Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31 Commentary
How do Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us share our faith with those who know little or nothing about what it means to be a Christian? How do God’s adopted sons and daughters speak the gospel to people for whom words like “grace” and even “sin” may sound like so much gibberish?
Paul’s didn’t have to deal with that issue in his first sermon that Acts records. After all, he stands on theologically familiar ground in Antioch of Pisidia’s synagogue when he preaches to people who know the Old Testament well. Paul can summarize Israel’s history and then describe Jesus and his resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s promises to her because his audience understands at least its basic context.
In Athens, however, Paul speaks to completely different audiences. When he arrives there, the city is past its heyday as the center of the Western world. The Athens the apostle visits, however, still excels at philosophy. It still has two famous schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Athens also has the Areopagus, an outcrop of rocks in the center of the city where philosophers gather daily to debate.
Athens’ philosophically savvy citizens sample from a huge buffet of gods and goddesses. Those meddlesome deities, however, flit in and out of peoples’ lives, sometimes helpfully, but often destructively. What’s more, Athens’ panoply of gods and goddesses can be just as mean and vindictive as any human being. So the Athenians built many, many shrines, hoping they would appease their fickle gods.
However, by the time Paul visits Athens, this belief in a multitude of different gods is beginning to shrink. Many Athenians view it all as more myth than religion. Skepticism is rapidly replacing religion as the chief Athenian virtue.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? North America’s preachers and teachers live and work in a culture that’s skeptical about virtually everything except that which it can scientifically prove. All values, it insists, are relative, because you can’t prove any of them.
When Paul looks over the similar moral wasteland that is Athens, its splendor doesn’t impress him. When he looks at famous things like the Parthenon, the Apollo Belvedere and the Elgin Marbles, he simply sees a “city . . . full of idols” (16). So Paul goes from the synagogue to the Athenian marketplace “reasoning” (17), perhaps arguing with people.
That tactic, however, doesn’t convince everyone. Some of Athens’ philosophers, after all, call him a “babbler” (18), the Greek word for anyone who didn’t speak Greek. Essentially they call the apostle a barbarian, a country bumpkin who doesn’t know his right hand from his left.
Other Athenians, however, seem slightly more open-minded, spiritually liberal. They say, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” (18). These people seem to be a lot like some of our contemporaries who are vaguely “spiritual.”
These philosophers invite Paul to speak further at the Areopagus, Athens’ philosophical heart. It’s the place where many Athenians and tourists spent all their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the newest ideas.
So does Paul try to soothe the Athenians’ skeptical minds and hearts there? Or does he condemn their whole religious tradition of a smorgasbord of gods and religions? After all, this notion of fickle gods and goddesses was the dialectic opposite of the faith of the young Christian church.
Apparently Paul recognizes that denunciation seldom convinces people. He grasps the fact that he needs some kind of entry into his audience’s thinking. The apostle realizes that he needs a foothold from which he can open new ways of thinking for his listeners. So it seems that Paul builds a kind of bridge to his audience. It’s an example of what some seminaries approvingly like to call “contextualization.”
Paul “contextualizes” his witnessing in Athens’ Areopagus. He notes that some craftsman had wished to cover all his theological bases. Not wanting to neglectfully anger a god who had anonymously helped Athens, he had erected a shrine to this “unknown god.”
Pointing to this altar, Paul compliments the Athenians on their spirituality. He applauds their search for something more meaningful in their lives. The apostle then, however, notes that he has found the One for whom they’ve been searching.
First, as Will Willimon, from whom I borrowed some of this Sermon Commentary’s structure, suggests, Paul engages the Athenians in a bit of what we might call “natural theology.” He points to creation’s beauty and order, suggesting that they point to some kind of higher power. This higher power, Paul, quoting an Athenian poet, continues, is the Source, the Creator of all humanity. People can’t, however, insists the apostle, contain such a magnificent God in something they build with their hands. They can’t even make some kind of image of him.
Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and our hearers might want to think about somehow similarly relating to those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We might ask ourselves about the unknown gods whom they worship, even if they don’t realize it.
For some people the twentieth century’s two world wars, Holocaust and atomic bomb mortally wounded, if not killed, their god. So what are the twenty-first century’s surviving “unknown” gods?
For some, it’s just the matter of faith itself. It doesn’t matter what you believe, many of our contemporaries reason, as long as you really believe in something. Some of our co-workers, friends and neighbors have made faith itself as the object of their religion.
Another of those unknown gods might be the “spirituality” that is the subject of so many modern conversations. Though it’s hard to define, spirituality seems to be a vague notion that there’s something intangible beyond us, that material reality isn’t the only reality. Instead, however, of relating to the living God, people engage in meditation and other relaxation techniques to connect with this higher power.
We preachers and teachers understand the longings of people whose gods are unknown. We, after all, recognize that God created us with those longings. So when we share our faith, we try to understand those longings even more deeply. You and I try to build bridges, to form relationships with these people who worship their own gods.
But!!! To use the bridge analogy, we can build bridges to connect with those who don’t yet believe. But even our eloquence, even our relationships with them can’t alone convince people to cross that bridge to faith in Jesus Christ.
Look, after all, at what happens to Paul in our text. After so eloquently relating to things the Athenians understand, he says, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance” (30). Now, however, God, the apostle adds, has set a day when God will judge us by something higher than our own thinking. God has proved this just judgment by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
At this point we can almost hear his audience gasp. “Whoa!! You hold on there just a minute, young whippersnapper,” the philosophically savvy Athenians may have snorted. After all, Paul’s sophisticated Greek audience was right with him while he talked about creation’s beauty and order. But when his talk turns to this Jesus, a Jew whom people crucified but God raised from the dead, he leaves part of his audience behind.
“When,” after all, “they heard about the resurrection of the dead,” as verse 32 reports, “some sneered.” Earlier some Athenians had referred to Paul as a country bumpkin.
Now other members of his audience jeer him for talking about a resurrection of the dead. So, as one biblical scholar notes, one of the greatest speeches in all of the Scriptures ends in mockery.
Paul has spoken to the Athenians about something they can’t naturally even begin to comprehend. They like to think of themselves as open-minded intellectuals. Yet the apostle’s audience can’t get beyond what it has experienced and already knows. It judges his new ideas on the basis of its old ideas.
Here Paul challenges skeptics of all ages to think beyond what Willimon calls “our flattened world.” Many of our contemporaries believe that only that which we can prove exists. Since we can only prove that whatever lives eventually dies, talk of resurrection is shear nonsense to them.
What Acts 17’s teachers, preachers and those who listen to us have to say to the world, our witnessing, and our confession of Jesus’ name goes beyond our cause-and-effect thinking. We work hard to relate to, to build bridges with those with whom we share our faith. Yet you and I must always remember that what we say about Jesus Christ goes beyond common sense.
Our culture tends to caricature Christians as narrow-minded, bigoted ignoramuses who can’t think in complex ways. That assumption, however, more accurately reflects not the church, but our world. The gospel, after all, invites us to think about things in a deeper way.
That doesn’t mean that Christianity is irrational, illogical or anti-scientific. It does mean that our faith doesn’t rely on rationality, logic or scientific proof. It relies, instead, on God’s revelation of himself to us through his Word and the work of his Holy Spirit. Only God’s Holy Spirit can graciously convince us of the gospel’s truth.
So Acts 17’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us go out into our world, sharing our faith, just as Jesus calls us to do. You and I go out into our society confessing Jesus’ name, just as we profess. Christians build relationships with unbelievers, building bridges of trust and common ground.
Yet we always remember that this opens us up to the same kind of mockery Paul experienced. Our witnessing always makes us vulnerable to the possibility of experiencing the kind of rejection Jesus endured.
What’s more, even the most eloquent preachers and teachers never rely on our eloquence to draw people to the Lord. You and I never even rely on the bridges and relationships we build with those who don’t yet believe. We’re faithful in sharing our faith, but rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to turn our conversations into faith.
When my wife and lived in Utah I had a good friend and mentor named Marv. By God’s grace and the work of the Spirit, he could eventually turn nearly any ordinary conversation into a discussion of faith.
He always told me a key to that was understanding that most men read three sections of the newspaper first: the comics, the business section and the sports section. By reading those sections first, my friend could talk to nearly any man about something that interested him. That then provided a good bridge to eventually talking with him about the Christian faith.
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