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. Acts 17:16-34 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Apostle Paul never expected to end up in Athens. Yes, it’s that same Athens--the ancient city in Greece that we still know today. A center of trade and learning. People came from across Greece and throughout the Mediterranean area to this cosmopolitan city, a place that laid the cultural foundations for all of western civilization.
Paul never intended to end up here. He did not travel to Athens in search of converts to "The Way." After he and Silas left Philippi, which was the setting for our story last week, they continued west to Thessalonica. There, in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas were so successful, sharing the Good News in the synagogue, that several were convinced, including a few Jews, a larger number of Greeks, and several prominent women.
But other members of the synagogue weren’t as convinced. In fact, they were jealous and, eventually, formed a mob and started a riot. Paul and Silas were sent on to Berea to avoid trouble.
There, too, they began in the Jewish synagogue. This time, the Beroean Jews were more “honorable” than those in Thessalonica. Many of them eagerly came to faith, including--the text notes--a number of reputable Greek women and many Greek men. Yet, it wasn’t long before the Jews from Thessalonica found out that Paul and Silas were in Beroea. They followed them there, once again, upsetting and disturbing the crowd. This time, the brothers and sisters sent Paul away, while Silas and a new disciple, named Timothy, remained behind. Paul’s escorts took him to Athens and then returned to Beroea with instructions from Paul that Silas and Timothy were to meet him in Athens as quickly as possible.
It’s here where our story picks up today. Paul has just arrived in Athens.
As he waited for Silas and Timothy, Paul began to explore the city, to get to know its culture and its people. Ancient historians describe Athens as a very religious place. And Athenians as very intellectually curious. Luke writes in Acts that the people of Athens “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” They were always looking for the next, new thing or the next, new philosophy. After all, this was the home of Demosthenes and Socrates. Of Plato and Aristotle. Of Sophocles and Euripides. Of these masters of thought. The people of Athens were a people obsessed with ideas, especially those that are new and startling.
So, Paul begins his exploration. And as he is walking around he notices the vast number of statues. One ancient historian writes that Athens had over 30,000 public statues, plus countless private ones. In our world today, statues honor people. But, in Athens, statues honored gods. Many different gods. One writer wrote that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.
Paul notices this. And, eventually, it becomes too much for him to handle. He can no longer wait in obscurity, but loses it--deeply distressed by all of these religious shrines and statues scattered throughout the city. Having lost his restraint, he begins to have discussions with Jews and other worshippers in the synagogues, as well as with Gentiles he can corner in the marketplace.
Eventually a group of them get excited. And while some of this group dismiss Paul as a “babbler”--as someone who picks up bits of ideas with no ability to pull them together, others, who are always eager to talk about new things, recognize that he is saying something about some gods from some distant land. About someone called “Jesus.” And, maybe, about another god called “Resurrection.”
So, they rush him to a place called the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. Now, in earlier times, Mars Hill was the place where court cases were heard. By Paul’s time, this was the place where the city’s governing authorities were located. So, when these Athenians rush Paul to Mars Hill, it is because they want their political leadership to hear what he is saying. They want their most powerful and intellectual people to hear what Paul has to say. It as though Paul were taken to face the equivalent today of the faculty of Harvard University.
They politely ask him to explain his “strange” new message.
This is the thing about the Gospel. No matter how intellectual. Or no matter how noble or inaccessible a population seems to be, the Gospel will always find an audience. And, even more, it will speak in the language of that audience. It will find common ground with some of the basic assumptions of that audience. And, it may even reveal their shortsightedness in the process.
The God of Jesus Christ has as much to do with Athens as with Jerusalem. The Word of God belongs in this place, as it belongs in every place. And, by the end of Acts, the Good News will be proclaimed in Rome--the center of the empire.
So, Paul begins to speak to the Athenians. He catches their attention immediately when he speaks about an altar he has seen on his exploration of the city. An altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” He then declares to them “an unknown God” that he wants to introduce them to. And to help them understand that the religious symbols, or the rituals, or the objects we devise can never capture or fully represent God. Perhaps the people of Athens already know this. Perhaps their altar to an unknown god shows they understand the limits of human comprehension.
I wonder if we’re not a little like the people of Athens. We, too, try to capture God and to define who God is in our own religious symbols, or in the rituals we practice, or in the words we say. Do we, like them, understand the limits of human understanding? We, who live 2,000 years later after the expansion of western civilization and thought. Post-Enlightenment people, who have watched or even participated in scientific discovery; who have been witness to a new, wondrous digital age, or to space exploration, or to medical breakthroughs. Do we, like the Athenians, understand the limits of human understanding, especially as it relates to our search for God? How do we find God, if it is not in the holy things we construct--our religious symbols, our rituals, our words?
I wonder if we’re not a lot like the people of Athens.
It is here that Paul begins. He points to human existence and to the natural order of creation. It is in these places that God beckons them (and us) to search for God. It is in these places where God may be found.
You see, we, like the Athenians, are nearer to God than we might realize. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that God is nearer to us, dwelling among us. Reaching out to us. If only we might notice.
In 2016, as I was in the last half of my internship in Southeast Minnesota, one day a man walked into my office. I knew this man, this member, or at least I knew who he was. I’d had one of his children in confirmation. He had a reputation in the congregation as someone who was a pretty hard father, one who never showed any emotion other than anger, one who could be difficult to deal with.
When he walked into my office, it was the first time I had actually met him. He stood in the doorway and talked. Over and over he talked. Well, he ranted really. About how horrible the government was. About how horrible people were. About how everyone was out to get him. About how he had been laid off from his job. And about how he had been unable to find work in over a year.
For an hour he ranted. It was hard to even get a word in edgewise.
And then he left. Over the course of the next couple of months, he did this two more times. Standing in the door to my office. Ranting and raving. Over and over again. He was so angry.
One morning, he came into my office and sat down. He put his head down on my desk and he began to cry. All those months of feeling unworthy. All those months of being unable to support his family. All those months of feeling as though God had abandoned him. All those months of anger at God. All of it came pouring out that morning in his tears and his sobs. It was then and there, in the midst of his very human existence, that he experienced the nearness of God.
You see, my friends, we are often the biggest roadblocks to finding God. In our anger or our disappointment. In our sadness or our grief, we are unable to see how close God is to us. It is only when we repent. When, with the nudge of the Holy Spirit, we turn back to God. We begin to truly see and experience God. We begin to see the life given to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We experience the nearness of God--the presence of Jesus--incarnate in Word and sacrament. We experience communion with the Divine.
This was Paul’s message to the Athenians. It is our message--our Easter message--as well. It is about a promise that God makes to us in Jesus. That God is not an unknown God, but a God who comes to us. A God who promises to be near us. Who promises to change us. And, especially, who promises us a future.
This is the God we know and find. Right here. In the midst of our messy human existence and throughout all of creation.
Readings: John 1:16-18, Acts 17:16-31.
Preached April 29, 2018 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.: