Rev. Teri Peterson
good new days
18 May 2014, Easter 5, NL4-37
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now 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. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor 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.” 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Once upon a time, Athens had been the center of learning. It had been well known as the place for intellectuals in every field, brimming with ideas about mathematics, philosophy, government, and the arts.
By the time Paul arrived in Athens, those bright days had dimmed into the past. The center of power had shifted to Rome, and Athenians were left trying to recapture what once was. They filled their city with statues and shrines, and filled their time with ideas and debates, hoping desperately that something would bring them back to the days when they were bursting at the seams with young people, money, power, and vitality.
The people of Athens tried everything. They made statues and sacrifices and offerings in every place and to every god they could think of. They worshipped at the altar of memory, of success, of fashion, of the latest trends and the oldest mysteries. They covered all their bases, hedging their bets even with an altar to an unknown god—just in case they might have missed one along the way.
It was a strategy of desperation—doing everything that used to work, grasping at the straws of what others were doing, and all along the way creating gods that would serve them if they would just offer the right thing at the right time. The Athenians found themselves full of activities, bound by extremes, and longing for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. While the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers—as far apart on the spectrum of philosophy as you can get—debated in the marketplace, the people gorged themselves on any crumb that might bring back the good old days.
When Paul walks in and says “I see how religious you are,” he’s being a bit sarcastic. They are religious—in the sense that they do a lot of things that look religious. But they aren’t, in the sense that they have completely missed the point. The point of religion is to connect human beings to the divine, and that connection happens not through buying God off or through endless activity, but through relationship and mystery and spirit. But Paul’s sarcasm isn’t so overt it turns people off—it’s sarcasm for us, the reader, but to the Athenians it was an acknowledgment of their hope.
Paul builds on that hope—he takes a bright spot: an altar to a god unknown, a desire for more, a longing for a new story—and combines it with their own familiar words in order to offer them The Truth: God, who created all things, cannot be controlled by us, no matter how many statues and sacrifices we make. God, who created all things, is so close to us that it is impossible to know ourselves apart from the divine. And God, who created all things, is doing a new thing even right now, even while we are busy trying to recreate the past.
My favorite part of Paul’s argument is this: if we are God’s offspring, made in God’s image, then why do we think that God could be contained in a statue, imagined and created by us? Or, since we’re not really statue people, maybe we should ask why we, who are created by God, made in God’s image, called God’s children—why do we insist that God can be contained by our church buildings, our scriptures, our theological systems, our religious rules, our long-standing church programs, our worship bulletin, our petty squabbles, our favorite pews? Paul looks around Athens, as he would probably look around many of our churches, and is distressed at the ways people fill up life with things that will always be a poor substitute for the kind of relationship with God that comes through walking the way of Christ.
It’s so interesting that the Athenians, for all their seeking, could not see God already in their midst. Their own poets said “he is not far from each one of us.” Their own altars had a sense of mystery. It was clear that their attempts to get their way by controlling the gods were ineffective. It had to be obvious to them that the past was never coming back—I mean, even their public discourse had descended into arguments between polar opposites. And yet it had not occurred to them that maybe God, in whom we live and move and have our being, was also dynamic, not static. It had not occurred to them to look around and see what God was doing, or if there might be a future just as bright as the past. They spent so much time looking at yesterday that there was no room for tomorrow, no matter how much they might seek.
When Paul started talking about resurrection, and how God had done something completely new and unexpected by raising Jesus from the dead, many of them went away. The concept was ridiculous, and the implications were too much to handle. If God does things like that—things so completely uncontrollable and unbound—then what does that mean for those who want to be in relationship with God? If God can’t be bought, or appeased, then how are we supposed to relate? If God is God—loving, just, and faithful—no matter what we do, then what exactly are we supposed to do? It seems that if the relationship with God is not a transaction, where we control at least a portion of the situation, then it’s not worth it. If it’s true that our life, movement, and existence is held by God, is in God, then we cannot be separated, we cannot be cut off, we cannot truly be lost, and there is nothing to earn.
It’s too much—and the Athenians weren’t the only ones to think so. Ever since that day they met Paul, people across time and place have heard this story and decided to turn away—sometimes we have turned away by constructing elaborate theological systems that allow us to feel like we have some control, and sometimes we have turned away by simply insisting it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes we have turned away by believing the church is a building we visit, like a shrine to an idol, and sometimes we have turned away by using the words of scripture to pretend that God’s grace is only available to some. There are many ways to scoff at what God offers, because we cannot comprehend unconditional love.
To be in relationship with God, the One who created all things and who raised Jesus from the grave, is to admit that all that other stuff we cling to is actually an idol—whether it is our memories of the past, our stuff we can’t bear to let go of, our image of how religion should work, or our insistence that God’s grace must be earned…and then to cling to the true reality of God’s eternal unchanging love.
To be in relationship with God who created all things and raised Jesus from the grave is to admit that we find our truest selves when we rest in God’s care, not when we frantically fill our lives with everything that used to work or that seems like a good idea. Sometimes the deepest relationship comes from silence and Sabbath rather than endless speech and activity.
To be in relationship with God who created all things and raised Jesus from the grave is to admit that we have created God in our own image, rather than living as those created in God’s image—and then to repent, to turn around and walk Christ’s way instead.
It took a little while for those who followed Christ to be called Christians. At first, they were simply called Followers of The Way. Sometimes I think I’d like to reclaim that name, because it so clearly reminds us that to follow Christ is a way of life, not just a way of thinking. To follow The Way is to do what he did, to love as he loves. To follow The Way would mean there was no room for idols, because their weight is quickly seen for what it is: not worth it. To follow The Way is to be always on the move, going wherever the Spirit is going, always looking forward to where God is calling. Or, as Paul put it, to search and grope and find that God is as close as our own breath—and is always leading us forward into the kingdom, into the good new days God has planned.
May it be so.