Last week I told you that I’m not a big fan of street preachers because they start from a place of contempt rather than love. Yes, they speak with truth: repent and turn from sin. But we are called to speak the truth in love or else, as Paul says, we’re nothing but a loud and noisy gong i.e. something no one can endure. Contrast them with Paul’s approach to the gentile Athenians in our reading from Acts.
Remember that Paul is one of the chosen people of God, a Jew. He’d actually been a high profile leader. Rather than play that card of chosenness and power and rather than judge and chastise the gentile Athenians with contempt or disappointment, what does he do? He starts where they are, with what they already know. Dear Athenians, I saw an inscription on your altars to an unknown god. In fact, I’ve read your poets and I think they’ve said some wise things. Let me talk to you about this God whom I think you actually already know, maybe just not fully. This God has made everything that exists. And because he’s perfect, he doesn’t need anything, including shrines or sacrifices or gift offerings; so he’s not completed by us offering these things. What he really wants is us - our full selves - everything we are and everything we have?
Why? So that we don’t distract ourselves with things that separate us from God who alone has made it so we can see - even if now only in brief glimpses that we catch while groping through all the stuff of this world not yet consummated to him - the perfection he’s leading us to if we’re open to him. That’s his promise through his chosen people, now delivered to you: that in Jesus Christ, you too would be able to know your maker, your unknown God. That in Jesus, you might see more fully, who it is you have been groping for.
And who is this Jesus? As we talked about last week, he’s the one who reveals the will of God the Father: that we might give up those things that separate us from God so that he can reshape our way of living with other people in this world. As we receive God’s love for us we are able to let go of things like our faulty idealism and the contempt for others fostered when things and people don’t meet our ideals; we can let go of bitterness, anger, envy or disgust when others don’t do as we think they ought; we can stave off the temptation to drown our frustrations, fears, boredom, and loneliness in alcohol, drugs, sex or lashing out. We can let go and let God in, let his love pour over the wounds we’ve received groping our way through this world of imperfection and brokenness.
We can allow ourselves to be loved by God who is reconciling us to Jesus Christ through the advocate, the Holy Spirit, who burns away all the chaff, and cleans out our wounds, and heals that we might turn to others and act with the same patient and kind love toward them, that God exercises in healing us. This is how we are made able to love God and neighbour, even our enemies. That is, this is how we are made able to do the will of the Father that we are commanded to do.
This is what we hear in 1st Peter: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. This is what Paul did with the Athenians. Paul’s actions are the fruit of knowing the Father and being conformed to the Son by the Holy Spirit whose fruits God’s followers are called to bear: to be kind, gentle, compassionate, courageous, and to have self control when we’re tempted to react strongly.
But God is not simply a good therapist. Therapists are good when they conform to the way Christ lived in this world. He sets the bar for what heals broken human beings. Yet he sets the bar not because he simply tells or coaches people what to do. He actually has the power to transform every person, in accordance with the particularity of who they are, of their knowledge, understanding, their experiences, their sufferings. Why? For as Paul said in Acts: he made you and in and through his Spirit he conforms you to his Son so that you might receive and bear this image of his child, his own being and so reflect him in your daily life.
He knows everything about you and why you act as you do. He knows your strengths and weaknesses and all the things you keep hidden from others, even yourself, what a psychiatrist would call one’s unconscious. And he knows how to break through all your defenses in order - if you’ll allow him - to equip you to share his love with those who desperately need it. This is where the rubber hits the road in the Christian life: be ready to make a defense, that is, to share who God is, to share why this brings you hope, to share, why this matters not just for you, but for all people. What this world desperately needs is love grounded in the hope of this God of ours who has made all things and will bring them to completion. People need to know they are loved by perfect love itself because this can fuel the hope needed to live through really terrible circumstances.
This advocate whom we have received, this Holy Spirit who is God drawing us into the very Person of Jesus and making us like him, he is the pruning hope that drives us to our very purpose in God. Let us, with penitent and obedient hearts, take hold of this hope and reach out to those who are now, like the Athenians, just groping for God. But let us do so with compassion, love, friendship, kindness, patience and the humility of self-giving that others might see not us, but God through us. AMEN.