Text: Acts 17:22-31
We’re here this morning in one of those in-between times. It is true that this is Memorial Day weekend when we honor the generosity of those who have been killed in our wars, and honor them we should regardless of how we feel about war itself. But we’re also in that time between college and high school graduations. It doesn’t feel like spring every day but it’s not officially summer yet. We’re between the safe return of our Cuba pilgrims several days ago and the departure of our Republic of Georgia pilgrims, who will leave at the end of this week. Liturgically, we’re between Easter’s resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, the birthday of the church. In many respects, we’re in a liminal space, that is, a transitional period, an in-between place. So what I want to focus on this morning is the post-Easter time in which we find ourselves – “post” as in we’re a little more than a month after Easter 2014 and we’re 2000+ years after the resurrection event we marked with our alleluias on April 20 of this year.
In our text for this morning, Paul is speaking to the Greeks from Mars Hill in Athens, challenging their worship of multiple gods. When Paul had arrived in the city of Athens, which was then a great university town, he was stunned by the number of idols to various gods he saw scattered across the landscape. So Luke, the writer of Acts, sets up an intellectual debate between Paul and Athenian philosophers who are intelligent, educated, and accustomed to intellectual sparring over important matters. Paul concludes his famous speech by employing the resurrection as proof of God’s creative, all-encompassing presence, using that wonderful phrase: “In God, we live and move and have our being.” God has given assurance of this to all – not just to the Jews, says Paul, but to everyone – by raising Jesus from the dead. For Paul and his followers, who became the early church after Pentecost, Jesus was without a doubt alive.
Initially the Athenian philosophers think Paul’s argument for both the Creator and its emissary Jesus is weak and that he’s arguing in favor of a “foreign god.” In the end, not many are convinced by Paul’s strange new teaching. Most don’t buy the idea that this Creator God is both transcendent and personal – fully engaged with and responsible for the creation. They also have serious doubts that the gateway to this Creator is Jesus, the one who was raised from the dead. In fact, Paul’s listeners’ reaction is not unlike that of many intelligent, highly educated people today – people like us – when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus.
If you ask a Christian with traditional beliefs if Jesus is alive, the answer is emphatically, absolutely “yes.” On Easter Sunday, millions of Christians around the world sang this news with gusto. Even some people who hadn’t darkened the door of a church since the previous Easter joined in a mighty chorus, singing, “Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia!” But what about us? Is Jesus alive to us?
Now I know that’s a tough question here at Pullen. Many progressive Christians gladly model their lives on the life of Jesus, trying to embody the “feeding-clothing-visiting” standard he laid out in Matthew 25. They – we – use it as our way to judge whether we and others are doing what we ought to be doing with this life we’ve been given. We might quibble over some of the details reported by the gospel writers, but generally the life of Jesus is viewed as a good one to emulate. And his death – well, it makes sense to us that someone who preached that the poor should not only be cared for but are actually favored by God could get himself killed by civil and religious authorities who had their own welfare in mind. So far, so good. But a resurrection from the dead – now that’s another issue altogether. The Apostles Creed affirms a belief in “the resurrection of the body” because scripture says Jesus was physically resurrected. But then we Baptists aren’t creedal people, so you don’t hear us saying that here.
My own personal confession is that I do not know if Jesus was actually bodily resurrected like the creed says and his followers have said for 2000 years…blasphemy though that may be to some. It’s what I was taught by a church for whom personal salvation was the ultimate goal. But for some years, I haven’t been sure what I think about it. What I am quite sure of though, is this: the followers of Jesus experienced him as literally present with them after he was executed. And for 2000 years, that has made all the difference.
So this morning I’m asking the question posed in the title of this sermon not as a factual one, but rather in a personal and perhaps a congregational way. Is Jesus alive to you? To us? This is not the same question as, “Was Jesus raised from the dead, or was the empty tomb really empty?” So think with me a few minutes about what it might mean to say Jesus is “alive?”
As I’ve shared with you before, in 1998 I had a chance to go with a group from my seminary to El Salvador. This Central American country was torn by a twelve-year civil war that ended in 1991. It’s a country where a very few wealthy people own most of the land and the nation’s resources; the middle class as we know it is very small; and most citizens are very, very poor. Eighty percent of the children in El Salvador were undernourished at the time of my visit. Conditions have improved somewhat since then – I believe now that number is only about 50 percent. In El Salvador, on March 24 every year since 1980, there is a commemoration of the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero all over the country. He was murdered in that year in the middle of conducting mass. As he raised the chalice of wine to bless it, an assassin, who was a member of the Salvadoran national police supported by our government, shot him dead through the doorway of the church. The irony of the massive outpouring of gratitude and grief that happens every March 24 is that when he was named Archbishop, Oscar Romero was a safe choice for the church and the Salvadoran government. At that time the ruling authorities, which is to say, the wealthy, and the Catholic Church in that country were cozy partners protecting their common interests. Romero was selected because he was believed to be a mild, meaning “weak”, man who would go along with that arrangement.
But Romero was “radicalized,” as they say. He got close to the poor in his country and felt their pain. So he could no longer support his own Church when it supported the government’s oppression of the poor. It was just a matter of time before he was killed and he knew it. In fact, in a sermon near the end of his life, he said, “If I die, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.” When he was killed, he became revered as a saint even though the Catholic Church has not yet officially canonized him. Another reason to commend Pope Francis is that since he became pope, the controversial canonization process for Oscar Romero has been unblocked.
What’s important for our purposes is that as many as 30,000 people gather every year in San Salvador, the capital city, on the anniversary of his death to celebrate and remember Oscar Romero. They shout: “Oscar Romero lives! He is with us! He is resurrected, as he predicted, in the Salvadoran people. He stands with us!” Present tense.
Was Romero physically resurrected? As far as I know, no one has claimed to have seen him in the flesh after his murder. But he is clearly alive in his native land because he truly loved the poor and embodied God’s justice through his concern for them. To the tens of thousands who gather in San Salvador each March 24 and to thousands more Salvadorans in Washington, DC and other US cities, Oscar Romero is much more alive than dead.
Think about persons you’ve known and loved who have died. It may have been a spouse or partner – a parent, a child, a brother or sister, a dear friend or other companion on life’s journey. Aren’t those people often present to us now in ways that they were not when they were alive? When we are fearful, we have the power of their integrity and their wisdom. They are physically gone, but in some profound sense, they are with us. When I write sympathy notes to church members and friends, I’m always tempted to say, “I’m sorry that you have lost your father or mother or sister.” But I typically don’t say it that way, because those who are dear to us are never “lost.”Their truth we have felt. Their presence we experience. Their influence still shapes us. In times of joy and sorrow, they can be mysteriously, wonderfully present to us. The same is true for Martin Luther King, Jr. Many people still experience him deeply and are inspired by his words and his courage. In fact, can’t you make a case that in this country today–with its holiday in his honor, that he is now more alive than dead?
Now, for those here who might have a high Christology, know that I am not saying Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King, Jr. or some of our loved ones were just like Jesus. But they were intimate friends of Jesus. This Jesus and the calling they heard from him explains their courage, their appeal, and their inspiration. And don’t they make the resurrection of Jesus visible in our time? I believe they represent the resurrected spirit of Jesus at work in the world.
So, is Jesus dead or is he still alive? Can we sing the old hymn, “He Lives” and mean it even if we have doubts about the traditional resurrection story? According to our sacred text, for the first witnesses of the Resurrection, the answer is unambiguous. While their reports differ, one conclusion is clear: for them Jesus was very much alive again after he was crucified. In the on-going life of Jesus, they experienced transforming boldness. Even before the crucifixion, Jesus had brought God to life; he had brought love to life; he had brought equality and justice to life; he had brought joy and courage to life; he had brought peace and wholeness to life.
And now this very same spirit of Jesus was somehow being breathed into his followers. That’s what they experienced. They became body to his spirit. They became his hands and feet as they set about doing what they believed he would want them to do. In them, his suffering–his passion–became their compassion for others.
Here I want to say a word about the poem by Dorothee Sölle printed on the cover the worship guide for this morning. Dorothee Sölle was a German liberation theologian and poet who taught at Union Seminary in New York City. She believed that God is not the cause of suffering, but rather suffers alongside us. Humans, she said, are to struggle together against oppression, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of authoritarianism. She coined the term “Christofascism” to describe fundamentalism. Hear her words:
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in Dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
I find this to be an inspiring and provocative poem because it could be read to say that Jesus – or God – is powerless without us. In fact, you may believe that. I don’t. I believe the One who is responsible for our glorious creation has a lot more life and vitality and, dare I say it, power than that. I also believe the risk for liberal Christians who have trouble with the traditional claim that God is all-powerful and all-knowing is to minimize God and elevate humanity; to create God in our own image instead of the other way around; to make us the center of the universe. Catholic sister Joan Chittister once said, “Life is not about me. Life is about God.” Paul said, “In God, we live and move and have our being.” I would say life is about what God is doing in the world. I would say the One who created us chooses to be in relationship with us, which means working with us as we work for and with others. We are critical ingredients in God’s work of justice and peace-making, but it isn’t all about us. Yet it is about us.
So, for me in this Easter season, the central question is not, “Was the empty tomb really empty?” The most compelling question is, “How alive do I want Jesus to be? How far do I want to go in living his way, his truth, his life?” We live somebody’s way and somebody’s truth and somebody’s life. If not Jesus’ way, we live our way or Mom or Dad’s way or the culture’s way. People and things and values call us to follow them all the time. Idols cover our landscape just as they did Athens in Paul’s day. As New Testament scholar Marion Soards says, “Like the skeptical philosophers who rejected Paul’s arguments in Athens, we can reject Christianity’s elevation of Jesus’ way of life as the desirable one. But if we’re honest, we all adhere to the core values and convictions of one or another “ism” – scientism, materialism, individualism, humanism, nationalism, and so on. A commitment to any worldview informs decisions and shapes loyalties.”
So we have a choice. If Jesus is alive to us, we have work to do here at Pullen, in our community, at the General Assembly, in Cuba and Georgia, in our personal relationships. Lots of work to do. If he’s not, there are many other ways of living our lives available to us. We have a choice. Every morning we wake up, we have a choice.