Next week's readings: 6th Sunday of Easter

02 November 2006


Genesis 8.20-9.17 
Acts 17.22-31 
1 Peter 3.13-end 
John 14.15-21

LUKE'S PAUL has reached Athens. His audience includes philosophers: Epicureans and Stoics. Athens was more of an intellectual museum, in Paul's day, than a leading university city. But the Athenians still "spent their time in doing nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17.21). Among those who hear Paul speak in the marketplace, some are far from impressed: Paul is a "word-picker" like a magpie; he has picked up snippets of information without understanding them (17.18).

Paul, we hear, has seen an altar "To God Unknown". No such inscription has yet come to light in Athens. Other authors commented on altars to anonymous gods in the city; they were clearly a custom unusual elsewhere. But such a practice was sensible and duly humble. Pagans acknowledged how little they knew about the divine powers active in the world. If a time of trouble did not end with sacrifices to recognised gods, it was arrogant folly not to offer homage to any others who might have been offended by the city's neglect. In Athens, there had been, for centuries, it seems, altars "To the Relevant God".

Luke's Paul acknowledges the insights of Greek philosophical religion. He locates these insights, however, within a deeper understanding of God, which God has made accessible to all humankind. This knowledge, he claims, has been distorted by the idolatry that bedevilled ancient paganism.

God has overlooked the times of ignorance. But now God summons all people - pagans among them - to repentance, "because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given proof to all people by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17.31). The Athenians can now recognise their "Unknown God" as having been, all along, the one true God, creator and judge.

The argument of Luke's Paul is gracious. Any pagans hearing or reading this speech would feel respected. Contrast this with the mauling that Paul himself gives to idolatry in Romans. It is a delinquency of both understanding and will: "What can be known about God is plain to them. . . So they are without excuse. . . They have been made fools in their thinking, and their senseless minds have been darkened" (Romans 1.19-21).

Luke's Paul has found as much common ground as possible between his audience and himself. For the Stoics - and many others - of course, there was one great god, creator of all; as Aratus the pagan poet had said: "We are indeed his offspring" (quoted in Acts 17.28).

The Epicureans insisted that no god called for a shrine or sacrifice. All philosophers - and many others - were clear that statues were only symbols, visible forms that we use because we are "unable to show by any example what cannot be imagined or represented" (Dio Chrysostom, philosophical orator). Luke' s readers might well have wondered, on the basis of this speech, what there was for educated pagans to repent of.

Might Luke be building, throughout this speech, an alliance with his sophisticated readers against popular religion? Such readers will have recognised the need, among the superstitious, for repentance; and so for the drastic proof offered by the resurrection. The readers can, therefore, respect an act by God that they and their educated circles will have found bizarre and probably repellant.

The Christians, the scathing philosopher Celsus wrote in the late second century, "suppose that those who have long been dead will rise up from the earth possessing the same bodies as before. This is simply the hope of worms. For what sort of human soul would have any further desire for a body that has rotted?"

I have been asking what Luke was trying to achieve, among whom, and how. We can do justice to Luke only if we do justice to his readers and their setting. We will want to ask next about ourselves: what are we trying to achieve by our preaching and teaching, among whom, and how?

Answers are legion. And we are not being disloyal to the example of scripture, if, in that teaching, we acknowledge the thoughtful, heartfelt alternatives that offer people a deep-rooted place in the world.

The Paraclete: John 14

JOHN'S JESUS and John himself have spoken often of the Spirit. Now Jesus gives the Spirit a new and striking guise: as the "Paraclete" or Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. John could not take even its name for granted. The Paraclete is mentioned five times; four times with an explanatory gloss - that this is the Spirit of God.

So useful was this Greek term for "advocate" that the word was borrowed into Hebrew, to speak of a representative or ally at court. It was a function familiar among Greeks and Romans, but unknown to Jewish law. Here, then, was a spokesman who would rally to the defence of Jesus's disciples; he would act as a foil to Satan, the great accuser, who had entered Judas. Here, too, is the disciples' guide: "The Advocate will guide you in all truth" (John 16.13).

What must the community do to be given this attorney? "If you love me," said Jesus, "you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the father and he will give you another advocate, to be with you for all ages, the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot receive, because the world does not see it nor know it; but you know it, because it abides in you and will be with you" (John 14.15).

But it is Jesus whom the disciples will see again (14.19); and Jesus who will abide with his disciples: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my father will love them and we will come to them and make our abode with them" (John 14.23). The Advocate is one form in which John's readers will "see" Jesus himself again.

We might almost say: John has his Jesus "anticipate" in the farewell discourse the work of the Spirit. Jesus himself, in the discourse, is guiding John's community in all truth. So the Advocate will, as much as anything, come to remind the disciples what Jesus has said, and to enable those disciples to understand it.

"The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, which the father will send in my name - he will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have told you" (John 14.26). John and his followers now have the Spirit that Jesus promised; John writes and they read with the benefit that Jesus's own disciples did not have when Jesus spoke.

The Spirit is to function in John's day as Jesus did in his. This runs parallel to the Gospel's central function; for it is the Gospel itself that is to function in John's church as Jesus did among those he met. Jesus healed, brought sight, called to new life; so, in its turn, does the text as it is read and received. Can we sketch out the relation, then, between Jesus and the Spirit? For one thing, we may say: the presence of Jesus within John's church is the Gospel's text; the text's effective reception is the activity of the Spirit. The Gospel needs the Spirit's work and is, in turn, its perfect vehicle.

In the Spirit's presence, John finds, too, the key with which he can decode the familiar language of a heavenly dwelling. Jesus's disciples had expected to be taken away to be with him. But far from it: life on earth will carry on. The intimacy that Jesus promises, between himself, his father and his disciples, will be lived out here.

John's Advocate, then, is busy on earth. But, in Jewish usage, this is not the court in which the Advocate was known. John is enacting on earth what should be happening far away from normal sight and understanding. Jewish thinkers spoke of the Advocate not as part of our humdrum life on earth, but of the counsels of the court of heaven.

John has re-worked any expectations that his readers had of such an Advocate. John insists: as Satan is active on earth (he enters Judas: John 13.27), so is the Advocate. The Advocate, day by day, is preparing and effecting our defence: in the lives that he inspires and teaches and guides in all truth.

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