When Paul addressed the people of Athens he spoke to a people in awe of the mysteries of life and the natural world who knew little of science. The raging storm or shattering earthquake were supernatural phenomena to them explained by the wrath or pleasure of their gods with mankind. Little wonder that they had a shrine to an Unknown God, in case they had left one out that might be angry with them. Paul was able to channel the spiritual thirst of these citizens to introduce them to the one true God. How different to today when everything that occurs has a perfectly rational explanation and mysteries are blown away in cynical and critical speculation. The Greek’s religious fervour fed legends of heroism and gallant deeds, made familiar to every growing Greek child, which showed by their example how the Gods were to be pleased, that the poor should be cared for and fellow men treated with reverence and respect. So Paul’s introduction to Jesus, the ultimate hero, will have fallen on relatively receptive ears. How different to today where we are encouraged to search out the imperfections in our role models and hold them up for scandal and ridicule, by a society that accepts mediocrity and fails to motivate and challenge the higher ideals within us. Greek society knew little of the teachings of the Christian faith, and Paul pointed out that ‘in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.’ In what is rapidly becoming our post Christian society, we find that many of our young people know even less about Christ than those Greeks.
‘Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?’ Peter’s question has a twisted resonance in our age of unprecedented peer group pressure among the young, with negative attitudes implicitly condoned in film and TV. Those eager to do good work at school are often ridiculed and ostracised and the term ‘do-gooder’ has become insulting and derogatory. It is easy to sit back passively, watching the turmoil around us and nestle back into our protective apathy. I wonder how many of the crowds that jeered Noah for his eccentricity were simply carried along in the flood tide of public opinion and accepted behaviour, before being swept away in a flood of a different magnitude. Christians cannot expect an easy life. We praise God because ‘he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping’, but we acknowledge the pain and suffering our faith can cause. To work for God is to go ‘through fire and water’. As Christians we accept this because we know that it will lead to the ‘place of abundance’; life is a refiner’s fire transforming us into precious silver worthy to stay in the house of our king.
Peter says that ‘it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.’ When we commit ourselves to Christ through baptism, which he compares with the waters of the flood, it is a ‘pledge of good conscience towards God’. Suffering of any sort is hard to bear, but when the cause of that suffering is within ourselves, caused by feelings of guilt and self-reproach, then there is no escape. Mental illness is more and more common, and can be attributed to the confusion of conflicting role models we encounter as we seek to discover our own identity. The balance of judgement between good and evil is ambiguous, on the one hand you are led to believe that success means being rich and having a big car, and on the other that as consumers we exploit the poor and show little concern for the environment. Measuring ourselves against the contradictory messages of the world our conscience, and so our self-esteem, is soon fragmented. When we set aside Christ as Lord, we build our consciences on a set of values and truths which are clear and unambiguous, so that if we are able to live by those teachings then however great the suffering imposed from without, our self esteem and sense of identity will remain strong and healthy.
But though plain and unambiguous, the way Christ calls us to live cannot be effectively followed without serious commitment, in fact to follow him requires the ultimate commitment, real love for God. It is not enough to say, that’s an interesting set of values, if I follow those the world will be a better place. The commitment to this way of life must come from the heart, a willingness to immerse ourselves in the faith, placing Christ at the centre. ‘If you love me you will obey what I command’, and in following that command we accept the gift of the Spirit of Truth to strengthen and guide us in the way, so that we may face any adversity with hope and a clear conscience. It is the presence of that spirit of truth within us that empowers us and gives us hope so that we know what is right and have the courage to follow it through. People who see that hope within us may then question our faith, so that, answering with gentleness and respect, we may like Paul bring them closer to the knowledge of our one true God.