Easter 6: 17 May Acts 17:22-31
Luke portrays Paul in the capital of Hellenistic philosophy and learning and constructs what he, as a good historian of his time, needs to convey as what Paul is most likely to have said. Like most of the speeches Luke writes in this way, they are literary compositions, necessarily brief - a real speech would take a whole book! - and to the point. They are more valuable for what they tell us about Luke's understanding than they are for giving us sound data about Paul. As such they are extremely valuable, because, in this instance, Luke is also telling us how he thinks one might interact with the religious streams of the day. What he sees as appropriate can also be useful for us today.
Jews, and then Christian Jews and those who joined them, would have confronted the challenge of coming to terms with their world. One option was to ridicule all other beliefs, especially religions using images (idols), and threaten them with divine judgement. Luke has Paul end with judgement, but begin in a much more conciliatory fashion. He notes their many objects of worship, but not in order to lampoon them. It is a clever move to have Paul note an "unknown god" and use it as a basis for speaking about God.
Clearly Luke's Paul is not interested in filling in a blank on the image, to add to the collection of named gods. That might have been a strategy and indeed is one which some follow: all religions, all gods are the same. In the interests of peace and harmony people pretend this is so and some even believe it. To do this is naive, if not dishonest. Religions are dangerous, including our own at times. Peace and true harmony are not well served by such pretending, popular as it might be.
Luke's Paul makes bold claims about the one true God who is the creator of all. His language finds echoes in Hellenistic philosophy or better, the reverse: his language echoes some Greek philosophy, as did the language of the historical Paul who could use Stoic notions of the God who is in and over all things. Their sense of order in the universe fitted the notion of divine law surprisingly well and educated Jews, like Philo of Alexandria, exploited the link: to live in harmony with nature is to live in harmony with its laws, which means living in harmony with God's Law. Luke's Paul would also win favour from the philosophically educated with his comment that God cannot be confined to temples and shrines. Christianity exploited such notions in its wrestling its way out of its heritage of cultic law associated with the temple and sacrifice. The critique of sacrifices and sacred shrines could hold hands with many intellectuals of the time. Mark has Jesus almost scoff at notions that food, for instance, could render a person unclean. Such thinking had also its Old Testament roots in sayings of Psalmists and prophets that what really matters was justice and compassion, not heaps of sacrifices, though always on the understanding that it was a matter of degree, not of abandoning the cult altogether.
So Luke's Paul sides with critique of common religion of the time in favour of belief in one God, not to be thought of as needing to be fed with sacrifices and cooped up in a cult. God as the one who gives life and breath is the God of Genesis 1 - 2 but also the God whom the more sophisticated thinkers would affirm. "From one" recalls for us, and doubtless for Luke's readers, the story of Adam, but is sufficiently unspecific to find affirmation among the educated. Together one could affirm common humanity, despite its diversity related to space and time. Here was, and still is, common ground. Even searching for God can be affirmed as a common goal. Luke's Paul goes a long way, adding that God is close to human beings. To illustrate, he quotes from the Greek poet Aratus, one of the first in a textbook collection of sages, and so well known even by those who never made it in their learning beyond the first pages: "We are his offspring". Here the whole of humankind is the family of God - a rather different use of family metaphor from the more usual one which uses it to define who belongs and who does not. Luke can be flexible. The important and striking thing is that he can recognise that other peoples (whatever their religion) can also both seek and find God and that God speaks through their poets.
More famous still is the declaration: "in him we live and move and have our being", which Luke's Paul uses to summarise the best of the world's wisdom about God reflected in its various cultures. The assumption is that we have something in common. People of other faiths and cultures are not in total darkness. This stance, which stands in contrast to some of the rhetoric elsewhere in the New Testament, is a remarkable achievement. The historical Paul is not far from making the same claim in Roman 1 - 2, where at least in theory he envisages that God's law may well be found written on the hearts of those beyond the Jewish heritage, even though his main point is to underline everyone's accountability failure in sin. Light wears no labels and wherever it shines we should recognise it.
But how do we recognise it? This is the crunch issue, both for dealing with the wide range of human religious and cultural claims and traditions and for dealing with diverse forms of Christianity. Luke's Paul puts it in terms of the last judgement when God will judge all by Jesus. That might sound like an ambit claim to an outsider of Luke's day. Why Jesus? Why not Socrates or Zeno or Hercules or Moses? He certainly loses it and them with the apparently absurd justification that God had raised him from the dead to prove it. If we back off and reflect on what Luke says in its context, his two volume work, which is the real context of his composition here, rather than Athens, then we can recognise that this is far from an ambit claim. Luke uses the word "righteousness" = "goodness" in relation to the judgement. So assessment is not just on the basis of loyalty to Jesus as claimant to authority, but of goodness and for Luke that is embodied in Jesus' ministry. The criterion for judgement is the kind of love and compassion that Jesus showed and was. That is critical. That is what shines. That is the light we look for. That light also exposes was is not right, good, just, and loving. For Luke that is also the meaning of Jesus' resurrection: God said yes to Jesus. Yes, Jesus does truly embody God's light. And we should be able to recognise that light wherever it shines - with a Jesus label or not.
Raising Jesus from the dead is not a knock-down proof, the maxi of all miracles, a resuscitated corpse walking around again. For Luke it was miracle but not a crude resuscitation, as it is commonly understood, though his accounts come closest to this view. For tells of an appearing and disappearing risen Jesus. Jesus is really alive but in another world, in a spiritual world. In imagery, he is enthroned beside God - a way of identifying that Jesus is incorporated, embodied in the being of God, as God was embodied in him. The aim of such thought is not to make a hero of Jesus, but to underline that what we see in Jesus is God's light and being and in this light all claims to religion and life are to be judged and assessed. Luke's Paul speaks of the last judgement: ultimately this is the measure. But by speaking in this way he offers us a criterion for assessment and discernment which can inform our faith today and our relations with all cultures and religions. It is not peace and harmony by pretending there are no differences, but seeing the basis for peace and harmony in our shared light wherever it shines and so recognising also darkness wherever it shines. So Luke offers us an important pathway in intra- and interfaith dialogue and in self-assessment.
Easter 6: 17 May John 14:15-21
Epistle: Easter 6: 17 May 1 Peter 3:13-22