Thursday, June 2, 2011

O People of Jerusalem: Paul's Advice on Religious Encounters
Fred & Gloria Strickert

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Easter -- Acts 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” so Paul addressed the Athenians on Mars hill, the Areopagus. That’s one of those written statements that can probably be taken in a couple of different ways. Perhaps with a tone of sarcasm, Paul could be addressing his audience in a condescending kind of way: “I perceive that you are very religious—superstitious, in fact—and perhaps, I could teach you a few things to show you what true religion is all about.” Or it could be taken straightforward, “I perceive that you are very religious—and I admire that about you and would like to know more.” Or it could be somewhere in between.

It seems like growing up, most of the sermons I heard took the former approach, after all, Paul was a missionary, and isn’t that what missionaries were supposed to do, to call people from darkness to the light. Yet the older I get and the more I live in a context where Christians are just a small minority, as in Paul’s day, and the more I encounter people of other faiths, the more I tend to read Paul in this second way, respectful, appreciative, valuing the other, seeing this as an opportunity to learn from each other and to grow in the process.

Each week I encounter dozens of first-time visitors to Jerusalem. And there is often this response, “Jerusalemites, I see how extremely religious you are.”

People walk through the city and see nothing but churches, mosques, synagogues.

They experience prayer at the Western Wall, the Muslim call to prayer five times a day, pilgrimage groups along the Via Dolorosa, the silence and calm of Shabbat.

They can tell people’s religion by their dress, by their behaviors, by everything we see, hear, smell, touch, feel.

Yes, religion is all around.

And the reaction? The response? Some are moved by it, some feel their own spirituality strengthened, some are overwhelmed, some are threatened. Too much religion, some say. Many arrive at this sanctuary at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer expressing an appreciation for the simplicity of the architecture and worship space in comparison to many of the ornate churches they have seen. Many confess that cultural differences play a big role in religion, and it's not easy to separate religion and culture.

Paul’s experience in Athens was unique among all the narratives and letters of Paul, because Paul had arrived in Athens, not so much as a missionary, but as a tourist. At the beginning of this section from Acts 17, Luke announced that Athens was simply a stopover for Paul, awaiting Timothy and Silas, before heading south to Corinth. He had no agenda, there was no missionary strategy. He was there as a tourist, exploring, observing, learning--doing what tourists normally do.

Acts 17:16-34   16 While Paul was waiting for Timothy and Silas in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.  18 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.)  19 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?  20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means."  21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 

Paul's first impressions were somewhat negative. All the statues, all physical representations of the gods. Idols! Paul exclaims. This is not part of his Jewish upbringing. How can one worship something created by human hands? But he moves then from artifacts to encounters with the local people—going not to the temples, but to the market where the common folk hang out.

And Paul the good talker, gets into conversations and discussions. And one of the things he discovers is that his preconceived notion about Athenians as idol worshippers was not entirely accurate. Religion is a lot more complicated, he discovers. There he talks with Stoics and Epicureans, who aren’t really into the traditional Greek beliefs, who sense a singular divine power, and who are concerned with the way beliefs affect human behavior.

It is clear from that introduction, that Paul didn’t buy all that the Stoics and Epicureans had to say, and neither did they agree with what he had to say about Jesus and the resurrection. But the interesting thing is that they wanted to know more. Something about the way Paul interacted with them was appealing and their conversation would continue. And not just a private conversation in the market, but they give him a soap box, taking him to the Areopagus where crowds tended to gather.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 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.  24 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,  25 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.  26 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,  27 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.  28 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.'  29 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.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 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."

And so as he arrives at Mars Hill and begins his speech, his approach is significant. Not quotations from the Old Testament, not creedal formulations, or even stories about Jesus from the Gospels. Instead he begins with what they shared in common and then builds up to what is unique to his faith, his witness in Jesus and the resurrection—which only comes at the end. He speaks in respectful tones, demonstrating what he has learned from his experience, what he has seen with his eyes, not just the tourist sites but off the beaten path to the out-of-the-way altar to the unknown God.  He even quotes a couple Greek poets, Epimenides and Aratus, whom he agreed with, and at the end, his audience is interested in prolonging the discussion.

"Come back," they say.
"We can talk, some more."

Why should Paul be dialoguing with these Athenians? It was not because of the gods they had created –these idols that turned off Paul, but because of the world created by God. The world as the handiwork of God was something they shared, a sign that God is greater than all the religious buildings and artifacts, chants and prayers, creeds and doctrines. Our common awe at the world around us should be the starting point to bring us closer together. And that brings us to his second point. We as humans are also God’s handiwork. “We too are God’s offspring,” Paul quotes the Greek poet—yes, in spite of the stereotype from the Greek temples, God does not dwell in things but in people--all of us created in the image of God. All of us with a common ancestor, as Pauls puts it. And so our love for God is manifest when we love our neighbor as ourself, when we love the stranger as our self, when we love the other as ourself.

It's interesting that those who designed the common lectionary have chosen to include this reading during the Easter season.  Yes Paul does share with the Athenians his belief in the Resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead.  He might even have related his own experience meeting the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road.  Who knows?

Yet perhaps more significant than the verbal articulation and proclamation of the resurrection was his own life in the resurrection, living in freedom under the grace of the gospel, living with a confidence that erased all the worries and anxieties about such encounters with people of other faiths. 

As would be expected, some in his audience were indifferent, some scoffed at him, and some became the founding members of the Athens congregation . 

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this." 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

And others said, "Come back!  Let's talk some more!"
And so in a conversation earlier this week, a young first-time visitor to Jerusalem remarked about all the religion she encountered in Jerusalems.  All those white limestone buildings.  Then she paused and remarked, "You know, it's not the stone buildings that make Jerusalem holy. . . .

. . . It’s the people I've met-- the Living stones who are evidence of God’s love for the world."

Fred & Gloria Strickert