The Power of Religion – August 2, 2009
Psalm 139:1-18, Acts 17:22-27
August 2, 2009
I hope you’ve been enjoying our little post-Easter “foray” through the book of Acts. We’ll be leaving it before long, but I hope it’s been good for you to see once again some of the things the Apostles did in the early days of the Church. I’ve tried to keep to the major themes and events, but if you want to read anything further, please do so. This is great stuff! And if you’d like to revisit anything we’ve said about it so far, you can pick up copies of these messages at the back of the sanctuary as you leave. (Or you can read them all on the web at epch.us)
When you do read these stories, let me remind you once again to try to see them from the perspective of the people who were there. Remember, that we the readers know the whole story! It’s hard for us to imagine what it was like for these people who were living through it, and who didn’t know what was going to happen next! But I encourage you to try!
In the meantime… when last we left our intrepid heroes, Paul and Silas, they’d been in prison in Philippi, and they had just been let out. Then, they were sent out of that town, and they went and stayed briefly in the town of Thessalonica. While they were there, they established yet another church. And we have a couple of Paul’s letters to that Church in the New Testament.
Now they had arrived in the Greek city of Athens. And, if you remember your High School history class, you’ll remember Athens as one of the two principle cities of Greece. The other was (?) Sparta. And if you remember anything else from that class, you’d know that Athens was a city in which life was centered around philosophy and learning. Sparta, it’s rival city, was one in which life was centered around more “physical pursuits.” The Spartans were big on sports and the military. Sparta was the “manly” city! They watched Football a lot there! (And Wrestling!)
Well Paul, of course, was oriented more toward the Athenian way of life. He was a scholarly man, and he was recognized as being a great orator, and quite a competent debater. And so this is an important visit he was making to this city. The way the people thought and talked there was “right up his alley!” And Luke gives us a great account of what took place when he addressed the citizens of that city.
Actually, Paul had arrived in Athens before his colleagues, Timothy and Silas. So in the meantime, while he was waiting for them to join him, he was looking around the place. He was “scoping it out.” He was getting the “lay of the land,” so to speak. And what he saw there was that the city was full of idols. He began speaking with people. He talked with them in places like the synagogue and the market place. He spoke with the Jews, and with the various philosophers that he could find. And he created quite the religious and philosophical “hubbub!” He got people thinking and wondering, and maybe a bit “worked up.” So they took him to the Areopagus, which was a hill in the center of the city where people gathered to talk about important things. It was the place where the “town council” met. There they asked him to state his case. And that was all it took for Paul! He was “in his element!”
He addressed them, “Men of Athens…” And he spoke to them in a masterful way, using their language and examples from their lives. Paul was great at that! “Men of Athens,” he said, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He pointed out that they had many idols and altars throughout the city. And then he used, as a point of illustration, this altar with the inscription that read “to the unknown God.” And this becomes more powerful every time I read it.
For a long time my thought was that Paul was telling them that this one “unknown God” was the God of the universe. But the more I thought about this, I don’t think that’s what he was saying here at all. It wasn’t that they almost had the truth about God, and that they were just not knowing the right God! It wasn’t that. What he was telling them that day was that the God of the universe was not “unknown.” That’s’ what he was saying. He was telling them, in fact, that the God of the universe could be known! Do you see? That’s a big difference! They could know God personally! He was telling them that, yes, they were “very religious.” But “religion” wasn’t just about ritual and practice. It was about a living, life changing relationship with God!
I hope you see the difference here! And I’m using a narrow definition of “religion” now. But I think you get my point. There was a gospel group once who once sang a song called, “I’m not religious. I just love the Lord.” Anybody ever hear that song? That’s what Paul is getting at here. God doesn’t want us just to be “religious.” He wants us to know him!
Paul explained that to the Athenians by telling them several things. First, he told them that God desires “that we seek after him.” And then he told them that “he is not far from each of us.” Then finally, he tells them that, “since we are God’s children, (made in his image!) we should not think he is made of silver or gold or stone. And we shouldn’t think God is found only in the imagination of humans.”
I think that was a great message, very well presented! It was simple. It was concise. And it was hard to argue against. 1) God can be known if we seek after him. 2) He is not far from us. And 3) Since we are made in his image, we shouldn’t be seeking something inanimate! Wasn’t that a bold thing to say to a city full of idols? But isn’t it good?! The power of religion is not found in religious icons, or rituals, or traditions. The power of religion is found in knowing God! The ritual and tradition are meant to serve that relationship, not the other way around!
Well, there were two reactions to Paul’s message. First, there were some who mocked him. And notice that they mocked him because of one point he made. They mocked him because he spoke of a resurrection, which they had a “thing” about. Doesn’t that happen all too often? When we focus on one subject or one point that somebody makes, to the exclusion of all else, don’t we miss important things? Think about that. There are a number of “hot button” issues in our world. I think perhaps too many of them. And whenever those are brought up, people get polarized and reactionary, and they shut off any further communication.
That happened a little bit here. But there was another reaction. Others said, “We will hear you again about this.” It didn’t say they believed. It said “We’ll hear you again.” They wanted to think and to process. They were interested in talking further. I believe that’s an important goal when we’re speaking to others about our faith! We need to be careful about those “hot button” words and issues that cut off communication. And we need to realize that sharing our faith is often a process. Sometimes we think it should be happening “all at once.” And we don’t want to get into it because we think people won’t be open to it. Or we think that if people don’t accept it right away something must be wrong. Paul didn’t let that worry him! He kept the lines of communication open, and he was glad that there were people “who wanted to speak further.” I think sometimes for us the goal should be simply to make people think. It should be to speak in such a way that they want to “hear us again.”
That’s so important, because what Paul talked to them about that day was important. And it’s something that can still be an issue for us. And again, it’s about this word, “religious.” There’s a lot to think about when we use that word. For too many people, “being religious” it is merely about the “practice” of faith – like the Athenians. For some, it does have to do with the very essence of faith. That’s what it should be about. It should describe the very orientation of our lives in relationship with God. So I don’t want to use it only in a negative way. But too often it misses the point of faith!
So think about it. If someone were to say that you are “very religious,” what would that mean? Would it just mean that you go to church every week, say your prayers, and give your gifts? Or would it mean that you walk with God every day, and you live in the joy of the kingdom, and your practice of faith is just the outward expression of that inward faith? Do you see the difference?
That’s what Paul wanted to show the Athenians. It was very important to him. Because being a former Pharisee, he knew what it was like to show all the outward signs of religion, as though that was everything. But he learned, on that road to Damascus, that the power of religion was something much more personal. Paul would later warn Timothy in his second letter, that the time was coming when people would, among other things, “…hold to the form of religion, but deny the power of it.” (II Timothy 3:5) Those are ominous words. And we need to think, where are we in that? What is the power of our religion?
“The power of religion” is in the faith and presence of God, not in ritual or convention or worship style. The “power of religion” is in the heart! It’s in our relationship with God! That’s what Paul told the Athenians that day on the Areopagus. He challenged them to think of “the power of religion” in terms of the God of the universe who indeed could be known. And I would challenge you today to think about that, too. Is God known or unknown in your life. What does the word “religion” mean for you. And in all that, may you grow in your knowledge and love of God! Please join me in prayer now as we prepare our hearts for this sacrament, in which we rejoice in knowing God’s presence with us.
Eternal and ever present God, we know that you want us to seek you and to know you. For you know us better than we know ourselves. Help us to grow every day in our knowledge of you. Help us to see every day of our lives that we live in your kingdom and in your presence. We thank you and we praise you, and we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.