I Peter 3:13-16
"Always be ready to make your defence (apologia) to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with reverence and gentleness".
"No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions."
Isobel always asks me the most difficult questions at breakfast. I guess she knows that if she asks me at night time I would simply close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. But at breakfast I am supposed to be wide awake and know all the answers to all life's most perplexing questions, especially theological, philosophical and political. The fact that most of these have been asked many times over the centuries and have never been fully answered by the best thinkers does not satisfy her enquiring mind. If I say "I simply don't know," she invariably replies, "well you are supposed to know!"
The truth is, the really difficult questions about life and death, suffering and pain, the seeming inability of people and nations to pursue what is right, good and just, about why the poor suffer harshly and the rich get away with so much, and about God, perplex all of us. And they do so because they are complex questions that defy simple answers. In fact, every attempt at an answer raises more questions ad infinitum. One of the greatest teachers who ever lived, the Greek philosopher Socrates, refused to answer his students' questions. He simply put further questions to them, forcing them to search for the answers themselves. In the process he opened up fresh perspectives which enabled them to see their questions in a new way that took them further in their journey of knowing, and deeper into the truth beyond words. No answers would have done that.
When Jesus was asked questions he often replied by telling a story or parable which not only forced his enquirers to think more deeply, but more importantly challenged them to live and act differently. Jesus did not provide them with brilliant responses that satisfied their minds, but took them beyond their comfort zones with a challenge that unsettled them. No wonder they stopped asking him questions. As Eugene Petersen translates our text: "That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of those verbal exchanges they quit asking questions for good!"\
In the second century after Christ there was a small group of Christian theologians who came to be known as the Apologists. They tried to convince unbelieving but well-educated pagans about the truth of the Christian faith taking seriously the admonition of the first letter of St. Peter: "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." The Greek word which is translated "make your defence" is apologia, from which we get our word "apology." The apologists were not apologising for their faith; but defending it from intellectual attack. Reading their writings today I don't think that their answers were always very convincing. But it was then as it still is today important to give a reasoned account of what we believe to be true. Yet it is also true that such arguments seldom make converts. In the final analysis it was the death of the martyrs rather the reasons of the apologists that was the seed of the church. Courageous and compassionate deeds carried more weight than words. That is why the witness of Pope Francis is so powerful. When he went to Auschwitz last week he did not make a speech apologising for the failures of the church to prevent the Holocaust, though he had previously done so. He simply prayed in silence. He knew that the best Christian witness is to do what is right and to pray without denying that there is a time and place for words, that is, for apologia.
I am ashamed of much in Christian history, but I make no apology for speaking about faith in Christ in a time of doubt, of hope in God in a time of despair, or of love for one's enemies in a time of violence. I do not claim to have all the answers to the questions that are being asked with good reason by many people, but with St. Paul, "I am not ashamed of the gospel." (Romans 1:16) I do not claim that we Christians have all the truth, but I do claim that faith in God is fundamental to being human in a world that is marked by great inhumanity, a world that no longer believes in the God-given dignity of all people; I do claim that hope in God's future for the world is fundamental to saving us from plunging headlong into global chaos; and I do claim that love is the only antidote to fear, greed and hatred that is tearing global society apart. For these fundamental truths I am without apology. These are not truths which only Christians cherish, but they are fundamental to being Christian. They have to do with the way we live and the way we act in the world. "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet" says Peter, but when you do so, "do it with reverence and gentleness".
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 4 August 2016