Isaiah 61:1-7, Acts 17:22-33
July 27, 2014
So, today Paul is in Athens. He has certainly come a long way, hasn’t he. Once he was a major part of the Jewish leadership, a member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, perhaps even a debater of Jesus himself. And as you know, he was also the biggest persecutor of the Church in it’s earliest days. Now, he has been changed. He’s been traveling around the region promoting the new faith as one of its greatest champions! And he has started to encounter persecutions of his own.
At this point, he’s made his way through Asia Minor, and now he’s crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece. And in our scripture for today, he has come to the city of Athens. Well, if you remember your High School history class, Athens was once the center of the Greek Empire under Alexander. (AKA: Alexander the Great.) The Greeks were the world empire before the Romans, and it was the Greek culture and civilization that the Romans emulated during their time of power. The world at the time of Jesus is referred to as the “Greco-Roman” world. Greek was even the common language. And it was the standard language of the New Testament, much to the chagrin of many a budding Seminary student! (And yes, there will be a quiz next period!)
Well at this time, Athens was still a major city. And it was a major center of the culture in the Greco-Roman world. And Paul was there to talk to the Athenians about Jesus, as he had in the other cities he had visited. Well that suited them just fine! Because the Athenians loved to talk about philosophy and religion. And there were lots of different philosophies represented there – including, we’re told, the Epicureans and the Stoics. (How many remember them from High School history class?)
Well, in the verse leading up to our passage for today, we are told that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21) They loved theological and philosophical discussions and debate! If you remember, Athens was the center of intellectual pursuits. It’s counterpart was the Greek city which was the center of physical pursuits – like sport and warfare. Do you remember that city? (Sparta! You’re exempt from next weeks quiz!)
Well, the whole “intellectual pursuit thing” was right up Paul’s alley! He was very good at oratory and debate. So much so, that when he came to the city of Corinth they were looking forward to it. They too loved debate, and they were anxious to take on this well known challenger! Paul’s reputation had preceded him!
Well, here in Athens we find a similar situation. Here we find Paul speaking in their synagogues and in their market places – anywhere people would listen. And he was creating quite a stir. So the philosophers of the city found him, and they took him to the Areopagus, which was their “arena” for debate and “philosophizing.” (Areopagus has always sounded like a Sesame Street character to me!)
So there he stood. And there they asked him to state his case. And the speech he made to them is our scripture passage for today. And this is a great speech! Paul did several things very well here. First, he spoke to them from their experience. That’s important! If you think about it, when we try to find words to tell someone about our faith, we tend to use words from our world, words that might not be meaningful to someone outside of our world. More and more we need to be finding ways to talk to others about our relationship with God in terms that will be meaningful to people outside of our traditions. That’s the real challenge for the Church in the 21st century!
So, here in the Areopagus in Athens, Paul the Pharisee spoke using none of the religious references he may have been used to using in the synagogues. He spoke to the Athenians by referring to their statues and their inscriptions. He even acknowledged their beliefs. He started by making a positive observation about them. “I have observed,” he said, “how you are very religious in every way!” But then he narrowed down his focus, talking about this one particular statue, which was dedicated to the “Unknown God.” And he used that as a stepping stone to tell them about his faith in the God of the universe.
I think we can take a lesson from Paul’s approach. As I said, we need to learn to speak to people without all the religious vocabulary we might be used to. Those kinds of words, words like “redemption” and “incarnation,” might not have any meaning to people outside of the Church. That’s the first thing we can take from this passage.
Well, the second thing I want us to think about here is the content of Paul’s message. Paul was telling the Athenians that this “Unknown God” can be known! That’s always been an important part of the Christian faith. But unfortunately it’s one part that is often forgotten. Too often we get into the mode where we “learn about” God. But do we know God?
I think you’re aware that, in the Bible, the idea of “knowing” someone meant more than just knowing a person’s name, or knowing who they were. It was a relationship word. It indicated a “personal knowledge” of someone. It wasn’t just knowing who someone was, it was knowing them in relationship. In fact, in it’s most intimate connotation of the word, it was descriptive of the physical relationship between a man and a woman. In Genesis we are told that “Adam knew Eve,” and then they gave birth to their son. Now that’s not the extent of the meaning of this word here, but you do see that knowing someone means having some kind of a relationship with them.
So then, do we “know” God? Or do we just know about him? Sometimes that the extent of it. Sometimes our faith lacks that kind of personal closeness with God, doesn’t it? We all feel that way from time to time. (Even us clergy types!) Sometimes we can see that in our prayer life. Sometimes our prayers lack any kind of a “conversational” tone. They’re more like someone writing to a Senator or a congressman. Yes, the message gets delivered, the requests get made, but there’s no personal relationship. And that’s the important part! That’s what God wants!
I’ve talked before about the “Great Awakening.” That was time in the mid 1700’s when unprecedented religious “revival” took place in this country. It was the time just prior to the American Revolution. And the greatest spark, the greatest force in that awakening, was the teaching of William Tennant, the one time pastor of our “mother church,” Bensalem Presbyterian. Tennant emphasized that the Christian faith was, at it’s heart, a close, personal relationship with God. The established clergy of his time were dubious. They looked down on this self-made teacher in his “log college.” In fact, “Log College” was a derogatory term given him by those who were trained in the ivy covered stone institutions in the “Old World.”
Well, William Tennant was right, as was Paul speaking to the Athenians. The relationship with God was the most important part. God could be known! In fact, as Tennant taught his students, it was never enough just to know about God! It has always been about a close, personal relationship with God. And it was that emphasis the emphasis on the return to a personal relationship with God, that changed the religious life of this country!
So, what about us? Do we know God? Or do we just know about God? And has that “knowledge of God” changed our lives, like it changed the world 2014 years ago, or like it changed this nation two hundred and some years ago? That’s the thought I want you to take with you today.
Eternal God, help us to “be still and know that you are God.” But more than that, help us to know you. Help us to grow closer to you, as our Lord, our redeemer, and our friend. Help us to be in tune with your spirit which dwells within us. And help us to reach out to others and to touch their hearts by the way we live the hope that you give within us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.