Joe Wiesenfarth delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on May 29, 2011. This homily was based on the lectionary readings of Acts 17:22-31, Peter 3:13-22 and John 14:15-21.
Joseph Wiesenfarth is Professor Emeritus of English at the UW-Madison, where he taught from 1970 to 2000. He began attending liturgies at the former St. Benedict Center about 1975 and giving occasional homilies there and at Holy Wisdom Monastery since 1984.
We don’t have to go beyond the first line of today’s first reading before we encounter a problem. That’s because the word Areopagus designates both a place, the hill of Ares, god of war, as well as a ruling body of the Athenian government. So when we are told that “Paul stood in front of the Aeropagus,” are we to think that he stood on a rocky hill or that he was speaking to politicians, who, of course, might be as hard as the rocks in that place where they met? The one thing that we do know is that Paul was telling Athenians that Ares and gods like him are not the true God. The true god is the Unknown God to whom they, unknowingly enough, built an altar. So today’s readings begin with false gods. But we quickly get to a God who is more recognizable to us: the God in whom “we live and more and have our being.” The God whose “offspring” we are.
But our being “offspring” presents another set of problems that we can easily recognize if we are not fundamentalists in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Paul tells the Athenians that from “one ancestor God made all nations” and that “the day has been fixed on which God will have the world judged.” One thing is certain: the world didn’t end as Paul thought it would soon do in his own time or shortly thereafter. And those of us who think that Charles Darwin had it right in the matter of evolution know that the world isn’t 6,000 years old and that Adam is not literally the father of us all. We might further note that Peter is no more accurate in his relation of the history of mankind than Paul when he talks about Noah and the Ark and the eight people who survived The Flood to become our progenitors. In summary, neither the Apostle of the Gentiles nor the Apostle of the Jews is able to see beyond the mythological structures of their day that to them seemed as sure as we might think scientific truth is today. We are all in a sense creatures of what we know at any one time or place. So I’m rather inclined to agree with the novelist Colin Cotterill, the author of The Coroner’s Lunch, when he writes, “These things are sent to test us. Life on earth’s just the entrance examination” (213).
Entrance examination into what is another question altogether. But so far we’ve managed to put aside some false gods and identify the Unknown God as the God whom Jesus revealed to us. And that God sent us Jesus who tells us that we will be given the Spirit to help us to live and move and have our being once he himself is no longer with us. But, in another sense, Jesus is always with us because as he tells his disciples: although “In a little while the world will no longer see me,” you will see me because “I live” and “you also will live” and “on that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you.” This may give us a chance to understand more profoundly the commandments that Jesus has left us to love God and to love one another. As Paul says in Romans (12:4-5), “As we have in our body many members, and all the members do not perform the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Messiah, and serve as members of each other.” Garry Wills, whose translation of Paul I have just quoted, writes this way of this passage:
Jesus, after saying that “I am the vine, you the branches” (Jn !5.5), draws the corollary, “Love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15.12). “I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I in you” (Jn 14.20). One Spirit pervades the vine and the body. This is the deeper meaning of the “Golden Rule” (Mt 7.12, Lk 6.31)—not simply that you should treat others as you would be treated, but treat them as if they were you (because they are). (What Paul Meant 53).
This is so utterly lucid and logical and inspirational in its existential truth and it makes our understanding of that truth so complete that, if I might speak for myself, it makes our practice of it harder rather than easier. For how easy is it for you to see people whom you more or less cordially despise seem like yourself? Think, as members of an ecumenical community, of the “My Religion is Better Than Your Religion” people. Think of Terry Jones, the preacher who burned the Koran, which cost, not him, but others, their lives. Think of the opponents of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has led to soldiers’ suicides. Think of the Latinos coming through the desert who want to be like us but die every day trying. Think of the Birthers whose goal is to kill a Black Man’s presidency. Indeed, think of any political or religious movement you choose to, whether here or abroad, and you will find in it what the writer Ford Madox Ford said he found in the novels of Henry James, who drew his characters directly from life itself: people who are “averagely sensual, averagely kindly, averagely cruel, averagely honest, averagely imbecile” (Ford 122). When G. K. Chesterton read the same Henry James, he saw the same things as Ford did but came to this conclusion about James: “His whole world is made out of sympathy: out of a whole network of sympathy” (Edel 5:463).
If the incontestable flaws in human beings can draw out our sympathy, then we might possibly leave Ares, the god of war, behind us, and move with the Spirit toward a God almost Unknown in our world today, the God of Love. I emphasize might possibly because, personally, I simply find it impossible to love some people. So, in simpler terms, if we are trying to deal with others as we would have them deal with us, we more or less have to acknowledge, however different they may be, that we are (are we not?), averagely, like them. Consequently, “We can never have justice until our neighbor has justice” (Hedges). If we can at least acknowledge that, we’ve got a chance to pass the entrance examination. What our grade will be, however, remains an open question.
Colin Cctterill, The Coroner’s Lunch. New York: Soho Press, 2004.
G. K. Chesteron quoted in Leon Edel, Henry James: The Master 1901-1916. Philadelphia
and New York: Lippincott, 1972.
Ford Madox Ford, The English Novel from the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph
Conrad. London: Constable, 1930.
Chris Hedges, “Throw Out the Money Changers.” Truthdig, 18 April 2011.
Garry Wills, What Paul Meant. New York: Viking, 2006.