Topic: Biblical Verse: Acts 17:16–17:31
Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
You don’t know what to say. Someone just came up to you and asked you to tell them about your faith: what you believe and why it matters to you. You think about it for a moment. You could speak the words of the Apostle’s Creed, an ancient summary of the central points of the Christian faith. It says who God is and what He has done to save us from the problem of sin. But the person you’re talking with might not know if there is a God. And while the Apostle’s Creed expresses the basics of what the Bible teaches about God, it doesn’t get into a direct explanation of how your faith shapes your life. So what do you say? On what is your faith founded? What kind of difference does it make?
That’s not a far-fetched situation. Right now, there are untold numbers of people who do not know God. They might have a religion, but the hard truth of the matter is that unless they know God through His Son, Jesus, the Messiah, they have at best a dim sight of Who God really is. I don’t have a list in front of me, but I suspect that case applies for most of the people living right now. You might have friends or family members who could say that they’re agnostic. That word, which comes from the ancient Greek, literally translates to “not knowing.”
There are different kinds of agnostics. Some people might say that they don’t know if there’s a God. These aren’t atheists who deny the existence of God; they just honestly admit that they can’t say if there is a God or not. Other people might say they believe there is a god or “higher power” of some kind, but they don’t know who or what that really is. Considering the number of beliefs about such things that people express, that’s not really all that surprising. That’s what Paul encountered when he came to Athens.
After being long eclipsed by Rome and its empire as a seat for political power, the city of Athens in Paul’s time had experienced a kind of comeback in its authority over other aspects of Mediterranean civilization. Athens in the first century had a lot in common with our American scene today. It was a cultural capital city, a place renowned for philosophy, art, and the exchange of ideas. It also was pretty pantheistic: they worshipped many gods. As Paul entered Athens, he would have seen representations of those gods all over the place. Beautiful statues, ornamentation, altars – all of these depicted gods that people worshiped. Coming from his Jewish upbringing and schooling, Paul knew that all of these things were idols. Idolatry was a big problem in Athens, a sign that the people there were chasing after something outside themselves but never finding the real God. Athens was very much a city of cultured pagans.
As was his practice, Paul first visited the synagogue in the city to share the news of God’s Messiah with the Jewish people who would have been familiar with the Scriptures. But then he went out into the public spaces, like the marketplace. There he encountered and spoke with representatives of two different schools of philosophy: the Stoics and the Epicureans. Both of these groups thought that there was a purpose for man’s existence, and that purpose was hugely important. For the Stoics, life was meant to be lived in a manner consistent with nature, valuing reason and the worth of every soul. The importance of duty and a desire for moral living were hallmarks of the Stoics’ way of thought. The Epicureans, on the other hand, presented pleasure as the main goal of life – the best pleasure being a life of tranquility that was free from pain and superstitious fear, especially the fear of death. Both these schools of philosophy were attempts to grapple with the reality of life in a broken world. Paul presented an entirely different message on that question. The Stoics and Epicureans who’d heard Paul brought him to the Court of Areopagus, the institution that spoke on matters of religion and morality, to hear what this foreign preacher and his message about some “Jesus” was all about.
Paul’s speech there in the Areopagus was targeted right at his audience. He knew that they were very religious – both pious and superstitious – and that they sought after a higher power outside of themselves. Paul had even seen that they’d set up an altar for an “unknown god.” They were, essentially, agnostic. His hearers perceived that there was a God, though they did not know Him for who He is. Paul called back to the words of Greek philosophers and poets to highlight the common ground of understanding that there is a God who made everything, even us.
In our second reading today (1 Peter 3), God’s Word calls us to always be prepared to make a defense of our faith to anyone who asks, sharing the hope that we have. There’s a whole discipline in Christianity called “apologetics” that aims to do just this, speaking to the objections and questions that the world continually puts up. When you’re looking to tell someone what your faith’s founded on and why it matters, it’s good to know your hearers. Christians need to know the culture around us so that we can respond to people from common ground. Like the Stoics and the Epicureans, we agree that there is a purpose for humanity’s existence. But that purpose isn’t found living in harmony with nature valuing rationality or moral duty, nor is it in the pursuit of pleasure through a life of tranquility free from pain. It’s not in the hundreds of different philosophies that people follow in our age, either.
The main aim of life, which Paul proclaimed in the Areopagus and we proclaim today, is to know God so as to be in a restored relationship with Him – and that happens in and through Jesus, the Messiah, our Savior. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that we live in a broken world and that we live broken lives. Agnostics know hardship and pain and suffering, too. And Jesus is God’s answer to the problem of our broken world and broken lives. God the Son went to the cross to pay the price for our sin, all that we have done to contribute to the brokenness of our world, our lives, and the lives of those around us. He gave his perfect and innocent – unbroken – life as the ultimate sacrifice so that our world and our lives would be restored. But the story of our salvation, our faith, doesn’t end at the cross.
The Jesus of whom the Athenians heard didn’t just live and die. He rose from the dead. He lives. Our faith depends on our resurrected Lord Jesus. The resurrection is evidence of God’s love, that Christ’s sacrifice was acceptable before the God who created and sustains all things. In Athens, Paul proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection as historical fact, and so it is. Even Jesus’ opponents acknowledged the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, seeking to devise stories to explain it away. If there was no resurrection, then there is no hope – for Christians, for agnostics, or for anyone – and as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, we Christians are to be pitied above all others. But Jesus rose, and that makes all the difference. Because Jesus lives, you will live. He wasn’t just a religious teacher, but God Himself, making Himself known to the world.
You have a connection to God and the resurrection and life that He gives through the gift of Baptism. You also heard in 1 Peter 3 that Baptism is not just a sign but a real washing. It saves the baptized from the power of sin and death that permeates our broken world. Through that connection to our Father that Baptism gives, washing you in Jesus’ death and resurrection, you get to know the one in whom you live and move and have your being.
The Athenians had built altars and idols to serve false gods, trying to know the divine, but in doing do, they were only setting up obstacles that distracted them from the true God. We can’t come to know God by means of our human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:21) or anything that we could make with our hands, even if they are beautiful idols like those of the Greek sculptors. But God wants everyone to know Him through Christ, so He sent Paul to Athens. And sends us to agnostics and everyone else today.
We “show and tell” Jesus to make God known to the unknowing. Like the Stoics, Christians don’t hold that are beliefs are just about thinking certain thoughts. You “show” Jesus by living out your faith, for a life that knows God is a life transformed. Baptism works the miracle of regeneration in you so that you already experience in part the resurrection. You “tell” Jesus by sharing His Word and bringing out the message of God’s grace. As God’s people, His messengers like Pail, you can grow to know Him more everyday as you encounter Him not in idols but in His Word. There in the pages of Scripture God reveals His instruction and design for life and what He has done to fix our brokenness.
So when someone comes up to you and asks about your faith – what you believe and why it matters to you – you can answer them. Our faith is founded on our resurrected Lord, Jesus. Through Jesus, we get to know God and the life that He means for all people. In him we can live and move and have our being. Because in Jesus, we have the divine made known.