This weekend is one of those times when it’s appropriate to be proud of your country. The United States still has a reputation around the world as a country of opportunity, a place to make a new start if you need one. If you live in another place, another country, and you need to leave for some reason, the United States is where you want to end up, if you can make it happen. In the United States, you are free to create a future for yourself and your family. Memorial Day weekend is the time when we honor those who gave their lives to protect those freedoms, and it’s not light stuff. I’ve found myself explaining to Europeans what makes us different: in the United States, our families are mostly from some other country. We’ve had to learn to live together. Real freedom requires a kind of openness and flexibility and tolerance that simply doesn’t exist in other places. The diversity makes us stronger.
A couple of weeks ago at a Manheim (PA) Historical Society dinner, I learned why there are so many Germans in Pennsylvania. Maybe you learned this in school, but I had to ask. Why so many Germans? The first wave of immigrants was invited by William Penn about 300 years ago to a place where there was more religious freedom and better farming. He went to Germany to recruit! My family includes Norwegian farmers (above) who came to Wisconsin – as indentured servants in the 1850’s – for mostly the same reasons.
Kathy’s family came from very poor Greek islands for a better life. When her father (right) was born in Cleveland, the city clerk’s office had trouble with his name: Elias (Elijah). “Say it again?” Elias. “Okay, we’ll call him Louis.” So he grew up with two names, Elias and Louis. Greek and American. I’ve known people from other countries who have done the same thing intentionally. Same person, two names.
The Apostle Paul came out of that kind of world. His mother was Jewish and his father was a Roman. He was Saul and Paul. Saul got a solid Jewish education in Jerusalem, but Paul was from Galatia (Turkey). Saul knew Hebrew, but Paul’s first language was Greek. His Jewish name was Saul, but his Roman name was Paul. He lived in two worlds, which was why God was a genius to pick him to spread the Good News of Jesus.
To give a little background for our scripture today, we are in Greece. We are in Athens. It’s maybe 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus, and this is the story of how the Christian faith came to that place.
In Athens, you can’t go anywhere without seeing the Acropolis – the hilltop with the temple to Athena called the Parthenon and several other temples. The glory days of Athens had pretty much gone by, but none of these buildings, these temples to pagan gods, none of them were the ruins we think of.
It was much more beautiful. A little like walking around Washington DC for the average American tourist. No doubt, Paul the tourist went walking around up there.
Across a valley from the Acropolis is a shorter, rocky hill called the Areopagus. This word actually refers to something like Congress, and it was an ancient meeting of Athenian lawmakers, but by Paul’s time this group had no power and the word also referred to the place where they would meet, next to this big rock.
At the Areopagus, you could debate issues, something Greeks love to do. And when somebody found out that Paul was a public speaker, they might have said, “Hey, come on over to the Areopagus and let’s debate these things you talk about.” And an invitation to talk in front of people is a temptation a preacher like Paul can’t resist. Given his track record, somebody should have warned the local authorities that trouble might start. With the Acropolis and the Parthenon as his backdrop, he speaks…
Acts 17:22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.23For 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.24The 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,25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26From 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,27so 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.28For “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.”
29Since 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.30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31because 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.’
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’33At that point Paul left them.34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
This month’s series is called “Out of the Box.” In a couple of weeks, we will remember the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to believers, just as Jesus predicted. “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) …including Athens, and Manheim, and wherever you are.
Believers in Jesus began to understand that together they were the new Temple, that through the Holy Spirit, they were the place where God had chosen to live. They were living stones being built into a spiritual house. A radical thought! Followers of Jesus don’t actually need a building! They can be out of the box! God is in us. We are portable church buildings. We can take God with us, we can take worship with us anywhere in the world. And God needs us to be out in that world. These days, the foreign country may be just the other side of our walls.
Today, Paul is more or less on vacation after a few of his usual weeks in ministry. He really is being a tourist. Or maybe a refugee. He had stirred up trouble in a Jewish synagogue in northern Greece and had to leave town. He had been preaching about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the Jewish savior. There was a riot and some of Paul’s friends were arrested. But Paul escaped at night and the main reason he is in Athens is to “lay low” while he waits for his other missionary friends to meet him there. Let’s walk with Paul as he gets Out of the Box.
First, 1. We mix into the community. Paul is not the kind of person who can lay low for very long. Paul explores – he had never been to Athens before. He is willing to put aside his own identity for a while and integrate. Paul takes a walk. He meets Athenians on their own turf and interacts. He speaks their language. He doesn’t hide, and he doesn’t go looking for people who are only like him. He intentionally steps outside his comfort zone. He goes walking.
He’s walking along, probably got lunch at a local market… some nice Greek food, maybe a gyro or some spanikopita. He makes mental notes on what he sees. He’s about to preach, but not until he understands the Athenians. He gets to know them. God needs the church to know the community around them (get out of the box!).
Now, most lists of influential preachers start with the apostle Paul. So, Paul would seem to be one of those great Christian success stories. We picture him in a toga and sandals out on a hillside or a stage. In our minds, he out-argues, out-debates, out-converts everyone else; we picture coliseums full of people responding, like an ancient Billy Graham Crusade.
Here in Athens, he preaches his heart out — and flops (by our standards). “Some scoffed, but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ ” But there were two who did join him and became believers. Not a stadium full, just a phone booth full.
2. Our success does not have to be numerically huge. God is not impressed by big numbers. God is more concerned with what we do and where we do it. If we openly have faith in the risen Jesus, God will do the rest. In this little chapter of Paul’s ministry, his big success, in God’s eyes, was the small group who became believers and the opportunity to have another conversation about Jesus with a few more.
As Paul speaks, the Parthenon – the Temple to Athena – and the whole rest of the Acropolis is looming right behind him when he says, “24The 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.” (in a later conversation, he will help the Athenians understand that our God lives in us, but he is just opening the door for now…)
These weren’t the only temples in Athens; the Athenians had a temple for every god and a god for every purpose. And just to be on the safe side, they have an altar for an “unknown god,” just in case there’s one out there somewhere who might be angry because he or she is being ignored. I think this is one of the most basic of human fears: there is a supernatural being out there somewhere who is angry with me and I have to find some way to appease this god, or whatever it is. The ancient Greeks had a huge collection of gods, who mostly represented forces of nature. Lightning bolts, storms at sea, and human passion. The Greek gods were to be worshipped out of fear for what they could do to you if you didn’t. The Roman Caesars of Paul’s time wanted everyone to worship them, out of fear. But Paul paints a completely different picture.
Paul tells this crowd about the God of the universe who chose to live among humans, among us, in the person of Jesus Christ, who was crucified. Maybe you can hear the rumble in the crowd. The God of the universe was crucified? On a Roman cross? And he rose from the dead? You want us to believe this? That’s it? God loves us? Where’s the fear in that?
As we watch Paul at work, we learn 3. The conversation may be challenging. But don’t run! The Athenian debate team is a tough crowd. They are a textbook lesson in doubt: You don’t learn anything unless you want to. You don’t hear anything unless you want to. You don’t have faith in anything unless you want to. And they don’t want to. And some might have been thinking, “My family’s been worshipping at the temple of Athena for generations. We like our religion. Why should we change?
An altar… to an unknown god – I believe that’s called “touching all the bases.” We have this inner desire to worship and are prone to latch onto something, even though we might not know what to call it. Honestly, we worship a bunch of unknown gods, don’t we. Until we meet Christ, we are seriously stuck in an unhelpful “comfort zone.” Even what we call “religion” can actually lead us away from God if all we’re doing is following a system of behavior. As a church, we can be stuck in a comfort zone until we find ways to stretch what’s “normal.” The beauty of who we are is that….
Our faith has less to do with being religious than it does with having faith in a person. How do we make a difference through the love of Christ? We get out of the box, we open our doors to invite the community to know the name of that unknown God. We invite them to know that God is alive and would love to be in their lives, a part of them forever. But you have you recognize your need before God can do anything. So Paul says, “Repent (be willing and open to change)… believe in the one God raised from the dead.” (vv. 30, 31)
What we offer is so simple it’s hard. This is an invitation to accept the simple, unadorned, uncomplicated presence of God in Jesus.
Who is he to you? What does it mean that he is alive? What does it mean to you? He’d love to know. I’ll invite you to tell him as we pray.
Each of us, God, comes to you with needs that only you can meet. And in the silence of this prayer, instead of praying for others, for a moment, we pray for ourselves. Help us to relax and to leave our burdens with you. Help us live with confidence, with an inner strength only you can give. Give us each peace of mind and forgive us for our lack of faith, which causes us so much misery and which exaggerates all our problems. Help us remember each day that in Jesus, you overcame the worst the world can offer. We trust in him. Through your Spirit, give us the peace that only you can give. Give us the kind of life that never ends. Then take us out of our comfort zone for the sake our friends and family and neighbors who need to know you. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.