May 25, 2014 (Easter 6)
17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31, NRSV)
Let us pray: Living and gracious God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have brought us out to a spacious place where we are called to live as those redeemed. Empower us by your spirit to keep your commandments, that we may show forth your love with gentle word and reverent deed to all your people. Amen.
I never really liked Paul. I say this fully aware that my sermon today is about Paul and that many Protestant pastors love to preach about Paul. I used to think Paul was such an authoritarian, a know-it-all and real blow hard. Over time my opinion has softened, and it is through texts like this one today that the Apostle Paul becomes more palatable. In the past I have read this story and interpreted it as that Paul was mocking his Athenian audience when he says “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way for I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of worship.” This statement seems to be filled with Paul’s infamous attitude of superiority with a dash of a mocking tone thrown in for good measure. Paul does tend to do that a lot.
But then, you have to realize that for all of his faults Paul was intelligent, courageous and committed to his faith. So, I believe that this story of Paul will show just how committed he is. He walked around the city and noticed all of the idols on display in the public areas of the city. It would have been offensive to a Jewish Christian like Paul to see those idols because it was a violation of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith which, begins, “The Lord our God is one God,” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me and thou shalt not make graven images.” They even had an idol to an unknown god hoping to cover all the bases. You just never know what kind of god you might need, so they include the unknown god in their list. Whatever need might arise, this unknown god can be the one to worship. So, even though he is put off by what he sees he also appreciates they are religious, but he knows that handmade gods and idols have their limits. He shares with them that they don’t need an unknown God – they have a God who knows everything.
In reality, I believe that Paul wasn’t speaking down to the Athenians or mocking them. I think that he was actually sincere. He saw how they were a searching people, groping for something to believe in, something to hold on to. Paul appreciated their searching. He understood that aspect of their lives. And he also saw their searching as a connection, a way to relate and understand them and for them to understand him and his God.
He starts in the synagogue, and from there he moves into the marketplace. He speaks with intellectuals and philosophers. They must have liked what he had to say or at least they were intrigued because they invited him to speak at the Areopagus. Which was a kind of gathering place for public dialogue. It was Paul’s kind of place. He told them about the God he worship, the God who created all that is, the God who satisfies all our searching, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Just imagine if Paul were here today speaking with us, because we are no different. We too are searchers and seekers. All of us are searching for something, whether it is a search for meaning, or for joy. Some seek health and happiness, some look for family and belonging, some seek peace and solitude. There are people who want to be in the limelight and others want nothing more than quiet anonymity, some want to be rich, and others just want to simplify their lives. So, I imagine that most of us, at one time or another have had that feeling that something is missing in our lives. So we search, maybe only in our minds, looking for something to fill the void.
Searching isn’t a bad thing. It signifies that we care about something deeper something more than what is on the surface. It is all in what we are searching for. I wonder, do we search for God? Do we see God in our searching?
Today in United States we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor proclaims as “A Secular Age” — a time in which belief in God is no longer the default, but is rather one among many options; God must be actively chosen and no longer assumed. So it is an interesting time for Christianity and the Church because we are no longer the default belief system. To the culture, God can be everything or nothing or as Pastor Rob Bell describes, to many people today, God is “Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.” It sounds like the philosophers, Feuerbach and Freud and Marx thought, our ideas of god are just projections of our own hopes, dreams, fears, and angers, and so, understandably, many people are turned off by ‘God.’ Many have been turned off to church and religion because of the recent church scandals and political agendas. But our culture is still searching and seeking, just think of how many people claim to be spiritual but not religious saying they can find god everywhere and anywhere but the sanctuary.
So what can we learn from Paul about how to be a follower of God in a culture seeking lots of gods?
We can begin by noticing how Paul speaks to the gathered Athenians. There is no harshness or superiority. His whole message was one of courtesy and kindness. He did not demand that they change their minds and believe as he does. Instead he begins where they were. He gives them room and doesn’t present a narrow understanding of God. He sees their searching as the open door to their minds and hearts. It was as if he said to them, “You have looked everywhere for God, but have not found him. God is nearer than you thought. You have looked everywhere and missed him.”
And what of the response to Paul’s sermon? Some scoffed, some doubted, but others believed. From church history we know that the church at Athens would produce some of the greatest Christian leaders of the next century. Some of Paul’s hearers mocked him, others ignored him, but through his openness and the work of the Holy Spirit the church and the faith grew.
Churches today need to spend some time listening and learning from those who live around us. We can learn what they are paying attention to and we just might find that they are some of the same social issues and problems that we are passionate about. We just might find that they care deeply about spiritual connection and community, even about their relationships with God. I believe that we in the Church can listen and learn from the language and the lives of people outside the church well enough to be able to say, much as Paul did to the Athenians, “We see that you are extremely thoughtful and sincerely spiritual people in your daily lives.” Paul communicated the truth about Jesus in a way that resonated with the Athenians’ own search for truth.
Paul did not enter into dialogue with the philosophers of Athens without risk. It is a challenge to all of us, to learn new methods and new vocabularies, because the Church can no longer remain what it had always been if it was to become what our world is so desperately searching for— God’s love, grace and mercy.
If we can instead stop feeling so threatened by the outside world, stop living so fearful of people who believe differently than us, then maybe we can live true Christian lives of being open and outward focused, living and kind, humble and grace filled. So that we can genuinely engage this pluralistic and ever-changing world, we might just find new ways of telling the world the good news of Jesus Christ the one in whom we live and move and have our being. May we live and treat others as Jesus did with love and compassion so that they too might believe in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, the son of the living God.
Let us pray: