Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, July 09, 2020
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A Story for All

Acts 17:22-31

Paul is in Athens, out and about on his second missionary journey. He had gone to Thessalonica, but things had been hit and miss there. While there were new churches started, he also some run-ins with some of the Jewish leadership and was forced to leave earlier than planned. While his companions stayed behind in Berea for a little longer, Paul himself went on to Athens.

Athens was once the most important city in Greece, a renowned center of art, architecture, learning, and philosophy. But its glory days were in the past by the first century. It was also a city full of idols. The streets were lined with statues and idols.

Paul spent his time there in both the synagogue, preaching to the Jews and “God-fearers,” Gentiles who worshipped God, and in the marketplace. There he came to the attention of the Epicureans and Stoics. These were the two dominant schools of philosophy in Greece at this time.

The Epicureans thought God was very, very distant. The theological term for God’s distance , his “other-ness,” from us is transcendence. God is way up there above us. He is remote. He is in uninvolved. He is not concerned with our lives or existence. This is a “deistic” view of God. God created the world, set it in motion, and then had nothing more to do with it. To the Epicureans, there is no afterlife, no divine plan, nothing but this life. So the goal of life is to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and that’s the end. The Epicureans were a smaller group, and mostly came from the wealthy upper classes.

The Stoics were more popular. They had a very immanent view of God. Immanence is God’s closeness. To the Stoic, God is in all things because all things are God. They “divinized” the physical world. The Stoics still gave lip-service to the old gods, Zeus and the lot, while the Epicureans just ignored them. The Stoics didn’t want to be seen as “impious,” not honoring the idols. The Stoics believed that everything happened by the will of God, so it should be accepted stoically. Your whole family dies? Well, that’s God’s will. Don’t cry about it. They also believed that one should suppress their desires for pleasure and seek enlightenment. The Stoics believed that the world existed in a great cycle. The world dies and is reborn, just as it was. Nothing ever really changes. A lot like politics.

Their take on Paul? He’s a babbler. The word babbler might best be translated as “birdbrain.” “What’s this lunatic talking about?” So they take him to the Areopagus. The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares, was a hill in the city of Athens. But it also referred to the city council that met there. They were responsible for enforcing public morals. These

were the folks who put Socrates on trial and decided that, for the good of everyone, he should commit suicide for “corrupting the morals of the youth.” By the first century, they no longer met on the Hill of Ares, rather in the Agora, the marketplace, but they kept the name Areopagus.

These folks, like everyone in Athens, were always eager to hear something new. But if you read to the end of the story, you find out that they weren’t so quick to act on anything new.

Paul begins, “I can see that you are very religious. You have many altars, even an altar to the Unknown God.” The story goes that centuries earlier, there was a plague in the city, probably the coronavirus, and while they sacrificed to every known god, the plague continued. Finally, someone suggested they sacrifice to the unknown god. They did, and the plague stopped.

It occurs to me there are a lot of people in our society who believe in an unknown God. Belief in God remains high in America, over 80%. But I think that perhaps many of those who believe in God have very little knowledge of him.

We should notice how Paul starts out here. He doesn’t quote the Old Testament or talk about the story of the Exodus. Those wouldn’t mean anything to these Greeks. He starts with common ground, an Unknown God. He builds on points of agreement. Much of what Paul says, the Stoics at least, would find agreement with. But in the end, he’s going to go from common ground to new territory: the gospel.

Paul says, “You worship an Unknown God, well, I know him. He is the Creator of all. He is not confined to temples, and he has no needs.” In the ancient world, everyone practiced idolatry. Idols were made by human hands, but they were believed to contain some part of the essence of the god. And they needed a house, a temple, and food, sacrifices. But the true God has no such needs. Instead he supplies our needs. He is not made, rather he is the Maker of all.

And he is involved in human history. Paul’s teachings on God would resonate with the Stoics, at least up to a point. While they believed in a very immanent God and the Epicureans in a very transcendent God, the true God is both immanent and transcendent. He is close by to each of us. In fact, he is so close that he came to live among us and became one of us. But he is also holy and different. As high as the heavens are above the earth so his ways are above ours.

The true God is a God for all nations. Most ancient peoples believed the gods were limited. They were limited by geography, as in this god is the god of this nation

and not that nation. Or they were limited in their sphere of influence: Poseidon was the god of the sea and Hades was the god of the underworld and so on. But the true God is a God of all and a God for all. And he desires relationship with all. And he is available to all. “We are his offspring.” Paul is quoting a Greek poet, Epimenides. The Greeks would quote poets and philosophers just as we quote Scripture. Paul is making one last point of contact with his audience.

But at this point, the common ground is over. “God is not an idol. So you must turn away from idols and turn to him.” There must be repentance. Repentance is a uniquely Judeo-Christian idea. The Greek gods didn’t care if you repented. “Judgment is coming.” Again, the Greeks didn’t really believe in a judgment. “And the Judge is the one who rose from the dead.” Again, Greeks didn’t believe in a resurrection. There was common ground for a while, but it end, the gospel must be proclaimed.

What Paul is presenting here is what some people today call a “meta-narrative.” A meta-narrative is an “over-arching story,” a universal story. Not a story for one group but a story for all people. There is one God and Creator of all. There is one way to God through the Resurrected One. And there is a universal judgment at the end of this world. That’s a meta-narrative, and meta-narratives were not popular in the first century world. They said, “You have your gods and we have ours.”

Meta-narratives are not popular today either. We hear people say things like, “Well, there are many paths to the same mountaintop,” or “What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me.”

But the gospel is a meta-narrative: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God showed his love by sending Christ to die for sinners,” which is all of us. “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ. And if anyone confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart God raised him from the dead, then he or she will be saved.” That is a universal story of salvation God brings to the whole world. When we put our faith in Christ, we join our story with the eternal story of God’s love and redemption.

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