May 21, 2017
Perhaps you've noticed that during the Easter Season the Old Testament reading is replaced by reading from the book of Acts. This has tripped up more than one pastor over the years, as we are creatures of habit. And so I'm always wary about announcing “Today's Old Testament Reading is from the New Testament book of Acts”. One way of looking at this is that in these readings from Acts we are seeing the immediate “effects of Easter”, as the early church grew and the message of the Gospel spread. The risen Jesus had sent his apostles to carry that message from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and eventually, to the ends of the earth. Today, we pick up with St. Paul, who certainly traveled to the ends of the earth, on a visit to Athens, Greece.
As was his custom, when Paul entered the city he first preached to the Jews in the synagogue. But he also made time to preach to the pagans of the city, and even the intellectuals who whiled away their days in discussions of philosophy and ideas. Some weren't so impressed with his preaching, and called him a “babbler”. Some seemed to think he was preaching about foreign gods, as pagans often thought of gods as being localized to a certain country.
They took him to a prominent rock outcropping - a place called the Areopagus - “Ares Rock”, named after one of their gods (later the Romans called it “Mars Hill” after their version of the god of war). Here was a sort of a city cultural center, but also a place where trials were held. In a way, they now put St. Paul on trial – and ask him to defend these “new teachings” and “strange things” brought to their ears.
Strange things. I'm sure what Paul was preaching sounded very strange to these Greek intellectuals. Strange, not just because he was a foreigner, a Jew. Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”! And what could be stranger than that?
For as much as these men, or any men, seek out new ideas and different religions, unique and unheard of systems of belief, all of that is really the same. The religion of man is the religion of works. And while it comes in many different guises, under many names and forms – it always boils down to the same, a religion of law. A religion in which you must do something or not do something in order to get something from some god, or force, or universal principle. Meditate to gain enlightenment. Build up your good karma to get a better spot in reincarnation. Pray the right way, live the right way, think the right way – and blessings will come your way.
And so when critics of religion and shallow observers of these many worldviews claim that all religions are basically the same and aim to teach you to be a good person, there is some truth to it. But there's one major exception – there's one religion, one faith, in which you can't do the right thing, but in which God does all good for you. You earn nothing, but he gives you everything as a pure gift. Not a religion of law, but a religion of grace. Not a religion of man, but the true religion of God. God doesn't need your good works, anyway. He made everything that is.
And to say that there's a lot of truth in these worldly religions – well, even Christians can say that. Most religions teach morality. Many have a creation story. They mostly encourage adherents to do good, and not evil. After all, in building his case, Paul even quoted from their own pagan literature: Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem “Phainomena”. So there is some truth to almost all of these various systems of belief. And yet, they can't all be entirely true. And we know, there is only one way to the Father, one truth, and one life.
And so Paul sees that amongst all their statues and man-made images of man-made gods, there is one unusual idol – dedicated to the unknown god. That is, just in case we missed one. It's a small admission that perhaps they don't know it all or have it all right, so let's cover our bases here. Paul says yes, what you do not know, I am going to make known to you.
Paul starts with where they are, and brings these strange things to their ears – this talk of Jesus. He goes to creation, and shows how the God who created all things is also the God who expects us to follow his law, and honor him. He's patient, overlooking ignorance for a time, but he will also judge all men. He calls all men to repent, and to turn to the one, the only one, who can bring righteousness and make us righteous – the one man that God raised from the dead.
These are strange things. They were strange things to preach to a cluster of Greek philosophers in the first century. And they are strange things to a 21st century world steeped in a relativism and post-modernity. But they would be strange to any man-made, man-centered religion of law. For this is the doctrine of the Gospel – the pure and free grace of God for you, the sinner, on account of Jesus Christ's life and suffering and death and resurrection!
It's strange to your Old Adam, too. Natural man is really a creature of the law, born under the law, living and dying by the law. We have an innate (though twisted) sense of fairness... especially when we are wronged or slighted. As every child has said many times, “that's not fair!” and a frustrated adult would respond, “Life isn't fair”. But we all want life to be fair on our own terms. And we should dread if life was fair on God's perfect terms, for then we'd be lost, judged, condemned. God is fair, and just, but here's what is truly strange: he is also merciful! And in his mercy he has given us a way out of judgment.
And that way is Christ. Here's what's truly strange: That a God who hates sin would send his only son to die in the sinner's place. That by a crucifixion, a most shameful death, he would bring life to one and all. That this Jesus who died in such a way would be raised to life again on just the third day... and that his resurrection paves the way for our resurrection, even guarantees it. Strange as these things may be, this is our faith.
These are other truly strange things. That God forgives sins for the sake of Christ. That he gives men the authority to do so in his stead, on his behalf. That a little water sprinkled and the name of God spoken, Father, Son and Spirit – that a simple baptism – can seal you as God's child for eternity. That bread and wine can be what he says it is - “my body” and “my blood” for the forgiveness of your sins.
Paul says that the cross is a stumbling block, that is, a scandal, to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. And that is often the case. The teachings of Christ, of his Gospel, of his cross and resurrection – are all too strange for so many to receive, and believe.
Strange to the world, but to us who are being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God!
The reading for this morning continues with the results of Paul's preaching. Here's what followed:
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
So it was then, so it is today. Some hear the Gospel and reject it, and mock. Some hear and believe. For some these strange things are just too strange, too foolish, too unbelievable. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, some believe and are saved.
Today, what is left of all those false gods, statues and altars? They are gone. All that's left of the Areopagus is a bare rock. But the word of the Gospel still stands, and will endure forever. His Spirit still works through it, making Christ known.
God grant you that same Spirit, in ever more abundance, that you would continue to repent and believe the “strange things” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And with Paul and Dionysus and Damaris, with all the believers of all time, we will join one day in the great resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, with. For what was unknown to us, has been revealed – in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.