Welcome to Athens, the Areopagus – the Hill of Mars, from where you can see the Acropolis and all the temples laid out before you. Paul points over the head of the crowd of listeners and announces that it is all a waste of time. It is as if he had walked into the pulpit of Westminster Abbey and proclaimed that all religion is bunk, or into the Houses of Parliament and said that democracy stinks. It is a challenge and a confrontation.
But they had invited him. Paul has been hurried away from Thessalonica and Berea because his preaching was leading to riots and putting him in danger, so he is parked safely in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy. Without his minders, he is soon up to his old tricks, having loud conversations in the synagogues and market places, telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Athens was well known as a place of philosophical and theological dispute. There were jokes about it, and even Luke writing in Acts seems to expect us to give a wry grin as he refers to it. They were always at it. Some of it was high-minded and serious, and some of it was conducted on the level of Newsnight, the Moral Maze and a Five Live phone in. There were various strands of thought. Epicureans resembled what we later call Deists: yes, there probably are gods, but they are remote and unconcerned with our everyday lives. Stoics, like some other pantheists, thought of God as the inner divine essence within our world. Both can lead to atheism - (God or the gods are so distant that they may as well not exist, or they turn out to be metaphorical projections of our feelings of wonder), or to relativism – (the gods are so far away that all religions are just vague approximations, or they are so present that all religions are different expressions of ‘the divine’). In other words, you can effectively live your lives day by day as if the gods do not exist
One thing all the Greeks agreed on is that the mind and the soul are essential and real; the body and the material world are ephemeral and to be discarded. A by-product of that thought was that it therefore did not matter what you got up to in your body, because ultimately it did not matter. Into the midst of this comes this stranger with his strange message. To talk of the resurrection of the body was novel and to some extent ‘icky’. So Paul finds himself, as it were, with the microphone in his face and his 30 seconds of fame to explain what he is about.
This is possibly the only sermon recorded in Acts addressed to an audience not familiar with the Jewish faith and inheritance. It is Jesus for the Gentiles. Where to start?
Paul begins with their culture. They are seeking after God. Their lives are shaped by the presence and fear of demons, different sorts of gods, who can rule their lives. Everything they do is regulated by religious practices, and there are gods and goddesses for everything. Just in case they have missed one, they have their altar “To the Unknown God” – pointing out their unfilled search to know God. How lucky for you, Paul seems to say, that I am here to fill in this gap and show you the truth.
First, these temples, where you offer up your sacrifices and serve the ‘gods’. Unnecessary. God does not live in houses, and he does not need our service. Rather, he is the one who gives us life and serves us. In another context Paul might have said “In the beginning God created ...” and “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air”.
Second, you Greeks think yourselves so superior. But God has made us all as one race, with shared concerns and values, and above all that we should seek him and find him. The one thing we all have in common is a sense of incompleteness, a desire to be in some way whole.
Third, this is not an impossible search. God is near to each of us. Paul quotes Aratus, one of their own poets who had written in Athens 300 years before, that “in him we live and move and have our being, we are his offspring”. He might as well have taught them to say “Our Father ...”
I wonder how this was being received. Luke gives us no clue whether people were nodding in agreement, smiling in pleasure, or shaking their heads, perhaps in puzzlement or anger.
Paul ploughs on. This is not just conjecture or theorising. We are not debating this as if it were an economic fallacy or whether such and such a football club is really the greatest. This matters.
The economic decisions you have made to invest gold and silver and labour in these ways need to be rethought, precisely as a result of what you believe about God. Your freedom to make decisions and live your life according to you own lights is only an apparent freedom, because God is going to judge the world. You need to live different lives.
This is good news. There is so much that is wrong in our world. So many war-lords seem to escape for so long, there is so much violence and injustice, the innocent always seem to suffer. The good news is that we do not live in a world governed by the whims of distant unconcerned godlings. Nor do we inhabit a universe of blind chance and coincidence. God is going to put things right, and he will do it when he comes to judge the world by the man he as specially chosen for the task, and he has proved it by raising this man from the dead.
Got him! Paul has said out loud the scandalous, preposterous thing that they have brought him here for. Like a talk show host or interviewer, they have secured the sound bite, and now predictably they can mock him and take his argument to pieces.
Except that there are those, even from within the inner circle, who cannot help themselves responding to the truth. They find their hearts “strangely warmed” within them. They must find out more.
They are on their way to discovering what Jesus promised to all who seek him and find him. Jesus is alive and encounters us today. He promised that he would ask the Father to send the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, his very Presence, so that we might discover that “in him we live and move and have our being”. Jesus said that we would realise that we are in him, and he in us. God is no longer a theory but our own heart’s experience, what one writer described as “the life of God in the souls of men”.
In the next fortnight, as we go through the Ascension and prepare for Pentecost, let us spend time seeking God, asking for his Spirit, rejoicing that Jesus has promised to be with us.
You could start by memorising and repeating these words: “You are in me, and I am in you.”
1. What similarities do you see between Paul’s world and our own, and what differences?
2. When faced with those who deny the existence of God, or say that all religions are the same, what reply would you give?
3. “You are in me, and I am in you.” What difference does this make, or could this make, in your life?