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Acts 17:22-31

Last week, we met the character Saul. Paul was pretty certainly a real person, but this incident of him, with his earlier name, may not be accurate. It doesn't really affect the overall story. A couple chapters later, he has his vision of Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Then the book of Acts begins to chronicle the travels of the apostles. That brings us to this passage, we get a somewhat different version of Saul, now Paul, who is merely pointing out these people were ignorant, as in unaware, of Christ, and God has overlooked that. In the book of Romans or Colossians, they don't get off so easy. Keep in mind, the authorship of this passage is not attributed to Paul. Neither of them intended to have their words put into one book as a consistent narrative. Those who assembled the New Testament were certainly aware of these difference as well. Sometimes they addressed them, sometimes even changed text, other times they did nothing.

In this context, there is also a difference in the audience. If you read the preceding verses, you will see he has a hostile audience. They call him a “babbler”. On the other hand, these are philosophers who are used to listening to competing ideas, so they do want to hear his message. That he makes it palatable, should not be surprising. Unfortunately we don't get any good debate here. We only know that he gained a few followers, but there is no epistle to Athens, no church established there. Apparently the philosophers were unimpressed. If you go there today, you will see mostly Eastern Orthodox churches.

But put aside all that history and look at what kind of god is portrayed here. Paul is not afraid of other religions. He acknowledges them and reads their inscriptions. He is still Jewish. He speaks of the Jewish traditions of one god, Lord of all, not connected to an individual shrine. And it is a god that wants to be sought, and is accessible. Paul uses their poet's word “offspring” to show his god is like theirs and contrasts that to a god who is made into a golden idol or one created by “imaginations of mortals”. After all this softening up, he gets to the main point, that the day and the hour has come. It is time to choose the right god, to repent.

A major theme of the book of Acts, is that God is in charge. He's doing the miracles through the apostles. He's bringing them together in harmony. These actions lead to the conversions and rapid growth of the movement (The numbers are almost certainly exaggerated). The key of course, was Jesus raising from the dead. Later Paul will say “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith.” (1 Cor 15). The healing and the building of community are great, but they happen only because of that event.

I wonder what the world would be like if they had looked at this differently, without the judgment by an “appointed man”. If they saw that the work they were accomplishing by pooling their resources was work that was done by them. If their vision to care for the sick and bring together Jews and gentiles had remained earthly, would it have continued to gain followers? This is a question that a lot of churches are asking now. Those that ask you to believe in everything listed in the Nicean Creed are struggling to remain relevant. On the other hand, very few will openly state that you can give up belief in the resurrection and still call yourself a Christian.

1 Peter 3:13-22

I've been letting the text of 1st Peter speak for itself over the last few weeks, but this is heavy with innuendo. This chapter begins with a couple rules, like wives obeying their husbands. He speaks very generally about everyone agreeing, but doesn't bother to say what they should agree about. This is setting up an “us and them” organization. The talk about inclusiveness often changes to exclusivity like this, once you're in the secret meeting.

The first bit of advice in the lection isn't horrible. If you have a good argument, you shouldn't worry about being harmed for having expressed it. Prepare your statements, be ready to explain them, have them come from the heart. People will see that you are sincere, even if you don't get your logic right. The guy who is angry and yelling, they'll think he's a liar even if he is not. And, in the end, if you aren't believed, you still did what you thought was right. Or as Marcus Aurelius was said to have said (although this is disputed):

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Then, at verse 18, we switch to the theology. It's not a matter of your ability to understand or make your case, because Christ already did all the suffering for whatever you might get wrong. As long as what you do has the intention of being for Christ, you're covered. Even though this story is one of an end to the ways of retributive justice carried out by gods, the worst possible story of doing that is brought up. Even baptism, a cleansing ritual, is compared to killing every living thing on earth, except I guess things that live in water, and maybe some birds that could fly for however long it took. This sums up to, “you're fine, Jesus took care of you, and now he's sitting next to God, you know, the one that everything is subject to, so you better figure out what he wants.”