Sermon for the 6th Sunday in Easter
In 2008, close to the end of our six week trip through the U.K., Turkey and Greece, Catherine, Callaway and I arrived in Athens, planning to spend a couple of days exploring all that the city had to offer. It would be just three months later that the city would explode into violent riots, triggered by the death of a 15-year-old Greek student at the hands of two police officers. We were not at all surprised to hear of those riots, as we’d experienced Athens as a city of deep tension, simmering just at the edge violence. Similarly, it came as no surprise when we learned that a series of 2010 demonstrations and strikes opposing the government’s austerity measures had again plunged the city into violence.
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Graffiti everywhere. Neglected infrastructure. Air thick with smog. The staff at our hotel advising us not to go out after dark. It was not what we’d imagined when we’d planned our visit. But in such circumstances, you press on and make the best of it. After all, we were in one of the historically most important cities in the world, home to the famed Acropolis. Having dutifully remained in our hotel the evening of our arrival, we set out the next morning for the Acropolis… only to discover that every other visitor to the city apparently had the same plan. We climbed the steep hill and took our place in the long winding entry queue. After about ten minutes of shuffling our way slowly toward the ticket gate, Catherine threw in the towel. Reasoning that after all the things we’d seen during the course of our trip, these ruins were not worth enduring the crowds, no matter the significance of this particular pile of stones. Callaway, on the other hand, seemed to have a sense of what you might call “tourist duty”, which dovetailed perfectly with a streak of stubbornness that suddenly emerged in me, and so while Catherine sat comfortably at the base of the hill, the two of us continued to shuffle our way forward in the line. When we finally got through the ticket gate, we discovered that the crowd was even thicker up top, and so for about fifteen minutes we shuffled some more. Shoulder to shoulder with all of the other dutiful and stubborn tourists, we looked dully at the ruins. Glancing out across the city, from that vantage point what I was most aware of was the yellow haze of pollution that hung in the sky.
The two of us rather sheepishly admitted that Callaway’s sense of duty and my stubbornness had rewarded us with nothing more than some family tension. It remains one of the more memorable days of our trip, but for all the wrong reasons…
From there we made our way to the Areopagus—to “Mars Hill”—which was a considerably more pleasant site. The crowds were thin, the air cooler, the site itself quite lovely. I paused to look at a plaque, and to my surprise discovered that it was engraved with the text of Paul’s sermon from Acts 17. For a few moments all of those less than edifying experiences of Athens and the Acropolis faded, and I found myself filled with a sense of wonder that I was walking the same pathways that Paul himself had walked; that I was in the very place where he had engaged the thinkers and scholars of the Athens of his day.
According to the Book of Acts, like us Paul hadn’t been all that keen on what he’d seen in the city, though in his case it was because he “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In both synagogue and market-place Paul readily voiced his distress, such that after a while the “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” invited him to make a presentation at the Areopagus. “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” they ask him. “It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” At this point in his narrative Luke parenthetically notes that, “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”
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.”
As his speech unfolds, he essentially tells them that he knows precisely who their “unknown god” is, and that he can put them on the path toward knowing this God. Appealing first to what can be called “natural theology”, he points to splendor of creation, and then to the unity of all humankind. As creator of this one humanity, Paul reasons, God has ordered things so that all “would search for God”, “grope” for God and even find God. “Indeed,” Paul tells them, “God is not far from each one of us.” He then does something quite remarkable; he turns to their own tradition as a way of more deeply engaging them in the conversation. “In him we live and move and have our being,” he says, which is quotation most likely drawn from the philosopher Epimenides (6th century BCE), followed by “For we too are his offspring,” from the Stoic philosopher Aratus.
In other words, Paul is quite prepared to engage that culture, and to recognize and draw on its insights. He’s been doing this in the market-place, and now he’s doing it at this place where philosophy is discussed. He’s in the public square, and rather than simply condemn or judge what goes on there, he takes it seriously. He’s convinced, after all, that because there is but one creator and but one human family, we are hard-wired to search and to “grope” for God, and he’s quite ready to say that God has never been far removed from those searchings; that those who have sought for the truth have been able to find at least something of it.
I wonder how Paul might have engaged the seething 21st century version of Athens that we experienced? What “gropings” might he recognize at work in that city’s simmering discontent? And how he might engage our own city; our own North American public square? What insights or truth would he recognize here, not only in our intellectual world, but also in the music and movies and digital technology of our age? You’d have to imagine that Paul would quickly discover that this world’s public square has gone online, and that his would be one of countless voices competing for our attention. And in the midst of all of that, where do you suppose he might recognize our peculiar cultural idolatries, and find himself unable to do anything but tell us something challenging and truthful about what he sees.
You see Paul won’t stop at simply finding common ground with his Athenian audience. He needs to engage them in a manner characterized by Rodney Clapp in his book Border Crossings as “Christian trespasses on popular culture and public affairs.” Not that such “trespasses” or border crossings are any less respectful of those with whom he is in dialogue, of course. Paul just needs to keep speaking, and to say some things which he believes could quite radically reshape or remake their culture, their city, their lives. Formed as he is in the wisdom of the torah, Paul first makes some critical remarks about all the images and idols he’s been seeing in the city— “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”—which would have probably got him at least a bit of a hearing from this purportedly open-minded audience. It is when he begins to speak of Christ—“a man whom God has appointed,” and whom God has raised from the dead—that Paul finds he is losing at least a good part of his audience. The idea of a resurrection is entirely bizarre in that Greek philosophical context, as they had no room for the robust sense of “embodiment” that so characterizes the Judaic view of human life. Why would anyone think it a good thing to return a freed spirit to a limiting body? And so, Luke tells us, that while a few Athenians did join Paul and become believers, on the whole, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; while others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” “We will hear you again about this”; we need to think about this for a while… And remember, Luke has already told us that this was a populace that “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” This is intriguing, and odd… but new…
Which is perhaps one of the idolatries of our own time, this desire for the new; the newest, the latest, the most fashionable; the belief system, philosophy, spirituality, or maybe business strategy, investment opportunity, or even diet and exercise plan that will make me stronger, better, more prosperous, and younger looking to boot… I suspect Paul would take all of those strivings and longings and gropings seriously, as speaking to the deeper hungers we all suspect lie tucked deep in our souls. “Now there’s something I can work with,” Paul might say to himself, and then he’d speak words that both engage the culture but at the same time challenge and unveil it in its brokenness.
If this is what Paul might well do were he to appear in our midst, then maybe it is what we should do as his heirs in the Body of Christ. Not flee from the culture, nor uncritically be swept up in it, but engage it and have the audacity to believe ours can be a voice in shaping and even remaking it. We can be “culture makers” as Andy Crouch puts it, of a sort who actually believe that the way of being in the world that we have been given in and through Christ is actually something worth talking about; actually something worth bringing to bear in our world’s version of the public square.