(Acts 17: 16-34)
(Note: Today’s service was a virtual service online, as our church has suspended all church activities due to the coronavirus until further notice. If you’d like to see the service in its entirety, click HERE).
If I were with you in person, I’d love to know who among you has traveled to Athens, Greece and seen the historical ruins of this famous city up close. Because the awe that many experience there is the same awe that the people in Paul’s time had. During Paul’s ministry Athens was about 500 years past the glory days of Plato and Socrates, but the culture still reflected the academic curiosity of those times. Intellectuals gathered in the marketplace and all over the city debating and reflecting on every new idea that came along. Athens was named for the goddess Athena, goddess of wisdom and courage. Therefore, the city also had as many Greek gods as it did philosophers. “An ancient historian once said of Athens: ‘It is easier to find a god there, than a man.’ Everywhere Paul looked there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Aphrodite and Ares and so on… Athens was a veritable forest of idols.” For all who were there, Athens was a feast for the intellect and the spirit.
So when Paul shows up, you would expect him to raise his Pharisaic fist at the idol worship and condemn the people in the city. You have to wonder if he even wanted to be there, since he got there by running away from the people of Thessalonica. But although Athens, this center of intellectual thought, wasn’t like any other place Paul had visited, he didn’t shy away from continuing his ministry. In this new environment, Paul dove in head first, joining the philosophers in the marketplace and sharing the news of Jesus with them.
As it turns out, some of them were actually interested in what Paul had to say; they at least found his ideas about Jesus curious. This led them to take Paul to their intellectual and legal headquarters, Mars Hill, known in Greek as the Areopagus. And Paul, although he probably didn’t have a sermon prepared for Athens, stands to deliver one that connects to the Athenians in a new way.
First of all, Paul flatters their spiritual lives, using the number of altars to complement how high they must view religion. Indeed, he even praises them for having an altar at which they can worship a God they don’t yet know. But for Paul, there is no Unknown God—he uses their altar and the implications of their having built it to teach them about the God of Israel, the one who sent Jesus. Secondly, in his preaching Paul quotes some of their own philosophers as a way to make a connection between what they already believe and what he is about to reveal. But Paul changes things because the credit in his sermon goes not to the philosophers, but to God. He appeals to the Stoics by quoting from one of their poets: “We are his offspring” but he reminds them that we are not divine, rather made in God’s image. Paul then brings in the Epicureans by quoting them but then proclaiming that God is not some far-off, disengaged deity but a God who made us, loves us, and desires for us to draw close. He then says to the entire crowd that God cannot be contained in temples built by human hands but is also never far from us. As the final proof of all of this, Paul teaches the crowd about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
And as a result, some of the people want to know more. Paul may have not won over the whole crowd with this unprepared sermon, but the Holy Spirit used this creative moment to start something new in Athens. It was a city no one would have expected would welcome a Jewish follower of Jesus, but many did, including—Luke tells us—Dionysius, whom history remembers as the first leader of the Athenian church. Paul got creative, he went beyond his usual way of doing things, and God got to work.
Friends, we are currently in a season when we need to see God’s creative movement at work. We know God cannot be contained within our sanctuaries, but right now we’re not even allowed in them. We know God made all that exists, yet this new virus is wreaking havoc on the world. We know God is never far off, but where is the good news of Jesus right now? All of this change is leaving us, and the world, with dynamic questions about faith and religion. In a recent NY Times article Vivian Yee argues that religion can be both a balm and a risk in times like this. It is a risk for us to gather in person but it can be a balm for us to be open to the Holy Spirit’s creative ability to do something new. Furthermore, folks in our community are watching us, they are tuning in when they haven’t before. They are seeing how church and faith will speak, or not, during these times.
One of my friends, a PhD candidate in sociology of religion at Notre Dame, commented on Facebook last Sunday: “I just scrolled through the first 50 Facebook posts on my news feed. 39/50 (78%) related to church and faith. Speaking as a sociologist here, not as a religious insider: Can’t recall a time that religion has been so present, public, and innovative…” Friends, we are doing ministry now in a way we couldn’t have imagined. We are forced to be creative, original, and to connect with each other in brand new ways. If social media platforms are filling with online services and creative ministry, then the word is spreading that God is still active. After all, this is what Paul is talking about to the people in Athens. There, Paul enters into a whole other world spiritually, culturally, and socially, yet he delivers the same message—God is with us, God has never left us, and Jesus is the proof.
Some of you have heard the story of how Steve and I met in ministry—as a part of leadership for the 2018 July Massanetta Middle School Conference in Virginia. On our team was Genevieve Brooks from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. Because of the theme that summer, Genevieve came up with a tagline for ministry that stuck with us those two weeks. She called ministry in general one of Rehearsing the Truth. That’s what we do when we come together to worship, when we share fellowship, when we study scripture. We rehearse the truth that God is with us, that God will never leave us, and that God has come to save us.
Rehearsing the truth is exactly what Paul is doing when he arrives in Athens. He’s put a new twist on it for his philosophical Athenian audience, but he’s telling them the same story he’s been preaching everywhere else. Paul is rehearsing the truth that we are made in God’s image. Paul is rehearsing the truth that God cannot be contained inside temples or buildings. Paul is rehearsing the truth that God created all that exists and desires that we draw close. In Athens, Paul is rehearsing the truth that God is never far from any one of us. Because the truth is that in God we “live, move, and have our being.”
One of my clergy friends, Paul Baxley, the head of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, wrote an encouraging article for the church during these strange times. Taking us back to the story of Joshua, he reminds us of the words Joshua speaks to the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land: “Follow the ark of the covenant,” Joshua said, “so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.” You have not passed this way before, he says. But someone has. “In the history of God’s people,” Baxley writes, “there have been other seasons of distress and disaster. There have been natural and crippling political catastrophes. While we, in our generation, have not passed this way before, the church has. The Risen Jesus has.” Therefore, “We need to stay closer to Christ now more than ever, because we have not passed this way before, and we need the Risen Jesus to go before us.” The way forward is not unknown to God, therefore God will be our steady guide as you and I daily do our best to make life up as we go along during this strange time.
Friends, just as God has been with God’s people in the most desperate of times, God is with us now. We need to rehearse the truth that God hears our voices and gives us the wisdom to act. We need to rehearse the truth that God inspires us to move forward able to participate in the new thing that the Holy Spirit is doing. We need to rehearse the truth that God sees the world’s pain, that God grieves with us, and that God is still at work among us to bring about healing. If we can learn something from the apostle Paul today it is that God has given us a new way to be church, new ministries on which to embark, and that the truth—that God is with us every step of the way—that truth holds.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us have faith, take courage, and stand up like Paul to rehearse the truth. God is with us, God is never far from us; we are not alone.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Rev. Dr. Davis Chappell, https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2003139/street_preaching
 Acts 17:28, from Aratus.
 Also Acts 17:28 “For in him we live and move and have our being”
 Michael Rotolo, PhD candidate at Notre Dame
 Acts 17:28.
 Joshua 3:4
Featured image from https://yehudafm.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/reaching-god.jpg