A reflection of Acts 17:22-31, 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21
When I was a little girl I used to walk myself to church every week for Sunday school and then again on Tuesday for Christian formation. The rest of my immediately family had no desire to go to church and I apparently was content to walk there myself. I was born into the church; my ancestors for generations back had been active members. It was the only church I knew. This denomination had very clear ideas of who could belong and who could not. It was also a denomination that centered its entire being on the idea that its members were the only people who were going to be admitted into the kingdom of heaven. They taught that it was the one and only true church of God.
One morning in Sunday school the teacher was giving us a lesson on this rule. Apparently, according to this teacher and this church, God made this rule; God decided that this Church was the one and true expression of faithfulness and the only way to salvation. But, even as a young girl I had an active prayer life and knew God’s presence in my life. So. When the teacher expounded on this lesson I couldn’t resist the urge to raise my hand and ask a question to the contrary. “What,” I asked, “Happens to the little babies in Africa who have never heard of this church?” Now, I’m fairly certain that I chose Africa because it was the continent furthest away from my small town and filled with people who probably had no idea our church even existed. I had no idea, really of what had transpired in Africa over the last 300 years. But clearly I thought God was big enough, expansive enough, to not limit people from heaven if they’d never even heard of the possibility of salvation through this church. The teacher however responded, “That’s why we need missionaries, to go over and convert these people and save them.”
I don’t know why it is that random conversations stick with me. I don’t know why I remember this particular conversation so well, although I think the Holy Spirit has something to do with it. I remember the classroom, and the kids, and the teacher. No, not their names, per se, but that we were sitting in a circle facing the teacher, that most of the kids were giggly and throwing spit wads, but that I was listening and thinking, and disagreeing with the teaching of my church. It simply did not fit my experience of God. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, some 40 years later.
Eventually I left that church and went on an exploration of faith. I wasn’t looking for God; rather I was looking for a means to worship God in community. I was looking for a church that could hold my expansive experience of God and help shape and form me in my life of faith.
In our reading from Acts Paul is standing in front of a crowd at the Areopagus, where he has been brought to defend his teachings. He faces a crowd of Romans steeped in another belief system, a people who are angry and skeptical of his teachings. First he honors the beliefs of the people before him saying, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He even speaks of their altar to an unknown god. He then clarifies the particular points that believers of his Christian faith adhere too which differ from their beliefs. He says: there is God who is known by the people; This God created all that is, including humanity; In this God we live and move and have our being; and This God cannot be found in gold or silver or stone, there is no image that can fully express who this God is, for this God is beyond the imagination of mortals.
1 Peter picks up on this theme, although not explicitly. I am not sure what the author of 1 Peter intended in the writing of this Epistle. It is tragic that this Epistle has been used by the church to encourage abuse and violence. Over the centuries Christians have used portions of 1 Peter to argue for slavery and for the abuse of slaves at the hands of their owners. It has also been used to argue for domestic abuse telling wives to silently tolerate abusive husbands. Like I said, I’m not sure what the author intended but I do know that modern commentators on the Bible are finding new insight into this reading that reframes the suffering. From this perspective it does not support abuse nor does it endorse one human being inflicting violence on another. It says instead that when we defend our faith with integrity we will face skepticism and hostility. According to 1 Peter defending our faith means to live with gentleness, reverence, and integrity - these are the qualities that 1 Peter defines as conveying the nature of God. This passage reminds us to commit ourselves to God by living as Christ teaches us – not by hiding our faith but living it in a public way. Living our faith in a public way means that the grace of God that is working within us is public and obvious to others.
In our gospel reading we learn more about what it means to commit ourselves to God and to live as Christ teaches us. This passage begins and ends with this point – we are to love. Jesus gives us only one commandment, and we hear it over and over – we are to love God, love our selves, and love others. We learn this first from Jesus himself. Later when Jesus has departed this world and ascended to heaven, Jesus leaves with us the Holy Spirit, who continues to teach us about love. The Holy Spirit is that expression of God that remains active in the world and enables us to love as God loves – in an expansive, generous way.
I do think that my Sunday school teacher was on to something important. We do need missionaries in this world. But not the way she and the church of my childhood intended; not missionaries who proclaim a narrow view of salvation and an exclusive view of who God will embrace. And we don’t need missionaries just in Africa. We need missionaries everywhere, missionaries who are able and willing to live lives of faith. We need missionaries who are willing and able to love people just as they are. We need missionaries who meet people wherever they are in their lives and love them. Living as Christ has taught us enables a grace-filled love of God to pour through us. This grace-filled love of God will change lives. We need missionaries who love the broken people and shattered pieces of this world. We need missionaries that move us out and away from violence into the gentleness of God. We need missionaries with an expansive vision of God’s love; a vision that lives with open arms rather than tight fists. Each of us, when we live our lives with gentleness and reverence, become missionaries for God. But as Christian missionaries for God we are also called to live lives of integrity and that means that we love as Christ loves; for it is in this way that Christ will be in us and we will be in him. When Christ is in us and we are in Christ we are close to understanding the nature of God. Still, I think it is helpful to remember, as Paul says, that ultimately God is beyond the imagination of mortals. Let’s not get stuck on, or limited by, some image of who we think God is. Instead let’s embrace God as Jesus did, let us embrace self as Jesus did, let us embrace others as Jesus did, as visions of love.
The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is the rector at St. Francis-in-the-Valley, Green Valley, Arizona. She holds a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work. In addition to parish ministry Terri enjoys time with her husband of 23 years, her children 19 and 16, their two dogs and two cats. When life is slow she also knits, reads, and does yoga.