“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What an interesting way for Jesus to encourage us to obey his commands and to follow his example. He simply expects that if we obey the first commandment to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves then we will obey the rest of the commandments. This love shows our devotion to the one who loved us first, the one whose love for us is unconditional and cannot be measured. It is a commitment to the one who offers us a future that is beyond our human imagining. And it is the love that should direct everything we do and say in our lives.
This gospel reading is another part of the “Farewell Discourses” when Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for the events that were about to take place, and for a future without his physical presence. Jesus knows this is difficult for them to understand, and that they will need all the support and love he offers them in order that they will have faith and will be empowered to share his message with the world. He assures them that they will not be left alone, that as God the Father is in him, so he will be with them in his Holy Spirit. He calls the Spirit the “Advocate” so that they understand that the Spirit is not only God’s truth and love, but will also provide them with strength and protection. The Holy Spirit will stand beside them at all times.
Our first lesson for today is one of the stories about the ministry of the Apostle Paul, whose mission was to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, people who worshiped pagan gods and had little or no knowledge of Judaism. Paul, who was a very well-educated Jewish man who had come to have faith in Jesus as the Messiah, was given the gift by God of reaching out to people from different cultures who followed various pagan religions. For them, the idea of there being only one god was preposterous. The idea of a god who wants to be in loving relationship with human beings, who does not demand sacrifice in order to prevent retribution and who offers unconditional forgiveness and salvation was even more preposterous. And finally, the idea of a god who offered himself up as a sacrifice for humanity, who accepted the most humiliating form of death was downright ridiculous. To pagans, those ideas were scandalous.
Yet Paul’s mission succeeded in the most amazing way. While there have been countless faithful followers who insist on telling the story of Jesus and sharing his message of God’s grace and love, Paul is responsible for establishing the first Christian communities all across the north Mediterranean portion of the Roman Empire. Although these cities were all under the authority of Rome, they had individual cultures with local variations on the official pagan religion of the Empire. Paul’s mission was to turn these people away from the false gods they worshipped and to help them understand and believe in the one God, manifested in the person of Jesus. It is difficult for us to understand what a huge task that was.
This story takes place in Athens, at that time a cultural center for the ancient pagan religion of the Greek gods, which the Romans adapted into their own pantheon of gods. On this first visit, Paul spent some days wandering around the city, taking note of the many altars and temples dedicated to the various gods. Now he had the opportunity to address the men of the city who gathered at a place called the Areopagus, which primarily served as the court of law for trying homicides. Paul’s speech is political as well as religious, because the worship of the gods was a political act, it was demanded of its citizens. The author of Acts demonstrates that Paul was a very practical man. While it was his unshakable faith in Jesus as the true messenger of the one God that inspired and empowered him, he used very practical means to bring that message to the gentiles.
Paul was skilled in the art of rhetoric, the presentation of a convincing argument that was difficult to refute. He also took the time to learn about the cultures and traditions of the people to whom he was bringing the message. In his walks about Athens, he noticed an altar dedicated to the “unknown god.” Paul seized on that as an opportunity to introduce the people to the one God he believed in. As he spoke, he tried to make God known to them in a way that would appeal to them, but that would also have to make sense to them in that age of logic and reason. He also had to overcome their belief in a pantheon of gods, by insisting that this God, who had previously been unknown to them, was really the one and only God. He even quoted one of their well- known poets, Aratus, using his poem about the god Zeus to explain the true God.
Paul wanted them to experience the transformation that we experience when we fall in love with God “in a quite absolute and final way,” as the Jesuit Pedro Arrupe said. When we fall in love with another person our perspective is changed, we see the world differently and begin to understand things in relation to the one we love. People who love one another, especially for a long time, often take on some of the characteristics of the other. That is the kind of love Jesus was talking about when he makes the statement “if you love me you will obey my commands” and it is the kind of love and faith Paul wanted to instill in people who previously had no knowledge of what it would be like to worship and be in relationship with only one God.
Paul did not convert all the people of Athens to faith in God. But he planted the seeds of faith in enough people that they formed the first Christian community there, and Athens would eventually become the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church. Today, we accept the command to love God with all of our hearts and minds, and to love our neighbors as God loves us, but we are still challenged to implement it. If we truly love God, we have to find a way to show love and hospitality to others who may look different, have different variations of language and culture and different ways of worshiping God. We have to speak out against injustice and intolerance in a way that honors God. If we love God, we have to name the false gods who demand our time and devotion and put them behind us. If we love God, we have to love others with the kind of love that Jesus has for us, that expects to be loved in return, but failing that, will love us anyway.
Today Mason Joseph will be baptized into the Christian faith and into our church community here at Saint John. It seems easier than the task that Paul faced, but as Mason grows up he will be faced with many false gods that will demand his time and devotion. His parents and sponsors are going to promise to teach him the beliefs and traditions of our faith and to strengthen his connection to the church. As fellow members of his new congregation, we will also promise to nurture and support him on his faith journey. Just as every convert to faith in the one true God was important at the time Paul was establishing the church, so every person who is baptized or reaffirming their faith today is of vital importance to us and to God.
Kristin and Derek, we rejoice with you as we baptize Mason into the family of God and we welcome you both as official members of our congregation. Because we love God, we also love you and will accompany you and support you on your faith journeys. Amen.