Risen in Deed

A lot can happen in three months. So the next time I will see you all will be September. That’s three months from now. A lot can happen in three months.

Three months may not be that long of a period of time, but things will be different in September. I know that I will be different when I get back. I have a full summer planned, but a relaxing and refreshing one. So I know I will come back changed, refreshed, renewed, different.

In two days, construction starts on building renovations. So I’ll get to see some of the dust fly before I leave, but not the end result. So our building will look different: better, more welcoming, ready, different.

What about you? Will you be different? If so, how would I know? How would you know?

Over the past few weeks, we have been spending time with these Easter lectionary texts, these lessons where Christ speaks of his resurrection. Today’s reading actually comes from the Last Supper, before the transformative events of Holy Week, as Jesus projects forward to the Easter promise and beyond. The disciples end up scratching their heads in bewilderment. They understand that things will be different; but what that different looks like, they have no idea.

How could they? How in the world would they possibly understand that Jesus was going to die, rise from the dead, visit them, and then ascend out of sight? How could they have anticipated Pentecost, when the Spirit shoved them out into the streets, speaking in tongues, the church exploding right before their eyes? And how in the world could they have expected the miraculous turn in the life of the one who used to be named Saul?

As the early church grew, one of its fiercest opponents was Saul the Pharisee. Just last week, we read how when Stephen was stoned by the crowds for preaching Christ, the perpetrators lay their cloaks at the feet of Saul to watch over them while they lynched an innocent man. It’s not long before Saul is blinded on the road to Damascus, healed, and becomes one of the fiercest defenders of Jesus.

Our lesson today finds him in Athens – no longer Saul, but Paul – standing at the Areopagus, the site of the ancient high court. It is here that this persecutor of Christians preaches a sermon “to an unknown god”. Having seen this inscription on an altar in the city, Paul knew it was the perfect way to tell them about the God he has come to know in Jesus. “It’s time to put the past behind us,” he says, “and look toward the future. God knows you, and knows you well; it’s time for you to know God, too.”

I wonder how many of us have sympathy for the people of Athens? How many of us resonate with this idea of an unknown god? Maybe we can get our minds around the idea that there is a god, some kind of higher goodness or force in the universe; but to know much, if anything about this god?

You see, this is the ridiculous thing that Christians say: not only that God is knowable, but that we know God and God’s character, because we know Jesus and Jesus’ character. We read the stories of his healing, and we understand that God desires wholeness. We listen to his teaching and we hear the wisdom of heaven. We witness his compassion, especially for those who are most vulnerable, and we are grateful that God cares about those whom the world neglects.

There are some of you here today for whom that description makes absolute sense. My hunch is that there are many more of you here who dearly desire for that to make sense. And I also know that there are some of you here today who hear this all as utter nonsense. Whatever the case may be for you, the point remains the same: how is it that we know God? And how is it that we come to deepen our knowledge of God?

I think, oddly enough, that knowledge of God is nested in our knowledge of self. It’s not that we should confuse the two: we are not God, and thank God for that. At the same time, we say that God has made an impression on us, that we are made in the image of God, so there is certainly an element of holiness within us. So one of the ways that we get to know God is by getting know ourselves. So here’s my question for you today: what is it that you want to know?

I want to make today an opportunity for us as a community. And I want to suggest that from now to September can operate as a kind of three-month process for you – for all of us, really. What is it that you want to come to know in the next three months? What is it that you want to know about yourself, about God? Is there some kind of concrete goal you want to set for yourself?

Maybe you want to aim for establishing a daily discipline for yourself. I know we have talked a lot about prayer this year; is that something that has rooted itself in your life, or not yet? Perhaps you want to be more committed in your Sunday worship attendance. Or maybe you want to find ways to participate more – in mission, in Sunday School, in service.

Or perhaps you’re sitting there saying, “The last thing I need is one more thing to do.” If that’s the case, what can you give up? What is one burden you carry that you can spend the next three months removing from your plate?

Or maybe you want to become more generous. Look: whenever we have a financial challenge here at Oglethorpe, I am always amazed by the response. As Paul shared with you earlier, we have already met and beat our challenge gift. And that only took a week. We still have a little ways to go before we can comfortably say that we will meet our expenses for 2014. And I know that some of you squirm when we talk about money; some of you might put up with it, knowing that we have to do it some, but would prefer we didn’t. Fair enough. But that’s not my point.

My point is this: what we do with what we are given says a lot about who we are and who we want to be. If you added up everything you gave away, how would it compare to what you take in? Would it be 1%? 10? 3? 15? Nothing? Does your giving say about you what you want it to?

I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: life is a series of phases. There are times when the going is rough and times when it’s smooth sailing. All of this is to say that there’s no magic formula for all. At the same time, do you know God well enough to know what is truly in store for you right now?

This is all a long way of saying that I’ve got something I want you to do today.

I want you to concentrate on one thing: how would you like to be different three months from now? It could be that you have something concrete in mind, like a developing a discipline or giving up a difficulty, in which case the goal is relatively clear. It could be that you are contemplating something more abstract, like less fear or more hope, something that, when you wake up in the morning three months from now, you will recognize some sign that things are really different. Maybe you’ll wake up with a smile for the first time in a long time.

Whatever it is, I want you to choose one thing.

A lot can happen in three months. When we meet again, we will be different. But I know this: when we meet again, we will have grown in our knowledge of God. And that is something to celebrate!