May 25, 2014 Acts 17: 22-31 John 14: 15-21
Rev. Catherine Purves
Somehow, our hearts are all deeply moved when we think of the plight of orphans. Visions of bleak Russian orphanages where forgotten children suffer, the desperate plight of African children whose parents have died of A.I.D.S., refugee children alone in the world because their mothers and fathers were killed in ethnic fighting, and the lost and abandoned children who wander homeless on our city streets. To be an orphan is to be alone and helpless, forced to fend for yourself in an uncaring world. Why is it, then, that so many people choose to live like orphans, or assume that the life of an orphan is really all they can expect or all that they deserve?
Now I am not just thinking of those who live as if they have no mother or father, or even those who feel completely deprived of their parents’ love and support because of broken or toxic relationships. I’m thinking of people who assume that a solitude that fundamentally separates them from others, and even from God, is simply the way of the world. I’m thinking of people who just can’t find their way out of the state of being ultimately alone, even when they are surrounded by other people, perhaps even in the midst of a family… or a church. They are either self-styled orphans who have cut themselves off from genuine relationships or lonely individuals who don’t know what it would be like not to feel like an orphan. Perhaps you know some ‘orphans’ like that. Perhaps you have even felt like an orphan yourself.
At the end of his life, Jesus understood, better than the disciples did themselves, that once he was gone, they would feel like orphans. What would it mean to be a disciple whose master was dead? It would be like the experience of a child who had lost both parents. Jesus knew that this would be a terrifying prospect for them, especially given the manner of his death and the perceived danger that would pose for his followers. Orphans. They would be helpless, fearful, alone, with no one to care for them, facing a very uncertain future. It’s no wonder that they went into hiding after the crucifixion, in spite of all of the parting promises that Jesus made to them. How could they trust the promises of a dead master – even though one of the strongest and most emphatic promises he made to them was, “I will not leave you orphaned.”?
“I will not leave you orphaned.” What exactly did Jesus mean by that? And how does that apply, not only to his original disciples, but to us as modern Christians? At the heart of Jesus’ promise is this pledge: You will not be alone. Could they trust that promise? Can we? You are not alone. You are not an orphan. You are not just an individual who has been left to fend for yourself in this inhospitable world. You are part of God’s family, and that is not a loosely chosen metaphor. You cannot be an orphan if God is your Father, if Jesus is your brother, and if the Spirit lives in and among us. We are literally in God’s family. That is what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples. And this is not a distant or a conditional or a voluntary relationship. Not even Jesus’ death could change it, and his resurrection and ascension would certainly confirm it. The sending of the Spirit, named here in Greek as the Paraclete or Advocate, would solidify that bond that we have with Jesus, and through Jesus with the Father, and through our common Father, then, with one another. We are not orphans.
In spite of the truth of that statement, how might we still choose to live like orphans? In order to consider that question, let’s turn to our second reading from the book of Acts. There we find that the apostle Paul has made his way to the city of Athens. Now Athens was a great city whose power and influence were waning, but it was still regarded as a center of intellectual and philosophical debate. It was a university city that prided itself on its open-mindedness and its refined culture. In many ways it was like a modern city, very interested in new ideas, quite tolerant of the various gods that its inhabitants chose to worship, and in it there was a perpetual blending of different cultures and philosophies. The first thing that struck Paul when he entered the city was the fact that it was full of idols. Athens presented its inhabitants with a virtual smorgasbord of gods and ideas.
This is so like our world today in which people think what they choose to think, believe whatever makes sense to them, and worship as they like, what they like, if they like. People seem to prize their independence above all else, along with their individual freedoms and their right to self-determination. This was the world that Paul entered when he arrived in Athens. It was a world, like our modern world, that made people orphans. Paul saw this at once, and it was into that culture that he had to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We actually face the same challenge when we try to share our faith today.
“To an unknown god” – those were the words that Paul saw etched on an Athenian altar, and they could also easily represent the arbitrary, self-made, half-practiced religions of many modern people. “To an unknown god” – this is a statement of resignation. It implies that the god they believe in may not, and perhaps cannot, be known. This is the perspective of someone who thinks that God is beyond our reach, only dimly understood, and basically uninvolved in the world or in our lives. These are the words of an orphan who is ultimately cut off from God. Do our hearts not reach out to such an orphan?
As Paul stood before the Athenian governors and intellectuals, he saw that they were all orphans, worshiping idols and unknown gods. They were alone in the world, clutching at their ideas to give them some security, content to kneel before the altar of whatever religion or philosophy appealed to them, and allowing others that same freedom of choice. So, they were not only cut off from the one true God, they were isolated from one another. Does any of this sound familiar? Let’s consider now what Paul said to the orphans of Athens.
First, he proclaimed to them that the god they worshiped as unknown was, in fact, known! There is a God who does not live in shrines and who cannot be represented by idols. There is one God who made all things and who created all people and who instilled in each one of us a yearning for God. Paul quotes one of the Athenians’ own philosophers to describe this God who is not distant or uninvolved in the world. He insists that, “In him, we live and move and have our being.” Even more importantly, Paul asserts that, “we too are his offspring.” If we are all the offspring of the one true God, then we are not orphans. None of us are orphans. We are not abandoned, left alone to worship an unknown god.
Now, Paul gets down to the meat of his argument. His logic appears to be irresistible. If, in fact, Paul does know their unknown god, and if there is just one God, the creator of all things, and if they are his offspring, then the one God is their Father. They are not orphans. This has now been revealed in Jesus Christ who called all people to repent, because the time when God was willing to overlook human ignorance and man-made idols was at an end. A time of judgment was coming, and this was confirmed by the fact that Jesus, who himself revealed the one true God as our Father, was raised from the dead. In spite of the cleverness of Paul’s argument some scoffed at him, while others reserved judgment, and a few, but only a few, joined him and became believers.
Is it surprising to you that so many would choose to be orphans even when the good news of the gospel was proclaimed to them? Look around. Do we not live in a community, and a nation, and a world that is full of orphans? And even though we are trying to live as children of the one true God, the pressures of paganism and individualism and false philosophies press in upon us too, tempting us to think of ourselves as orphans, and to feel like orphans, and to act like orphans. This we must resist. We are not orphans. God is our Father, Jesus is our brother, and the Spirit lives in and among us. We are literally in God’s family now. Let this irrefutable fact shape your life and it will transform your life. And, perhaps then, a few of the orphans that you know and care about may come to believe in Jesus and his promise, “I will not leave you orphaned.”