What a beautiful, compelling speech given by Paul to the Athenians in the Areopagus! If you were here last week, you are probably like me, and all you can think about is who is this man? How is he capable of giving such a speech? Just last week we heard about how he was complicit in the stoning of Stephen because he didn’t believe a word Stephen said about Jesus! And now here he is giving one of the most compelling speeches ever given about the God who raised Jesus from the dead! It’s clear that a lot has happened between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17. Paul has been blinded by a light from heaven on the road to Damascus and converted. He has been changed from an enemy of the way of Jesus to one of the major spokespersons for it! He has been preaching in Damascus, and in a major turn of events, he is now trying to escape people who are plotting to kill him because of his vision of God. Paul has been commissioned along with Barnabus by the church at Antioch to go out and do the special work of preaching and converting others. Last week we heard Malcom Guite’s poem about St. Stephen and the role the stoning of Stephen played in the conversion of Paul. This week we can hear in Malcome Guite’s poem about Paul, entitled “Apostle,” the transformation that occurred in Paul’s life and made him into the man capable of giving such a compelling speech at Athens. He says:
An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.[i]
Paul is indeed an enemy whom God has made a friend, the last to believe and the first for God to send. He was a blinded man who ended up helping the world to see the God of the resurrection; he was a murderer, a terrorist who ends up blessing the flesh of all races and preaching one of the most inclusive visions of God that the world has ever heard.
Right before our text for today Paul was run out of Thessalonica and Beroea. He has gone to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy. While he is waiting, he notices the city is full of idols, and he becomes deeply distressed. He starts arguing with the Jews in the synagogue and with people who are out and about in the marketplace. He debates with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some called him a babbler, someone who talked senselessly with no real academic training. Some thought that he was simply a proclaimer of another foreign divinity, another god who could be in the pantheon of their gods. The people of the city were intrigued by what he was saying so they brought him to the Areopagus, the center of the city, the civic center of Athens, and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means?” This is a city of people who spend their time doing nothing but talking about new ideas, distracting themselves from boredom by always looking to see who can come up with something new and more interesting. They are drawn to what Paul is saying; they want to hear more.
Paul stands before them and gives one of the most compelling speeches about Jesus that has ever been given. He has really gotten to know and understand them through the display of idols that are important to them and through his conversation with folks out and about in the city. To the people who represent the most intellectually sophisticated people in the Greek speaking world, he says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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.’” In this statement, Paul moves towards the people of Athens. He acknowledges their desires for hope, for life, for protection. He finds their altar to an unknown god striking. It’s as if they put it there to cover all their bases. He acknowledges their impulses are right and good, but he suggests that they should direct their worship in a different direction, toward a different object. He says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The 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, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From 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, so 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.” He knows this god that they search and grope for, this unknown god to whom they have made an altar because they have sensed that something is missing. He is trying to use reason with them by pointing out the absurdity of imagining that a god who gave life to us and doesn’t need anything from us could live in a shrine or a statue created by human hands.
Paul then points towards their own poets who have said that in God “we live and move and have our being” and that we are all God’s offspring. Therefore as the children of God we cannot create God because God created us! God called our lives into existence! Paul models for us a way in which we can meet people where they are, move towards them, see the good in what they are seeking, and even see the good in the desire to worship idols. Though the Athenians were religious, they remained uncertain and failed to find the rest, the security, the hope, and the protection that they were longing for. Their longings ultimately remained unfulfilled. Their vast display of idols is indicative of a deep restlessness. Paul boldly declares that the Athenians will remain unfulfilled, restless until they direct their desires toward the one true God. Augustine conjures up for us the words of Paul, when he says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
After Paul establishes common ground, affirms the good in the Athenians searching and groping for gods, and enlists their own poets in his argument, he then makes a sharp turn in his speech. He risks offending his audience by moving into the particulars and proclaiming the God of the resurrection. He says, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because 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 for the dead.” Paul had the Athenians in the palm of his hand; he was getting somewhere! And then he went and starting talking about repentance and judgment and resurrection! Paul could see the good in their seeking, but Paul was not a modern spiritual guru who would say there are many paths to God, that we only need to pick one of the many good paths. He was a disciple of Christ who believed in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
Willie Jennings talks about this part of the speech as a turning point that demands something from its hearers. He says, “To speak of the resurrection of Jesus is no longer religious speech, but speech that challenges reality, reorients how we see earth and sky, water and dirt, land and animals, and even our own bodies. This is speech that evokes a decision: Either laugh at it or listen to it, either leave or draw near to this body.”[ii] Paul’s beautiful, compelling speech that makes room for anyone to claim their identity as the offspring of God eventually requires a decision, a complete reordering of how one lives and who one directs their desires and longings towards. To accept this invitation to worship the God who made the world and everything in it is to change one’s allegiances and to set aside all other competing loyalties, practices, idols, and gods. The resurrection of Jesus has ushered in this time of decision that invites all to repent.
It should be a consolation to anyone who has ever tried to share the gospel that this most beautiful sermon given by Paul was a failure. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how eloquent or passionate you are! In verse 32, we learn of the Athenians’ response: some scoffed; some wanted to hear more; and a few believed….well, at least two people believed, the scripture says. And we never hear of any church being formed in Athens as a result of Paul’s time there. It stopped being an interesting intellectual exercise for the Athenians to numb their boredom. It became a proclamation of the living God that required a decision for their lives, and most of them weren’t interested. As we conclude our Acts sermon series this morning, we are faced one last time with the question of what yet another story about a crazy disciple in the book of Acts has to do with our lives. What does Paul’s beautiful speech to the Athenians that happened way back then have to do with now? We, like Paul, are Christians living in the light of the resurrection, and we too are required to make a decision with our lives. Has the God of the resurrection changed our lives? Has the God of the resurrection reordered our desires? Has the God the resurrection changed our allegiances and loyalties? Or is Christianity just an interesting, intellectual exercise for us?
When I think about the Athenians, I can’t help but think about the similarities to our day. Our idols are not made of gold or silver or stone necessarily, but we have quite the pantheon of idols. We have made idols of money, real estate, vacation homes, security, and even leisure. We’ve even made idols of ourselves, idols of self-care, idols of self-improvement. You’ve heard the chatter: “Be good to yourself. Do what’s right for you. You do you. I need some me time. I want to be authentically me; I want to have an authentic spiritual journey.” Like the people of Athens, there are swarms of people in our culture who make a religion for themselves, picking the parts of different traditions and rituals that are meaningful to them, appropriating them out of their contexts and using them like consumer goods. People do a little bit of yoga, a little Buddhist meditation, followed by a brunch with people who fill their souls and call it church. There is goodness in this. There is a desire for Sabbath, for true rest. There is a desire for being acknowledged as a good creation of God, as a holy one made in God’s image. There is a desire for true community. These are good and holy desires. If the church can be a people who persist in their faith and a people whose lives are compelling, then we might be able to help direct these people’s desires toward the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who desires to be in relationship with all of God’s offspring. We’ve got to get it straight first though. We can’t be directing our longings and desires at other things, other gods. We have to find our rest in Christ.
Two thousand years after Paul’s speech, our culture isn’t very different from the Athenian culture. We may not have the elaborate statues and temples, but “our loyalties are equally divided, and among the gods crowding our lives, Jesus’ claims are equally disruptive. In a world where tolerance is hailed as the cardinal virtue and spirituality is defined as self-fulfillment, religion takes its place alongside other leisure activities. So long as time allows, we will pursue the higher life.”[iii] If we have time for it, we will follow God. Has the God of the resurrection changed our lives? Has the God of the resurrection reordered our desires? Has the God of the resurrection changed our allegiances and loyalties? Or do we dabble in Christianity when time allows? Paul’s beautiful, compelling speech rings out to us two thousand years later, calling for a decision upon our lives. He says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. As I look carefully at the objects of your worship, I notice a deep desire for rest, hope, protection, and security. Your hearts are restless. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. Repent and direct your desires, your longings, your allegiance, your loyalties to the one God raised from the dead.” We are people of the resurrection. Let us live lives that demonstrate the decision we have made. Let us make Jesus the true object of our worship.