a sermon on Acts 17:22-34
henever I am called upon to open a meeting with prayer, I almost always find
myself beginning with something like this: “Almighty God, still the hearts and minds of your people gathered here, and make us deeply mindful that in is in you that we live and move and have our being.” I am drawn to these words because they seem to say something very right about where we are—always in the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And where else could we possibly be, for without the sustaining presence of God surely all things would collapse in on themselves and cease to be. We are not a tradition that believes that at a particular point God simply created all things, set it into motion, and then sat back to watch it unfold. No, the God of the biblical tradition is creating, and so every moment is made possible in God. Were the Creator to step back, all things would cease to be. As Robert Capon once said to me, we tend to ask the wrong question—“where is God?”—but instead should ask, “where is the world?” The world is in God, in whom it lives and moves and has its being.
It is significant to note that this phrase which says so powerfully where and who and what we are comes to us not from the psalms or from one of the gospels, but from a Greek philosopher, who Paul quotes in his speech to a gathering in Athens.
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Paul has made his way to Athens, probably the most important intellectual centre in the ancient world. He is addressing the Areopagus, which is both the name of a place (often translated as Mars Hill) and of a council, though at this point the council is really not so much legislative as it is an academic forum. It is a grand speech that Paul gives there, opening with a bit of polite flattery—“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”—that he quickly flips to become a rhetorical tool.
“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.”
He is about to proclaim to them that he knows the identity of this “unknown god,” and when he gets to that he will divide his audience. But first he will proclaim to them something he implies that at some level they already know, namely that the One who made all things cannot be contained in shrines and statues. “From one ancestor,” proclaims Paul,
“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.’”
There is that wonderful phrase, “In him we live and move and have our being,” which finds Paul quoting Epimenides, the Greek philosopher from the 6th century BCE.
At the heart of Paul’s claim here is that as human beings we are hard-wired to search for God, “perhaps grope for him and find him,” and that even the Greek religious tradition with all of its statues, sanctuaries, shrines and devotional practices has embedded deep within it an awareness that it is in God alone that we have our being. Rather than moving into argument mode, Paul engages the cultural horizon within which he is moving, and even acknowledges the truth and wisdom that he finds there.
It is a remarkably generous theological move, and one that I see as being more than just a debate tactic. After all, he could have just swooped in and categorized the whole of the Athenian intellectual and religious milieu as idolatrous. He could have brought his own deeply sophisticated Jewish and Christian intellectual toolbox to Mars Hill, and attempted to engage in a demolition of the shrine to the unknown god, but instead he takes quite seriously the longings and fundamental insights of the Greek intellectual tradition. He won’t just stop there, of course, as if to say “same church, different pew; lets just overlook our differences and all sing kumbaya.” He is about to make his critical theological move, but it comes only in the context of taking his audience very, very seriously.
It is not dissimilar to the way in which the ancient celtic church of the British Isles engaged the culture in which it proclaimed the gospel. Those early celtic Christians worked with the insights, the longings, and the forms of the culture, creating a distinctly celtic expression of the Christian faith. Some 1500 years later, we actually carry some of the vestiges of that pastoral and missional move within our own practices; anyone here ever put up a Christmas wreath? In fact, anyone here ever celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25? To mark the great feast of the Incarnation—of light coming into the darkness—at the time of the year when people in pre-Christian northern Europe had once celebrated the feast of the winter solstice, using circles of evergreen to symbolize the cycle of the seasons and the hope of spring, is to do much the same thing that Paul was doing on Mars Hill. A grand feast in the darkest days of winter? Great idea… and while we’re at it, lets talk about how light really breaks the darkness.
It also might have something to say to us about our own engagement with the cultural context in which we live. Where are the oftentimes groping and searching expressions to which we do well to pay attention, and not simply as devices for apologetics and evangelism? Where are the poets and seekers and artists and thinkers of this age, whose searchings and longings might tell us something true about ourselves and our world; things we really do need to hear? I think here, for instance of the way in which Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by the life and thought of Gandhi; of the ways in which environmental scientists have challenged Christians to rethink our own relationship to the created world; of the ways that visual art, film, music, and drama can help us to see and hear and think with challenged imaginations.
But Paul doesn’t fail to make his critical theological move. He speaks of the one in whom all things are being drawn together, and he challenges his listeners to repent—which means literally to ‘turn around’—so that they can be oriented to what God is now doing. “And of this,” Paul says to them, “God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Well, to a mind formed in the Greek intellectual tradition, the idea of resurrection is utterly foreign and actually rather crass. Who wants to contemplate the notion that God’s future is one that takes seriously the body, physicality and a material creation, even if that is a “new creation?” In the Greek tradition, the bodily and material are to be shed and triumphed over, not resurrected and redeemed. And so we read that “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this,’” and that some of them even became believers, “including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.”
And again I see something of importance here for our own engagement in our own cultural context. As Christians, we do actually hold a unique view of life and the world, and to not seek ways to give that voice is rather disingenuous. But like Paul in Athens, I think it is best voiced in the context of that kind of dialogue which is prepared to take seriously the views of the other, and even to receive from them valuable wisdom and insight. It is at the Mars Hill—the Areopagus—of 21st century North America that the Spirit of God once again calls us to form, forge and articulate anew the eternal truth of the gospel. May the One in whom we live and move and have our being, sustain, challenge, and lead us in this searching work.