Words from Burr to Hamilton might have made sense to both Peter and Paul in the early days of Christianity – with a slight twist.
Early in the hit musical Hamilton, the two central characters meet for the first time.
One, of course, is Alexander Hamilton, the orphaned immigrant you see on the $10 bill who became George Washington’s right-hand man during the American Revolution, whose writings helped shape the U.S. Constitution and then who became the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury.
The other is Aaron Burr, also an orphan, an ambitious politician who would wind up as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president.
The musical is built around their rivalry across several decades – a rivalry that ends with a tragic duel where Burr kills Hamilton.
But at the very beginning, we learn – from Burr – that Hamilton
“Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
“By being a lot smarter
“By being a self starter.”
He reminds me a little bit of Paul, the central character in that story we heard today from the Acts of the Apostles.
Once Paul converted from being a persecutor of Christians to Jesus’ number one advocate, he brought his smarts and his hard work to bear on spreading the good news of Jesus.
And he was a self-starter. He broke out of the limitations of the Jewish communities around Jerusalem and took Jesus’ message to the Gentile communities around the Mediterranean.
And he had a rival as well – Peter, the leader of the band of people closest to Jesus while he was alive. We heard from Peter’s community in our other scripture reading today.
While Paul and Peter both met violent deaths, at least they did not do in each other in a duel. But there were sparks along the way.
In the early days of Christianity, Peter thought that if anyone wanted to follow Jesus, they had to adopt Jewish customs. Paul thought that was unnecessary. The two of them had a showdown in Antioch. Paul tells about it in his letter to the people of Galatia – what is now part of the nation of Turkey.
When Peter came to Antioch, Paul writes, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned…He used to eat with the Gentiles.” But then when some other church leaders arrived, Peter kept to himself to avoid a confrontation with those who insisted on circumcision for Gentile men.
Paul says he told Peter in front of everyone, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Of course, we get only Paul’s side of this dispute. But it is a good indication of Paul’s willingness to mix it up with those he disagreed with. Scholars describe Paul as arrogant and unbending. Sometimes his letters that are included in the New Testament are full of care for the communities he helped create. Other times, his anger comes flashing through.
Sort of like Alexander Hamilton.
When Hamilton and Burr meet for the first time in the musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton immediately starts to overwhelm Burr with his accomplishments – and his volatility.
Hamilton says to Burr: “Sir… I heard your name at Princeton. I was seeking an accelerated course of study when I got sort of out of sorts with a buddy of yours. I may have punched him. It’s a blur, sir. He handles the financials?
And Burr responds incredulously: “You punched the bursar?”
To which Hamilton replies: “Yes! I wanted to do what you did. Graduate in two, then join the revolution. He looked at me like I was stupid. I’m not stupid.”
They chat a bit more, Hamilton’s energy surging. And then Burr says the line that I’m going to connect to Paul’s visit to Athens that we heard about this morning.
“While we’re talking,” Burr says to Hamilton, “let me offer you some free advice. Talk less. Smile more.”
That was a hard lesson for Hamilton to absorb. It would have been a hard lesson for Paul as well. Until he got to Athens.
Athens was a crossroads of ideas in the First Century. In the town square – the birthplace of democracy, a smorgasbord of philosophies, with an array of temples in sight – Paul found the synagogue. He always tried to start with the Jewish community in a city, but here, it was a pretty small slice of the city.
He went out into the marketplace to talk about Jesus and that’s where the Epicureans and the Stoics started to engage him in conversation.
Just before today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear them dismiss him. “What an amateur!” these esteemed philosophers say. Others say, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.”
They brought him up to Mars Hill, also known as the Areopagus. It was a rock outcropping high above the city, with temples to the gods that Paul would have passed on the way. We learn that Paul was deeply distressed to find all the idols in Athens, all the temples to pagan gods. And the philosophers asked him to explain what he meant by this God and this Jesus he had been talking about.
As the passage in Acts says, “They used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.” (Keep that phrase in mind as we get to the letter of Peter in a little while.)
Here’s where Paul seems to be channeling the advice of Aaron Burr to talk less and smile more. The contentious Paul gives ways to the perceptive Paul.
“As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”
He goes on to tell them about the God he believes in, a creative God, a God who does not need things from humans since this God “gives life, breath, and everything else.”
This God, Paul tells them, is not a distant God, disconnected from the realities of human life. He uses these words: “In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’ ”
It is not random that Paul talks about being God’s offspring. That is a phrase he adapted from an ancient Greek poet Aratus, who was writing about the offspring of the Greek god Zeus.
Then he zeroes in on all those idols he had seen around Athens. “As God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought.”
Well, OK, Paul was not really talking less. But he was smiling more. He was finding ways to connect with his audience, to use the images in their city, to cite the poets of their tradition.
And how did all this work out for him? As he always did, Paul went on to talk about Jesus as being sent by God and how God raised Jesus from the dead, about how death could not stop the message of Jesus.
That led some of the philosophers to start ridiculing Paul once again.
Others decided to follow him, including Dionysius, described as one of the philosophers on Mars Hill, and a woman named Damaris. The author of Acts – Luke – often paired men and women as followers of Jesus, a nice touch in what often was a male-dominated world.
As for Paul, he did what often did. He had preached the story of Jesus. He moved on to the next town.
In the midst of this frequent hostility he and the other early Christians faced, it’s worth considering the words from the letter of Peter we heard today.
Just because Peter’s name is on this letter does not mean that powerhouse among the Apostles actually wrote this. It more likely grew out of one of the communities that identified as followers of Peter.
Interestingly, given the complicated history of Peter with the Gentile – non-Jewish communities – it seems to be written specifically to encourage the Gentile Christians who were facing pressures to conform to the wider world’s social and religious values. They were facing some heat about their way of life.
“Who will harm you if you are zealous for good?” Peter asks. Well, in fact, those trying to live out the message of Jesus were facing harm. So, Peter writes, “Don’t be terrified or upset” by those causing suffering. Instead, he advises, “speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.”
He is not a follower of Aaron Burr’s advice, as it turns out. Smile, yes, but speak more, not less.
“Do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.”
I think that advice is actually more relevant in our day that what Aaron Burr had to say. It’s actually more useful as we think about Paul speaking to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens.
You may have noticed that we live in somewhat contentious times. And when we decide to be zealous for good, to live out the message of Jesus to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for those in prison, welcome the stranger, love our enemies, it may feel like we are swimming against the tide.
It is hard to confront those who see things differently with respectful humility. It is easy to get frustrated with those contemporary folks on Mars Hills who “spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.”
As some of you know, I had a chance during the past week to engage in an extended conversation with Kathy Cramer, the UW political science professor who spent several years listening to people around Wisconsin talk about their hopes and dreams as well as their worries and resentments.
She did this “with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.” It was not always easy as she listened to people talk about their fellow citizens in disparaging ways.
She said a key to engaging people who thought very differently from her was to always “assume good” in others, even when they brought different life experiences, different philosophical orientations to the conversation.
Maybe that’s what Paul did on Mars Hill. Maybe that’s what Peter was thinking about when he wrote to the early Christians.
What Aaron Burr was really suggesting to Alexander Hamilton was a strategy too often adopted by politicians.
As Burr went on to explain what he meant by “talk less, smile more,” he said, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
“You can’t be serious,” Hamilton responds.
Much later, it turns out to be quite serious. As Burr and Jefferson tied in the Electoral College for the election to the presidency in 1800, Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson, even though they had been bitter rivals.
As Hamilton said, “We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts. But when all is said and done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
Talking less and smiling more works out only if beneath the smile you have beliefs. Paul could smile at the philosophers on Mars Hill, recognize their Temple to the Unknown God, quote from their poets, but he never wavered in his own convictions.
Peter could call on the early Christians to engage with their foes “with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience,” but he also recognized that could still mean they would suffer. He had heard Jesus talk about loving enemies.
Ultimately, the followers of Jesus – that would be us – have to find our strength in the God’s love and care. We trust in God’s grace to give us that strength, we nurture it when we gather here in a community. On a good day, maybe we can even sense God’s presence here in our midst.
There’s a hymn that sets the stage for that. It’s #70 – God Is Here! As We Your People Meet.” Let’s sing the first three verses.