There’s a story about an experienced bishop who felt like he wasn’t quite living up to his job. It’s not that he didn’t take his job seriously, it was the exact the opposite. He was devout and earnest, he worked hard to share the Gospel and to live as an apostle of Jesus. The people who knew him kept telling him that he was not only respected but cherished by the entire diocese. He was popular, they said. People loved him, they said. And after hearing these words; words that were supposed to bring comfort, the bishop got more depressed. He said, “That’s just the problem. Wherever St. Paul went to preach the Gospel, he started a riot. Wherever I go to preach the Gospel, people just ask me if I’d like some tea.”
The bishop wasn’t looking for trouble, but he couldn’t help believing that the Gospel should actually move people. That’s exactly what happens in the book of Acts. The Gospel - the story and the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection - it scatters people across the world. And the thing is, the original apostles and St. Paul didn’t plan it that way. This wasn’t their strategic plan for growth; they didn’t establish benchmarks, incentives, and rewards. Sure, Paul was pretty consistent about visiting local synagogues but that usually just got people angry.
For people caught up in the earliest days of Christianity, it may have felt like they’d been swept up by a storm; perhaps not so different from those tornadoes that have been churning the earth and devastating the American heartland over the past couple of weeks. According to one newspaper, “The tornado that carved through southwestern Missouri last Sunday leveled parts of [Joplin] so completely ... that the community’s inner GPS remains out of whack. Longtime residents, including the mayor, will tell you that even when [they’re] on Main Street, they are not always sure where they stand” (NYT). Everything has been scattered by the wind.
And believe it or not, that’s not too different from the picture we get for the earliest spread of Christianity. There were threats, persecutions, strange visions, and riots. And the wind that was scattering everything, was the breath of God’s Holy Spirit. In those earliest days, the God of Christian faith seemed to be spinning and howling from place-to-place, just as powerful and dizzying as a 200 mph twister - and often leaving people completely disoriented by the fallout.
In today’s reading we find that Paul has landed in Athens (Acts 17.22-31). It happens to be one of the few places where he doesn’t cause a riot, but the only reason he’s there (and by himself) is that for the second time on his journey, Paul has gotten people so angry in one city that they actually chase him down to the next city, and they run him out of that place too. This is how Paul arrives in Athens, dropped there by a storm of controversy. I mean, this guy knew how to get under people’s skin. It’s not exactly how we advertise missionary trips these days but Paul has basically gotten beaten up like a snake oil salesman and he’s been chased from town-to-town by the tar-and-feather brigade.
It’s a bizarre journey, and sometimes it’s even kind of funny. Like the time Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man and the townspeople decide that these two guys must be gods (ch.14). They decide that Paul & Barnabas are Zeus and Hermes! Luke is having some fun telling this story. (By the way, Paul gets labeled “Hermes” because he’s the talkative one who doesn’t look very impressive - he’s no Zeus.) Anyway, the townspeople are pretty enthusiastic, at first, but they turn in an instant. First, they try to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, and then just moments later some of those angry visitors from another town (the tar-and-feather brigade) show up and convince the crowd that Paul is dangerous. So they pick up rocks and stone him, dumping him outside the city like a sack of potatoes. It’s like one of those movies where a bunch of explorers discover a hidden tribe in the jungle. The explorers think they’re being invited to dinner... only to discover they are the dinner and they’re about to get boiled in a big pot. That’s kind of how Paul’s journey feels sometimes.
Today’s story in Athens isn’t quite so dramatic, but it’s every bit as moving. For starters this crowd in Athens is a bit more refined. These are people who, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts. 17.21). They liked novelty and they were supporters of diversity. So Paul tells them something new. He says the world is even more exciting and mysterious than they had imagined. And here’s the kicker. He says the world isn’t strange and exciting because of your ignorance - this temple you have to an unknown god. It’s strange and exciting because of what you can actually know - the resurrection of Jesus. He says, “What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you as known.”
And the crowd gives this message mixed reviews. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” .. ... [And] some of them joined him and became believers" (vv.32-33). And we’re probably somewhere on that spectrum too - we who tend to be lovers of novelty ourselves and supporters of diversity. I mean, it’s one thing to hear a message that “we’re not alone in this world”, or “we can find meaning for our lives”. Those kinds of messages feel good, and the Queen of Talk Shows who just retired was really good at communicating those kinds of “feel good” messages. But as soon as you get too specific, things get messy. We can even feel kind of anxious if anyone shares a message that’s too specific. We don’t know what to do with that. So we say, well it probably doesn’t matter what you believe, just as long as you believe something.
Our generation has learned some lessons about the dangers of religious pride. Where other generations were certain about God, well, we’re not so sure they were right. And sometimes we may not know what we believe, but we know they were wrong. When we hear about things like medieval Inquisitions where the church’s goal of reconciling heretics involved prison and torture - we’re pretty sure they were wrong. When we hear about the Crusades where Christians fought battles because they were certain God wanted some land back - we’re pretty sure they were wrong. We see just how destructive that kind of religious certainty turns out to be.
And so today even when it isn’t violent, it still seems like people with the most certainty can end up doing the most damage. Just look at the most recent example. This guy Harold Camping, an evangelist, who convinced more than a few people that doomsday was coming last Saturday (May 21, 2011). The rapture was on its way, or so he said. His followers sold their possessions, left their jobs, and spent millions of dollars advertising the end of days. He was wrong. And even though he revised his prediction with a new date in October, the only thing that’s certain is that fewer people will be holding their breath. The damage is done. And it’s been devastating for those who made sacrifices based on this guy’s religious certainty. Burned once, shame on you. Burned twice, shame on me.
With all the violence and damage caused by religious certainty through the centuries, what good could it possibly do? And how are we supposed to hear Paul’s claim that we can actually know something specific, something important, even something universal about God? See, it’s tempting to hear Paul in one of two ways. The first option is to dismiss him as narrow-minded, as some kind of crackpot like Harold Camping. The second option, is to actually be more charitable. Maybe we think that Paul was liberal-minded but (unfortunately) limited by his pre-modern worldview. So when you get right down to it, no matter which option we choose, we’re still writing him off. He was either too enthusiastic or too constrained by his environment. And the problem is that both of these approaches avoid the real issue. They avoid Paul’s message. And the danger is that we keep ourselves from ever being moved - let alone transformed - by the Gospel.
Here’s the point. Religious certainty isn’t a question about what we can prove. (Anyone who does that is just messing with pride.) Religious certainty is a question about whether God wants to be known. It’s not about our cleverness. It’s about God revealing His own love and His own justice. Paul believed that God wanted to be known and Paul’s message was this: We may catch a glimpse of God all over creation, but we only know God through the cross and the empty tomb (LC, 586). Paul is inviting people into a relationship; a relationship with God. So yeah, the specifics get a bit messy, but only because relationships get a bit messy. And you can only have a relationship with a person; face-to-face. You can’t have a relationship with abstract ideas. So when he stands in front of that novelty-loving, diversity-embracing Areopagus council, Paul proclaims that the face of God is the face of Jesus.
And at the end of Paul’s speech, whether we realize it or not, we find ourselves sitting right there in the middle of that council too. We find ourselves as part of that novelty-loving, diversity-embracing crowd because we too have to make some kind of judgment about Paul’s speech. Are we moved? If so, how? Are we tempted to write him off as outdated or irrelevant? Does he sound intolerant, perhaps moving us to anger and maybe even reaching for a few stones so we can drag this guy out of town? Or are we moved to hear an invitation? A message that draws us into a deeper relationship with God and the mystery of God’s reconciling work in this world? Where do we find ourselves in the crowd? “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ And some of them joined him and became believers.” Amen.