A Living God | 15 May 2022 | Dan McCoig
Acts 17:16-31 | Common English Bible
16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 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. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore, 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. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Every preacher remembers their first church scuffle. Sometimes its over something rather small and seemingly insignificant like where carpeting in the sanctuary should or shouldn’t go or what color scheme should a particular room or rooms of the church building be. Other times it’s over something a little more substantial like the church’s stance on gun violence or systemic racism or sexual orientation or gender identity.
The little stuff and the big stuff matter. They matter because they involve people and people matter.
I’m thankful for the Presbyterian way of being Christian. It’s a tradition that values reasoned discourse and the dogged pursuit of God’s justice for all. We are in a historical moment where reasoned discourse is too often scorned and scoring points for one’s own particular view of the world at the expense of others is the order of the day. If we stay on this path much longer, our present will be bleak and our future will be bleaker.
I’m not sure what it’s going to take for us to see all of our neighbors as people who were created by God, redeemed by God, and sustained by God — who bear God’s image. But it’s the place we will need to get to if there is to be hope for us.
My first church scuffle involved carpeting and where it should and should not go. I was flabbergasted that folks could get so worked up. I was in my twenties. I was naive. I had no idea folks could take such intractable stands. But they got worked up — over carpeting, or, some of them did. It was a little unnerving. Ultimately, the elders made their decision and most folks supported it. After all that’s a promise congregations make when they ordain elders — to trust their judgment. A couple of folks who didn’t made others miserable for a bit and eventually let it go.
I was born in the Deep South where storytelling is treasured. Spinning a yarn on a front porch in the shade of old tree at the end of a hot day was and is an art form. One thing I noticed about the stories I heard before was how with each retelling the fish got bigger, the points on the buck’s antlers always grew in number, the snow got deeper, the sun got hotter, the corn stalks got higher, the apple pie got tastier, the grannies got kinder, the children got sweeter, and the bullies got meaner. And the preacher, he got even saintlier or more trifling depending on who was telling the story.
In my humble opinion, Luke, the writer of Acts, is the best storyteller of the Christian New Testament. And, like all storytellers he employs artistic license.
For example, Luke’s portrayal of Paul doesn’t quite square with what Paul says about himself in his letters or what others say about Paul in the New Testament as well as other writings from the Early Church era — especially when it comes to preaching. Biblical commentator Katherine Shaner talks about the tale of the great preacher. Paul is one such great preacher. According to Shaner, the great preacher connects all the dots, explains the mysteries of God, dispels fear of the unknown, and convincingly transforms lives. I’m not sure this tale of the great preacher should inspire me or send me into fits of despair.
Today’s lesson is Luke’s account of a scuffle Paul got into in Athens. It’s a big one. It has to do with what we give ourselves to and whether the object of our devotion is worthy of our devotion.
Paul first preaches in the Athens synagogue. I’m guessing that didn’t go well because next he preaches in the marketplace. We know that doesn’t go well because his audience calls him an amateur and a babbler.
Eventually, Paul is taken into custody and brought before a council of Athenians who question him. By the time Paul shows up in Athens, the city has been a hub of learning and culture for more than three centuries. It was the ancient world’s Cambridge or Oxford or New York or Boston. Athens was filled with the Mediterranean world’s best and brightest, who were curious to learn all that they possibly could.
Athens was truly a cosmopolitan city, that is it was truly a city of the the world. Every imaginable culture, language, ethnic group, race, religion was represented in Athens.
A cosmopolitan city can be a wonderful thing in that it allows its citizens to rub elbows with people who experience and make sense of the world differently. But it can also result in conflict when those who experience and make sense of the world are chauvinistic about their views and perspectives and demean the views and perspectives of others.
In our story, the Athenians appear to be genuinely interested in what Paul has to say. Granted, they seem skeptical that he has anything of value to teach them but they are at least willing to hear him out.
Paul gets creative in his address to the Athenians. He contextualizes the gospel message. In other words, he meets the Athenians where they are. Paul notes the innate religiosity of the Athenians. He notes the temples and the statues, one of which is to an unknown God. And this is where Paul tries to connect with the Athenians.
Paul tells them that God has been revealed. Not in a book or a code of behavior or by a temple or a statue. Rather, God has been revealed in a person, namely Jesus Christ. This person lived among us. This person taught, healed, enjoyed the company of friends, cried, got angry, suffered, died, was resurrected. Paul tells the Athenians that God was in Jesus Christ revealing God’s self to humanity and the heart of Christ as God’s revelation is a saving love for the world.
Religious historians point out that we are in a post-Christian world. That’s academic speak. It means namely that in the west — think Europe and North America — there are more people who either don’t know a thing about the Christian faith and message or what they do know of it they find deeply unappealing because it so often gets represented in a negative light. For example, “Oh, those Christians, they’re against everything, right? And, the things they are for don’t square with who Jesus was and what Jesus’ message was all about.”
For me, the lesson of Paul’s message in Athens is a challenge to us to contextualize our presentation of the Christian gospel. Two things that persons seem to seek more than anything else are relationships and living a life that matters. I think the Christian faith and community score big on both of these points and should lead with them. We should be the community that fosters relationships — with God, with one another, with strangers, with people who are different from us and from one another. That’s what Jesus did and we are Jesus followers. This will involve meeting people where they are rather than requiring them to come to us and be like us.
Additionally, as a community we put a high priority on love of neighbor, which takes many forms. Food. Shelter. Refugee resettlement. Friendships. Meaningful conversations. Assistance with life’s necessities. What matters more than doing our part in making life less hard for others and allowing others to do the same for us? That’s what Jesus did and we are Jesus followers.
Ultimately, Paul’s message is that God in Christ, the living God, is the one worthy of giving ourselves to — mind, body, spirit. In this living God we live and move and have our being.