May 29, 2011

A Sermon in Athens

Passage: Acts 17:32

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’

If you didn’t know the name of televangelist Harold Camping before this past week you likely do now; his prediction that the world would end on May 21 received unprecedented news coverage.  Cartoonist Gary Clements in the National Post shows Camping sitting at his desk dejected by his failed prediction; his administrator tries to console him—“Hey... it’s not the end of the world”.

As soon I find myself laughing—it is a clever cartoon—I know that I ought to cry.  Sadly, Camping joins a long line of preachers who have made end of the world predictions; the set dates have all come and gone. The gospel proclamation that a judgement day is coming is a hard sell on a good day. These failed predictions make the whole idea of judgment appear as a great hoax.  The chief reason news media have paid so much recent attention to the idea of judgement day is ridicule or our collective fascination to watch someone “crash and burn”.

1. The idea of a coming day where God judges in righteousness is as odd sounding for many today as it was to the Athenians when Paul announced it to them.  “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’”  (Acts 17:30-31)   It was on this point that it seems hearers made their judgement of the gospel; some mocked, others said we will consider it again at some future time, a few joined Paul and became believers.

I often find an emphasis destructive forces in the proclamation of judgement day by preachers such as Camping; things like earthquake, flood, pestilence, war, etc.; sometimes to the point of portraying God as relishing in wiping people out.  To be sure Jesus warned pointedly about the terrible outcome of “being thrown into the outer darkness”; however, there is no hint of relish in Jesus’ warnings.  It is only ever to point us to his great love to rescue us from such an end.

It is important to note that in talking of judgement Paul points to the resurrection of Jesus as God’s signature event to give humanity assurance with respect to this judgement.  It is instructive to note that Paul does not point to tornadoes or earthquakes as indicative of the nature of God’s judgement.  The good news of the gospel is the One whom God announces as Saviour of humankind is appointed judge; in the cross of Jesus Christ the judgement has been rendered—through faith in him the judgement is already rendered for his people.  It is also the fact of Jesus raised that gives the believer assurance—the verdict is in, Jesus was raised.

Paul’s Athens sermon is delivered at the epicentre of Greek philosophy; it would be hard to overstate the impact of Greece’s philosophers on Western thought and, therefore, life.  Thomas Cahill, in his book Sailing The Wine Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter, rightly notes that “Paul and Luke, who together account for about fifty percent of the writings of the New Testament, display a familiarity with Greek philosophy” (p. 257).

While familiar with Greek philosophy, the core values of Jews and Christians were foreign to Greeks and Romans.  For Jews and Christians the world and everything in it was created by God, and God would bring the world to its end.  For Greeks the cosmos was eternal, circling round and round.  For Jews and Christians time is real not cyclical, it does not repeat itself but proceeds forward inexorably, which makes each moment precious.  For the Greek the person is an instance of the Human; for the Jew and Christian each individual person is particular and unrepeatable—a person who creates a real future in the present by what I do now.

Whereas fate was central to Greeks and Romans, hope is central to Jews and Christians.  The truth that God has fixed a day for judgement is not to say your fate is sealed; it is a word of hope because of Jesus Christ raised from the dead.

2. In Athens Paul found two principal groups of hearers: Stoics and Epicureans.  As Paul commended the gospel to them some called him a babbler.  "Babbler" is a very sanitized English translation of a Greek word which means "seedpicker" or "gutter sparrow".  Gutter sparrows pecked around on the streets looking for second hand seeds; seeds which had spilled out of a horse's feedbag, even seeds which had passed through the horse and had to be pecked more diligently.  When Paul announced the gospel in Athens the Athenians regarded him as a rummage clerk who peddled cast-off intellectual scraps.

Stoics—one group of Greek philosophic thought—aimed at living in harmony with nature; they emphasized the human’s rational abilities.  The Stoics were morally earnest; in fact moral earnestness, especially with respect to their concern for nature, was what distinguished them. They were possessed of the highest sense of duty; they considered their stoicism a superior way of life.  Their notions of deity were pantheistic; deity was viewed as a kind of “world-soul”.

Many today are morally earnest; some indeed morally earnest about the care of the environment.  I point out to you that in preaching the gospel Paul said God was calling these morally earnest people also to repent.

The Epicureans believed that pleasure is the chief end of life; when you hear this don't assume they lived to party.  The Epicureans were smarter than this.  They knew that unrestrained indulgence doesn’t magnify pleasure, ultimately; unrestrained indulgence only increases suffering.  The Epicureans wanted a life free from suffering, free from pain, free from disturbing passions.  They wanted tranquillity.  In addition, they were agnostics.  Whether there were deities or not made no difference to them, since the deities (if deities there were) took no interest in people anyway.

Today Epicureanism is the ruling ideology of many suburbanites; we don’t blow everything at once on a succession of immediate pleasures.  No, the true Epicurean is no so shortsighted; he knows that unthoughtful indulgence of appetite isn't ultimately pleasurable.  And so he calculates and estimates and gradually becomes ever so shrewd in adding up what gives greatest pleasure over the greatest period of time.

Let us not deceive ourselves.  Epicureanism (including its modern version) always appears decent and honourable when in fact it is the most coldly calculating self-indulgence.  It appears virtuous inasmuch as it isn't vulgar, gross or lurid.  But in fact it is maximal self-indulgence disguised with a cloak of refinement.

Stoics pursue much that is good yet are blind to the good, the kingdom of God.  Epicureans are shallow; despite a veneer of sophistication and refinement, they are simply self-serving.  Politely Paul told them what he thought: they were idolatrous.  In one case (Stoics) a good had been confused with the good; in the other case (Epicureans) good wasn't even pursued.  Rudely they told him what they thought of him: he was a babbler, a gutter-sparrow who picked over intellectual droppings.

3. There were some who did want to hear what Paul had to say; as Luke noted Athenians were known for spending their time in nothing but telling and hearing something new.  Their commitment to philosophical exploration was such that they would hear someone they determined had some intellectual acumen; to some Paul seemed worth the effort.

It is one thing to preach in a church where you generally receive a friendly hearing; it is quite another to speak to a group who consider themselves intellectually erudite; ho are neutral at best.  I find Paul’s sermon instructive as it is bold; it reminds me not to waver from the gospel.

The first point Paul explores is that the God they admit they don’t know—Paul saw an altar to the unknown God—this God is knowable.  Not only is God knowable but is known by believers because God has made himself known.  These people have come to know that this God does not inhabit temples or objects made with hands and needs nothing from us.  The God who genuinely is God gloriously transcends all human attempts at containing him.

Many balk at this point—that God is knowable.  Tom Harpur, former Toronto Star religion editor, has a new book: Born Again, My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom.  In a recent interview he said: “We cannot speak of God literally. It has to be the language of allegory and parable and poetry and myth and metaphor.  We always get into the problem of neat definitions or it’s sewed up in a package of dogmas.” What I want to know is how Harpur knows you “cannot speak of God literally”; this would presume that you had some definitive knowledge of God.

It is one thing to assert, as Paul, that God gloriously transcends all human attempts at containing him—this is not the same as saying God is unknowable or that talk of God is reduced to certain categories of language expression.  The human attempts to contain God that Paul had in mind weren’t just idols but also trying to contain God through philosophical reasoning. To say that doctrinal affirmations of God cannot contain him is not to say that such affirmations do not accurately speak of God.

A second point Paul made was this: “from one ancestor God made all nations”.  The Athenians were proud that of all the different ethnic groups which made up the Greek people, only Athenians were non-immigrants to Greece; Athenians boasted that they originated from the soil of their homeland. They clearly saw themselves as superior!  God has made them all "from one", said the Apostle.  A common ancestry means that before God any pretence to superiority is ludicrous because false.

A third point in the Apostle’s message is that God placed in every human a common longing—“that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.”  There is a nameless longing which God has implanted in the human heart.  It is the profound disquiet which humankind cannot deny but also cannot identify.  It is the profound disquiet which leaves us knowing that regardless of what we achieve, acquire or aspire after we were made for something better.

4.  If Paul had ended his sermon there he might have had a more positive response.  Lots of people like to talk of their ideas of God but that is where they like to leave them—as matters of ideation; as privatized ruminations.   As soon as you postulate that this God requires something of you this is where many stop listening—as Paul found, some scoffed and others said, “later”. What was the stumbling block to these Athenians?

The stumbling block was that that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  In raising Christ from the dead God has vindicated him as the righteous one.  Therefore, says Paul, the Athenians should suspend their unbelief, forswear their pride, rouse themselves from their sophisticated self-indulgence.  They should acknowledge that their longing for the one to whom their philosophical erudition couldn't bring them; this one has mercifully brought himself to them – and therefore they should repent.

Repentance doesn’t mean self-deprecation.  (God isn’t honoured by our self-belittlement or self-rejection.)  Repentance doesn’t even mean remorse.  (Many people are remorseful who never repent, inasmuch as remorse is tear-soaked regret over consequences.)  Repentance is an about-face, a U-turn, a change in orientation or outlook with an attendant change in lifestyle confirming the new outlook.  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  His resurrection vindicates him as the world's sole saviour and lord and judge.  It's time to get serious, said Paul.

5.  There were some who responded positively to Paul’s message. They believed.  They joined themselves to the apostle and stood with him publicly in that new-found courage which faith both requires and supplies.  Among these new believers were Dionysius and Damaris.

Dionysius, a man, belonged to the most learned philosophical circles in Athens, a rarefied intellectual.  Damaris was a woman.  Women didn't go to the Areopagus, the site of learned philosophical discussions, to discuss philosophy: women in ancient Greece weren't deemed capable of philosophical learning.  The only woman at the site of the discussions was the woman who offered herself to brain-weary philosophers in need of a bodily distraction.

It’s the same gospel-message that commends itself to Dionysius and Damaris alike, poles apart as they are socially.  In other words, regardless of our intellectual capacity or our formal academic training or our social position, our heart-hunger is for Jesus Christ.  Our heart longs for him but can’t identify him and therefore can’t deliver us to him.  Yet of his own grace and mercy and humility he has delivered himself to us, delivered himself up for us.  He longs to quicken and confirm our faith in him.  In the assurance of faith which he imparts we then come to know ourselves home, home at last, home forevermore.