity Sunday, we linger a bit longer in the Book of Acts. The reason we do this, and why I don’t just read whatever I want to read from the bible each week is because we, like many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, follow the Revised Common Lectionary. It is an orderly set of texts that you see every week on the back of the bulletin and they are designed to tell an overall story throughout the church year. That’s why we don’t often hear from the Gospel of Mark, for example, this year (between last December and this November), because this is the year of Matthew and most all of our Gospel lessons are from Matthew. Don’t worry though if Mark is your favorite, that’s next year and Luke the year after. John gets a sprinkling throughout all three years, just like today. So, we almost always follow the selected texts for the day from this lectionary.
It might seem like the reason the people who compiled the lectionary chose to not have a reading from the Old Testament was because there is no ‘good news’ in the OT and since we are in Easter, we don’t want to spend too much time trudging around the law and all that other “pre-Jesus stuff”. However, the truth is that there is no such thing as “pre-Jesus” stuff and there’s also plenty of God’s grace and good news in the left side of the bible—most especially though not only the parts that speak of the Messiah.
Instead, the reason is a bit more logical, even if it is not to my personal liking. We, the church today, are the continuation of what happened before Jesus was born into our world. That’s all the stuff that happened in the Old Testament; the story of the people of God before Jesus’ earthly ministry began. Then, when we read about the early church in the book of Acts, we are reading about ourselves, our beginnings, our ancestry and it is read in the same place that we usually hear about the people of God before Jesus birth.
This week, we hear a sermon from the Apostle Paul. He is in Athens at the Areopagus, also known as the Rock of Aries, also known as Mars Hill. This is not really Paul’s most successful revival from a certain point of view. The verse right after this section we heard today does say that some followed Paul, but it also says that when they heard him speak about the resurrection from the dead, they scoffed at him.
There are some interesting things about the place where Paul stands. The Areopagus was a spot where a judicial body met and it was a common gathering place, but it was also the spot that ancient Greek mythology said the pagan god of war, Aries, was put on trial for the murder of Poseidon’s son. Hence the name Rock of Aries. Later it was renamed by the Romans for their god of war, Mars. And hence the name Mars Hill.
While there, he speaks to whomever will listen about a small altar in that town that was called the Altar to An Unknown God. The Athenians were pretty religious people and they had altars to every deity one could think of at the time. This was also a very cosmopolitan city of the ancient world and people from many cultures who moved to Athens brought their own religion and their own gods and goddesses and Athens just added them all to the mix. Just to be sure they covered everyone, there was one altar built to any god or goddess they might have left out—the Altar to an Unknown God. Paul tells them that what they may have worshiped as the unknown god is, in fact, known. It is the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
He tells them that this God is the maker of everything and everyone. For In him we live and move and have our being. On the hill of the gods of war, Paul talks about the God in whom we live. This probably sounded, at best, like crazy double talk if not an outright foreign language to the Athenians.
Jesus is doing some of his crazy Johannine talk in the Gospel lesson. The world doesn’t see the Spirit but we see the spirit. He’s leaving but he’s coming. Now you see me now you don’t but you will see me even though they don’t see me. I’m in the father and you’re in me and I’m in you and I’m in a state of confusion. You know, it is easy to get frustrated with the disciples when they do stupid stuff and don’t understand some blatantly obvious things Jesus is teaching them, but I’ve got to cut them some slack in cases like this. It can really make your head spin! The one thing we can know for sure with this text is that one phrase that really sticks out: because I live, you also will live. Now that is some pretty good stuff.
Our other text for today is from First Peter and it has a big chunk of stuff about baptism. This text has all kinds of good stuff about Noah and how God saved him and his family, bringing them through the water. Yay Old Testament! See, I told you there were some amazing things and stories of God’s grace in there! Even if we didn’t have an official Old Testament reading, Noah managed to sneak in there anyway. Which makes sense really because our ideas about baptism, the gift of baptism and God’s gracious and saving act for us in baptism, goes all the way back here. “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God…”
There’s also some stuff about Jesus’ death and life and resurrection. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
That’s what happens to us. God comes to us, in baptism, in holy Communion, in prayer and scripture, God comes to claim us as his own. God comes to us. Christ suffers for us. Jesus brings us to God.
When Paul preached on the hill of the gods of war, he was preaching to a people who knew a lot about religion and knew a lot about what it took to please their pagan gods and goddesses; what offerings to make, what actions to do. They knew gods and goddesses needed to be charmed, pleased and won over by humans. We may think that things are different for us because we do not have tons of altars built to pagan deities all over town. But how many of us, if we really look at what we think about our God, still think that we must do things the right way in order for God to accept us?
We may not live in a society that worships pagan gods of war, but we do live in a society that expects perfection before giving acceptance. You have to be pretty enough, rich enough, thin enough, smart enough, say and do just the right things in order to be accepted. How many times have we thought we weren’t good enough for God to love? How many times have we, deep down, thought that God couldn’t possibly love us?
But scripture, both old and new, tells us something different. God comes to us. God claims us. It is not what we do but what Jesus does. What God has done, is doing, and will continue to do: make us his own.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. For in him we live and move and have our being. Jesus says, because I live you also will live.
So if it’s the hill of the pagan gods of war, or in the middle of the modern world, or our little sanctuary here in these mountains of peace, God is giving us life.
Yeah, I’ll take that! Maybe, even if there isn’t an Old Testament lesson, there’s still some good stuff to be had.