May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
The last time I stood here was also the first time I stood here: It was Palm Sunday Evensong and I preached on John 14: 15-21: If you love me you will keep my commandments. So I was a bit confused when I dutifully checked out the readings for today and found that the Gospel reading was John 14: 15-21: If you love me you will keep my commandments. For one brief moment I wondered whether I had a kind of test to pass before I could be a fully licensed Mirfield preacher: Here is a Gospel. Please preach three different sermons on it.
However, Father Ben assured me kindly this was not the case and that I was free to choose Acts as my central reading.
So here we go, finding ourselves listening to one of the most famous sermons in history, preached by Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul has just arrived in Athens for the first time in his life and he goes sightseeing without delay. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that Athens was the combined Oxbridge, Yale and Harvard of the ancient world. Here is the birthplace of some of the greatest ideas and minds. Here one can have a good philosophical debate any day, as Paul himself did (Acts 17: 18). What will a cultured and religious place like this do with the message of a crucified Jewish Messiah?
But Athens is also a place of intense religious devotion. We were told earlier on that Paul took a stroll through the city and was angered by the multitude of idols.
We do not know from the New Testament what Paul looked like, but an ancient source informs us that he was “bald and bow-legged, with meeting eyebrows and a rather large nose. Sometimes”, the source continues, “his face looked like that of a man and sometimes like that of an angel”. I like to picture Paul on his slightly bent legs strolling through the streets of Athens and glaring darkly at all these pagan temples, shrines and statues from underneath his meeting eyebrows.
When he gets a chance to explain his worldview before the city council up on the Areopagus, he does what every good preacher should do, by starting out where his audience is. He says: I have seen how very religious you are, men of Athens. And among all these temples and shrines I found an altar, dedicated to the unknown God. Altars and statues to an unknown God or unknown gods were probably erected to cover any foreign deities. Just in case the devotees had missed out on somebody. But Paul twists things slightly around: The altar to the unknown God stands for a religious fervor, which does not really understand what it is venerating, like a person feeling their way in a dark room.
Paul very immodestly volunteers to make this unknown God known: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17: 23b).
Quite remarkably, in what follows Paul mentions neither the cross, nor forgiveness or the Holy Spirit. He does not even mention Jesus’ name, he merely refers to a man who is the appointed judge and has been raised from the dead as a proof thereof (v. 31).
For the most part of it, Paul’s sermon could have been penned by any educated Jew of his time and to be fair, by many a thoughtful pagan philosopher. Paul even approvingly quotes a line from the Greek poet Aratus (v. 28).
This unknown God, whom you worship without knowing says Paul first, is the creator of all, who made everything, heaven and earth and all the different people and nations on it. He does not dwell in temples made by human hands, instead he lets people dwell on the earth he has made, each nation within its boundaries. God does not need to be taken care of by human beings (v. 25). Instead, God takes care of our every need.
Here at Mirfield we have a small but dedicated group of students who meet each week to translate a portion of the upcoming readings. We were rather amused to find that the word for “taking care of” is therapeuo, a word usually translated as “to heal”. Our word “therapy” comes from it. We thought that it might be quite appropriate to translate the verse as “God does not need any therapeutic attention”. God has no needs and lacks nothing. God does not need us. What a relief, on the one hand… But this also means that human beings cannot capitalize on any perceived need of God. Human beings cannot put God under obligation. They cannot strike deals and agree on trade-offs with God, offering prayers or sacrifices in exchange for some measure of divine support. God is the one, who gives, says Paul. And we, his creatures are those, who are freely receiving. We are those, who are closely bound up with the creator and sustainer in the fabric of life, in every breath, in every heartbeat close to God: In him we live, and breathe and move. We are his offspring.
I guess in our world and society Paul would score very highly for this first part of his sermon. He subtly communicates a theological truth, but without upsetting anybody too much. But instead of leaving it there he continues and starts to talk upfront about idolatry, repentance and resurrection. The times of ignorance are over now, says Paul. God calls you to repentance. In the end Paul has clearly lost his audience. Some scoff, others suggest politely to meet at some unknown point in the future. The conversion statistics is poor. There will not be a Christian church in Athens. Not yet. In a sense Paul’s most famous sermon was also his least successful one.
So far Paul has spoken about the God, who gives life, who is present in every breath. This closeness of God enables people to search for him. Paul uses a word, which can be translated as “to grope, to touch, to feel your way” (v.27). This groping and feeling one’s way has value, though it lacks information. But when Paul speaks about the coming judgment, when all people are called to repentance from their misconceptions of God it is as if somebody had rudely turned up the light in a dimly lit room. It is as if somebody shines a torch directly another person’s face. Wake up! The groping and feeling your way is over, for God has revealed himself in a startling and shockingly concrete way. God has revealed himself in this one man, who has been entrusted with the judgment of the world, in this concrete human being, who has been raised from the dead.
This is a much more intrusive closeness of God than the closeness of God the creator. It is a closeness, which urgently demands an answer. I have to confess that my first response is to blink and rub my eyes in this glaring and bright light. Is this really necessary?
Could we not continue to modestly feel our way in the soft glow of God’s discrete closeness?
But something in Paul’s words also intrigues and excites me. Responding in the light of the risen Lord and to the risen Lord – is this not a rather good summary for the Christian life?
A friend of mine recently shared this brief episode with me: During the winter season he went sledging with a long-standing friend of his, as one does in Switzerland. The two men, let’s call them Fred and Sam had become friends at University, where they were both active in a Bible group. After Uni they kept in touch, but spiritually and theologically they went their separate ways, Fred getting very much involved in his Roman-Catholic parish and Sam being very active in his charismatic free church. It is not, that they were no longer friends. But they could tell they did not quite speak the same lingo anymore, there was not the same ease of sharing and discussing. A few issues were at best cautiously raised or better avoided altogether. As the two friends were sitting on their sledges and gazing onto the snow-covered Alps Sam said: “You know – this is, what matters most to me. To respond with my whole heart and life and soul to this great love, which is revealed to us in Christ. This is what I want to do more than anything: to find a way to become myself an answer to this beautiful Gospel.”
At this moment the two friends were beaming at each other from underneath their woolen hats. In all their difference they felt such a deep, joyful sense of unity, of fellowship in the Gospel.
Being a Christian is fundamentally responsorial. We freely receive and we freely respond. We are no longer groping, we are responding to a reality, which has already captivated us: God’s life-giving, death-conquering love. As we do so, there will indeed be a lot of groping and feeling our way, a lot of profoundly un-glorious moments, which hopefully keep us humble.
But what we are responding to is glorious: Christ, the Risen one, in whom the whole of history finds its fulfillment.
For Paul, the proper response to the risen Christ was repentance, knowing that Jesus is God’s appointed judge.
For some of us, responding to the risen Christ means to lead a life of faithful prayer, knowing that he is seated at God’s right hand and intercedes for us.
For some of us, responding to the risen Christ means to be called to forms of public ministry, both in the church and in politics – knowing that he will hold us accountable.
For some of us, responding to Christ’s resurrection life means to endure a great sorrow – knowing that God will wipe away all tears.
For all of us, responding to Christ’s resurrection life means to join in praise and worship.
At the end of his life, in what might well be his last letter, Philippians, we see Paul writing from a Roman prison, from an awful place of human despair and suffering. He has to reckon with death. And it is here, chained to a damp wall that he writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say, Rejoice! For – The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4 and 5b).
I can well believe that at this moment his face looked like the face of an angel.