Acts 18:1-4, 18-19, 24-28
“When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.”
Our summer travels with Paul bring us to many cities this morning—and introduce us to Priscilla and Aquila, a couple in whom we see both a woman and a man serving as leaders in congregations. Priscilla’s status was so high and she was so well known among early Christian congregations that her leadership, like Lydia’s in Philippi, could not be denied.
The early Christian communities were not all the same. When Paul arrived Philippi he encountered a different form of Christianity than what he met with in Lystra or Athens or Corinth. We need to remember, however, that women held leadership positions—they were considered deacons and even apostles—in those diverse communities.
So in this morning’s lesson, Paul moves off stage—and on to Antioch—and we hear more of Priscilla and Aquila and of their teaching Apollos and nurturing his faith.
The early church took a long time in coming to a broad theological agreement about who Jesus was and about how God acted in the world through him. In fact, it might not be right to talk about the early “church” at all—as if it were one monolithic entity. Instead we should think about individual churches—congregations: the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth, or the church that, eventually, had Matthew’s Gospel, or John’s. Because of this diversity and particularity, one Lutheran New Testament scholar asserted that the early Christianity was “congregational.” In those early years, both individual Christians and Christian communities understood themselves not so much as “members” of a denomination as followers of “The Way.”
This is how we might best describe Apollos when Priscilla and Aquila meet him in Ephesus. He is on this way that he first learned about in Alexandria. Luke calls it “the Way of the Lord.” Apollos is fervent about this way, “teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” is how Acts puts it. But Priscilla and Aquila explain the Way of God more accurately, we are told. There is more to this path than Apollos understands.
There is always more to it than any of us understand.
As John Robinson famously told our Congregational Pilgrim forebears in faith: “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy Word.”
There is always more.
We speak in our church covenant of the ways of Jesus Christ, “known and to be made known to us.” And as an aside, I’m beginning my 13th year here this morning. And I’d never heard that phrase before I came here—the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us—perhaps it is unique to our Church Covenant. But it has become a touchstone for my own faith. Like everyone here, I know something of the Way of Jesus Christ. And like everyone here, I seek to be open to the Ways to be made known.
The obvious and certain path is not the one we travel. We are people who choose to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, recognizing that we can only see a short distance down that path, and recognizing that our sight is not perfect. We can neither take in our make out all that is around us. Somewhat like the blind man in Mark’s gospel, even after encountering Jesus, even after Jesus seems to have done his best with us, people sometimes look like trees walking around—that is to say, we don’t always see the world and those in it with clear sight. The way ahead is not always apparent.
In our individual lives and in our life together, God invites us into a life of growth and development, but not a life of perfection. In the midst of the difficulties and setbacks and struggles of life, we are moving forward, we are moving toward wholeness, toward new possibility. But we aren’t there yet and, again, the way ahead is not always obvious.
In this congregation, we follow the way of a liberal faith in the God made known in Jesus. We recognize that, like Apollos, we have some understanding of who this Jesus is, and like Apollos, we need others to help us know more accurately. So we respect questions. We know that most answers that we have discovered are provisional at best. We share what might be called an unsettled faith for these unsettled times.
Now, I recall once reading someone disparagingly refer to liberal Christianity a “halfway house to atheism.” Far from it. We have come to see a liberal approach to Christianity as a positive response to the work of God in this world that addresses the joys and sorrows and hopes of human beings. This is a faith that helps us to live in the presence of God with all the uncertainty and wonder that we experience.
A liberal faith lets us be at home in the world.
In one of his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of a conversation he had with a French pastor while they were both studying in America. They were talking about what they wanted to do with their lives. The French pastor said that he would like to become a saint. Although Bonhoeffer was impressed with that goal, he disagreed with it and said: “I should like to learn to have faith.”
At first, Bonhoeffer said, he thought that he “could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it.” He discovered later “that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…By…living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities…we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.”[i]
So H. Richard Niebuhr, who thought and wrote a great deal about God during the last century, encourages us when he says “Dead faith is belief in propositions, such as that God is one; living faith includes love….Lifeless faith is purely intellectual while living faith is both intellectual and [a matter of the will].”[ii] We have ample opportunity here for thinking about faith—and that is both good and important. But living our faith brings us into engagement with the world.
In this congregation we take seriously, not our own sufferings, but the suffering of God in the world. We pray for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the victims of disasters. We also find ourselves welcoming the homeless, feeding the hungry, and working for policies and practices that would lessen poverty in Iowa City and around the globe. We believe and we act—that is faith.
We believe that God’s love extends to all people. And so we declare ourselves an open and affirming congregation, and we work toward equality for all people in the eyes of the state and of the church. We believe and we act—that is faith.
Our faith calls us into a deepening involvement with the world. As a result, in our individual lives and in our united efforts to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, we are bound to encounter difficult times.
The morning paper and the nightly news can so often lead to us to despair of the future. Political discourse seems more bent on demolition than ever before. Our President makes racism plain and few in his own party dare to speak against him.
Out of fear or despair or frustration we might be tempted to give up and withdraw from the world. Nihilism or an otherworldly spirituality might seem appealing or sensible.
In just such a time as this, we realize, as one person put it, “that the world lies under the wrath and grace of God.”[iii] Our commitments are renewed, our strength is regained, our hope is restored, not because all is well but because when we face the shadows we discover the light that shines even there.
A liberal faith announces that our lives are held in God’s care even in the midst of the world’s chaos.
Left to themselves, things decay. People get tired. People give up.
But we are not left to ourselves.
Our covenant with one another keeps us together through good times and rough times. Our covenant with one another leads us to bear one another’s burdens. Our covenant with one another continues to infuse us with new energy, new purpose, new hope.
Apollos needed Priscilla and Aquila to help him see more clearly the way of Jesus Christ.
We need one another—and we have one another—for the same purpose.
So we come together at this time, in this place to we bring our hurts, our disappointments, our failures and our success into the loving and forgiving presence of God. We bring our great hopes, our deep longings, our earnest prayers into the empowering and encouraging presence of God. And we do this together, recognizing the importance of one another as we travel this Way together. It is the most important hour of your week—and I am glad that you decided to spend it here.
And from this time, this place we are all sent out once again to live faithfully in a troubled and hurting world.
The tasks we are called to as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation in these days are great. As is the case with all things in the future, the road before us is largely unknown. But together we will discover new paths on the Way to be made known.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, MacMillan Press, 1972, pg. 369-70.
[ii] H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, pg. 7.
[iii] Bonhoeffer, op.cit., pg. 297.