May 20, 2020
Love without ifs – J. Barry Vaughn – May 17, 2020
If St. Paul had lived in the late 20th or 21st centuries, he would have accumulated an astonishing amount of frequent flyer points. He would be a platinum member of the frequent flyer program in at least two or three airlines.
One reason that Paul was able to travel so frequently and across so many miles is that he was a citizen of the Roman Empire. In other words, he was protected by the awesome power of Rome. Rome was the greatest power of the ancient world. Its military was unmatched. Furthermore, Rome built roads across its empire.
One road that Paul certainly traveled was the Via Egnatia. It was almost 800 miles long and connected several cities where there were significant Christian communities: Thessalonike, Philippi and Byzantium, the city that become Constantinople, the eventual capital of the Empire.
These roads facilitated not only travel but communication. The Roman postal service could carry a letter fifty miles a day.
Also, Rome made sea travel safer. Julius Caesar’s friend, Pompey Magnus, cleared the Mediterranean of pirates who routinely preyed on travelers.
One of the most significant things about Paul’s travels was that he brought the Christian faith from Asia to Europe. Christianity began as an Asian faith, but when Paul crossed from Asia Minor (present day Turkey) to Macedonia, he introduced the gospel of Jesus Christ to Europe.
In today’s first reading we see Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens. “Areopagus” means the hill or rock of Ares, the god of war. The Areopagus is a large outcropping of stone at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. It was where the city council or high court of Athens met. So what’s happening here is either a trial of Paul for preaching about foreign deities or perhaps just a friendly hearing of his views.
Paul starts by complimenting or flattering the Athenians: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” It’s always a good way to begin a talk by flattering your listeners.
By the way, have I told you recently how grateful I am for your generous financial support of Christ Church?
(Seriously, I AM grateful!)
What Paul meant is that the Athenians had a temple or shrine to a multitude of deities. On top of the Acropolis was a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the patron of Athens.
Acropolis means “high city” and was a hill overlooking Athens. On top of the Acropolis was the Parthenon, the temple to Athena. “Parthenon” is based on the Greek word for virgin, because Athena was believed to be a virgin.
But the Parthenon was only one of dozens or hundreds of temples and shrines.
Now, when you think of the word “religion,” what springs to mind? Do you imagine scripture readings, hymns, prayers, and so on? Well, you’re partly right. Just like us, the Greeks said prayers and sang hymns to their gods and goddesses, but at the heart of Greek religion was sacrifice. The sacrifice could be as simple as a pinch of incense or as large as an ox.
Several years ago on a trip to India I visited the temple of Kali in the city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. Most of the worshipers were women and some of them stood in line for an hour to be admitted for a few minutes to the shrine of Kali. Once in the shrine a priest would receive their puja or offering and place it before the statue of Kali. The scene inside the shrine took only two or three minutes.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that this is what Paul meant when he said that he perceived that the Athenians were “religious in every way.” What I observed in the temple of Kali took place every day, all day long in ancient Athens in dozens of temples and shrines.
Now, I want you to think about how different our idea of religion is.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” What are Jesus’ commandments? Not long before the scene in today’s gospel reading, Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you.”
That is what the Christian faith is about: Love one another as I have loved you. Love one another with the strength, the intensity, depth of the love that Jesus displayed in his life and above all in his death.
But this was not just an idea that originated with Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jewish people profoundly transformed the idea of religion. Of course, they offered sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem, but the heart of the Jewish faith was not sacrifice, it was love; it was justice; it was righteousness.
Israel’s prophets said that the primary way to worship God was not with sacrifice and ritual but with love and justice.
The prophet Amos said:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
That is how we should understand what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” and Jesus’ primary commandment is to love one another as he loves us. It is to love in a way that honors justice, and justice means to protect the least among us, the vulnerable, those who are excluded and marginalized because of their race or national origin or gender.
It is good that we gather to pray and sing hymns and share communion, but those are not the most important parts of the Christian faith. So, even now in the midst of this pandemic, this lockdown, when we cannot gather together in our church, we can still practice the most important part of the Christian faith. We can love and serve one another as Jesus did. Practicing social distancing, doing our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is how we can love one another in our time and place.
The final thing I want to point out is the two letter word that begins Jesus’ statement in the gospel reading: IF. “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
Too often we read that as though it said, “If you love me, then I will love you.” But that’s not what Jesus said. The “if” is not on God’s part; it’s on our part.
There is no “if” in God’s love for us. At some point all of us fail to love others. We even fail to love ourselves. But God’s love for us never fails. If we fail to love others, God still loves us.
The gods that the Athenians worshiped were all about “ifs.” If you failed to sacrifice an animal to Athena or throw a pinch of incense on the altar of Zeus, then the Athenians believed that you were likely to incur the gods’ wrath or avert their anger. But that is not true of the Christian God.
Our God loves extravagantly and without ifs, without conditions. Let us love one another just as extravagantly. Amen.