Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31 Commentary
On this sixth Sunday of the Easter season, we continue our reflections on the Resurrection of Jesus with this fascinating story which shows us how Paul preached the Risen Christ on the continent of Europe. Directed by the Holy Spirit to leave Asia, Paul worked his way down the coast of the Aegean Sea to the center of Greek culture, the famed city of Athens. There he was invited to address the cultured “seekers” at the Areopagus. That was the public meeting place where the intelligentsia spent their time discussing the newest and greatest ideas. It was the highbrow Facebook of the ancient world. So how did Paul preach the Risen Christ to a sophisticated non-church crowd?
That’s a question we know all too well. At my last church I met periodically with our young people to learn what was on their minds. One obviously intelligent and well-read teenager asked a question directly related to this text. “In Have a Little Faith Mitch Albom raises a question about who should be ministered to. Should we send missionaries to other organized religions? Or should we leave them to their own belief structure and concentrate on those who don’t have a religion?”
She was asking the question that challenges all of us in this post-modern pluralistic world. How should we treat members of other religions? Should we just leave them alone, respecting their choice of faith? Should we have interfaith dialogue so that we understand them better but make no effort to convert them? Or should we witness to them in an effort to make them disciples of Jesus? Should we help them when they are in trouble or should we establish laws that keep them from causing trouble?
In the Sermon the Mount Jesus gave the world a startling new way to deal with people who not only hold different beliefs than we do, but who also oppose us, even violently, people who declare themselves to be our enemies in religion or politics or personal relations. In Matthew 5:43-46 he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors (the greatest sinners of that day) doing that?”
So according to Jesus, we must love members of other religions and do good to them. But here’s the big question. What does it mean to love a Hindu or a Jew or a Muslim? Specifically, how should we approach them in love on matters of religion?
In Acts 17 the greatest missionary the world has ever seen approaches the pluralistic melting pot of first century Athens, the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world. The way he deals with members of other religions and those with no religion sets the standard for how we should do it today.
Vs. 16 says, “While Paul was waiting for his friends in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” “Greatly distressed” means that his spirit was stirred by anger or grief when he gazed at the pluralistic religious atmosphere of Athens. He did not see this multiplicity of religious expression as a good thing. How could he? He had been raised a Jew, so he knew the monotheistic texts like this one from Isaiah 45: “There is no god but me, so turn to me all the ends of the earth and be saved.” Paul was greatly distressed by all the religions on display in that cradle of democracy. So, what did he do? Knock down the idols? Insult the members of the other faiths?
Listen to vs. 17. “So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks and in the marketplace with those who happened to be there,” which included some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. “He reasoned.” The word means, he conversed with them, engaged in an interfaith dialogue with them. He had the mental toughness to talk face to face with members of other religions, even when they argued vociferously back, which those philosophers did. They came back at Paul because of what he was saying in this dialogue.
He wasn’t just politely inquiring about their faith, seeking to understand them better, though there is obviously merit in that. He was preaching, says verse 18, about Jesus and the resurrection. In other words, he didn’t stop with civil discourse. As he dialogued, he passionately preached the very heart of the Christian faith, the risen Christ. Some of his listeners mocked him, others were confused by him, and all of them wanted to hear more. So, they invited him into the Areopagus, the market place of ideas in Athens.
Listen to the way he speaks to this pluralistic melting pot in vs. 22. “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.” Addressing them with respect, he acknowledges their faith, touches down in their spiritual lives, begins where they live religiously. He can do that because rather than jumping to conclusions, he had carefully investigated their religions. “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.’” They were covering their bases, acknowledging the mystery of the divine, admitting that they didn’t know everything there was to know about God. And Paul uses that admission as the connecting point. Ever since then, that has been the classical missionary strategy—connect with other religions by finding the common ground.
“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you,” and so he begins his sermon. In the whole first part, verses 24-28, he emphasizes that common ground, while subtly pointing out where they had gone wrong. We are all the creatures of the one God who made everything. He “gives to all men life and breath and everything.” From “one man he made every nation,” and determined times and places. God made us, so that “men would seek after him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.”
Notice how he is affirming their religious impulse; that came from God. All of us are seeking God. Then in verse 28 Paul quotes from two Greek poets to further establish common ground; “we are all children of God.” Clearly, he had studied classical Greek culture, so that he had these quotations on the tip of his tongue. He uses their culture to establish more connecting points for the gospel. Yes, he pretty directly critiques those places where they have gone wrong in their religious impulse. God does not live in temples and is not served by human hands. But as he lovingly approaches these adherents of other religions, he begins with the common ground between Christianity and other religions.
Then in vs. 29 he turns a corner, a very sharp corner. Referring to those Greek poets, he says, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we (note that “we,” not just “you,” including himself in his hard words, “I’m as guilty as you”) should not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” Hard words to an audience surrounded by idols, but it gets harder. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance….” Ouch! How politically incorrect can you get? “You don’t know the truth about God!” In our day, such talk would be seen as disrespectful at least, maybe even as racist, or exclusionary, as xenophobic, or worst of all as a hate crime. Many of us are very intimidated by those kinds of accusations against Christianity, with good reason.
Paul was not intimidated, because he knew he had a divine mandate to speak the truth to those who didn’t believe it. So, he says in vs. 30. “But God commands all people everywhere to repent.” That is blunt. God commands—not politely invites, but actually commands. Not just a few people, but all people everywhere. No one is exempt. No religion escapes this call to change, to change its mind about God. That kind of talk takes guts. Paul can only do this because he has a mission from God, and more specifically from the risen Christ.
That’s how he ends his sermon—with Christ. “For God 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 all men (not just to Jews, but to Greeks, not just to Christians but to Hindus and Buddhists) by raising him from the dead.” With great respect, seeking as much common ground as possible, including himself in the call to repent, Paul proclaims the three central ways in which Christianity differs from all other religions, the three most offensive parts of Christianity—Jesus is The One sent by God, Jesus has risen from the dead, and Jesus will preside at the final judgment. Paul calls these members of other religions and of no religion to change their minds about religion. He the Nomakes that call very serious by telling the truth about the risen Jesus who will judge the world. Love for the adherents of other religions must finally lead us to tell them the truth about Jesus– respectfully, but honestly.
That won’t always be well received in North American society, where, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “tolerance always trumps truth.” It didn’t go well in ancient Athens. Vs. 32 reports, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ And a few men became followers of Paul and believed.” In other words, there was a divided response to the way Paul talked about other religions. The gospel divided the crowd. It does today. That’s one of the main arguments against the exclusive claims of the Gospel. The Gospel is an offense. Well, yes it is. Always has been, because it is the Good News of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Paul accepted that. Indeed, it cost him his life. It may cost us our popularity, our place in society, even the protection of the law eventually.
I want to end where I began, with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. Notice in Acts 18 that Paul left Athens soon after that and went to Corinth. He was, after all, a traveling evangelist, a hit and run preacher. That may account for his bluntness. He didn’t have to stick around and live with these folks. We do, so if we’re going to be effective witnesses to members of other religions and to those with no religions, we will have to couch our honest words about Jesus in lavish displays of the love of Jesus.
If we don’t love our enemies, if we don’t pray for them, if we don’t bless them, if we don’t help them and show them hospitality and kindness, our words about the love of God in Jesus Christ will sound pretty hollow. We must be tough minded and tender hearted. We must respectfully acknowledge their faith and forthrightly call them to change their minds. We must love them as we love ourselves and lovingly tell them the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s what Jesus told us to do, when he said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation….” Interfaith dialogue must be followed by interfaith disciple making.
Several years ago, 3 Christians were arrested for handing out selections of the Gospel of John outside a Muslim festival in Dearborn, MI. A US District Court had banned all groups from distributing such literature because it was deemed disrespectful of Muslims. Witnessing was tantamount to a crime, so these Christians were arrested. Thankfully, the 6th US Court of Appeals ruled in their favor. I mention this old court case because of the commentary on the case by David Harsanyi in the Denver Post. Harsanyi is an atheist, but he thinks that all of us ought to be able to do what Paul does here. “Everyone has the right to proselytize, after all, to try and convince others that their moral, religious, economic, political or ideological notions are best. Isn’t it impolite to claim that your beliefs are superior to or more practical than someone else’s? No. We claim as much every day in our elections, in books, in conversations, in blogs, in columns. Why should anyone be immune?” Respect for other religions doesn’t mean you can’t respectfully witness to them.
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