1 Pet 3:13-22
by Revd Ruth Newton, parish priest in North Yorkshire and member the General Synod of the Church of England
SECTION ONE: NOTES ON THE READINGS
This extract from the book of Acts allows us to glimpse Paul the orator, rather than Paul the letter writer. In contrast to his Epistles which deal with the misunderstandings and pastoral difficulties of those who had already encountered Paul’s message, in this passage we witness Paul the apologist at work. This ‘sermon in the Areopagus’ is not the first time Paul has preached in Athens. Ever since he arrived he has been attempt to present his message to Jews and Greeks, in synagogue and market place, compelled not only by his evangelistic zeal but distressed by the idol worship he sees around him. As a result of this he is brought to the Areopagus, which functions both as a court and as a marketplace for ideas. It is unclear whether Paul is there to share his ideas or to defend himself, either way the message he presents emphasizes God as creator, who has made all things, and who is remains intimately involved in his creation. “The one in whom we live and move and have our being.”
1 Peter 3 13-22
The message of this passage – do good and keep on doing it even in the face of suffering and abuse, has a direct relevance to those who are trying to live and communicate a Christian message of ecological and social justice and whose values stand in contrast to those who have vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Whilst it is possible that doing the right thing might enable us to ‘win friends and influence people’ – “who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”, the innocent suffering of Christ suggests this is somewhat optimistic. Those who advocate different ways of living will almost inevitably be met with opposition. The appropriate response to this is neither aggression or capitulation but an uncompromising yet gentle defence and eyes fixed firmly on the example of Christ Jesus.
John 14. 15-21
This theme of opposition is continued in the Gospel as Jesus predicts the coming of the Holy Spirit. The world will be unable to receive the Spirit of truth, yet the disciples, who keep Christ’s commandments, will experience the Spirit abiding in them and love and life of Christ and the Father.
SECTION TWO: DRAFT SERMON/SERMON OUTLINE
“We have a Gospel to proclaim” and this week’s readings from Acts and from 1 Peter present different ways of doing so. For Paul, proclamation is key, he has a message and is compelled to preach it, giving a master class in apologetics. Using the ‘altar to an unknown god’ as a way in, he names the unknown god as the creator of Heaven and Earth. He is uncompromising in exposing idolatry and then presents a better alternative. To coin a phrase ‘he begins where they are’ and is attentive to context.
Whilst Paul is busy proclaiming, Peter calls his readers to authentic Christian living, doing the right thing, living distinctive lives. As such they would provoke both curiosity and opposition, but they must keep on doing the right thing regardless. Whilst not seeking explicit opportunities to proclaim the Gospel in words, they should be able defend their actions and beliefs if the need arises.
Today’s context is not Athens and its shrines but an ecological crisis which threatens the future of humanity. For many, young people in particular, this is their primary concern, but are we addressing it? What are the idols of our age? Unlimited growth? Consumption? Reliance on Fossil Fuels? Are Christians naming these and offering a better alternative, or are we idolaters along with the rest?
In this context, authentic Christian living must include creation care. Working on environmental projects, campaigning to protect the planet, speaking prophetically on ecological issues can generate good will or opposition in equal measure but if we believe they are the right thing then we must carry on regardless.
I wonder if it even possible to proclaim “good news” which does not address sustainability? Historically, the Gospel has been presented in anthropocentric terms focussing primarily on “good news for all people”. (Luke 2:10), and “making disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) but in Mark, the disciples are commissioned to “proclaim good news to all creation.” (16:15) What would good news for the entire cosmos look like?
SECTION THREE: ADDITIONAL MATERIAL
Some of the sermon is based on a paper The Environment and the Marks of Mission which I co-wrote with John Hughes, DEO of Manchester Diocese, for discussion at the Church of England DEO conference last year. It can be found at https://www.greeningthelectionary.net/441901499.
by Revd Ruth Newton, North Yorkshire