A Speech to the Curious Skeptics

May 21, 2017

A Speech to the Curious Skeptics

John 14:15-21

 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

 “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. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Acts 17:22-31

Paul was in Athens, and while he was waiting for Silas and Timothy to come, and he saw that the city was filled with idols, he became distressed and irritated. When he went to the synagogue, he argued with the Jews and devout non-Jews, and every day in the marketplace he argued with anyone who happened to be there.

Some philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic schools entered into debate with him. Some of them were saying, “What exactly is this speech-peddler trying to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” – because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

So they took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? “For you are bringing certain strange things to our attention, and we wish to know what it means.”  Now, all the Athenians and foreigners living there liked nothing better than telling or hearing something new and different.

Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said,

“Athenians! I perceive that you are in every respect exceptionally religious, for as I was walking around looking at your shrines, I came upon an altar with the inscription, ‘To an Unknown God.’

The one whom you honor unknowingly, I am proclaiming to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, this Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by hands. Neither is he served by human hands as if he needed anything – since he himself gives life and breath and all things to everyone.

And from one common ancestor he has made every nation of humans to dwell on the entire face of the earth. He has set apart designated seasons and boundaries for their habitation, so they might seek God, perhaps even feel their way toward him and find him. Indeed, he is not far from each one of us. For ‘by him we live, and move, and have our being,’ as even some of the poets among you have said; ‘For we, too, are his family.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think of the divine as something like gold or silver or stone, shaped by human art and imagination. While God has overlooked these times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has established a day when he will judge the world with justice, by a man whom he has appointed. And God has accredited this man by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard “resurrection of the dead,” some began to scoff. But others said, “We will listen to you another time about this.” So Paul left them. But some of the men joined him and believed, including Dionysius of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

* * * * *

One of the highlights of my trip to Athens last fall was visiting the scene where Paul’s speech takes place. The “Areopagus,” the ancient Greeks called it. “Mars Hill” was its Roman name. It’s a small rocky outcropping that’s part of a larger rocky rise in the center of the ancient city. A flight of steps carved into the rock takes you to the top, and an area level enough and large enough that the city council of Senators would meet there. It’s where the trial of Socrates took place. It’s where the men of Athens took Paul to defend this new teaching he was presenting.

So Paul is there on the Areopagus - right under the shadow of the Parthenon, the Stoa of Zeus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and Apollo... surrounded by temples and shrines to a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses. The sheer size and volume and artistry is stunning.

While Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy to show up he has plenty of time on his hands to see all this. He goes to the synagogue first, as he always did in a new city, to tell his fellow-Jews about Christ. But he wanders around the marketplace as well, the agora – the “equivalent of a first-century mall,”[i] as one friend describes it - and enters the fray of the public debates that the local philosophers liked to have.

The Epicureans and Stoics aren’t sold on his arguments, needless to say; they are kind of dismissive, really - but their curiosity is piqued, and they invite him to the Areopagus for an official presentation. I suspect it would be like a group of University of Chicago professors condescending to hear an adjunct instructor from some small, off-the-grid community college who happened to show up on their campus. What Paul has to say is just novel enough that it might prove entertaining.

It is a tricky speech to make. Paul has to appeal to both the Epicureans and the Stoics, philosophies that in competition with each other. As one writer describes them, “The Epicureans viewed God as a distant entity with little interest in the actions of humanity”;[ii] they believed that, “a god who could make a practical difference in the outcome of a happy life simply does not exist.”[iii] Ethically, in life, “pleasure was the highest good.” [iv]

In contrast, the Stoics held a high view of ethics and virtue, discipline and reason. To them, God was imminent; in fact, “all physical bodies were composed of godly matter.” They knew their “idols were not the highest form of God” but none-the-less were “edifying.”[v]

Still, at the end of the day, worshiping the gods seemed far less important than arguing philosophy. Paul has his hands full with this audience.

But what a speech it is. He is more of an orator than they bargained for – a master at their own game. He starts out with compliments – never a bad way to begin, especially with a skeptical audience. He doesn’t scold them about their many gods and goddesses – Lord knows that would have gone over well – but compliments them on how religious they are. In a clever move he notes the shrine ‘to an unknown god.’ The shrine itself was simply a way to acknowledge that the pantheon was incomplete, that there was still much more that they did not know; or maybe it was a way to cover the bases, to make sure some unknown god would be displeased at being forgotten.[vi] Paul claims that he knows this ‘unknown god’ of theirs, and describes the God he knows.

Then Paul tries to gain traction with his audience by finding something in common with both the Stoics and Epicureans. Like the Stoics, Paul believes this God is indeed close at hand. Like the Epicureans, Paul sees the shrines and statues as mere idols. Instead of quoting Jewish scripture, which would be meaningless to them, he quotes philosophers:

 “In him we live, and move, and have our being.”[vii]

 ‘We, too, are God’s offspring.’[viii]

Clearly, Paul knows his audience, and he knows his stuff.  

Still, somewhere along the line, he loses them. God as creator? Fine. God as sustainer of life? He loses the Epicureans with that one. And God as judge? Wow. That’s not something anyone in Athens bargained for.

Then there’s the real kicker: this judge has been raised from the dead. Life after death? That’s a foreign concept entirely. To Greek minds the afterlife would be “a mystical absorption into the cosmos,” not a resurrection from the dead.[ix] Tombstones often had the words inscribed, “I was not. I was. I do not care.”[x] That tells you something, doesn’t it? The Athenians didn’t even know what to make of the word “resurrection” – they thought it was the name of a goddess, since it was a feminine noun. [xi] They didn’t know what Paul was talking about.

But what Paul knew was this: In God’s design, we are created “so we might seek God, perhaps even feel their way toward him and find him.”

So there he was, under the shadow of the Parthenon, among the best and brightest of the day, preaching a God who can be known: the creator and sustainer of life. And he preaches Jesus Christ, judge ad redeemer, raised from the dead. Many scoffed at his words, Acts tells us. That’s not a surprise, really. The real miracle is that he gained any converts at all. But he did. He did.

You know, I admire Paul’s hutzpah. I admire his cheek. I admire his rhetoric and his style. But even more, I feel encouraged. Paul’s speech gives me hope.

See, I don’t think our world is all that different from life in Athens. We’re in a market-place of ideas, a catch-all of spirituality, with a plethora of gods and goddesses to choose from. We aren’t dragged up the hill to make our defense in a faculty debate; we aren’t taken to court to make our case in front of legal scholars; there’s no Areopagus. Our defense takes place in the High School cafeteria and at cocktail parties, in casual conversations when our friends or acquaintances find out we are Christian, and wonder why.

As much as we’re surrounded by Christianity, as much as it’s the dominant faith of our time and place, it’s hard to make an argument for it that people will understand, let alone accept. Some reject it on intellectual grounds; it just doesn’t make any sense. Some reject it on historical grounds; too much has gone wrong at the hands of the church. Some reject it on experiential grounds; they just don’t feel it, they don’t need it, they don’t want it.  

I’ve rarely experienced that rejection as vicious or mean-spirited; at least with me, people have always been respectful, though often a little condescending. Our faith just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. Maybe you’ve heard some of these arguments yourself. Maybe you’ve said them:

“I’m spiritual, not religious,” I often hear; “religions just get in the way.”

“I find God in nature; I don’t need a building to worship God.”

 “Jesus was a wonderful teacher, but Christians are such hypocrites.”

 “Religion is so judgmental; wasn’t Jesus all about love?”

 “Christianity is exclusive; I don’t want to be part of something so mean-spirited.”

 “We’re all on the same path anyway.”

And the thing is, I think there’s some truth in all those statements.

Religion is a human construct that tries to name and worship an eternal God of mystery, who is beyond all words, beyond space and time, beyond our comprehension.

We don’t need a building to worship God; for centuries the people of God didn’t have one. God’s hand is clearly in nature, and I feel close to God there, too. God’s Spirit is almost palpable.

Christians are hypocrites – so are people of every religion. Humans are inconsistent at best, and fallen, sinful creatures at worst, which is precisely why Jesus came.

Jesus is all about love, and Christianity should never be mean-spirited.

And, as Paul himself said, we are all God’s offspring, his family, and ‘by him we live, and move, and have our being.’ God has placed in all human beings the desire to “seek God, perhaps even feel [our] way toward him and find him.”

Paul knew perfectly well that presenting the good news of Jesus Christ didn’t mean bashing other people’s beliefs or arguing about their experiences. But it did mean saying what he knew as clearly as he possibly could, finding common ground as a starting point.

We worship an unknown God, who made himself known in Jesus Christ. A God of love, who with us and in us.  A God the world cannot contain, but who loved the world so much he came to us in human flesh.

Jesus loves us with a tenderness that is almost incomprehensible to the world. And even though he no longer walks this earth, God has sent us a “Spirit of truth,” Jesus says, whom we know “because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

“I will not leave you orphaned;” Jesus says, “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. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

That’s where God is found. Not in idols made with hands. Not in arguments of logic. In the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In the One who loves us more than life itself. In the One who died and rose again that we might live. In him we live and move and have our being, now, on this earth, and eternally.

And the church? This is the place that helps me get out of my own head and into God’s presence – in the music, in the silence, in the words and in the prayers. These are the people who are my family, up close and personal, who know me and love me and have my back and keep me honest and accountable. You make me think about things I might not want to think about, and keep my eye on the greater good, and not just my own wants.

Left to my own devices, I will make God in my own image. I will create idols of my own making, to serve my own prejudices and wants and desires. I will make a lovely God, just the way I’d like, made-to-order. Not because I’m a bad person, but because that’s what we humans do. Without you, that’s exactly what I’d do. ‘Unknown gods’ are convenient that way – we can make them anything we want.

But we are not left to our own devices. And we know this ‘unknown God’; he is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  This is the God who knows us, and loves us, and saves us, even to the end of time.

Rev. Karen Chakoian

[i] Jon Walton, “To an Unknown God,” sermon preached May 5, 2002 at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York.

[ii] Doug King, unpublished paper on Acts 17:2-31 for the 1996 Moveable Feast study group.   B.C.E.)

[iii] Robert W. Wall, Book of Acts, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 244.

[iv] King

[v] King

[vi] Walton

[vii] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Commentary, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Editor (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 316: “It is possible that Luke is alluding to a poem attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides, one of the seven sages of Greece (Diogenes Lartius, Lives of the Philosophers 1:109-115).

[viii] Johnson, 316: “It was recognized already by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1, 19, 91) that this citation came from the Phaenomena of the Greek poet Aratus (born ca. 310

[ix] King, citing Joel Marcus, “Paul at the Areopagus: Window on the Hellenistic World,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 18:143-148, October, 1988, 148.

[x] King, citing Marcus, 148.

[xi] King, citing Marcus, 147.