Sunday, May 15, 2022

Phil Kniss: Poetic witness

"Belonging and Witness - finding where God is already at work”
John 1:16-18; Acts 17:16-31

Laura Yoder shares a testimony guided by the prompt:

Where do you see God at work in the world where you live? Where do you
see seeds of the Gospel?

Watch the video:

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In principle, I think we church people all agree,
it’s important for the church to give witness to the Gospel
to the world around us.

Scripture tells us clearly and often
that we are stewards of the Gospel, or Good News.
Of course, it can be Good News only if it’s distributed,
shared with others,
not kept as an in-house secret.

But church people do have vastly different ideas
about what faithful witness looks like in the world,
and how we do it.

I won’t resolve those differences today,
but I’ll share a metaphor for us to think about,
which might help our witness be more authentic.
The metaphor is poetry.
I think our witness should be poetic (in a manner of speaking).

Let’s first look at the story we heard from Acts 17.

Paul is in the intellectual epicenter of the Greek world—
Athens, named after Athena, a goddess of wisdom and war.
Paul was in Athens because he basically got dropped off there
by other church people concerned for his safety,
after he and Silas got into lots of trouble in the synagogues
in Macedonia.
Trouble, for the reasons I’ve talked about in recent weeks.

Jews had to do this delicate dance with the Roman Empire
to maintain the peace.
People of The Way, Paul in particular, disturbed the peace,
preaching about Lord Jesus,
who did not have to answer to Lord Caesar.
And, they disturbed Jewish law,
lax on required rituals,
sharing meals with Gentiles.

Jewish leaders in Macedonia
took their case to the Roman authorities.
Their accusation?
“These people are turning the world upside down.”
Which in many ways, they were.

In just a few days in Macedonia,
Paul and others managed to get severely beaten,
thrown into prison,
attacked by a mob,
and barely escaped under the cover of darkness.

So now Paul’s in Athens, one of the more tolerant cities of the Empire,
moving around the Agora,
an open marketplace of ideas, of gods, of goods.
Acts 17 says he was deeply troubled when he saw
a city full of idols and various deities.
He opened up conversation about it in the local synagogue,
both with the Jews,
and the Gentiles who worshiped Yahweh at the synagogue.
He also opened up conversation in the Agora,
among local Athenians.
Enough that he was causing a stir again.
But the authorities in Athens, being the tolerant city it was,
did not just throw him in prison and beat him.
Instead, they physically took him to the Areopagus,
a kind of court,
and compelled him to give verbal witness,
for this “foreign God,” Jesus, he kept talking about.
So . . . was this a trial? Was this a guest lecture?
Or was it something in between?
Hard to say.
But whatever it was, this was Paul at his best.

Paul could put up a good fight in just about any Jewish synagogue
around the Mediterranean.
Brash, harsh, argumentative, accusatory.
It’s no big surprise, the trouble he got into.

But here in Athens, a thoroughly pagan city,
standing in front of genuinely curious philosophers,
Paul represented a marginal minority,
so he needed a softer approach.
And he delivered.

He begins with a heartfelt compliment to the people and the city.
“I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
He noticed their yearning for the divine.
And he affirmed it.

“I went through the city
and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”
He was there to understand them, not attack them.
He notes in particular, their shrine to an “unknown God,”
so he tells them, gently,
“I can introduce you to this unknown God.
Turns out this God is a lot closer to you than you think.”

Then, most amazing of all,
to introduce them to Jesus,
he did not pull out the Torah or quote Hebrew prophets.
He used the Athenians’ own literature.

This sermon in Acts 17 is full of images and metaphors
that were familiar to his audience.
He quoted their philosophers directly.
“In him we live and move and have our being,”
an apparent quote from Epimenides,
a poet philosopher from Crete.
“For we too are his offspring,”
a quote from Aratus, a Greek poet.
Paul knew and respected his audience.
He engaged them where they were, on their terms,
and then with respect, he said,
“You know, there’s something more.”
And then he proclaimed the Good News
embodied in the person of the risen Jesus.

And to be sure, his message about resurrection got mixed reviews.
Some laughed.
Some ridiculed.
Some were curious, and asked to hear more.
Some became believers.

This is timeless wisdom on display here by Paul.
Before we start dispensing the Gospel in any culture,
do we know them well enough to quote their poets?

In any given culture, our own, or Ancient Greece,
the poets are those who give voice
to people’s deepest longings, visions, hopes, and fears.

They might be literal poems,
that can be read, pondered, and memorized.
But not necessarily.

I’m using poetry as a metaphor here.
Poetry is whatever takes us out of purely head-space,
and helps us engage the whole person—
intellect, heart, body, emotions,
relationships, motivations, perceptions.
Until we know someone well enough
to not just think with them,
but to feel with them;
until we hope and yearn with them,
until we suffer and rejoice with them,
we may not have much to offer them of lasting value.
Unless we believe that God was already at work in them,
long before we got there,
we have no right to bring them the Gospel.

Poetic witness is embodied witness
that involves the whole person.
Poetic witness is shaped by the community.
It is forged in relationships.

So, as a church called to bear witness,
how do we inhabit the world around us?
and how do we bear witness to that world?

There is a wide variety of practice
among our diverse Mennonite family in this community,
from the Old Order Mennonites to this congregation.

Some believe in cultural separation,
and bear witness only through their life and practice,
and never send out mission workers, or practice evangelism.
Others strongly emphasize verbal witness,
and use overt evangelistic strategies
like tent meetings, and the like.
Others witness mostly through service,
and occasionally through word.

Regardless what form it takes,
whatever the means of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus,
I would ask,
does it touch the whole person?
is it embodied?
is it forged in community?
does it address our deepest longings, hopes, and dreams?
Then it is poetry.

Poetic witness can’t help but include word and deed and example.
It can’t help but be authentic and compelling.
Real people being real with others
with Jesus at the center,
that is faithful witness.

That is what Paul demonstrated in marketplace of ideas in Athens.
That is what we called to embody.

Join me in the confession, will you?
You’ll find it in your order of worship.

one God, we confess that our expressions of the Gospel often fall short
of authentic, embodied, and joyful witness to your Good News.
We settle instead for either awkward silence 
or arrogant posturing.
all Forgive us. Send us. Empower us.
one God who has already gone ahead of us into the world, give us
the eyes to see the Gospel seeds you have already sown,
the grace to embrace your goodness wherever it appears, and
the wisdom to speak and live your truth, and
partner with you to bring the seeds to maturity and fruitfulness.
all Send us. Empower us. Transform us.
one God of all peoples, and all creation,
let us rest in your promise to make all things new,
and to be with us wherever we go.
In you we live, and move, and have our being.

—Phil Kniss, May 15, 2022

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