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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before May 21, 2017


Acts 17:22-34

22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

What I Am Learning:

First let’s notice where Paul is. He is in a public space where Athenians gathered to debate and ponder what life is all about. Paul follows Jesus’ way of engaging people in the public square, and things did not always go the way he might have wanted. At the end of his speech some scoffed at him. Others, however were open to more conversation. A few began to live changed lives.

Second, Paul has spent time understanding the culture, and the ways of thinking and speaking of the Athenians. You will notice that he doesn’t spend a lot of time quoting Hebrew scripture in this public speech. While he is careful to express themes that any Jewish or Christian theologian would agree with, he quotes philosophers and poets who the Athenians knew and respected. In short, Paul respected them, event while he offered a critique of their way of approaching life, and life together.

Paul honors how devoted they were to the gods. I don’t like the translation of the Greek word deisidaimoœn as “religious.”  The word religious implies a difference between “secular” and “religious”. Athenians would not have agreed with this difference. They, like all ancient peoples, saw the sacred as infusing of all of life with meaning and vitality. The word “religion” as a reference to faith traditions only began to be used in the 17th century. This is why I don’t use the word “religion” without quotes any more.

The word deisidaimoœn could better be translated as “devoted to the gods.” The Athenians were deeply devoted to rituals that honored the many gods they believed influenced their lives. And of course, this is the problem. Many of them were devoted the gods to get something in return - rituals that reduced the mystery of life to so many quid pro quos, so many favors for the favored. Instead of human life being a sacred journey of meaning and mystery in which we are responsible to and for each other, it’s just one long sordid attempt to control life through our “devotions”.

The other problem here is that how we imagine God becomes how we imagine human beings and human communities. Those who shape and form, whether through art, language or economic systems, our imagination of God thus constrain how we human beings understand ourselves. Instead of a God of mystery and depth who creates humans in God’s own image, we end up with a diminished god and a two-dimensional view of humans.

Greek poets and philosophers were aware of these problems and Paul quotes two of them.

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides in Cretica

We too are his offspring

Aratus, (flourished c. 315–c. 245 bc, Macedonia),

The Cretans wanted to take the God they could not control and kill God, put God in the ground and bury God there. Cretans, he says, rejected truth, despised their own humanity and went only to fill their bellies with Funions. But God cannot be buried, says this mystic poet, because God is the very ground of our existence. We live in God, we grow and change and learn and seek meaning in God and have our very existence in God. The limitless of God leads to a fuller appreciation of the mystery and dignity of human life - we are God’s offspring who God cares for like offspring. So are others.

What Paul is saying in this passage is that the character of this mysterious God, has been revealed in Jesus, who as Epimenides suggested, could not be kept in a tomb.

Of course, Jesus story differed from that of Epimenides poem. Jesus was killed, put in a tomb, and stayed there until he was raised.

The God revealed in Jesus, Paul seems to be saying, cannot be reduced to a holy vending machine. Nor can human beings and our life together be reduced so seeking favor so we can survive, or others seen as mere competitors for scarce resources given only to those who offer proper devotions.

Paul is not engage here in some attempt to convert people to his way of thinking. He is making a plea to them to see the beauty and mystery and dignity of their own lives - and the lives of others.

While deeply being a Jewish Christian, Paul recognizes and honors the wisdom of other traditions.

A part of our tradition is “the day when God will judge the world in righteousness”.

Most deeply, this part of the tradition says that we live in a universe in which what we do, how we treat others and the kind of systems we help create matters. The word “righteousness” basically means “works for life and wholeness.” In other words, Paul is not making a tribalistic argument that if people are not Christians they will burn in hell forever. What he is saying is that the God revealed in Jesus cares about the real condition of human beings and holds all of us accountable for our impact on others.

Please don’t read middle ages heaven and hell into this truth telling day. Rather see Paul attempting to encourage them to take this opportunity to evaluate their lives and the way their community functioned for the poor. Remember that the Hebrew tradition of the “Day of the Lord” was commonly invoked to deal with a lack of equity and justice - not as an invitation to write off our responsibility as fellow human beings because others live or believe differently from us.

Like the Athenians, we too live in a world of many idols, of many gods, that compete for humans to identify with them. The other day I heard of a man who had a memorial service with a pro football team theme. But the most powerful god of the moment is the “market economy” that is held up as the ultimate good - reducing human beings to producers and consumers.

But like all people captured by an idol, we don’t know it is an idol. That is why we need truth tellers to help us see what we are bowing down to and invite us to rise up to honor the creator of all life, and thus the created, beautiful, mysterious and ever deepening live within us and among us.