Sixth Sunday of Easter
Say what you will about Paul the Apostle – and there seem to be some very strong feelings of love or hate for the Paul we get to know from his writings in the letters of the New Testament – but this passage highlights how good Paul was at assessing his audience and applying his message just to them. Paul most often spoke at synagogues or gatherings of new Christians. In this chapter of Acts, he started by speaking at the synagogue in Athens. Those in attendance at the synagogue actually thought Paul was talking about two gods, one named Jesus, and a female god Anastasias (which is Greek for “resurrection”). And some Epicureans and Stoics began to deride him and debate with him as he spoke.
Epicureans were atheists, who saw no purpose in any belief in gods, especially in light of all the suffering in life. If gods existed, Epicureans thought they must not think much of humans to allow such awful things to happen. And they certainly did not believe in miracles, like the resurrection. Stoics based their theology around the mind of Zeus, the greatest and highest of the gods, and saw Zeus as reason (or logos, as the Gospel of John calls Jesus). Stoics saw virtue as the only good, and vice as the only evil. The wise Stoic would be indifferent to pain or pleasure, wealth or poverty, success or misfortune. They aimed to be self-sufficient and reasonable in any and all circumstances.
As we begin our passage, Paul had moved to a smaller, more intimate place, the Areopagus, or marketplace, to continue conversation with the Greek philosophers. This actually must have been quite an honor for Paul, a rare and unique opportunity. In verse 16 of this chapter, we find that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Yet, he had found a way to address that by the time he began speaking at the marketplace, praising them for how “religious” they were with all these objects of worship. He had seen the inscription, “To an unknown god,” and he used that to proclaim the one God as creator and Lord of all heaven and earth. He said that God creates humans with the need to search for God. And, instead of using scriptures that these philosophers would not know, Paul quoted poets they would know, and appealed to the Stoic reasoning in his argument. God commands people to repent in light of the judgment, Paul said, “by a man God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” He never mentioned Jesus by name, but rather described what God did through this man.
At this point, the Epicureans, who did not believe in resurrection, may have interrupted Paul, though the text simply says “some scoffed.” Others, perhaps the Stoics, were willing to continue in conversation at another time. Some even joined Paul and became believers in Christ.
Contrast this Acts passage with the John passage, which is just a tidbit of Jesus’ address to his disciples in chapters 15-17 before his impending trial and death. Paul was addressing an audience of non-believers and those who ruled their lives by reasoning. Jesus was addressing the people who had gotten to know him best, who had followed and marveled and learned, but who did not understand when Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). Jesus, knowing the course he would take to the cross, said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He told them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to be with them forever, and that the world would not understand, because the Spirit was not something that could be seen or known in a physical sense, but only by faith. “In a little while,” he said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:19). This would have been impossible for the Athenian philosophers to understand, and must have been hard for the disciples as well. We understand because we live beyond the resurrection. The universal language of Jesus’ words here would be, for all perhaps except the Stoics, the language of love. Jesus appealed to the disciples for their love for him, and, out of his love for them, he promised not to leave them alone even though he would not physically be with them anymore. We, of course, also accept these promises of love, as we read such passages as Jesus’ followers today.
But the Acts passage can cause us to reflect upon what, or whom, we worship. To whom do we erect statues or make idols? What is most important in our lives? What, or who, rules our lives?
When I preach on a holiday, I try to research the holiday a bit, and this week, I ran across some editorial cartoons about Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have died in the service of our country’s military. “Thanksgiving,” said one, “is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things we have. Memorial Day is a day when we pause to give thanks for the people who fought for what we have.” Another showed a family loaded up in a car, with surfboard, tennis rackets, fishing pole, and a cooler. Mom was assessing supplies, saying, “Hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, beer, soft drinks,…Honey, what are the flowers for?” The next scene shows the Dad out of the car at the military cemetery putting the flowers on a grave and saying, “To say thanks.” But the one that really struck me, especially after we have watched a North Carolina boy win on “The American Idol” this week, was one depicting a grandfather, with his military cap on and holding a cane, taking his grandson to the cemetery, where American flags dot each grave, and saying to the grandson, “I’d like to introduce you to a real ‘American Idol.’”
It is right and good that we honor those who have died in service for our country and for freedom for all peoples. Honoring, respecting is not quite the same as worshiping. Go to a Thesaurus to look up “worship,” “honor,” and “respect,” and you will find that “honor” and “respect” list similar synonyms, and each appears in the list of the other. “Exalt, regard, esteem, recognize, venerate, admire, adore,” and even “worship” also appear in these lists. “Adore” is also a synonym for “worship,” but there is a word that appears under “worship” that does not appear in these other lists. And it is “love.”
So to worship goes beyond to honor or to respect. Worship goes well beyond the reasoning that the Stoics hold so highly. To worship means to love. Worship also describes what we do here, of course, with a worship service, including elements such as prayer and song, Scripture and preaching, baptism and communion. But we worship because we love God.
So Jesus had it right, of course. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And because I love you, he said, I will send the Advocate to be with you in my absence.
In our busy, busy lives, there is much to adore, to honor, to even pursue. We can adore television and movie stars, or athletes; we can honor our vets and those serving in the military, our President and other world leaders; we can pursue success, wealth, or fame. When it comes to what or whom we love, we like to “find” love, or to “fall in love,” in some magical kind of way. But think about those things or people we may love or adore, or even “worship.” We want to know all about them, either by talking with them or by reading all about them. We put up pictures or posters of them. We go to their movies or ballgames, their concerts and gymnastic meets. We put a lot of time and energy into this kind of love or worship. You do, and I do. We all have things and people we love and adore.
But hopefully, such a study as of today’s passages makes us stop to think: Shouldn’t we put just as much time and energy into worshiping God?
After all, if we look at the John passage, we know that God loves us. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus, “I am coming to you….On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you” (14:18, 20). That is love expressed, my friends. The Bible is, of course, full of the language of love. God IS love, the Bible tells us. So if God loves us, we should also love God. And to truly love takes work. As many of you know, marriage takes work to keep it going. Relationships with our friends take work. So does our relationship with God.
The Epicureans and Stoics whom Paul addressed were far from understanding what it means to worship the one true God. Paul worked hard to meet them where they were, to appeal to what they would understand. And we can learn from him as we interact with others who do not think or believe as we do. Paul left behind his distress, perhaps even his anger, at seeing their idols, to talk with them in ways they would understand. Paul even left out direct references to God and Jesus. Yet we knew what he meant because we know God and Jesus. When we talk with the unchurched, or those of other faiths, we can respect their beliefs and work to address them in ways they might understand, even as we listen to them share their beliefs and thoughts. When we engage in conversation with those who differ in political or other views from our own, maybe we can take a lesson from Paul as well, to strive to understand them and respect them where they are.
To prepare ourselves to engage in such dialogues about our faith, though, means that we need to really know the God whom we profess. Paul, after a startling conversion on the road to Damscus, fell in love with the religion he had been persecuting before that experience. He fell in love with Jesus, one might say, and he spent the rest of his life teaching and preaching so that others might also know and love the same God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” he said in I Corinthians (12:13), “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” “There is one body and one Spirit,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” Eph. 5:4-6).
All peoples, all faiths, perhaps even those, in some sense, who claim not to believe in any faith, may be seeking and worshiping the same God. We have different names, differing ways of following, and different forms of worship. But it is the same God that we all worship. Our God is not “unknown.” Our God is love. Love may be the universal language that makes us all truly one.
On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who have fought wars to save others, let us also worship the one God who cares for all creation, who asks but that we love God and one another.
All glory be to God. Amen.