Sunday, May 29, 2011
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 29, 2011)
“Witnessing to ‘Religious’ People” (Acts 17:16-31)
Everyone is religious about something. In a very general way, to be religious means to be wholeheartedly devoted to something. Some people are religious about sports. Some people are religious about fishing. Others are religious about certain styles of music.
More specifically, being religious usually deals with matters about God or other deities or higher powers that people suppose are out there. According to the American-Heritage dictionary, religion is defined as “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.”
For some time now, it seems as though some Christians have not liked to call themselves “religious.” They think that the word carries a negative connotation. Perhaps this is a leftover attitude from the 60’s … not wanting to have anything to do with institutions, and that includes the institution of the organized church. Some of you may have heard the phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Or perhaps you’ve heard this one: “I’m not religious … I just love the Lord!”
Well, if you love the Lord, then I suppose that means you are religious, according to our definition: “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.” There’s nothing wrong with being religious. The main point is you have to be religious about the right thing.
Last week’s reading from the book of Acts introduced St. Paul to us … before he became a Christian. We heard how he was present at the stoning of Stephen. Two chapters later, the Risen Jesus appears to Paul on the road to Damascus, where Paul was heading to arrest more Christians. Paul’s heart is turned from unbelief to belief in Jesus as Savior. He sets out on his famous missionary journeys. It’s on his second missionary journey where he travels to Greece and the great city of Athens, the cradle of western civilization, the home of great thinkers and philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.
In today’s reading, Paul commends the Athenians for being religious. At the same time he was distressed over their idolatry. In verse 16, Luke writes that Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” After speaking to the Jews in the synagogue, some of the Greeks took Paul to the Areopagus, the city council which bore the name of the rocky outcropping where it met (in English “Mars Hill”). It was the job of the Areopagus to investigate anyone who was teaching something new.
Behind Mars Hill, a higher hill called the Acropolis rose sharply. On that hill were temples dedicated to gods and goddesses such as Athena, Zeus, Nike, and Poseidon. Paul took this opportunity to witness to these religious people before him. You can imagine Paul pointing to the Acropolis and its temples and saying, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. Then, Paul proceeded to tell them about the true God – one not “formed by the art and imagination of man.” He told them about the Judge of the Universe whom God raised from the dead. He called the Athenians to repent of their idolatry and escape God’s judgment over their unbelief.
What about us? Would Paul be distressed over our idolatry today? What images would he point to in our world today and say, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Would he point to the television? Would he point to billboards and advertisements? Would he point to our wallets and purses? We have no temples dedicated to the goddess Nike, but some of us spend an awful lot of money wearing things made by Nike. Would he point to our computers and smartphones and other technological wonders that make us think we are superior to those who have gone before us? We, too, must repent of our idolatry to things “formed by the art and imagination of men” … not made of gold or silver or stone like in Athens, but made of steel, fiberglass, plastic, fabric, or green paper with pictures of dead presidents.
Yes, we are all “religious” about something. In our text, we see Paul witnessing to “religious” people. He used this characteristic of “being religious” to turn the people of Athens away from their gods of silver and gold and stone and to turn them to the True God.
Paul noted that he saw an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.” Amidst all the other altars and statues, this one was probably set up so that some god they may have forgotten about would not be offended. Paul points this out and says, “This God you know nothing about … I’m going to tell you about him right now. Here’s the true God.”
The True God is not confined to one place or region, like some of the Greek gods … or like anything to which we look for our ultimate good, which was Luther’s definition of a god. The true God is the Lord of heaven and earth, as Isaiah describes him, “the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.” (Is. 42:5) Nor should we think of him as just living in a building. When King Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he prayed, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kg. 8:27)
God is not confined to any particular place. Yet our gracious God has promised to meet us in particular places. Under the Old Covenant, God promised that His presence would dwell in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, right above the Ark of the Covenant. In the New Covenant, God dwells with us in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. He promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt. 18:20) What’s more, Jesus meets us at the altar, where he gives us his very body to eat and his very blood to drink in the Holy Supper.
Our God doesn’t need our worship. However, in creating and ruling the world, the true God – unknown to the people of Athens (and so many others today) – the true God wants his creation to seek him and to know him, as St. Paul said, “he is actually not far from each of us.” Paul even quotes two of Greek’s own poets, “In him we live and move and have our being’ and “For we are indeed his offspring.”
This was St. Paul’s way of witnessing to “religious” people. What about us? How can we witness to “religious” people? We run into them all the time. They are in our neighborhoods. They work in the office right next to us. We eat lunch with them every day in the school cafeteria.
Start with the known. Find something in their life that they know about, some way in which you can make a connection with them. That’s what St. Paul did. He pointed out to the people of Athens that they were very religious and talked about all their objects of worship. He quoted from sources they knew. Jesus often did this, too. He asked the woman at the well for a drink of water. He told stories about farming and fishing, things that his hearers were familiar with.
Start with the known. Then move to the “unknown.” Once you have made a connection with someone, use that connection to introduce them to things they may be unfamiliar with. Again, St. Paul started with the “known” and moved to the “unknown” to make the true God known.
We can do the very same thing. We can introduce people to the living God. All other gods are dead. All other religious leaders of the past are dead. Their bones remain in the ground. But the tomb of Jesus is empty. He is alive forever. He is the True, Living God.
Our religion is much more than a religion … it’s a relationship. Religion is about man reaching out to God by their own efforts. Christianity is about God reaching out to man, so that man doesn’t have to look very far to find him. He walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. He visited Abraham and promised him a son … and that all nations would be blessed through him. He rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, leading them in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. He caused His very presence to dwell in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and later in the temple. The Son of God became incarnate, in the flesh, in the manger of Bethlehem, and once again walked and talked among us.
We need to remember this, too. “He is actually not far from each of us.” When our spiritual life becomes dry and stale … it’s not God who moved. It’s we who have removed ourselves from the life-giving Word and Sacraments and begin to rely on our own strength. Instead, return to your Living Lord … to the Risen Lord Jesus. He is not far from each of us.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus anticipates his ascension, which we celebrate on Thursday of this week. Since Christ’s ascension we no longer have his visible presence with us here, but he still promises his ongoing presence and the sending of the Holy Spirit. “I will ask the Father, and he will you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth,” Jesus promised. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you … I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:16-18, 20)
Jesus has brought you into a relationship with him in the waters of Baptism. He reaches out to you today with His forgiving love. He invites you to dine with him often, receiving His very own body and blood. He continues to offer himself to you most intimately in his Holy Supper.
As a faithful response to our Lord’s giving and forgiving love, He calls you to participate in what the Apostle James calls “true religion.” James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
We can put our religion into practice only because of the loving relationship which the Living God has established with us. The love that he has poured out into our hearts we can show by abiding in His Word and showing His love to those who need our help … to those who may be religious, but who still need to know the “Unknown God” who has made himself known in the Risen Savior Jesus.