May 25, 2014 – Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:16-33

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.


Easter 6 May 25, 2014 Acts 17(1-5):16-34 Making known the unknown God


Athens was a challenging place for the first Christian evangelists. Athens had been the cultural capitol of the Western world for more than 500 years by the time St Paul arrived on scene… On the one hand, Athens was notoriously into extreme religious pluralism, with always room for yet-one-more-god. As the apostle walks the streets of Athens he notices altar after altar to small g gods, everywhere he looks…

On the other hand, Athens was not so eager to be welcoming new gods that go against it’s core values and way of life… Any God claiming to be The One and Only God may be walking on the fighting side of Athens…

And here comes the apostle Paul, walking the avenues of Athens, noticing idols made of marble and stone, all over town. Each altar advertising each god represented. Athens had literally thousands of idol markers, competing for attention, like contestants on Athenian Idol. Monotheist Paul is seriously distressed, we’re told. But to hear him speaking in public, you’d hardly guess.

Paul’s been in town awhile now, talking about Jesus – first in the synagogue, his normal first stop in every town (as we’ve heard in our first readings). Speaking also in the marketplace, where people often gathered to listen to public speakers. Athenians have been hearing Paul talking about Jesus. They’re curious about any new idea. Paul’s invited to speak in the Big Fat Greek Marketplace of Ideas, the Areopagus (Hill of Ares in Greek, Mars Hill in Latin).

The Areopagus was both a place – high on a hill – and also the name of the group of city leaders who met on that hill. Ares or Mars was the god of war. And the Hill of Ares or Mars Hill was where philosophers and civic leaders met for verbal combat. Athenians took philosophy seriously. Even more seriously than the Bay State takes baseball, football, hockey, basketball… Boston coaches are fired in disgrace for losing. But the Areopagus guild condemned Socrates to death, 500 years earlier, for being a loser in philosophy. The official charge was sedition or promoting foreign gods. Meaning advocating the overthrow of the world of ideas as we know it. Now some Athenians accuse Paul of promoting foreign gods…

But Mars Hill has evidently mellowed since the old days. There’s no trial. Nobody forces Paul to drink poisonous hemlock and die. Nobody even attacks Paul, except verbally – and he’s used to that, everywhere he goes. But–

God said to Moses on Mt Sinai, remember: You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol… in the form of anything in heaven, above, or … earth, below. An idol is anything we love and pay more attention to than God. And considering how important these commandments against idol worship have been for Israel and the Christian church, we may expect Paul to come out swinging against the idols of Athens.

But instead here’s Paul, addressing pagan philosophers as if they’re good friends and neighbors, saying: People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious!

Going out of his way to find common ground, Paul continues – As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found an altar with the inscription:To An Unknown God.’ That’s the God I’m here to talk about.

The God who made the world and everything in it doesn’t live in temples built by human hands…. He himself gives life, and breath, and everything good…

Paul goes for the common ground again, saying we know God, the source of all life, through God’s creation. The philosophers of the Mars Hill guild probably wouldn’t have any big problem with this.

Then Paul says From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… Now the apostle’s drawing us into Jewish and Christian terrain, tracing all the nations back to one ancestor. But he doesn’t linger long there. He heads quickly back to common ground again, saying–

So that they would search for God, and perhaps reach out and find him – though indeed he’s not far from each of us – for “in him we live and move and have our being” – as even some of your own poets have said –“we are his offspring.

Paul quotes a pair of Greek poets – Epimenides (6th century BC) –then Aratus (3rd century BC).He’s studied Athenian culture enough to know some indigenous quotes that support his message. A bit like sanctified sister Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, quoting the Motown poet of old (sister Mary Wells), to reach a younger audience with the God message, singing – ‘No muscle bound man could ever take my hand from My God – No handsome face could ever take the place of My God…’

Communicating about God with people who don’t know God depends on finding common ground. First Paul finds the one altar inscription that gets it right in a ten-thousand-altar town. Then he’s talking about Jesus without even mentioning the name of Jesus, seeking again, common ground language. The apostle walks us to the Jesus door – opens the door for us – invites us in – but he doesn’t push.

Here’s how we too can communicate about Jesus. Who really is still The Unknown God for a lot of people… (not just unbelievers and agnostics, but Christians also)… None of us ever knows all there is to know about Jesus. And I suspect most of us are very glad to know… Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so…

But (I also suspect) most of us, most of the time, are probably not quite as interested in knowing that Jesus loves our enemies, too…(Even though the bible also tells us this…)

Still, if we’ve been listening for his word, and believing…We know enough about the Unknown Jesus to be able to help others get to know him also.

And as we seek to communicate this Unknown Jesus to an unknowing world, we of course need to consider context, and make adjustments for time and place and such. We’re not in ancient Athens any more. Though Boston used to call itself the Athens of America… and Harvard yard could still claim to be a bit like Mars Hill of old. (Elite philosophers exchanging Big Ideas, always excited about something new.)

Like Athens of old, we love competition in the marketplace of ideas. Other cities now challenge Boston for Athens-of-America naming rights. Which reminds me again of ancient poetry, interpreted by bards of old, George and Tammy Wynette-Jones, whose vintage Athenian sonnet goes:

By a fountain back in Rome, I fell in love with you.

In a small cafe in Athens, You said you loved me too.

And it was April in Paris – When I first held you close to me–
Rome, Georgia – Athens, Texas – And Paris, Tennessee–
(No we’re not the jet set – We’re the old Chevrolet set…

I’m not sure they’ve studied that song much at Harvard. But like fishermen cutting bait to match what bass are biting – like St Paul, teaching in his day – we also need to be able to quote the right poets for each time and place. We’re not going to choose Tammy and George as one-size-fits-all-come-to-Jesus-song-leaders. They work some places much better than others. But the old, old story works everywhere… with proper cultural translation.

I remember hearing a tune in the hip-hop genre, wondering why it sounded familiar, as the rapper was rapping – ‘a little tune for the radio, huh-huh! A little tune for the radio – huh-huh!… (then just as I’m thinking, no, guess I don’t know that song – now here comes the refrain) – Whatta – friend we – have in Jesus – (uh-huh!) All our trials and griefs to bear – (uh-huh!)…Oh yea. The old, old story, after all… to a new beat…

And I love the old hymns, just as they are – we’ll always sing them. But I also keep thinking of all the people, young and old, who don’t know Jesus yet – and won’t likely get to know him… till someone tells the Jesus story in ways they can hear. The story of the God who loves us enough to die for us… God who also loves us enough to speak to us… in our own cultural languages.

And all the children and young people everywhere who don’t know Jesus yet really are all our children. Just as we really are, all of us, God’s offspring.

And Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill is more relevant than ever today, because – walk around any college campus (even many high schools) – notice again – how much U Mass Boston or Dartmouth or Amherst (or any secular university in America) is like the Areopagus of Athens. Studying every new idea that comes along… Still skeptical about everything at the same time.

And any mall on earth still has something in common with the marketplace of ancient Athens. Some are there just to pass the time or buy yet-another-product… But others are actually shopping for ideas about what life’s all about …And whether we’re in the marketplace of the mall or the marketplace of ideas, we too are surrounded by innumerable idols and distractions clamoring for attention. American Idol and Athenian Idol are not so far apart.

And the Living God we know through Jesus Christ is still The Unknown God for many. We can’t assume anyone knows the story of Jesus anymore. Which makes knowing the story all the more urgent… for us.

We don’t need to be experts in Greek philosophy or poetry. We do need to be equipped to tell the story of Jesus so others can hear and believe. Starting with the common ground of our human condition and God’s universal love. Focusing on how God is made known in Jesus, and how this matters more than anything else.

We do (of course) need to make changes for the love of Jesus. And yet we also need to be clear – repentance is all about switching over from being more dead than alive – to becoming truly alive and living large with Jesus. (Something our hearts long for, even when our minds don’t yet know it…)

Our calling is to be faithful witnesses. Reaching out, always to one and all… Not worrying about results if we’re doing the best we can.

Paul preaches an awesome sermon on Mars Hill – but some scoff, and others say we’ll hear you again another time. Just a few believe on the spot; only two are named. But church tradition says Dionysius went on to be first bishop of Athens, and Damaris helped open doors for other women church leaders who followed.

So we live and tell the story of God together, remembering… God who made the heavens, the earth, and all that fills them will take care of all the results…

God who doesn’t need altars of gold and silver, metal or plastic, doesn’t need us to be successful. But God does need our love – our friendship – our faithful service, to reach the lost and perishing…

And when we love and trust God we’ll be doing our part…

And God will take care of all the rest…

(Thanks be to God. Amen.)

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