Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 14, 2023
Acts 17:22-31 Commentary
Well, you win some and you lose some.
Paul had some experience with the truth of that old adage, and some of the relevant experiences can be seen in Acts 17 and Paul’s famous conversation with the Athenians at the Areopagus.
The day was not without its spiritual victories. The chapter concludes by telling us that Paul’s words—as used by the Holy Spirit that day—did capture not only the attention but finally also the hearts of a few of the folks who had been listening to him. But it was apparently only a few. Most left that day’s spiritual conversation with wry little grins on their faces, shaking their heads at Paul’s kicker line about how God once raised the Savior he was talking about from the dead. To the Greeks, being raised back to life had all the appeal of a root canal without anesthetic. Escape from the body was the goal. So the prospect of getting your body back by-and-by seemed less like a glorious reward and more like a cruel punishment.
And any god worth his salt would surely know that much.
So they left shaking their heads and repressing some giggles.
It was too bad, too, because this Paul person had been doing pretty well. This was no rube or hick from the outback and he was no crazy-eyed street preacher either. He was clearly well educated and well spoken. What’s more, he had done his homework in researching their culture and their religious landscape. He knew something about their various gods and could even quote from their own literature and poetry. This man was worth listening to, worth giving a shot to make his case there in Athens, where the trading of ideas and the thrust-and-parry of intellectual debate was many people’s favorite indoor non-contact sport.
But when this same man–who once wrote to some believers in Corinth that if Christ is not raised, we are of all people the most to be pitied–got to the part about that very resurrection, the game was over. “We’ll talk about this with you later. Much later, Paul!” The core of the Gospel proved to be too much for some folks.
If only Paul had just stopped talking one sentence sooner! If he had just had a good preacher’s sense for knowing when to quit. After all, the day did not have to end the way it did.
Or did it?
Acts 17 bears living testimony to a truth the church has known about for 2,000 years: namely, no matter what you do or say, some people will just not believe the gospel. There is a stumbling block at the heart of the message and it is going to trip some people up every time. But that is why it has perennially been tempting to change the message, too. Out of a mistaken desire to be “successful,” to give no offense, to be all things to all people, not a few preachers over the centuries have managed to do what Paul refused to do: namely, quit one sentence sooner. Leave out the main stumbling block of Christ’s death and resurrection. Or turn the resurrection into something a little more palatable, a little more similar to things we have all experienced at one time or another.
Say that “resurrection” = remembering the departed Jesus. He can live in your memory.
Say Jesus rose again “in their hearts.” He remained an inspiration.
Play with the word “historical” long enough so as to get to the point that whatever “historical” means, it’s not the same thing as JFK’s assassination or Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon. It was “historical” with scare quotes conveying the wink and the nod of not taking this too seriously as an event in time.
Or say that resurrection is natural, an everyday event not so very different from maple trees budding out with new leaves after a winter season in which they looked dead. Easter = Springtime, the sprouting of daffodils and tulips after a bleak season of snow and ice. It happens all the time.
Or say that whether Jesus rose again from the dead or not isn’t so important—it’s being loving that’s the key. Live like Jesus (or Gandhi or Lincoln or whoever).
Or say that yes, it’s OK to believe in the resurrection but it’s just one good religious idea among many valid ideas from many different faith traditions and so let’s not make it the be-all or end-all of the Christian faith.
But whatever you say or preach, just make sure it is going to fly, going to be OK with more folks than not and so will prevent anyone from walking away with an eye-rolling expression.
That’s the temptation. Paul did not give into it, however. True, Acts 17 might have had a happier ending if he had given in, if he had sugarcoated the truth and tailored his message for his audience. Paul did know his audience after all. He had done his homework. And he was intelligent enough to have known what he needed to do to keep as many people as possible with him. Had he done that, the story of Acts 17 might have ended differently.
But then it would be an open question whether 2,000 years later, there would still be any such thing as the Church of Jesus Christ on earth, too.
And that is surely a point worth pondering!
Martin Gardner’s novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, tells a story that, although it is itself fictional, has altogether too many real-life parallels. In the story we meet Peter Fromm, a young, Midwesterner who feels called to the ministry and so enrolls in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School in the late-1930s. But soon after his arrival at seminary, Peter detects from his professors a systematic dismantling of the very Christian faith Peter had come to seminary to learn more about. The novel’s narrator is one of Peter’s seminary professors, a liberal theologian who took annual delight in pricking the naïve balloon of faith that each of his fresh-faced students brought to the divinity school every September.
In describing Peter Fromm’s own faith, this professor claimed that when he arrived, Peter held to a “primitive Christianity indistinguishable from the childlike, apostolic faith described in the Book of Acts.” It fell to this professor, then, to make Peter grow up. And so he began to expound the teachings of Enlightenment modernism, battering students like Peter with new terminology about redaction and form criticism, demythologization, the hermeneutics of suspicion, and a welter of other scholarly tools that had long been wielded to chop up the Bible into so many disparate chunks and pieces.
When one day the professor casually noted that of course Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not a physical event in history, Peter objected loudly and wondered how anyone who believed that could be the pastor of a congregation where folks did believe in the raising of Jesus’ body. “Isn’t that dishonest?” Peter asked. The professor assured him that it was a harmless form of dishonesty, something pastors needed to live with even as they slowly on try to help the congregation to see Easter’s “real” meaning.
Over time, Peter became so confused that he finally had a complete mental and spiritual collapse. A few years after entering seminary, Peter was trying to preach an Easter sermon when he was convulsed with mirthless laughter that quickly disintegrated into an all-out psychological episode that ended only when a burly church usher whacked Peter upside the head with a brass candlestick!
Peter Fromm was honest. He could not proclaim a faith that had been gutted. He could not accept the liberal notion that even if all the creeds are wrong, there is enough good philosophy scattered in the Bible to prop up Christianity after all. So on that Easter Sunday, Peter could not deal with the bleak spectacle of proclaiming a lifeless message to a dying world. What was the sense?
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