(A sermon delivered to the good people of Stockbridge Presbyterian during the season of Easter…)
Today we’ll spend some time in the book of Acts looking at the apostle Paul’s missionary visit to the great ancient city of Athens, Greece and his famous speech there. But before we do that, let’s recall that up until this point, Paul and his companions in the early church are carrying out the instructions that Jesus has left prior to his departure. They have received the Good News that God is alive and intimately invested in their lives and this world; and now, in the light of the resurrection of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they have been sharing this Good News with new-found zeal, not just in Jerusalem but beyond to the farthest corners of their world- and this has gotten them (especially Paul) into some nail-bitingly suspenseful close calls.
Just prior to where we pick up today, Paul is in Athens preparing to catch up with his pals Timothy and Silas after being essentially chased out of Macedonia. And while he’s there, Paul begins touring Athens and, we’re told in v. 16 that he discovers to great distress “a city full of idols.” Now, we might think that at this juncture in his journey Paul would be licking his wounds and planning retirement to some quiet Grecian villa, but instead we find him right back in the middle of things, literally- first in the synagogue with the Jews and in the marketplace of Athens, and then eventually in the Areopagus, where we meet him today. The Areopagus was a large, open-air amphitheatre perched on a hill top overlooking the city and it was the place where the Athens city council publically debated new political and religious ideas. It was essentially a great big public forum presided over by the city’s leaders.
And here we pick up with Paul’s speech (Acts 17:22-34)…
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 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, 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. 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, 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. 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.’ 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
This is the Word of the Lord…Let’s pray.
Last weekend some of you may have caught the NPR interview of the Endeavor space shuttle commander, astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly, you may recall, is the husband of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from gunshot wounds to the head from an attack this past January, and he was interviewed while commanding the space shuttle program’s final mission into space.
From his perch at the International Space Station, looking down on the great big, blue orb of planet Earth serenely floating in space, Kelly had a one-of-a-kind perspective. A perspective that few people will get to experience. And it was that perspective that led Kelly to exclaim how hard it was to understand all the conflict and violence on “such an incredibly beautiful planet.”
Perspective. The right perspective puts everything into focus: it’s a bit like being able to see clearly in a room after fumbling for and finally finding a light switch. And in today’s passage the apostle Paul is speaking from a resurrection perspective. In fact, you could say that the whole book of Acts, including the story of Paul’s own dramatic conversion, hinges on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that by the time we meet Paul here in the Areopagus, the resurrection of Jesus Christ had become an indisputable fact for first-century believers. The church of Paul’s time, to be sure, had as many disputes as the church of our day- but the resurrection of Jesus Christ and whether it really happened were not one of them.
So Paul had a resurrection perspective. He was looking at the earth and, in this case, the people of Athens, through resurrection-colored lenses, with the result being a whole new reality, a whole new mode of existence grounded in who God is, who we are, and why that matters. And this whole new way of being and perceiving and experiencing is “good news”- hence, the title of this sermon: “Who God Really Is, Who We Really Are, and Why That Really Matters.”
Paul knew that the good news begins with who God is. And so that is where he begins, too. Sure, Paul is quick, rhetorically speaking, to meet the Athenians where they are, and he does this by drawing attention to one of their objects of worship. But in no time, this object of worship, – (which in this case is an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God,”)- this object of worship becomes a pointer to Paul’s first big piece of headline-grabbing news about who God really is. Did you know, Paul essentially says, that this God you have been worshipping unknowingly is really the God who made the world and everything in it (v. 24)? Did you know that this God doesn’t live in temples made by human hands (v. 24)?
This God, Paul goes on to say, doesn’t need to be looked after as though he needed something, since He is the One who gives life and breath to everyone (v. 25). This God made all of us: he made from one stock every race of humans to live on the whole face of the earth, allotting them their properly ordained times and boundaries for their dwellings (v. 26), so that they would search for God and perhaps find him (v. 27). And this same God is not far from us, Paul says in v. 28. So in essence Paul is making a dramatic, “this just in” statement about who God is here: he’s saying that the real God, as the Creator of the world, is living and alive, and while untamable by human beings is also near and available to us when we seek Him.
And from where we sit today, as 21st century Christians, it may be easy to initially miss the full import of Paul’s message. So it’s helpful to remember who Paul’s audience was. These were people steeped in the various philosophies of their day. Athens in Paul’s day, not unlike America in ours, was a “melting pot” of world views and religions. There were the Epicureans, for instance, who viewed the gods as distant and disinterested in human affairs, with the implication being that human life was meant to be enjoyed and nothing more. And then in contrast there were the Stoics who believed that an impersonal, divine spirit infused all of nature (along the lines of what we today call “pantheism”), and that it was the job of human beings to live in harmony with nature, according to the guiding principles of reason and duty.
Into this mix were thrown the many Greek gods that many of us studied in elementary school, Zeus, Hermes, Athena and Aphrodite, for example. These were gods made in the image of human beings: their images and stories, graven on marble temple walls and columns and in statues, had been, as Paul puts it (v. 29) “formed by human skill and ingenuity.”
Some of you are familiar with the Mini-Me character of the Austin Powers movies. If you are not, please don’t run out and get the movie- this is in no way an endorsement; but the movies, as some of you may recall, are about the ridiculous rivalry between a James Bond-like knock-off, Austin Powers, and his arch enemy Dr. Evil. In the second and third movies, Dr. Evil and his minions, in their plot to take over the world, make a clone of Dr. Evil that is identical in every way but size. “Mini-Me,” as he’s called, is one-eighth the size of Dr. Evil, and in the film, he’s silent most of the time, except for when he’s lip synching to a rap song or laughing along with Dr. Evil.
The gods of Athens were essentially “Mini-Me’s”- they looked a lot like human beings, were silent most of the time, and were powerful only to the degree that they were ceded that power through image and myth by the human beings who made them. These false gods were as capable of being in real relationship with human beings as the distant, indifferent god of the Epicureans and the impersonal, pantheistic spirit of the Stoics. They were, in short, unknown and unknowable, so that the inscription, “To an Unknown God,” sums up what would have been an environment of spiritual chaos and confusion. The people of Athens were, largely speaking, in the dark and fumbling for a light switch, and Paul, in his speech, was trying to help them find it…
Because if our god is just a “Mini-Me,” then we are ultimately worshipping our own deepest desires. Today we may not bow down to the god of the sea before we get in a boat, but how many of us value security above all else in the storms of life? We may not have a bust of the goddess of love and beauty in our bathroom, but how many of us spend far too long in the mirror worrying about how we measure up in the looks department? How many of us lose ourselves in unhealthy relationships? And yes, we may not light incense before an actual altar to Ares, the god of war, but how many of us pay taxes to a government that far outspends the world in fighting wars around the globe?
You and I- we, all of us- have our “Mini-Me” gods. Sex, money, youth, health, pleasure, the status quo, an ideology, even virtue, can all become Mini-Me’s. What is your Mini-Me?
…Because Paul wants us to know that what we’re holding onto today, what we’ve labeled as of greatest value, what we’ve said is the thing that gives us meaning or purpose or makes us feel alive, that thing pales in comparison to a relationship with the Living God who created us.
And in case we’re still unsure, Paul reminds us of who we really are because of who God really is. Here again Paul turns reality on its head. He has begun by noting that the Athenians are “extremely religious.” While in Paul’s day this would have probably been heard as a compliment; nowadays a better starter would probably be something along the lines of “very spiritual.” By illustration I want to conduct a brief survey: how many of you have heard the words, “I don’t care for organized religion, but I’m very spiritual.” I can’t count the number of times I have.)
But then Paul goes on to expand on this theme of who we really are because of who God really is. He goes on to declare in v. 28 that it’s “in God that we live and move and exist” and that we are “His offspring.” Paul here is very skillfully using language that would have been familiar to a largely Stoic audience, but he is reapplying it- because what Paul is talking about here is not pantheism; what Paul is talking about here is what it means to be truly human. He is saying that what it means to live as human beings is to be totally dependent on God for every thought, movement and breath. And then he goes on to quote from a Stoic writer: “we are God’s offspring,” he says, which is really another way of saying that we are made in God’s image.
So when Paul draws attention to all of the things that we worship in place of the real God, he is essentially saying, “Don’t you see? When you worship these things in ignorance, you’re not being who God made you to be. You’re not being your most authentic self.” If the real God is living, as opposed to something that we carve out of stone or our own imaginations, then those who worship Him above all else will be fully alive also.
The second century church father Irenaeus put it this way: he said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
If God is really alive and seeks to be in relationship with human beings, then we, as those made in God’s image, are meant to be fully alive and in relationship, too.
But why does any of this really matter? Paul gets to this in the third section of his speech starting in verse 31. Who God really is and who we really are matters because God is going to judge the world in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.
Now, when we think of judgment, many of us think of fire and brimstone and a righteous but mostly angry God out to get us for all of the messes we caused. And while some degree of fear of God’s judgment is probably healthy- “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we’re told in Proverbs- a preoccupation with this one-dimensional understanding of God’s judgment is not healthy and is in fact not biblical. It misses the fullness and depth of God’s goodness, which is really what Paul is talking about here, because a more accurate way to describe what Paul is talking about has to do with what the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in interpreting this passage, renders as “full and proper justice.” This kind of justice is better construed as restorative- it’s the making of rough places smooth (to borrow from the imagery of the prophet Isaiah), or the imparting of wholeness to something that was once broken (shalomin the Jewish vocabulary).
The other day I had the chance to hear someone share in his own words what it was like to have just received a heart transplant after living with congestive heart failure for over ten years. This man, only in his forties, had been on a long list of people in need of new hearts. After a long, uncertain wait, he had finally received a new heart, thanks to a 22-year-old donor- of whom this man with a new lease on life had this to say: “He gave me a heart, so I’m still alive, but I gave his heart a life, so it’s still alive.”
Paul is saying here that you and I and all creation are on a waiting list to receive new life. We, too, have a degenerative condition, and without an operation we will surely die. And in case we’re unsure about where that new, restored life will come from, Paul points us to the donor- Jesus whom God raised from the dead. When we repent, when we turn away from the idols we erect for ourselves and when we turn and return to Christ, we allow God to do a transplant operation on us, with the result being that we can say, “Jesus gave me His Spirit, so I’m still alive, and I gave His Spirit a life, so His Spirit is alive in me.”
The promise that Jesus leaves his first disciples- that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and will be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and all the world- that same promise is true for us, too. When we give our lives to the one, true God, seeking after Him with our whole heart, we get to see that promise in action, and we’re given a new lease on life. We get to see who we really are and why that uniquely matters to the world- all because of who God really is.
Because God is alive and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us, and because we, made in God’s image, were created for real, abiding life and relationships, too…so that you and I and we together matter regardless of where we sit today or what we’ve experienced; we belong to that cosmic purpose and have a unique role to play in sharing with our world the truth about who God is, who we are and why that matters.
Because in Christ there is a rhyme and reason and purpose to the events of our lives and all of history that will one day be summed up in the full and proper justice of God. How can we be sure of this? We can be sure of this, Paul says, because God raised Jesus from the dead. A little perspective can make all the difference in the world.