bible blog 896

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Mad Lord Gilbert wants Neutron Bomb on Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

(Readers can search the complete blogs using emmock.com plus say a bible passage or theme, e.g. emmock.com/John 3:16; or emmock.com/forgiveness)

Acts 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

God does not live in temples made with hands

Luke, the author of The Acts of the Apostles, was writing some 25 years at least after the death of Paul, whom he makes the hero of his book. He obviously had some sources of information about Paul whom he sees as the one who made the gospel of Jesus available to the non-Jewish peoples of the Roman empire. Luke depicts him as the preacher of God’s inclusive love for all people in Jesus the Messiah, as an intrepid traveller,  citizen of Rome and courageous witness to God’s truth. He doesn’t seem to know anything about the distinctive theology expressed in Paul’s letters, nor indeed of the spiky character revealed in these letters. We can be reasonably sure that any speeches attributed to Paul in the Acts express Luke’s views rather than Paul’s.

In this case we should note the first instance of what became a common Christian apologetic to Gentiles. Rather than criticise them as idolaters, Paul says that the God they have struggled unsuccessfully to find has revealed  his nature to the Jewish people as the creator God, of whom all human beings are children. This tactic had probably already been used in Jewish outreach to Gentiles. The only distinctively Christian part of Paul’s speech is his warning that the world is soon to be judged by the resurrected Jesus. Luke gives Paul some quotations from Greek poetry to spice his rhetoric and demonstrate that his faith in the one inclusive God has a basis in his hearers’ own culture. On this occasion, Luke tells us, not many were persuaded.

It seems likely to me that Paul in fact preached to Gentiles in a more distinctively evangelical manner, with an emphasis on the love of God and the forgiveness of sins. But Luke’s model of “faith-sharing” deserves consideration as a stimulus for the same task today:

1. It does not start with condemnation of another religion.

2. It shows evidence that the other religion has been studied and appreciated.

3. If there are ways in which the other religion already shares themes or beliefs with Christianity, these are highlighted.

4. It emphasises the oneness and inclusiveness of God.

5. It announces the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ as the revealer of God.

6. It accepts the risks and difficulties of open, public, communication.

These guidelines still seem useful when Christian people are talking with people of a different religion.

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19He entered Jericho and was passing through it.2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

a collaborator pleads for his life

This great story helps readers to understand some of the abstractions of Christian teaching:

sinners: it’s easy for this word just to become an idle way of talking about all human beings. There is absolutely no evidence that Jesus believed in  original sin, and his ministry seems to have had a special preference for those who were known “sinners”, those who had breached the Law spectacularly; and also those whose rough and ready ways rejected anything too scrupulous. Zacchaeus is scum: he collaborates with the invader for his own profit. The sinners Jesus befriended included those who had done evil things and deserved the low opinion of decent folk.

evangelism: Jesus made no use at all of “snake-oil-salesman” persuasion. Befriending and helping (healing) seem to have been his preferred techniques. Here Jesus simply invites himself to a sinner’s house, thus honouring him with “an advance of trust.” The man hs no moral credit of his own; Jesus puts him in the funds by his company. The gospel is not a theological story the man should accept, but rather a transforming friendship which trusts the man’s response.

repentance: This is often explained as a dramatic kind of regret. In the Gospels, it is always a complete change of life. Here Zacchaeus’s repentance is his admission of wrong-doing and his readiness to return his criminal profits. He is justified, that is, he becomes a just man.

salvation: this term has become equivalent to a confession of faith in the saving power of God in Jesus Christ his son plus the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here Jesus uses it to mean the victorious rescue of a man from evil.

The theological words of the scripture are defined in its stories.

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