Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Back in the early 1960s a young copywriter named Bud Robbins was given an assignment to write an ad for the Aeolian Piano Company’s concert grand piano. The ad was to be a full page in the New York Times. The deadline was tight, and Bud had almost no information about the piano except for a few faded photos and copies of a previous ad, so he asked if he could go to the factory for more information.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” said the Account Executive. Bud acknowledged that he was, indeed, ‘one of those,’ which resulted in getting him kicked up the food chain to a meeting with the head of the agency. In that meeting he told the boss of his bosses that he not only did not play the piano but he couldn’t imagine why anyone would pay $5000 for an Aeolian piano ($5000 was serious money in those days) when they could buy a Baldwin or a Steinway. His boss and his boss’s boss confided that they didn’t know either, so they arranged for Bud to tour the Aeolian factory.
The tour lasted two days and, although the craftsmanship and care seemed to be top notch, when all was said and done, Bud still thought $5000 was a pretty steep price. But all was notyet said and done.
As Bud was preparing to leave, the factory manager took him through the showroom. There in the showroom, side by side, were three gleaming concert grand pianos; a Baldwin, a Steinway and, of course, an Aeolian. To Bud’s eye they looked identical except for the branding.
“They sure look alike,” said Bud.
“They sure do,” said the manager. About the only real difference is the shipping weight—our is heavier.”
“Heavier?” asked Bud. “What makes ours heavier?”
“The Capo d’astro bar,” said the manager.
“What’s a Capo d’astro bar?” asked Bud.
“Here, I’ll show you,” said the manager and he invited Bud to get down to look at the underside of the piano. Under the piano the manager pointed out a stout cast iron bar fixed across the harp and bearing down on the higher octaves. “That’s the Capo d’astro bar,” he said. “It takes 50 years before the harp in the piano warps. That’s when the Capo d’astro bar goes to work. It prevents warping.”
When Bud looked at the Capo D’astro bars in the Baldwin and the Steinway he saw that they looked like Tinkertoys. “You mean the Capo d’astro bar really doesn’t go to work for 50 years?” Bud asked. “That’s right,” the manager replied. “That’s probably why the Met uses an Aeolian. In fact our piano is about the only thing they’re taking with them in their move to Lincoln Center.”
And that became the headline for the Aeolian’s ad: “About the only thing the Met is taking with them is their piano.” Response to that ad campaign resulted in a six-year waiting list between order and delivery.
That story became legendary in advertising and marketing. When an agency first takes on a new client or product, one of the first things the creative team is likely to ask is “What’s your Capo d’astro bar?”—what is it that makes you unique?
I think, sometimes, that Christianity—that we as Christians—have often forgotten what our Capo d’astro bar really is. Because I had worked for such a long time in advertising, when I first became ordained people would often suggest that my skills from that industry would be useful in ministry. Truth be told, some of those skills have been very useful. But I also have to tell you that there’s a subtext in the suggestion that makes me really uncomfortable: it’s the idea that our faith can be marketed like a product.
Christianity is not a product. It is not an idea in the marketplace of ideas. It is not a philosophy. It is not a mental or intellectual bargain one makes with God.
The Christian faith is a life-long love affair with God, with Creation, and with others. It is a way of life.
In Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church Rachel Held Evans wrote:
“[My friends] reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”
Christianity is relationship. The Trinity is relationship. Discipleship is relationship. Communion is relationship.
Why, then, have Christians so often tried to sell the faith or Jesus or the scriptures as something other than what they are?
We’ve seen crusades, touring performances, that might as well have been called Escape from Damnation. We’ve seen “religious services” that are in reality just endless feelgood infomercials for a Pathway to Prosperity. We’ve seen famous faith healers, Solvers of Sciatica who put on a heck of a show. There’s a whole host of TV preachers focused on telling us that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket because society in general is sick with evil. And then there are the preachers selling magic “blessed” hankies and holy elixirs while fleecing the flock for funds for their new private jets.
It’s all very entertaining. But where is the commandment of Christ in all of this? Where is the love?
The word evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning Good News. But when you hear the words “Evangelical” attached to something in a news story, is your first thought, “Oh boy, Good News!” That’s not usually my reaction. I confess that when I see even the word Christian in a headline I don’t tend to react with the butterflies of happiness. Instead, my gut clenches as I ask myself, “Oh Lord, what now? Who’s judging whom for what?”
Is that what our faith is about? Is this how Jesus wanted the world to react to his followers? Is that the call of Christ?
“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence,” we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16.
There are some important words in those two brief verses that deserve attention. The first word is “defense.” The Greek word here is apologia. Our word apology comes from that same Greek word, but an apologia doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry, it means to give a well-reasoned explanation. The next word is “demands.” The Greek is aitounti which means to ask urgently. Then there’s the phrase “to give an accounting.” The important Greek word here is logon. In this context it means to give a reason. Lastly, let’s look at the word “reverence.” The Greek word here is phobou. Its most basic meaning is fear, but it can also mean reverence which is how the NRSV translates it. Other translations chose respect. So think respect, but maybe with a tinge of caution because you want to be careful not to offend. At least that’s how I think of it.
So translating again, we could hear it this way: “Always be ready to give a well-reasoned response to anyone who urgently asks from you a reason for the hope that is in you; but do it with gentleness and respect.”
St. Paul understood this. In Acts 17 we get a wonderful example of this kind of gentleness and respect in action as he finds an opportunity to share his faith in front if the Areopagus in Athens. It must have pained his Jewish monotheistic sensibilities to find himself surrounded by all those idols. But instead of railing against Athenian idolatry, he finds a doorway into conversation: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” That was his doorway and he went on to even quote some of their philosophers, describing God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Paul wasn’t selling anything, least of all himself. Paul wasn’t putting on a show or trying to raise cash. He wasn’t there to debate or argue or harangue or judge. Paul was seeing the spiritual hunger of the city expressed in a multitude of idols and telling them he had the only thing that could feed that hunger.
Paul was acting out of love–love for Christ and love for the Athenians.
Love is the music in our piano. Love is our purpose, the thing we were made for: to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is the music in which we live and move and have our being.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” said Jesus. He had given his commandments to the disciples only a moment before, so that moment was still fresh in their minds. Well, commandment. He only gave the one: “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.”
But love, the kind of love Jesus was talking about, takes stamina—more stamina than human willpower alone can manage. Jesus understood that. Jesus understood that if the melody of God’s love is going to continue in the world it will take a strength beyond human strength, a will beyond human will. He understood that without support, after a time the harp of our instrument could warp. The notes could fall out of tune. So he gave us a Capo D’astro bar.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
This is our Capo d’astro bar who helps to ensure that the music of our faith is the harmonious melody of Christ and not the dissonance of our own misunderstandings or desires. This is the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our helper and partner, the Breath of God’s love in every note we sing, our inspiration in every breath we inhale, reminding us in whom we live and move and have our being. This is the Spirit, who keeps us attuned and in tune, and reminds us why we’re here: to love and be loved. In Jesus’ name.