Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
In the season of Eastertide, between Easter and Pentecost, it is good to review what Jesus said in the upper room, before the gift of the spirit is celebrated in its fullness on Pentecost. In the lection for today, we step into the middle of the long upper room discourse comprising chapters 13-17 in John’s gospel. In this extended body of teaching, Jesus first model’s servanthood in washing the disciples’ feet, then offers the new commandment, the mark of the disciple, “that you have love one for the other” (John 13:35). He then offers assurance that where he is going he is preparing a place for those who keep his commandments, and that he will send the Spirit as a helper, advocate, or comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who will abide with believers. This is a wonderful promise to receive with joy and to study with anticipation of Pentecost.
The governing metaphor for the Spirit in this text is “the Advocate,” or in older translations, “the Paraclete,” a transliteration of the Greek “parakletos,” literally, “one who stands beside you.” The King James translators used the wonderful word “Comforter,” which conveys quite well the sense of the Greek. This is one who is with you in thick and thin, who informs your intellect, guides you into wisdom, strengthens your will, quiets your heart, and excites your passion. Comfort is not necessarily that which makes you comfortable, in the sense of complacent or disengaged, or placid, but rather one who encourages (“places courage in”), gives strength for the demands of the day, equips one with what he or she needs to rise to the occasion. The word can also be translated “helper,” “intercessor,” and in 1 John 2:1 it is used for Christ himself, in the sense of advocate or intercessor, the role of Christ vis á vis God the Father.
If congregants have been in court, they will be quite familiar with this metaphor, or if they have seen the countless films and television shows which depict courtroom drama. The expert defense of O.J. Simpson, distinct from the merits of its outcome, demonstrated dramatically, for all the world to see, how a skilled attorney can make the difference in the outcome of a trial, quite apart from the evidence in a case. In the case of the Spirit, the Spirit’s work is to guide the disciple “into all truth.” This truth is not exclusively factual (as in a court of law or in the laboratory), but is also relational, as in the confirmation of the reliability of a relationship, or the dependability of a friendship. It refers to a larger, cosmic truth, about the nature of things, and the spiritual realities which govern our relationship with the Infinite.
Jesus says that the world neither sees nor knows the Spirit. It is true that, in the midst of a play or concert, the spectators ignore the director or the conductor, and watch the players and the overall effect. It is the actors and players who are vitally aware of those who guide them, who stand with them, in the achievement of a great performance. They know the person intimately, know the moods and cues, the subtle messages that communicate so much. In a very important sense, they become an extension or expression of the will of the director or the conductor. Just so the Spirit.
John14:18-21 is couched in decidedly relational terms, displaying, as does this entire discourse, the network of relationships in play in this beautiful dance we call faith. The disciple who acts in concert with the Christ, and loves Him, will be loved by the Father, and in turn loved by the Son and experience his reality and presence. While love in the Scriptures is always giving, it is generosity in the context of these intricate, intimate relationships. Anyone who has been in or is in an intimate love relationship, knows the intricate web such relationships weave, and how this web can be strong and strengthen each member, or weak and strained and full of holes. Jesus says the acid test is faithfulness: keeping the commandments. This is not “works righteousness,” as if the disciple can earn the love of the Father or merit his love. It is faithfulness born of gratitude, gratitude for the countless blessings, for the advocacy of both Christ and the Spirit. Interesting that Jesus says, “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” You can have possession of something, but if you let it just sit there it has no power. Only by keeping it, by putting it to use, by being faithful to what it means to have such gifts, do they have any power. Only by faithfulness do we show outwardly our inward faith.
Paul’s Areopagus speech from Acts 17 is a demonstration of how the Holy Spirit, coupled with training, experience, knowledge and keen observation, can equip one to witness to the power of God in a new context. Here Paul appeals to the Athenians by borrowing from their own poets and commenting on what he has seen in the city. He acknowledges their religious fervor and builds upon that foundation by telling them of a God they have not known. The Spirit unlocks a flair for creative speech composition and allows Paul to bring his considerable histrionic powers to bear in a demanding, new situation. Interestingly, rather than a frontal attack on Greek paganism, this address is complimentary, and congratulates the Greeks on their high culture and religious fervor, all the while seeking to steer these attributes in a new direction, much as the church today must, win a hearing by using some of the same technology and technique used by communications experts, who have shaped the categories in which people communicate in our post-modern culture.
When in 1 Peter 3:15 we are admonished to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” you know having the Holy Spirit as an advocate or comforter will be crucial. “Keep your conscience clear,” says 1 Peter, and here the Spirit can guide and grant wisdom, in situations where we are tempted to do less than our best. When we speak to others of our faith, we should show “gentleness and reverence.” In Galatians 5:23, we learn that gentleness is one of the products of the Spirit’s presence and guidance.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is neglected in the mainline churches because we connect it with Pentecostalism, with an excess of emotion, with a lack of accountability. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth for Jesus or Paul or Peter, all of whom see the Spirit’s influence as the one who stands beside us. It is the Spirit who brings calm confidence and comfort in the midst of turmoil and conflict. It is the Spirit who leads us into truth, into faithfulness, into gentleness and reverence. It is the Spirit who heightens our sensitivity to the nuances of relationship and helps us find our way through the intricacies of daily demands. As we are faithful, the Father, at Christ’s request, sends the Spirit to stand beside us, to guide us, to comfort and strengthen us, to equip us with gifts, and to bear fruit through us. God has not left us alone; we have an Advocate, the Spirit of truth.
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. I would cry, until my parents spoke calming words. “We’re right here. Don’t be afraid,” they would say. And then I would grow calm, and find my way to sleep, confident there was nothing to fear, because the ones who loved me were with me. So, it is with God’s presence. The Spirit stands beside us, speaks to us if we listen in prayer, reassures us of God’s love, leads us into God’s truth, and helps us be faithful. Jesus knew, on that night in the upper room, what was ahead for his disciples, even if they didn’t—couldn’t—know themselves. He knew they would need the promise of the Spirit to give them strength for the struggle, strength for the grief, strength for the post-resurrection journey, strength to go to the ends of the earth. We need that same Spirit to be faithful today.
A prominent word in homiletics today is “contextualization.” This text is one of the best examples in the entire Bible and, for that reason, a wonderful text for preaching, both to show the audience how Paul proclaims the gospel to an unfamiliar audience and then for the preacher to preach in the same manner to his/her own audience.
In Paul’s first sermon recorded in Acts, he preaches to the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (13:26–41). There he is on familiar ground, speaking to people who know the Old Testament. Beginning with the exodus, he summarizes Israelite history through David, then speaks of Jesus and the resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s promises. The sermon speaks directly to the context of the listeners.
In Athens he finds himself facing an altogether different crowd. He knows that the Greeks pay homage to a whole panoply of gods and goddesses. They believe these deities flit in and out of human affairs, meddling in people’s lives, sometimes helpfully, other times harmfully. Furthermore, these divine beings operated with no sense of morality. They could be as mean and petty as any human being. Shrines were built in cities across the Greco-Roman world, paying tribute to these Olympic beings in the hopes that they would be benevolent.
Paul also knows that belief in this traditional pantheon of divine beings was waning. Many regarded it more as mythology than religion. Skepticism was rife, particularly among learned people, for whom sophistication and skepticism were the primary intellectual virtues.
What makes the best missionary preaching? Paul could have stood in the marketplace and denounced this whole religious tradition. After all, the capricious and chaotic behavior of the gods and goddesses was abhorrent to anyone who believed in the God of the Old Testament.
But denunciation seldom persuades. Paul needed an entry point into the thinking of his audience. He needed a foothold into their belief from which he could begin sympathetically, then open new horizons for his listeners.
He found it. Some artisans had erected a shrine “to an unknown god” to ensure that there wouldn’t be some god angry at being neglected. With all the mischief the gods could bring about, one couldn’t take risks. This was the entry Paul needed. Note (1) how he moved into their thinking and (2) how he gave it a new twist.
He acknowledges their shrine. There is indeed a god unknown to them. Now he has caught their attention, and we follow each phrase as he moves masterfully from this unknown god to the God of the Bible and finally to the resurrection.
First, this God “made the world and everything in it.” The Greek creation myths were the most complicated and bizarre aspect of their religion. With adherence to their mythology waning, the idea that there was one creator behind all this might be appealing to reflective Greeks. Second, gods do not “live in shrines made by human hands.” To an already skeptical mind, this would make sense. Third, this unknown god is not served by human hands but “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Step-by-step Paul builds a case for a God who is the Sovereign of all things, even the nations. Finally, lest they think this God is unattainable, Paul affirms that though we might search and grope for him, “indeed, he is not far from each one of us.”
Paul then quotes two lines of poetry from their own literature, which many of the listeners undoubtedly knew. (Verse 28a is attributed to Epimenides, 28b is from Phaenomena, a poem by the Greek poet Aratus.) It was a masterful move, because these would have been familiar to knowledgeable listeners.
With that foundation Paul moves to his conclusion: such a God would know human ignorance, so we stand in judgment and need to repent. Then Paul jars his listeners with an abrupt closing statement that sparks their intense curiosity: we will be judged, but the judgment will be done in righteousness by one whom God has raised from the dead!
This was new! Some scoffed, others were determined to hear more. Even though the lectionary passage ends with verse 32, a preacher should note the concluding two verses, reporting the effect of the sermon. The conversion results were moderate: “[some men] including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.” Faithful preaching effects results, though preachers may never know what they are.
Rather than simply summarize Paul’s adaptation of the gospel to the thinking of the Greeks, a good preacher of this text needs to do what Paul does with his audience—adapt the message to the listeners.
How do we “contextualize” the gospel to our people? What are their “unknown gods,” those things we pay homage to, maybe even without realizing it? Our society is similar to that of first-century Athens, which thought itself to be religious but in which the actual content of faith seemed to be losing its hold.
How more modern could Paul become, then, when he writes that people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him” (v. 27)? After a century shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, the A-bomb, and millions of refugees living in exile, it is no wonder that so many people today “grope” for a God they have difficulty perceiving behind all this suffering! An equally large number of people have become disenchanted with the institutional church. How can one find God where there is such skepticism about the community of God’s people?
What are our “unknown gods,” those things we have deified? A half-century ago Will Herberg said the unknown God of Americans seems to be faith itself (Protestant, Catholic, Jew [New York: Doubleday, 1955]). Sincerity of faith is of paramount value, not its content. Not knowing the true God, we have substituted faith itself as the object of religion.
A similar example of an unknown god is spirituality itself. Spirituality has become like a mantra in our society. Many people declare themselves to be spiritual, with no content or object in their spiritual life. Meditation is valued more for its relaxing and therapeutic value, not for what one meditates in or about. Being rootless of content, such “spirituality” is usually not deeply engaged in society. There is little sense that because this world is God’s creation, we are deeply involved in its pathos.
An “unknown god” today might also be the kind of sentimental notion one has about God. The idea of a “man upstairs who likes me” is a far cry from the awesome God of the Bible or the Suffering Servant on the cross. But it is a starting point for proclamation.
What the preacher needs for this text is a clear-eyed insight into the hearts of the audience. The sermon will be shaped by the “context” of the congregation. We can affirm that which the audience holds dear—whether it be faith, spirituality, a rather benign God, or whatever—then probe those ideas for their inadequacies and need of content.
Another preaching approach to this text would be a theme like “What do we know about God and how do we know it?” “American Civil Religion” is a vague Unitarianism or Deism. This view of God grows out of an unreflective natural theology, now heavily influenced by New Age sentimentalism; that is, we see God in the beauty of nature and feel his presence when we see the daisies in the field, etc.
Paul’s approach would be to appropriate the truth of that—“yes, God did create it all …”—then steer the listener’s thinking to the biblical view of God, with all the richness of God’s activity among humans through the broad sweep of human history.
Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Acts 13 sets out from a totally different place than this sermon to the Greeks in Acts 17, but both sermons end with the resurrection of Jesus. All of Paul’s sermons end with the resurrection. This is finally how we know God, by knowing Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and raised for us. This is God’s revelation. Of course we glimpse the power of God in creation, but we know God fully through the cross and empty tomb.
In preaching this text, there is an obvious link to this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 14:15–21. Just as Paul speaks about an unknown god to the Greeks, so here Jesus speaks to his disciples, who will soon face an unknown and frightening future without him. Both texts are written for assurance in the time of doubt and uncertainty. The assurance of both texts is God’s presence with us and the hope of eternity through Jesus’ resurrection.
The connection with the Epistle lesson (1 Pet. 3:13–22) is that Peter exhorts his readers to speak the gospel with courage, even though they are maligned and suffer. Paul knew very well he would be ridiculed in Athens, because the whole notion of one sovereign creator God sending a “son” to earth to suffer, die, and be raised would strike the Gentile Athenians as total foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18–25). What a fitting message for our day, when so many people think the whole idea of religion is foolish! (Michael Rogness The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Volume one pp. 583–586)
Paul’s address before the Council of Ares (17:22–31) 22–23 Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. 13:16–41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart, as he did at Lystra (cf. 14:15–17). Instead, he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription Agnōstō Theō (“To an Unknown God”). Later the second-century geographer Pausanias (Description of Greece 1.1.4) and the third-century philosopher Philostratus (Life of Apollonius Tyana 6.3.5) were to speak of altars to unknown gods at Athens, by which they meant either altars to unknown deities generally or altars to individual unknown gods. But while there is insufficient evidence for us to know the number of such altars at Athens or what their dedicatory inscriptions were, it is not surprising that Paul came across such an altar in walking about the city. Paul used the words of the inscription to introduce his call to repentance.
Many critics have asserted that all the speeches in Acts—particularly that to the Areopagus—are Luke’s free compositions, showing what he thought Paul would have said. Certainly, as with every precis, Luke edited the missionary sermons of Paul in Acts; he must also be credited with some genius for highlighting their suitability to their audiences (cf. Introduction: The Speeches in Acts). But for one who elsewhere said he was willing to be “all things to all men” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:20–22), Paul’s approach to his Areopagus audience is by no means out of character. On the contrary, in his report of this address, Luke gives us another illustration of how Paul began on common ground with his hearers and sought to lead them from it to accept the work and person of Jesus as the apex of God’s redemptive work for humanity.
24–28 The substance of the Athenian address concerns the nature of God and the responsibility of man to God. Contrary to all pantheistic and polytheistic notions, God is the one, Paul says, who has created the world and everything in it; he is the Lord of heaven and earth (cf. Gen 14:19, 22). He does not live in temples “made by hands” (en cheiropoiētois), nor is he dependent for his existence upon anything he has created. Rather, he is the source of life and breath and everything else humanity possesses. Earlier, Euripides (fifth century B.C.) asked, “What house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls?” (Fragments 968); and in the first century B.C., Cicero considered the image of Ceres worshiped in Sicily worthy of honor because it was not made with hands but had fallen from the sky (In Verrem 2.5.187). While Paul’s argument can be paralleled at some points by the higher paganism of the day, its content is decidedly biblical (cf. 1 Kings 8:27; Isa 66:1–2) and its forms of expression Jewish as well as Greek (cf. LXX Isa 2:18; 19:1; 31:7; Sib Oracles 4.8–12; Acts 7:41, 48; Heb 8:2; 9:24 on the pejorative use of “made with hands” for idols and temples).
Contrary to the Athenians’ boast that they had originated from the soil of their Attic homeland and therefore were not like other men, Paul affirms the oneness of mankind in their creation by the one God and their descent from a common ancestor. And contrary to the “deism” that permeated the philosophies of the day, he proclaimed that this God has determined specific times (prostetagmenous kairous) for men and “the exact places where they should live” (tas orothesias tēs katoikias autōn; lit., “the boundaries of their habitation”) so that men would seek him and find him.
In support of this teaching about man, Paul quotes two maxims from Greek poets. The first comes from a quatrain attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides (c.600 B.C.), which appeared first in his poem Cretica and is put on the lips of Minos, Zeus’s son, in honor of his father:
They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest for ever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being
(M.D. Gibson, ed., Horae Semiticae X
[Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1913], p. 40, in Syriac).
The second comes from the Cilician poet Aratus (c. 315–240 B.C.): “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring” (Phaenonlena 5); which is also found in Cleanthes’s (331–233 B.C.) earlier Hymn to Zeus, line 4.
By such maxims, Paul is not suggesting that God is to be thought of in terms of the Zeus of Greek polytheism or Stoic pantheism. He is rather arguing that the poets his hearers recognized as authorities have to some extent corroborated his message. In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets’ words for his own purposes. Quoting Greek poets in support of his teaching sharpened his message. But despite its form, Paul’s address was thoroughly biblical and Christian in its content. It is perhaps too strong to say that “the remarkable thing about this famous speech is that for all its wealth of pagan illustration its message is simply the Galilean gospel, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the tidings’ ” (Williams, p. 206). Nevertheless, there is nothing in it that really militates against Paul’s having delivered it or that is in genuine opposition to his letters.
29–31 The climax of the address focuses on the progressive unfolding of divine redemption and the apex of that redemption in Jesus Christ. Being God’s offspring—not in a pantheistic sense but in the biblical sense of being created by God in his image—we should not, Paul insists, think of deity in terms of gold, silver, or stone. All that idolatrous ignorance was overlooked by God in the past (cf. 14:16; Rom 3:25) because God has always been more interested in repentance than judgment (cf: Wisdom 11:23: “But you have mercy on all men, because you have power to do all things, and you overlook the sins of men to the end that they may repent”). Nevertheless, in the person and work of Jesus, God has acted in such a manner as to make idolatry particularly heinous. To reject Jesus, therefore, is to reject the personal and vicarious intervention of God on behalf of man and to open oneself up in the future to divine judgment meted out by the very one rejected in the present. And God himself has authenticated all this by raising Jesus from the dead.(Longenecker, R. N. The Acts of the Apostles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts [1981, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol. 9, pp. 475–477)
Paul playing the role of grand master and taking on all the players of Athens at once. We have seen how he agrees with the Academy that it is indeed impossible, granted what was available to them, to know very much about the true God. Ah but, he says, God himself has been aware of this difficulty, and has now brought this ‘time of ignorance’ to an end. We have seen that, in typically Jewish style, and building on the critique of idols and temples throughout Jewish scripture and tradition, he rejects utterly the whole idea of temples, sacrifices and statues of the gods. Instead, he tells the good news of a creator God who made the world and everything in it.
Now we shall see how, in dealing with both the Epicureans and the Stoics, he shows how this God not only can be known, in a way which Greek philosophy never bargained for, but wants to be known. And he brings the address to a close with a flourish by telling the (again, very Jewish) story of the future hope: God is going to hold a great assize and put the whole world right!
The Epicureans, we recall, believed that the gods, if they existed, were very far away, and had more or less nothing to do with human beings. As a result, they were supremely happy; and if we want to approximate to them as best we can we will learn to moderate our desires, to do nothing that would feed our natural hopes or fears, to live as quietly as possible with just the right amount of everything. The ideal life is independent, untroubled, unworried about larger questions, including that of one’s own destiny.
An Epicurean would therefore have agreed substantially with Paul’s rather scathing comments about normal pagan worship, but for more or less the opposite reason to the one Paul gives. For the Epicurean, the gods were far away and so didn’t want anything from us; for Paul, God is very close to us, the giver of everything to us, the passionate seeker who wants us to seek him in return—and therefore doesn’t want animal sacrifices from us. Paul agrees with the Epicurean that God and the world are not the same thing. But he confronts the Epicurean head on when he says that God is not far from any one of us, and longs for a relationship of love with all his human creatures. The Epicurean would be fascinated, startled, irritated perhaps, but teased enough to want to hear more. The Stoic, by contrast, would be happy to hear that there is indeed a divine life which is in all human beings, though Paul has identified it with life and breath rather than the cold principle of the logos, ‘rationality’. And the Stoic could accept, in his own sense, the quote from the Athenian poet Aratus in verse 28, ‘for we are also his offspring’. Aratus pretty certainly meant this in a Stoic sense; Paul is treading the fine line here between demonstrating his familiarity with their own culture, inviting Stoics to come on board with what he’s saying, and offering something quite new and revolutionary. For Paul, as a Jew, the idea of humans as ‘children of God’ has to do with our being made in God’s image (he does not here have in mind the specifically Christian notion of believers as God’s adopted sons and daughters, as in Galatians 4:4–7). To the Stoic pantheist, in other words, Paul declares that God and the world are not the same thing, but that the impulse which pushes you to suppose that they are is the true impulse which ought to lead you to reach out and grope for the real God who is indeed not far off. The Stoic, like the Epicurean, is thus challenged, encouraged, teased and perhaps drawn to consider the matter more closely.
But the really stunning moment of the address comes, of course, at the end. Indeed, the whole build-up, the careful discussion of who God really is and his relation to the world, the standard Jewish critique of idolatry and temples coupled with the creative use of local color—all this is to ensure that, when Paul finally gets to explain his supposed ‘foreign divinities’ of Jesus and resurrection, there will at least be a small chance that some will understand what he is saying. We notice again that as the speech turns the corner into the home straight Paul insists that he and his hearers are living at a new moment in the history of the world, a moment at which the ‘times of ignorance’, the times when people could hardly be expected to know who God was, were being brought to an end. Now something new had happened! Now there was something to say, particular news about particular events and a particular man, which provided just the sort of new evidence that the genuinely open-minded agnostic should be prepared to take into account, that the Epicurean and Stoic should see as forming both a confirmation of the correct elements in their world-views and a challenge to the misleading elements, and that the ordinary pagan, trundling off to yet another temple with yet another sacrifice, should see as good news indeed. This God, declares Paul, has set a time when he is going to do what the Jewish tradition always said he would do, indeed what he must do if he is indeed the good and wise creator: he will set the world right, will call it to account, will in other words judge it in the full, Hebraic, biblical sense.
And the creator God will do this through a particular man whom he has appointed for the task, in other words, Jesus himself. Whether it is significant that Paul does not mention the name of Jesus throughout the speech it is hard to say, but he has been talking about him in the market-place and it’s clear who he means. How do we know that Jesus is the coming judge? Because, says Paul, God has raised him from the dead. It’s important to note that, there in the Areopagus, this wasn’t just a ludicrous notion which every sensible person knew was out of the question; it went directly against the founding charter of the Areopagus itself. In a fifth-century BC play by the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus, which would have been well known in Paul’s day, the god Apollo inaugurates the court of the Areopagus. And one of the things he says, solemnly and as it were bindingly, is that ‘when a man dies, and his blood is spilled on the ground, there is no resurrection’. Resurrection is flatly ruled out, according to the ground rules of the Areopagus. Paul firmly puts it back in. This is the fulcrum around which the world turns.
And it is resurrection which explains why Jesus is the coming judge. It isn’t anything so trivial as that the resurrection demonstrates Jesus’ divinity, or even his human superiority, and thus qualifies him for this particularly tricky task. Rather, it is that with the resurrection of Jesus God’s new world has begun; in other words, his being raised from the dead is the start, the paradigm case, the foundation, the beginning, of that great setting-right which God will do for the whole cosmos at the end. The risen body of Jesus is the one bit of the physical universe that has already been ‘set right’. Jesus is therefore the one through whom everything else will be ‘set right’.
The double challenge, then, is: first, repent. Turn back from your ways, particularly from your idolatry, your supposing that the gods can be made of gold or silver, or that they live in man-made houses, or that they want or need animal sacrifices! Turn away from these things, give them up, shake yourself free of them. And, second, turn to the living God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9), grope for him and find him (Acts 17:27). You will only do that if you abandon the parodies, the idols that get in the way and distract you from the true God. But it can be done. And it can be done because the living God is at work, changing the times and seasons so that now the day of ignorance is over and the time of revealing the truth has arrived. Recognize where you are in God’s timetable, with the landmark of Jesus’ resurrection to guide you. Think hard about the unknown God, and let new light from the true God flood through this open window and transform you. Leave behind the distant signposts of philosophies, poets and the religious rubbish that humans manufacture. There is a living God, and he is now calling everyone, everywhere.
Paul has not only answered their question, to explain about Jesus and the resurrection. He has shown the Epicureans and Stoics that he isn’t just someone who scatters words around to no good purpose. And, in case anyone should still imagine he might be subversive, he is—but in the way that a person is subversive who, seeing the band struggling to play a difficult piece of music, and making various mistakes, comes along and shows how to play the whole thing perfectly. It may be galling, but they can’t grumble. The tune makes sense. The harmony works. The question of whether they will now want to play it themselves remains open. Luke indicates at the end that some were prepared to try. (Wright, T. Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 [2008, London] pp. 90–94)
The altar with the inscription TO AN UNKNOWN GOD and the legend behind its establishment provided the backdrop for the entire speech. Once, legend had it, there was a terrible plague in the city of Athens and attempts to appease the gods and stop the plague had no effect. One of the wise men of the day brought a flock of sheep to the top of Mars Hill and released them. Wherever these sheep stopped, an altar was set up to an ‘anonymous god’ and the animal was sacrificed. This course of action was allegedly effective, and the city returned to health.
When Luke records that Paul said that what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you, it appears to some readers he was saying that these pagans were doing well—that, in their ignorance, they were worshipping the right God all along and didn’t know it. This is, however, far from the intent, and three points should be borne in mind. First, this forms Paul’s first line of defense to the charge against him, for how can he be accused of preaching a foreign god contrary to their religions, if their religion itself incorporates worship to gods they do not know? Secondly, the translation is misleading. The emphasis in the sentence is not on the identity of the ‘unknown god’ but on the ignorance of the worship. Paul, in the city of ‘the lovers of wisdom’, focused on the ignorance they admitted about the identity of God. Thirdly, although this first paragraph of the speech seems to have a positive thrust, it must be taken in the context of the rest of the speech; Paul was in effect saying, ‘Yes, but …’.
24–29 The second part of the speech shifted more obviously to the attack on idol-worship, using arguments which find their parallels in Jewish thought and writing on the matter. Paul moved on from their admitted ignorance about the true God’s identity, to arguing that they were also ignorant about where God dwells (24), they were wrong about what kind of worship God wanted from them (25–27), and they were wrong about how God can be thought of or represented (28–29). In short, everything about their ‘religiousness’ was in error except for their admission of ignorance.
Paul’s statement that God’s intention is that people would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us again might look as though the pagan has only to reach out and touch God. In fact, the language is that of tragedy. The grammar reinforces that this is God’s wish, rather than what happens. The word used for the ‘seeking’ is a very graphic one, often translated ‘groping’ in the sense of ‘blindly feeling about for’. The negative result is clearly seen in the final clause: ‘though he is not far’ rather than ‘since he is not far’. The point being made is not ‘he is close, so people can find him’ but rather, ‘people cannot find him, but that isn’t because he is far away’. A more literal translation of this passage might thus be: ‘they should seek after God, as if perhaps they might grope around to find him, even though he is not far from each of us.’
Although the NIV sets it in inverted commas, the phrase ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ may be more of a pagan stock phrase than an exact quotation, since words to this effect are found in several pagan writers. The phrase we are his offspring seems most likely to be from a poem to Zeus by the astronomer Aratus, although it is possible that Paul came by this quotation in the work of a Jewish apologist. Paul’s point is not that the pagan poets knew a lot about what was right, but rather that pagan thought and practice were inconsistent and self-contradictory.
30–31 The final part of the speech can only be seen correctly in the context of the whole dispute. It is not intended primarily as a theological outworking of the difficult question of the status of those who had never heard the gospel. The speech purports to concern primarily the altar to the ‘unknown god’ (see on vs 22–23). This altar was used as a sort of precautionary worship; service was offered to this unknown god in order that the city might be spared from catastrophe. Faced with a man who argued that all these precautions were in error and therefore presumably ineffective, any good pagan would have demanded, ‘If we are so wrong, then why is there no catastrophe, no plague?’ It is this question to which the speech responds. That there was no catastrophe was not due, as they thought, to the effectiveness of their idol-worship, but rather to God’s mercy in overlooking their ignorance (note the return to the theme of their ignorance). God now wants all people everywhere to repent; the catastrophe will not be held back for ever: he has set a day when he will judge. The somewhat limited description of Jesus as a man he has appointed is probably an attempt to avoid the impression that Jesus was just another god (see on v 18). Thus, too, rather than using the abstract noun, resurrection, Paul clearly spelled out what he meant by it—all too clearly, it seems. (Gempf, C. Acts. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition [1994, Leicester, England] 4th ed., pp. 1093–1094)
We have seen the power of the gospel to reach rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female. But can the gospel hold its own in the sophisticated intellectual environment of a university town? Luke takes Paul to Athens, to the heart of the very best of pagan culture, the town of Pericles and of Plato.
Frankly, Paul is unimpressed. The sculptures of Phidias move him not. Good Jew that he is, Paul sees Athens as little more than a wasteland “full of idols” (17:16). He argues with Jews, Epicureans, and Stoics, even those who look down their academic noses at this “babbler” (v. 18). Others, after much research and careful investigation, come to the stunning discovery that “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (v. 18), perhaps thinking to absorb whatever new gods Paul brings them into their pantheon of exotic divinities. Their legendary Athenian curiosity leads Paul into the Areopagus, where the Athenians spent their days doing what intellectuals enjoy—relieving their boredom by searching for new ideas. Novelty attracts their attention more quickly than truth. So much for pagan intelligence.
The setting gives Luke an opportunity for an attack upon and an evangelistic appeal to Christianity’s cultured despisers. In a well constructed piece of classical rhetoric, Paul, a virtual Christian Socrates, first flatters his audience (vv. 22–23). Idolaters they may be, but at least they are searching; their impulse to worship is right even if the objects of their worship are wrong. He has seen their altar to “an unknown God” (v. 23). Their religious yearning, even though a bit of a scandal to a monotheistic Jew, is the inarticulate and uninformed yearning of the pagan for the God whom only the Scriptures can disclose.
Sometimes believers look with scorn upon the religious infatuations of Christianity’s cultured despisers. Pagans criticize the Christian faith as being “simplistic,” “pre-scientific,” “superstitious” and then rush to the strange consolations of astrology, transcendental meditation, parapsychology, esoteric cults, or happy hearted humanism. And they have the nerve to call Christians simplistic! Yet Paul might say, as he said on Areopagus, that at least they are searching. They at least know that something else is needed to make sense out of life, to give coherence to the world. The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul in Athens, minister to their searching.
Paul continues. Appealing to their knowledge of creation (for he could not simply recite Scripture to pagans who were ignorant of Scripture) and to our common humanity, Paul asserts that his God “made the world and everything in it” (v. 24). This great God cannot be captured in “shrines made by man” (v. 24) but exists over the face of the whole earth that we all may find our true purpose in his service alone (vv. 28–29). Until now pagan ignorance was overlooked, but now is the time to turn toward the one true God who has not only created the inhabitants of the world but will also judge them (v. 31).
In reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Luke’s Paul borders upon a “natural theology”—our observation of the natural world and its wonders is a forerunner of faith. How can people look up at the stars or ponder the mysteries of the world without imagining a real, though still unknown, divine force behind it all? In citing the verses of a pagan poet (17:28), in drawing upon the pagan’s experience of the world, Paul hopes to move them toward faith by way of the natural world. (The historical Paul used natural theology, not to appeal to pagans but to condemn pagan sinfulness—Rom. 1:18–23.)
Yet Paul cannot convert his audience through an exclusive appeal to their observation of the world. Revelation takes us where observation alone cannot go. Too many people look at growing grass and see only cells dividing, or into the sky and see masses of matter and swirling gas. Natural theology is hardly more than preliminary instruction. Something else is needed. Paul mentions the resurrection—a fact completely contrary to our observation of the way the world works. In nature things die, decay, decline. Death is death. What is done is done, over and finished, ended. Yet Paul concludes his speech with the assertion that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is our “assurance.” Not grass growing in spring, the return of the robin, the opening of the cocoon, or any other naturalistic drivel; the resurrection, something beyond the natural, is the final assurance that this one is “Lord of heaven and earth” (17:24).
In mentioning the resurrection, Paul risks rejection by his audience. They may agree to a created world and to our common humanity, but there is no possible “natural theology” evidence for an assertion of the resurrection. Appeals to reason and to observation of the natural world can only be taken so far in the proclamation of the gospel. Eventually revelation must be invoked and the scandal of faith to reason and experience must be made plain.
There are limits, limits imposed by the nature of the gospel, on the evangelist’s ability to “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). The response to Paul’s address is much the same as he encountered elsewhere: Some mocked (v. 32), others believed (v. 34)—including two prominent Athenians.
Christian proclamation is not to be judged merely by its success in winning an approving response. Where the Word is faithfully preached, some believe, some mock—for even the oratorical skill of Paul cannot remove the offense of the gospel, in fact it accentuates it.
Calvin charged that “the human mind is a perpetual factory for idols.” Idolatry is not necessarily the pastime of the ignorant and the simple. Intellectuals play the game quite well. Natural inquisitiveness and delight in the novel and the strange, so prevalent in the academy, can be little more than the itch for some new graven image. The God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion, not an accommodating God content to be one among many. The God who sent the Christ is still the Holy One of Israel, a jealous deity without rivals, an exclusive lover who tolerates no competition—money, sex, philosophical ideals, institutions—who fiercely judges all idols made by hands or minds of men.(Willimon, W. H. Acts [1988, Atlanta, GA] pp. 142–145)
There is so much that can be used this Sunday. We have the idea of idolatry along with our inability to really see God. We are so good at manufacturing our idea of God into God we miss God again and again. We also need to remind ourselves that even when the word is preached correctly, that some believe and some mock. No matter how clearly, we preach the power and love of Jesus, some will refuse to hear and see.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In the very beginning of the passage we’re told, “[Paul] reasoned … in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ ”
Here are a couple of things we learn. The first thing we learn under the problems of culture is that Paul sees the gospel not as just something that brings you private, personal peace and help. He also saw the gospel as for the public square, for public discourse. When it says he went into the marketplace, you and I right away think of shopping, but the marketplace, or the agora, was actually the cultural center.
Where did you get news? You didn’t have newspapers. You hardly even had books. How did you get news? You went to the marketplace where you heard the news, where it was proclaimed, where the heralds came, and so on. That was the media center. What about the financial world? Where did businesses and investors meet one another and do their deals? It was in the agora. The agora was also the financial center.
Where was the art performed? It was in the agora. Where were the political ideas of the day debated and presented? In the agora. Where were the latest philosophical trends talked about and debated? It was all in the agora. Now you have to remember that Athens and Rome were the two cultural centers of the cultural centers. That is to say, the ideas that were forged there and accepted there flowed out and set the course for how all the people in the society lived and thought.
Paul is not intimidated. He plunges right in. Notice something. It says he reasoned in the marketplace. It’s very important to bring that word out. The Greek word is dialegomai. You probably heard dialogue in there, but your and my understanding of dialogue is too generic. This word means the Socratic reasoning. Socratic reasoning wasn’t just debate. It certainly wasn’t preaching. He did not go into the marketplace and get up on a soapbox and just say, “Here’s the truth.”
Socratic reasoning means you ask questions. You find out the other person’s premises. You listen very carefully. Then you try to show them they’re wrong on the basis of their own premises. This is really what we mean by engagement. The word engagement comes up all the time. We talk about being culturally engaged. This is engagement. This isn’t even debate.
Certainly, the televised debates you’ve seen are nothing like this, where people are basically just going through their talking points. This means really listening, really asking questions, really getting into one another’s points of view. That is where Paul goes. He goes to the center of the center of the culture, and he gets out the gospel, which shows he believes the gospel has what it takes to challenge the most dominant ideas of a culture.
It has what it takes to really engage the thinking public and the cultural elites. He had no doubt about that, and he plunges in and begins to do all that. What this means for you and me, by the way … You’re in New York. You’re in the media world and the financial world and the art world. You’re in all of these worlds. If you’re a Christian believer, what should you be doing there?
On the one hand, you don’t just preach. You don’t just say, “Here’s how it is.” On the other hand, you don’t just hide and seal your faith off from your work. You engage, because the gospel has what it takes not just to give you peace and love and happiness in your inner life. It also challenges the dominant ideas of any particular culture.
The second thing I want to point out is that we’re in a position to see the irony of what happens here. Because of where we stand in history, we can see the irony. What do I mean? Well, Paul is basically mocked. When we get to the end, we’re going to see they sneer at him. There are very little in the way of conversions.
Up here it says, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ ” It’s an interesting word they use there. It’s a word that literally means a seed-picking bird. It was an idiom for a person who didn’t have any original ideas but who took a lot of other ideas, brought them together, recycled them, and put them forth as his own. It was an insult, just to let you know.
In other words, the cultural elites just laughed. The irony is that within the next 250 years or so, Christianity swept that society and completely changed the dominant cultural ideas. People looked at Christianity at that point and said, “This is silly. This is ridiculous. What intelligent person would believe that?” Within a couple hundred years, pretty much all intelligent people believed it.
Now there’s an awful lot of discussion about how that happened. There are a lot of historians who wrestle with, “How did that happen?” The basic idea is (Paul actually gets at this a little bit later on) every culture has a soft underbelly. Every culture has weaknesses. That is, people have problems. People have aspirations. People have issues. The dominant cultural ideas try to answer those, but very often cultures can’t do that very well.
Christianity came along and answered those aspirations and dealt with those problems better than the dominant cultural ideas and the cultural elites, and things changed. What do I mean by that? Well, there’s a little hint of this in the text, where it says he debated with the Stoics and the Epicureans. Here’s an overgeneralization, and those of you with a degree in philosophy are going to say, “He’s overgeneralizing.” I know. How much time do I have? I have to overgeneralize, okay? Come on; be nice.
The point is the Stoics were basically the moralists and the Epicureans were basically the relativists. The moralists and the relativists. The Stoics believed in moral absolutes, and they believed that the meaning of life was to be good and virtuous and noble and courageous. Of course, from the word Stoics you might guess this. They particularly had a view that the meaning of life was to not let life get to you.
When suffering came, you needed to detach your heart. You needed to harden yourself. You didn’t weep. You didn’t break down. You didn’t grieve. You did what it took so nothing made you sweat and nothing made you cry, because the meaning of life was to be a strong person. Historians say this didn’t work for most people. When suffering and grief and trouble came, it didn’t work for most people.
When Christianity came along and said, “Hope, eternal life, resurrection,” that was considerably more comforting and more helpful to people who were suffering. Christians suffered so well, they died so well, that it had a cultural impact. Stoicism didn’t really work for most people. I just read a book recently in which a historian who was not a Christian said that.
Then you look at the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed that when you died, that was it. There might be some gods, but if so, they’re so remote they have nothing to do with us. The Epicureans said, “The meaning of life is not to be good and virtuous; it’s to be happy. It’s to live your life the way you want. You need to be free, and you should live for pleasure, because this life is all you have and you need to live for pleasure.”
The Epicureans believed the importance was to be happy, and therefore, they also talked a lot about sexual freedom. Again, historians wonder why the Christian view of sex, which was on the surface more restrictive, would have won in that cultural context. The answer is because the idea that sex is something you do to make yourself happy leads to loneliness.
The seemingly more restrictive Christian view of sex led to greater unity and greater fulfillment in the long run. As a result, it came along, and Christianity found that was a weakness in the culture. The Epicurean approach didn’t work. I’m constantly hearing people say, almost every day, the Christian view of sex is outdated. “You have to get with the program. Things have changed. The Christian view of sex is outdated.”
To say that shows a real ignorance of history, because Christianity was born in a culture like we have right now. The average person in New York City’s view of sex is the average view of a person in the Greco-Roman world. Christianity was born in a place that had the view of sex we have in New York City, but it didn’t work.
Christians ought to say, “Been there, done that.” Two thousand years ago we saw the very same situation, and Christians knew that part of their cultural power, part of the things that made them soar, was they saw through the ethic that says, “You need to be free to have sex with who you want to have sex.”
Here’s one more thing. The Stoics believed there were moral absolutes, and they called the moral absolutes “the logos.” The word logos actually means … You hear the word logic in there. It means reason. But the word Logos meant the meaning of life, the rational structure behind the universe.
What the Stoics believed was that there was a set of moral absolutes, that if you were a wise enough philosopher, you could discern what was reality, what was true. It’s a little bit like Plato. You have to discern what right and wrong are, you have to discern what the meaning of things is, and you did that through contemplation. You did that through philosophy.
Christianity came along and said, “Oh yes, there is a logos. There is a meaning to life. There is a structure behind the universe, but it’s a person. The logos is Jesus. If you want to know the meaning of life and how you ought to live, the way you get in touch with that is not to contemplate philosophically an abstraction but to have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, Jesus Christ.”
Do you realize how that changed everything? That is so much more gracious, because in that case, it’s not just for philosophers. Here’s how to know the meaning of life without having to be a philosopher. It’s so much warmer. It’s a matter of love. It’s a matter of relationship. The Stoics believed in moral absolutes, but they were cold. The Epicureans said, “Live any way you want,” and that was empty and lonely.
Christianity came along and said, “There really are moral absolutes, but the moral absolute is a person, and the way you get to know the meaning of life is to have a love relationship with a person.” That swept. In other words, every culture has its weaknesses. Even when the cultural elites are sneering at Christianity, there are weaknesses, and we have our weaknesses. Christians must realize that, ultimately, Christianity can speak to the culture at those places of weakness.
You say, “Well, what are our weaknesses?” Well, that’s another sermon, another talk, but they’re there. We have morality today, but we have no basis for it. I’ll get to that in a second. We want community, but at the same time we destroy it because we say everybody has to have individual freedom. We have a lot of the same problems, actually, because we have Stoics and Epicureans today. They just aren’t called that. And they actually can’t fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart. (Keller, T. J The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013 [2013, New York] pp. 142–145)
UNKNOWN GOD (Gk. agnṓstos theós). The text of an inscription on an altar seen by Paul at Athens (Acts 17:23), which he used as the theme of his Areopagus address (vv. 22–31). The Greek geographer Pausanias (second century A.D.) noted the existence of “altars to gods unknown” between the harbor Phalerum and the city of Athens; Diogenes Laertius told of similar altars erected to avert a plague at Athens. The fact that no altar with the exact inscription “to an unknown God” (in the singular) has been discovered has led some commentators to believe that Paul changed the plural into the singular for the sake of the monotheistic message of his speech. Whatever the wording of the original inscription, Paul seized this opportunity to acquaint the religious citizens of Athens with the previously unknown “Lord of heaven and earth.” (Myers, A. C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary [1987, Grand Rapids, MI] p. 1029)
“So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (17:27 NRSV). Does Paul’s speech to the Athenians offer contemporary readers a model for engaging the secular intellectuals of our day? Many think so. While different language and ideas are required to contemporize Paul’s message, his core ideas about religious culture and God remain relevant and important. This prospect challenges two assumptions still prevalent about the gospel. On the one hand, by playing the role of Socrates in a university town Paul challenges the anti-intellectualism among believers today who are deeply suspicious of secular “learning.” On the other hand, believers should not be intimidated by those pundits who characterize the Christian gospel as unintelligible superstition or as an equal among many religious options. Especially in our day when ideologies once considered on the margins for lack of evidence and common sense have become mainstream, the gospel thoughtfully presented has never sounded more attractive to those earnestly searching for ultimate answers.
The rhetorical design of Paul’s speech is noteworthy because of its comprehensiveness and internal coherence. Each statement by turns calls his auditors for a conversion of sorts; and every “small” conversion leads them step-by-step toward the risen Christ. Paul’s opening observations about idolatry call for an admission that even pagans seek spiritual satisfaction, although “groping” in ignorance. While we should admit that some skeptics reject out of hand the very idea of a spiritual reality, most do give expression to their spiritual yearning by their adherence to the values and core convictions of one or another “ism”—scientism, materialism, individualism, nationalism, naturalism, humanism, and so on. A commitment to any of these worldviews shapes loyalties and informs decisions. Following Paul’s pattern, then, the initial moment in conversion is a people’s recognition that they order their lives according to some ultimate loyalty, staking their futures on something or someone in which they believe. In this sense, all people are religious. Such an agreement about religious pluralism marks the beginning point of a conversation that narrows the choices to Christ.
Admission of God’s knowability comes next, followed by a robust summary of what then can be known about God: God is Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign, Benefactor, Judge. We should also take note that while Paul does not cite Scripture and uses language suitable for this academic setting and secular audience, the content of his theological summary is thoroughly biblical. True to the core biblical idea, then, God is transcendent yet personal, vastly superior to some detached deity that consigns humankind to the vicissitudes of fortune. God is not some provincial deity, the God of a few; nor is God unmoved and unconcerned about the struggles of real people in particular places. God is truly worthy of worship.
Yet Paul regards philosophical speculation as the means to a missionary end. Although the church cannot preach the risen Jesus without a comprehensive profile of the biblical God persuasively presented, neither can the church be content to construct new and more relevant models of God for popular consumption without also calling for repentance and faith in Christ. Thus, Paul’s speech concludes with a call to repentance that is predicated on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, God’s ultimate judgment of sin and death.
To agree with this concluding claim is not a matter of theological proofs but of personal faith. Even those who may have agreed with everything Paul has said to this point about God will find a final decision in favor of his gospel profoundly difficult to make. Those Athenians who scornfully interrupt Paul at the very moment he turns his speech toward the resurrection of Jesus and God’s coming triumph are indicative of the scandal of faith (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25). I doubt that the real difficulty with the gospel is finally one of knowledge: there is no lack of evidence or intellectual integrity in Paul’s presentation. The problem provoked by Paul’s appeal to the resurrection is a more practical one, since it calls for a complete reordering of what one thinks and how one lives. The confession that the living Jesus is the only Messiah and the one Lord (see 2:36) means that all other competing loyalties and practices must be set aside in order to begin a new life with him. Most in Athens are unable to do this, and secular intellectuals today face a similar challenge when they encounter the gospel. (Wall, R. W. The Acts of the Apostles. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 10, pp. 249–250)
A catalyst is an agent inserted into a chemical reaction that does not change itself, but effects the chemical reaction between two other substances.
In England, attorneys are referred to as “solicitors” or “advocates,” in different contexts. Solicitors may argue cases only in inferior courts, but advocates or barristers practice in the high courts. An advocate stands with you, supporting you with considerable knowledge of the law, and courtroom experience. In new situations, we need the comforting and encouraging presence of one who “knows the ropes.”
One can think of countless examples of those who stand beside us in challenging situations: the guide on the mountain trail, the anesthesiologist who monitors our vital signs during surgery, the EMT who rides with us in the ambulance, the coach who guides our performance in athletics, the director of a film or play, the conductor who leads the orchestra. None of these are in the spotlight: instead, each one guides the principal actors or players.
I once went out in the country to visit a member of my rural parish who had not attended church for quite a while. “How come we don’t see you in worship, Jean?” I asked. “Well, Reverend,” he replied, “I always thought it was like marriage: it didn’t matter whether you came home at night, you were still married.” I was speechless.
In a recent poll of people in the film business, it was asked which character was the most admired. A large plurality of film business people chose Atticus Finch, the defense attorney and father of Scout, in the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck’s unforgettable portrayal of the attorney who at great risk to himself defended an unpopular black man accused of a heinous crime was so moving, noble, and inspiring that the character won hands down over all others.
“I won’t leave you orphaned!” This is a poignant promise of Jesus, one to which my mother clung. So she would pray throughout the day as she scrubbed floors, weeded her flowers, waited on tables, emptied bed pans, and made beds. I learned from her that the Advo-cate of whom Jesus speaks takes delight when we are obedient in our behavior and grateful in our attitude. She demonstrated that mature religious faith involved showing up on Sundays and not letting folk go through deep waters alone. There are numerous things you can do on your knees and they all seem to involve humble service— effective mothers understand this and teach it to their children; persistent disciples of Jesus gain mature awareness of this and demonstrate it to their neighbors. These many things, done from our knees, signal to the world around us the “gentleness and reverence of the hope that is within us.”
There are many things one can do to improve the quality of life in our community and nation. A return to public prayer, mutual respect and gratitude for the blessings of liberty would go a long way to enhancing our life together. Few institutions besides the church have the collective ability to promote these values. Instead of waiting for another government program, or milking a corporation for grant money, let us lift our own voices and exert our own muscles to redirect this nation, so that we once more are truly a people “under God.”
My experience as a therapist of over twenty five years has led me to this conclusion: it is worse for a child to grow up with a parent who abandons the family in some fashion yet remains alive than to suffer the death of that parent. Death is an abandonment that can be fixed in time and space from which one can move forward. Abandonment is a death in which there is the daily dashing of the hope that "this may be the day my abandonment will end.’ This is what makes the promise of Jesus so powerfully attractive – and makes the experience of his faithfulness so powerfully relieving.
One of the many small details of invention that fill J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is a little device called a “Remembrall.” This is a small ball filled with smoke that changes color when you have forgotten something. What an interesting image that could be of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes clear that one role of the Spirit is to help us remember all that Jesus has taught us. It would be interesting to reflect on how the color of our lives changes when we forget what Jesus has taught us.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit means not just following God in superficial ways, but following God with our whole being. Being filled with the Holy Spirit means that God plays a role not only in the parts of our lives that are visible to other people, but that God plays a role even in those parts of our lives that are unseen by others. A survey conducted in the United Kingdom by Bold detergent found that 19% of respondents admitted “to ironing just the front side of their clothes.” (Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], p. 89)
One of the main ways we become aware of the Spirit’s voice is by reading the Scriptures. With the abundance of Bibles available today in so many different translations and editions, we might fail to realize how rare personal ownership of Bibles was in prior periods. For instance, when the first Gutenberg Bible was published in 1456, the price for it was “the equivalent of what a person would have to pay for a large town house in a German city.” Yet as the printing process began to evolve, by 1520 Bibles became an affordable luxury, available to a larger section of the populace. (Alister McGrath, In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture [New York: Anchor, 2001], p. 18)
The Holy Spirit takes our requests, relays them to God, and then delivers to us the guidance we seek. The McDonald’s franchises in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Brainerd, Minnesota, and Norwood, Massachusetts, have introduced a new way to process their drive-thru order-taking. Now when you talk into the microphone in Missouri to order your Big Mac, your request is being received and processed by a call center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The person in Colorado then sends the information back to the Missouri restaurant, where the employees have the meal ready in less time than it takes the average McDonald’s. On average, those McDonald’s “are able to process and prepare an order in thirty seconds and with fewer errors than before.” As a further measure to avoid mistakes, a digital picture is taken of the vehicle making the order, so that employees can make sure it matches the vehicle they eventually hand the food to. (New York Times, 7/19/04)
Jesus declares that the people who belong to the world are not able to see or understand the Spirit of truth that God speaks. A recent study indicates that “dogs are able to comprehend quite a bit of the language that humans speak.” Researchers in Germany found that a border collie named Rico “is able to understand more than 200 words and can learn new words as quickly as many children can.” An American Kennel Club board member pointed out that many pet owners already realize that with their own dogs. Accordingly, that is why many dog owners spell, rather than speak, such words as bath, pill, or vet. In this particular German experiment, they found that Rico knows the names of dozens of play toys and can find the exact one that his owner calls for. The size of Rico’s vocabulary is approximately the same as that of apes, dolphins, and parrots that have been taught to understand words. Rico, though, can even take the next step. He is able to determine what new words mean. The researchers put several familiar play toys in a room with him, along with one that Rico had never seen before. Rico’s owner then asked him to fetch a toy, using the name of the toy that the dog had never heard before. Seven times out of ten, Rico retrieved the correct toy. A month later, the border collie was asked to fetch the same toy, even though he had not seen it or heard that word since the first test. Half the time he succeeded in bringing the correct toy. Scientists say that Rico’s success rate was the equivalent of that of a typical three-year-old. (Associated Press, 6/10/04)
Sometimes we fail to receive the message the Holy Spirit is trying to speak to us because we are involved in receiving so many other messages. Some churches in Mexico, though, are taking steps to correct that problem. Four churches in the city of Monterrey have installed state-of-the-art technology that was developed by Israeli electronic warfare experts. The devices effectively silence cell phones that ring during mass. The signal-jamming equipment “is contained in two wall-mounted boxes the size of small stereo speakers, with one located beside the altar and the other at the church entrance.” The devices are turned on just prior to the start of each mass, causing worshiper’s cell phones to indicate “no signal” while the service is in progress. Other churches throughout Mexico are now eager to follow suit. (Reuters, 9/22/04)
Jesus promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. However, an extremely small percentage of the general population appears to already be gifted with being able to discern the truth, at least when it comes to being able to tell if a person is lying or not. Of the 13,000 people that psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan tested, only 31 qualified as being “wizards” at being able to detect when someone was lying to them. The professor at the University of San Francisco suggests that there are two basic categories of clues as to when someone is lying: thinking clues and emotional clues. Emotional clues include brief facial gestures, such as a grimace that might indicate that a person is feeling uncomfortable about having just told a lie or a smile that perhaps indicates the person feels smug about possibly fooling someone with a lie. Thinking clues include hesitations in speech, which might be a sign that the person is pausing to create a lie; or sometimes people reveal their lying by offering vague details in their description of what they are talking about. In the professor’s study, she found that men and women were just about equally represented in the “wizard” category. In her analysis of government workers where lie detection is an important skill, O’Sullivan found that FBI and CIA agents rate only average in their lie-detecting ability. The strongest performing group was the Secret Service. (Associated Press, 10/14/04)
We all need guidance so that we know when we need to make a change in our lives. The next time someone offers to let you use their cell phone, the person might be attempting to offer you that kind of guidance. A company in Germany is in the process of developing a new kind of cell phone that comes with a sensor attached to it. The purpose of the sensor is to monitor the air and let you know if you have bad breath or if you are giving off any kind of offensive odors. (Reuters, 9/22/04)
When we finally realize that we are not able to guide our lives by ourselves, the Holy Spirit stands prepared to step in and lead us in the right ways. Cliff Schimmels tells about a young boy who was helping his farmer father with the work one day. After they loaded the wagon, the father asked his son, “Would you like to drive?” Immediately the boy jumped at the chance to take the reins into his own hands. At first, the child was thrilled and felt completely in control as the two horses plodded along in front. After a while, their pace seemed to slow, so the boy jiggled the reins in order to get them to move faster. Before he knew it, though, the boy discovered that the two horses were racing ahead at a full gallop. He tried his best to pull on the reins and to plead with the horses to slow down, but nothing seemed to work. And to the boy’s astonishment, his father was just sitting there watching the scenery go by as the wagon flew nearly out of control. The reins were now cutting into the boy’s hands, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, the boy turned to his father and begged, “Here, Daddy, I don’t want to drive anymore.” (Alice Gray, Stories for the Heart [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1996], pp. 227-28)
The knowledge the Holy Spirit wants to impart to us can never be fully comprehended. Rather the pursuit of the Spirit’s guidance is a lifelong endeavor: “No generation can claim to have plumbed to the depths the unfathomable riches of Christ. The Holy Spirit has promised to lead us step by step into the fullness of truth.” (Leon Joseph Suenens)
The Holy Spirit is God’s way of touching the very core of our being: “One person works upon another person from outside inwards, but God alone comes to us from within outwards.” (Jan van Ruysbroeck)
The Spirit enables us to do what God commands: “The Spirit’s control will replace sin’s control. His power is greater than the power of all your sin.” (Erwin W. Lutzer)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Bless our God, O peoples.
People: Let the sound of his praise be heard.
Leader: Come and hear, all you who fear God.
People: I will tell what he has done for me.
Holy God, we confess that we have strayed from your ways and your paths. You point us to peace, but we choose conflict and strife. You point us to righteousness, but we choose arrogance and self-centeredness. You point us to love, but we choose apathy and anger. Turn us around, Lord, and give us the courage to follow your truth and your path. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Merciful God, thank you for your many blessings. We dedicate these tithes and offerings to your glory for the advancement of your Kingdom. In Jesus name, Amen.
God of promise, we thank you for your love and grace toward us. We know that when we pray, you hear our prayers. We pray with confidence knowing that you hear our needs, our joys, and our concerns for others.
We pray for our broken world. We know we do not live in the world that you created, this perfect Eden that was your design. Instead, our world is full of sin, war, anger, and self-centeredness. We pray for countries entangled in war, for people whose daily lives include gunfire, terror, and fear.
We pray for our nation and community. We pray for those living in poverty, those who are coping with loss, those whose voices are not heard. We pray for our own church, for those who are ill or injured. Teach us how to be Christ to one another during good times as well as hard time. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.