The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
6th Sunday of Easter, Year A
John W.B. Hill
Psalm 66:7-18 (NRSV: 8-20);
1 Peter 3:13-22;
We entered “this joyful Eastertide” by celebrating the baptism of new disciples of Jesus, and by remembering our own baptism. Over the past weeks, the second reading (selections from the first letter of Peter) has sounded very much like teaching addressed to those who have just emerged from the baptismal waters. This Sunday’s selection (1 Peter 3: 13-22) confirms this impression, for it provides one of the traditional images of baptism: Noah’s flood. Just as Noah and his family were saved from drowning by the very flood that destroyed everyone else, so followers of Jesus are saved from “the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1: 10; 5: 9) through the waters of baptism. For in baptism we share in his death, death caused by a flood of human wrath, sweeping him away. And it is precisely through his death and resurrection that the world itself will finally be saved from the flood of strife and violence in which we are drowning.
Into what sort of life, then, are we reborn by baptism? Well, at this point in the life of the Church, the question seems almost meaningless, for baptism has been so trivialized by our misuse of it over the centuries. Nevertheless, we can begin to glimpse the intended shape of a baptism-shaped life when we hear Peter addressing the newly baptized. Baptism brings us into a new realm where Jesus is Lord, which means
· we will not fear what other people fear who do not know this new realm of Christ’s gentle and loving rule (verse 14);
· we will be ready to give an account of the hope that is in us, with gentleness and reverence (verse 15);
· we will endure whatever suffering is inflicted upon us for the sake of the gospel just as Jesus himself did (verses 16-18).
In the first reading we are given a spectacular example of this baptism-shaped life (Acts 17: 22-31). Paul is responding to a request by the sophisticated crowd in Athens to ‘give an account of the hope that is in him’. However, Paul’s account of this hope does not begin where any of his previous sermons began (i.e., recalling the ways of God with God’s ancient people, Israel — that would be ‘all Hebrew’ to a Greek audience!) Instead, he attempts to connect with the world they know and invoke whatever intuitive sense of the Creator of their world that they may feel. He acknowledges the reality of diverse nations and cultures, each groping toward some recognition of the divine (what Paul as a Pharisee would undoubtedly have considered mere idolatry!), a diversity that only intensifies the conflicts between nations. But Paul does not condemn; he simply announces what he believes to be the recently revealed turning point in world history: a summons from “the one God who made the world and everything in it” to turn away from the delusions of the past and welcome the world’s new judge whom God has appointed — by raising him from the dead!
In the baptismal creed we profess our faith and trust in Jesus who will come “to judge the living and the dead”; but today we probably hear this to mean that Jesus will decide who will be condemned to hell, and who will be acquitted (or let off with a scolding). In the vocabulary of the Bible, however, the coming of a judge is, above all else, a great blessing, for a true judge brings order to a chaotic and strife-ridden society and defends the orphan and the widow.
And that is what Paul means by referring to the risen Christ as a judge, only more so. The “man whom God has appointed...by raising him from the dead” will be the one who will move the world beyond “the times of human ignorance” and “command all people everywhere to repent”; he will be the one to reconcile the world to God, so all can acknowledge that “in him we live and move and have our being.”
From Paul’s perspective, this is good news indeed — for Athenians, and for people of every nation under heaven!
This is also the kind of good news that we need to hear today. Too many so-called ‘believers’ seem to worship a god who is nothing more than a ‘divine butler’, or a ‘cosmic therapist’. But that is not the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ. For by raising Jesus from the dead, God has appointed him Judge of all.
Today’s gospel is the corrective to the shallow spirituality of our time. On the night of his arrest, Jesus tells his frightened followers that he will ask the Father to give them another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, through whom they will share in Jesus’ own intimate relationship with the Father. But this intimacy is an intimacy of trusting and eager obedience to the Judge of all: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments!”
This loving obedience is the one foundation of a baptism-shaped life; this is what enables us to live without fear, to give an account of the hope that is in us, and to accept suffering as sharing in Christ’s suffering.
The coming of the Advocate at Pentecost is Part One of the Second Coming: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Yet the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth, “because it neither sees him nor knows him.” However, the day will come when “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1: 7). That will be Part Two of the Second Coming.
In the meantime, “You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you.” “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them,” says the risen Lord and Judge of all.
John W.B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. A member of APLM Council, John also serves as chair of Liturgy Canada.
"Noah's Ark" by Marc Chagall, 1966.
"St. Paul at the Areopagus" by Kennedy A. Paizs.