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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Sidling Up To Difference Of The Unknown God - 05/21/2017

I'm going to add a few verses to the beginning and the end of our appointed reading from the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

While Paul was waiting for (Silas and Timothy) 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 marketplace 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.

The Word of God. The Word of Life


When I hear this story from Acts we have before us today, I don't know about you, but I don't really see too much difference between then and now. The names and faces aren't the same; ways of day-to-day life are drastically different. But the overarching issues haven't changed. It's all so very human.

But Paul gives us a great moed and great ideas of how to proclaim Jesus Christ in this humaness.

Like us, Paul can see the evidence of idolatry all around him … things not of God that people hold central in their lives –  these idols might actually show up as statues of gods that oversee harvests and childbirth; they are also things like riches, legacy, power, knowledge.

When Paul begins telling people about Jesus, some call him a “babbler.” The word used here is actually more like “seed picker,” – meaning someone who drops and picks up seeds all over the place. Paul is listening to the viewpoints of those he finds in Athens and he's dropping bits and pieces of the story of Jesus as he does so. It might bring to mind the imagery of Jesus' parable of the seed sower in the Gospel of Luke:

“'A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.'” (Luke 8: 5-8)

Maybe this is exactly what Paul is doing here in Athens – leaving little enticing pieces of Jesus' story wherever he goes – waiting for that person who will ask a question, someone who will want to talk more.

We might experience something like this in our own lives too  – when we open ourselves up to others as Jesus followers … making it evident in our words and actions, our worship of One True God above all other idols, our commitment to neighbor. Sometimes it does lead to scoffing, being dismissed as someone whose beliefs are antiquated. Christianity, some might argue, is not relevant in such an advanced and complex world. Sometimes our words and choices may even cut a little too closely to somebody's feelings of brokenness or pain or guilt, and for the time being anyway, they reject our witness and the oh-so-unlikely hope and promise we have in the Risen Jesus. But all that rejection and even ridicule is overshadowed by the results of even that one seed that is dropped onto good soil and is nurtured by God and others into blessings a hundredfold.

Paul's efforts to relate to the Athenians is intriguing to me in this story too. It seems Paul has tried to tell the story of Jesus in a variety of ways as he's come into the homes and communities of these strangers. At this point in the overall story of his ministry to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, he's just caused an uproar at Thessalonica. He had to be smuggled out out of there by night. Things went a little better at Berea, but Paul's reputation caught up with him there too and friends helped him avoid the angry crowds and get him safely to Athens. In his efforts to speak truth to power, the powerful have struck back … they want to quiet him and get his pot-stirring words the heck out of town.

Once he gets to Athens, we are told Paul is “deeply distressed” at seeing all these idols in Athens. Another way to understand what the writer means here is to say the Holy Spirit was stirred up inside him.

But Paul doesn't harness all the energy from having the Spirit stirred in him to just get in the face of the Athenians. He didn't go the route of what today might be equivalent to texting someone in the heat of anger; writing a bitter, anonymous hate letter to someone; throwing toxic – and often regretted  – words into cyberspace through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instragram, etc.

Instead he seeks the more fertile grounds of commonality … he comments on how they are so clearly a religious or spiritual people. As he makes his points, he uses familiars of the words of their own poets and writers.

It reminds of me of radio interview I've listened to with a man named Kwame Anthony Appiah (Aa-PEE-ah). His African father and British mother inspired the famous movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

He said, “Sometimes people think that..., the only way to deal with these big differences between religions or around moral questions is to ... face up to the difference directly. But ... often, ... sidling up to it is better … (it's not done by facing) …  (the dividing issue) but by facing (people, with names and faces, favorite foods and movie star crushes. People with kids and parents, dreams, heartbreak and grief. People,) with whom you talk about soccer or rock music or whatever it is that you have in common as an interest. … If you have that background of relationship,” he continued, “...then when you have to talk about the things that do divide you, you have a better platform. You can begin with the assumption that you like and respect each other even though you don't agree about everything.... And you can know that, at the end of the conversation, it's quite likely that you'll both think something pretty close to what you both thought at the start. But you might at least have a deeper appreciation for the other person's point of view.” (Great interview. I can get you more information on it if you want.)

So that's what Paul does here. It's on the backdrop of mutual respect and taking time to listen to the the Epicureans, for instance,that he relates Jesus to their search for happiness and pleasure. Likewise, he'd listened to the Stoics and knew something of how they tried to live in harmony with nature and not allow the pleasures of life to control them.

And then Paul pulls a move reminiscent of the way Jesus taught during his ministry on Earth. Paul uses the Athenians' altar “to an unknown god” and he turns everything upside down.

The altar “to an unknown god” is the opening to conversations with the Athenians that challenge their belief that they must live to serve the many gods they thought necessary to navigate life – they had god's to protect and provide for them through all the trials and events they could imagine in life, and even an “unknown god” for all the things they could not imagine.

Paul was there to reveal to them the One True God, the creator of everything known and everything unknown. A God who does not require or need shrines and treasure before looking favorably on people. To what end would God do something like that, Paul asks? Why demand from humans what God created and gave them in the first place?

There is nothing we can do bring about God's favor – God's Grace. Rather, God, this One True God – comes to us. It is the amazing truth at the center of this message Paul is bringing to the Athenians. So abundant and surprising is this Graciousness, that this God – who until now was unknown to you – even came among us as Jesus … a human being, and was nailed to the cross with the legacy of our sinful natures and was then resurrected from the dead so that we may have forgiveness of our sin and are assured eternal life with God when our earthy time is over.

It's what we celebrate today as we come to the table – the body of Christ given for YOU, the blood shed for the forgiveness of ALL people. It's the promise we claim when we bring brother and sister to the font and forever mark our blessed adoption as Children of this One True God.

It is the truth with which we send these graduates out into the world.

I do not think the need for these types of conversation has diminished at all since Paul's time. I might even argue the need is greater then ever. We are surrounded by messages that seek to convince us of what we should do, how we should act and look, what we should buy or support, who we should love – who we should hate –  and what we should believe …  A million different recipes, schemes, diets, investments, positions, news stories that will make us better, more righteous, smarter, more beautiful, more powerful, richer, happier – whatever.

Like Paul, we stand in the center of our aeropagus (air-ree-OP-agus) – our gathering place – sometimes with a whole lot of ideas and opinions flying around and sometimes distracting us or maybe even leading us to forget that we do know the truth about this altar to the so-called “unknown God.”

Did you hear it in our Gospel reading from John? “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:18-19)

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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