Monday, May 14, 2018

Paul and Idols: Distressed or Excited?

Acts 17: 22-31
May 13, 2018

 Pr. Wiese and Gethsemane people share a devotion
at the Aeropagus around 1997,
in Athens, Greece
where Paul's speech was delivered
You can’t be around church much without
hearing how much things have changed.
Even the casual church goer can see that
there are fewer people attending
to church than there 
was even 15 years ago.
Even to someone who’s 
never set foot in a church
can see that church going 
isn’t as prevalent as it was 50 years ago.

In this climate of a changing church
we often hear about the Nones –  the  ones who claim “none” or no denomination or religion on forms or the “spiritual  but not religious” who who have a spiritual center, but don’t find the answer in a particular practice.

And the biggest change across our lifetime,
is probably the fact that we all have many people
in our lives who don’t worship regularly or at all,
some in our immediate families.
We certainly have many people in this category
among our friends, acquaintances, in the work place
and in our community.

And a common response to this reality for Christians
is to see all of these people with a combination of pity and angst, 
we wring our hands and clutch our pearls.
We are annoyed and offended, and we
wonder what has gone wrong with them,
and why can’t they be more like us.
In short we feel distressed at the thought that everyone isn’t
going to church like they did in the old days.

The result of this is that Christians have, in a way, set up a
confrontational relationship between Christians and non-Christians,
or Non practices or Spiritual but not religious.
Them  and us. There’s an animosity that can be
felt by outsiders whether its overt or covert.
And I wonder if this is 1.) useful, and
2.) if it’s in line with what we find in scripture.

It may seem obvious, but it’s good to remind ourselves
that In the time of Acts, there was 
no “old days” of the church to go back to.
They had no old times to reminisce about and
feel defeated that they’re not living up to yet.
The world had not yet met Jesus.
Christianity was not the norm in society,
Everyone they met was doing something else.
Maybe we should model ourselves more like them
than we were just a few decades ago.

In this part of Acts,
Paul and Silas are making their way around the coast of Greece from
Philippi where they were imprisoned in the
chapter before this to Thessalonica, Beroea and now to Athens.

While in Athens, at the beginning of chapter 17,
in our translation, it says that Paul was “distressed”
to see that the city was full of idols.
Other more liberal translations say that he was
 “angry”  at the prevalence of the idols.

Lots of Christians have used this line of scripture
to justify their “distress” and anger and condemnation of “Idol” worship,
lumping everything into that category from Buddhism
and paganism, and other religions, to those who have no religion,
to the Nones and the spiritual but not religious
even to calling other Christians idol worshippers.
(I know this because I found lots of this when I looked this up this week)
They use this line to further deepen
that confrontational relationship between Them and Us.

I rarely use Greek, so if you enjoy it, soak it in now:
The phrase that is translated as “distressed” in the NRSV
is parōx-y-neto to pneuma en auto
which literally translated means,
“his spirit was stirred in him”
pneuma is spirit and paroxyneto is stirred,
or sharpened or heightened.

Now I think “distressed” seems a far stretch from
“a stirred or heightened spirit”
I think the translators took some liberties here
that they didn’t need to take.
(and sure enough, the King James Version
translates it as “his spirit was stirred within him”)

So I’m thinking, at seeing all these idols around Athens,
maybe Paul was not so much distressed or angry
as much as excited and motivated.
Maybe Paul didn’t see a place that he needed to condemn
for their choice of religious practices,
as much as a fertile ground of spiritual activity.
A place where people are tuned into the divine
and are searching for something larger than themselves.
Maybe Paul didn’t see Athens as a bunch of “them”
as much as more of “us”.

And when I read the speech Paul gives today,
I don’t think I’m on shaky ground with this.

It says that the people of Athens were into debating
others and always looking for a new theory or philosophy.
As Paul was going around in the synagogues and
in the market places and preaching and teaching about
Jesus resurrection, they were intrigued and so they
bring him to the Areopagus, or literally, Mars Hill,
it also referred to the council that would meet there.
So this speech was kind of a public hearing of sorts.

And he starts his speech like this,
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”
He sees that their minds and hearts are focused
on the spiritual and the divine. He doesn’t say he’s distressed.
He mentions that he saw an altar
with the inscription “to an unknown god”.
And he tells them that they might not know who this God is,
but he knows who this God is . It is the creator of everything,
He goes on to this, what I think is a beautiful and inclusive speech:

“From one ancestor (or blood) he made us all nations
to inhabit the whole earth, and he limited their time
on earth and set them in certain places
so that they would search for him,
even grope for him, because he is not far from any of us.”

“God is not far from any of us.

And then he quotes their own poetry
which he probably read while touring around:
“In him we live and move and have our being,
for we too are his offspring
This could have been lifted from the gospel of John.
The poetry of these pagan idol worshippers
says that we all are “children of God”.

Paul admires the similarities between
the search for truth between the
worshippers of Athens and his own
search for spiritual truth.

As Paul goes onto say, that the truth has been revealed
to him in the form of Christ Jesus who was raised from the dead.
And he invites them to join him in that truth.

The truth has been revealed to us in Jesus,
who was crucified by those who held the
survival of their religious institution above
 the presence of God that was right in front of them.

The truth has been revealed to us in Jesus
who broke down the barriers between sacred and unsacred.
Who removed the line between them and us.
So that we can look past our religious labels and see
that we all “live and move and have our being in the same spirit,
and that we are all offspring of the same God too.”

Because of Jesus,
Paul saw these people as spiritual equals.
He appealed to their understanding
he respected their poets and words,
he found common ground and was stirred in his spirit
to share the truth that he knew.

Instead us being distressed and mourning
the changes that have happened in our institution
and being hung up on how we miss the way things
used to be, what if we take a moment and,
like I said last week,
see what God is doing here with this situation.

Maybe the shrinking of our churches
is a sign of God’s presence, not absence.
Maybe God is shaking us up, forcing us to think a different way,
or doing something even more creative here
that we’ll only find out later.

Maybe God is using the seeker, the Nones,
the spiritual but not religious,
the agnostic, atheist, the secular humanist,
and all of the above, to further the kingdom of God.

God created and loves everything
And the Spirit will go and do what it wants when it wants.
God is already at work in the world,
in so many different and new ways,
and we are just here to look for those places,
and join in when we can.
I hope we can see the world as Paul saw it,
not a place to be threatened and distressed by,
but a place that stirs our spirit.
A place where we see spiritual longing everywhere
a world full of people who are groping for God,
because God is not far from any of us.

As the Church, we are called to see beyond our
own boundaries and prejudices and hang ups
and learn deep spiritual truths from everyone around us,
religious or not religious
and rejoice in the Spirit that doesn’t know
any boundaries and goes where it will.

We are the Church.
God’s vision of the kingdom is our agenda.
The grace of Christ feeds us.
The Spirit  is our enabler.
We are called to reach out and invite in.

We are the Church.
It is as faulty as the people who make it,
and yet God has entrusted us with the
vision of the kingdom in this world.

We are the Church.
It is good to be the Church.
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.

No comments:

Post a Comment