The following sermon was delivered on May 29th, 2011 by Rev. Christine Elliott at Calvary Church, United Methodist.

I wonder just how many of these coloring pages I completed in elementary school, featuring drawings of Greek gods and goddesses, as we learned the stories of Greek religion (then termed “mythology”). . . Athena, Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Artemis (my favorite because she got to be out in the woods a lot. 🙂

Paul, the first Christian missionary, was struck by much more than bright Crayola colors as he walked around Athens in the year 52 of the Common Era – he saw statues erected to the Greek deities – altars everywhere he turned. Statues of gold, silver and precious stones.

Let’s hear the story again (Acts 17:22-31), this time from The Message:

22 So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. 23 When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with. 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines 25 or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. [God] makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make [God]. 26 Starting from scratch, [God] made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living 27 so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. [God] doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. [God] is not remote; [God] is near. 28 We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ 29 Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? 30 “God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better – but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and [God’s] calling for a radical life-change. 31 He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Paul’s visit to Athens was unexpected and unplanned. His preaching about Christ had so angered the people of Thessalonica that they followed him and incited riots among the crowds in the next town. Rather than risk his safety, the believers there had sent him to safety in Athens.

There, while he waited for Silas and Timothy to join him, he saw the sights and tried to understand something about the Athenians. He found shrines and altars dedicated to a variety of gods and goddesses. It troubled him – “provoked his spirit,” Acts says – and he sought to engage monotheists, polytheists and philosophers on the subject.

Concerned about Paul’s teachings of Christ crucified and risen, some of the intellectual elite took him to face the court of elders, kind of an Athens city council which dated back more than 600 years. There at the Areopagus, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis, he encountered the nine prestigious and venerable judges who adjudicated matters of crime, law, philosophy and politics.

After all, Paul seemed to be promoting “foreign deities,” the crime for which Socrates was convicted and received the death penalty of a cup of poison.

Was Paul perhaps guilty of the same crime? Might he suffer the same fate?

What had struck Paul the most, in his walking tour of the city, was the altar he found erected not to the goddess of agriculture or the god of war. . . but “To an Unknown God.” – “the God nobody knows,” as The Message puts it.

This altar had no idol because neither the name nor the attributes of the god was known. It was like the tomb of the unknown soldier, whose exact identity cannot be ascertained.

Perhaps someone had been healed, cured or rescued and need to thank the gods in some way, but didn’t know exactly who to thank!

Perhaps it was left over from a time six centuries before Christ when Athens was decimated by a mysterious plague which had no known cause or cure. City leaders assumed that it was the consequence of offending one of the panoply of deities but, not knowing which one to appease, they erected altars that insured they wouldn’t miss any of the deities. And the plague disappeared.

Perhaps to us that seems like a ridiculous, one-size-fits-all approach to religion – sort of like hedging one’s bets. But before we start to feel superior, we should consider these words by West Virginia UM pastor Jenny Williams:

“If the gods of their other altars or shrines fail them, perhaps an “as-yet-unnamed” deity will look favorably upon them. Though this sounds like an ancient problem, I’ve seen a similar sight in southern California. There you can get into a car that has a rabbit’s foot sitting in the cup holder, a Sacred Heart air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror, a bobblehead Buddha sitting on the dashboard and a Darwin “fish with feet” emblem on the trunk.”

It’s the age-old problem faced by Judaism and then by Christianity: the problem of idols.

From that first golden calf statue fashioned out of the jewelry of Jews fleeing Egypt, God’s people have had to resist and challenge the siren songs of human-made things which purport to offer prosperity, fertility, success and happiness.

Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah actually poked fun at idols and idolmakers, pointing out the ridiculous substitutes their people were accepting, as they abandoned the true and holy God of the covenant:

Jeremiah:

“A tree is cut down in the forest; it is carved by the tools of the woodworker and decorated with silver and gold. It is fastened down with nails to keep it from falling over. Such idols are like scarecrows in a field of melons; they cannot speak; they have to be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them; they can cause you no harm, and they can do you no good.” (Jeremiah 10:3-6)

Isaiah:

“The maker of idols hasn’t the wit or the sense to say, “Some of the wood I burned up. I baked some bread on the coals, and I roasted meat and ate it. And the rest of the wood I made into an idol. Here I am bowing down to a block of wood!” It makes as much sense as eating ashes. (Isaiah 44:19-20)

Our culture has no reason for self-righteousness. We too have a society filled with alluring and tempting things to which we are beckoned to devote ourselves. And underneath it all can be seen a skewed search for God.

Again, Jenny Williams:

People are reaching for an experience of the divine. Some express their search in their automobile shrines, while others kneel at the altar of Superlative Experience: they’re seeking the highest high, the biggest vehicle, the most extreme sport, the most sordid confession on a reality show. Many in our culture are indulging in this cult of experience, which is actually a misguided groping for God.

Now one way we could go with this passage is to discuss the idols in our own cultural surroundings. “American Idol” is a pretty good place to start. The advertisement for Jeep Cherokee might be another: “The things we make, make us. . . ” but that’s not where I want us to go this morning.

Paul was, like prophets in every age, appalled by the existence of so many false gods. Nonetheless he seems to have genuinely approached the Athenians with respect, recognizing people searching for God but in “all the wrong places.” He went beneath the “symptoms” to find the cause.

(Blogger Melissa Sevier):

Instead of telling them that they are vile pre-judged pagans on a one-way trip to hell, he tells them that both he and they worship the same God! Paul and the other vagabond preachers saw God at work in the world through all people; expanding the definition of “chosen.”

How can this story from the first generation church help us live as Christians in a multicultural, interreligious world?

It seems to me that the Church sometimes finds ourselves locked into a polarity from which we need, by God’s Spirit, to break free. In some corners of the church we hear only condemnation for the lack of religious clarity and commitment. In other quarters Jesus’ name is all too seldom mentioned, and it’s hard to get a read on what the point is, what is being proclaimed or lived out.

It’s kind of like the middle schooler who, preparing for summer camp, was worried that he might be taunted for being Christian. Nevertheless his mother carefully placed his Bible in his duffel bag, next to his clean socks. At the end of the week, the child returned, and his mother discovered the Bible in exactly the same spot it had been when he left home. “It’s ok, Mom,” the child said, with relief in his voice. “Nobody even knew that I love Jesus.”

Some Christians use their faith in a heavy-handed way – others don’t even mention Jesus’ name. Is there a “more excellent way??”

Paul leads here by example, and offers Christians a different way to live our faith in a world of cultural and religious diversity.

First, he is culturally multilingual – he learns about the people he is with, comes to understand what motivates them and what their values are. He is genuinely interested in them and speaks their language.

He quotes a poem by Aratus written in Athens 300 years earlier. “In, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being: for we are his family.” Paul quotes a pagan poet!

He goes to the synagogue and talks with people there. He walks around the marketplace, engaging others in theological dialogue and debate.

Second, he finds common ground with people who are very different from him. I know you are interested in religion, he begins. So am I. You are children of God. So am I.

Third, he sees an opening and takes it. The “unknown God” reveals a gap in their thinking and a spiritual need. Paul steps in to fill in the blanks with his own experience and the proclamation of Jesus Christ to satisfy that need.

Fourth, he offers the message of the one God revealed in Jesus and challenges them to make a decision. He is debating Greek intellectuals who seems “to enjoy the search for truth more than the acceptance of it,” as one scholar observes. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers wanted to engage God only as a concept, and not as the incarnate God who lays a claim upon our lives.

Bishop Will Willimon of Alabama served as chaplain at Duke University for more than twenty years. He tells the story of an undergraduate who complained about the religion department, which included four professors who taught a wide range of courses in world religions. “They know a great deal about a great many things in religion,” she said, “but none of them in the department are practitioners of any particular faith. I find that strange. They know everything about God except God!”

Finally, Paul has no control over the responses to his message about Christ. Some clearly mock and dismiss him as a wild card. Some indicate that they may want to talk again. Some believe, and become followers of the Jesus Way.

The “unknown God” is a God who can’t be “managed.”

The “unknown God” has created all human beings.

The “unknown God” has been made known in Jesus Christ.

But what shines forth is the way in which it is possible to communicate our truth in a world with many different beliefs:

The “unknown God” is a God who can’t be managed.

The “unknown God” has created all of us.

The “unknown God” has been made known in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s word for the people of Athens is a word for us, too – and for our world.

Thanks be to God.