Friday, April 25, 2008

Giving an account of the hope that is in us

Acts 17.22-31
Without doubt Paul is trying to find a point of connection with his audience in the busy market place at Athens. But is there a hint of irony in his comment that the Athenians are clearly extremely religious? Setting up an altar to an unknown god could suggest a commendable fastidiousness on the part of the citizens, a desire to dot every "i" and cross every "t", leaving nothing to chance. On the other hand, it could just as easily suggest insouciance or carelessness. If an unknown god really does exist, shouldn't human beings be straining every sinew to discover more about him or her? It would surely be a matter of the utmost importance. To treat the existence of gods as a more or less haphazard thing indicates that the Athenians had not got the right attitude to religion at all. To them it was just another facet of the marketplace, a matter of personal choice and perhaps a relatively unimportant one at that.

So, although two thousands years separate us from the time of Paul, it maybe that modern society is very similar to ancient Athens. Here, too, religion has been relegated to a matter of indifference.

Paul's message is that God cannot be compartmentalised or privatised in this way. We cannot create God in our own image, or file him away under 'u' for 'unknown' because, in fact, everything depends on God. In him we live and move and have our being, which makes God's nature and existence a matter of the most supreme importance. Furthermore, it is we who have been created in the image of another being - not God. We are his offspring and we shall be held to account for our failure to treat God, and the question of religious faith, with the significance it deserves.

1 Peter 3.13-22
With a level of sheer ingenuity that would have amazed even a Blue Peter presenter, the writer of 1 Peter manages to link a number of disparate themes. No one should malign Christians or make them suffer for their faith, but the writer concedes that it might happen and, if it does, we must be gentle in the way we respond, always ready to give an account of the hope that is in us but never aggressive, irreverent or unlawful in the way we respond. If we want to imitate the way of Jesus we must also be ready to suffer for doing good rather than contemplate doing anything evil. This is because Jesus chose to suffer for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring human beings into a right relationship with God.

So far, so good. But then the writer leaps to a description of what happened before Jesus' resurrection was manifested to his disciples. Even from the moment of his death, Jesus was alive in the spirit and set about the 'harrowing' of Hell, preaching to the spirits imprisoned in the world of the dead, so that they too should know the Good News and find release. Some of the imprisoned souls in Hell belong to people drowned in the Great Flood, when God rejected the almost universal wickedness of human beings at the time of Noah. This thought then leads to another dramatic leap of the imagination, as the writer begins to compare the waters of the Flood with the waters of baptism. Just as the water's of Noah's Flood cleansed the world of wickedness and made it possible for human beings to make a fresh start, so baptism is a new beginning for each individual believer, not because it literally washes us clean but because it marks a life-changing decision to put our trust in Jesus Christ and in the new life which he alone can offer as God's representative or right-hand man.

John 14.15-21
There is another, even more intimate way of knowing that we are following in the way of Jesus. That is to experience the presence of Jesus' own Spirit within us, helping us to keep his commandments, and to love him and be loved by him.

All of this is made possible by Jesus' victory over suffering and death.

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