Paul has been traveling with Timothy and Silas throughout the Greek area of the Roman Empire.The response he has gotten has been, shall we say, “mixed”. Many have come to believe in Jesus…but many others have reacted to his message with anger and have stirred up mobs to beat him, arrest him and run him out of town. As our story starts today, Paul has just escaped an angry mob in Borea with some help from believers there and they have brought him to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy to catch up. From there, the three will make their way to Corinth. Now, we tend to think of Athens as the center of the Greek world, but in Paul’s time, Corinth was actually the political center. It was the place where trade routes converged and you would find people from all corners of the known world. Athens, on the other hand, was the university community — the “ivory tower” of the Greek world. The place where intellectuals and artists hang out…the Cambridge or Harvard Square where pubs and coffeehouses are filled with people arguing about the meaning of life and the foundations of existence and such. Athens was all about ideas and learning,history and religion. And so in Athens, there were temples to every god imaginable…deities that embody fertility and war, farming and hunting, agility and intellect, art and business. In fact, an ancient historian wrote that there were “30,000 gods in Athens and it was easier to find a god than a person within its gates”. It was a place where, as Faith read, people would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Debate was the town’s primary form of recreation…and it was lively.
At the time Paul was there, two schools of Philosophy were dominant — Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that the greatest good was to seek simple pleasures and to live in tranquility…they weren’t into politics or making a name for themselves or amassing wealth..they just wanted happiness and simplicity and comfort. That doesn’t sound so bay. They wondered what Paul was babbling on about.
The Stoics believed the greatest good was to live an ethical life…to be virtuous was the greatest happiness. They believed in the natural order and that logic and reason were the guide to life’s meaning and they wondered what foreign ideas and gods Paul was proclaiming. But both wanted to hear more. That was the nature of Athens, after all.
And so Paul, after seeing that at least one of the 30,000 altars in the city was dedicated to “an unknown god” (obviously the Athenians were covering their bases)…decides to use that as his starting place. “ Let me tell you about this unknown God of yours…we know him in Jesus. And he is not far off…he is not made of copper or stone. He is not angry and demanding sacrifice. He is not limited to one aspect of life. This God is the creator of all life. This God is the air we breathe and the the source of all that exists. And we are God’s offspring…God’s children.” Paul quotes their own philosophers, their own poets…in order to share Jesus with them. This unknown God is the God of all…and He is now known. He has revealed himself in Jesus… who comes to find us and to be with us where we are. Who forgives us. Who loves us. He is not vengeful and terrifying. He calls us each by name. Paul proclaims Jesus…not just as the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for…but as the one who every person in every time has been searching for. Groping for. As the true meaning of life and foundation of existence. As the one who reveals God who has always been near to us…as near to us as our very breath.
I love this sermon of Paul’s. Maybe it’s because I’m a philosophy major and these are the questions I love…the conversations I love to have about the meaning of life and existence.. But it’s also because here we have the heart of what Jesus brings into this world. We still live in a world where everybody is searching for meaning…and there are at least 30,000 ways people try to give their life meaning — through how great my country is, or how much money I make, or who I’m sleeping with, or what my children do, or my career, or my religion, or how good I am, or how good my football team is,or how great I was in high school ,or how many people follow me on instagram, or how much I weigh, or how far I run, or my military service, or my political party, or the color of my skin, or the school I attended, or the grades I got, or the books I read, or the house I live in, or the places I’ve traveled, or the parties I’ve been to, or the risks I’ve taken, , etc, etc, etc.. And Paul speaks to all of us…all of us who are desperate for meaning…and says “I’d like you to meet Jesus”. Jesus is the meaning you’ve been looking for — Jesus is the way — the truth — the life….the one in whom you live and breathe and have your being. Jesus reveals God for all of us…God who calls us beloved children. Who gives us meaning and purpose by simply being God’s beloved ones and loving one another. Nothing else is at the heart of our existence. All the things we think are so important…our status, our resume and all the rest…they are just peripheral details. To the Epicureans…he says it is not our comfort that gives us meaning…and that is good news for all those who are suffering. To the Stoics, he says it is not your good behavior that gives life meaning….good news for all the “black sheep” of the families. No, Paul says — We are ALL God’s offspring….children of God. Created by love. Connected to all creation. Forgiven and redeemed.
And when Paul calls them to repent…he’s not asking them to flog themselves and bemoan what sinners they are…but rather repent means “turn it around people!”. Like Jesus, Paul invites them to turn their whole way of thinking…of seeing themselves and the world…around. Because the only one who judges them is Jesus. Not their neighbors. Not their political leaders. Not their religious leaders. Not their teachers. Not their families. Just Jesus….and the judgment of Jesus happened on a cross. And it was forgiveness. It was love.
Jesus is the way…the way, Paul says, that we’ve been groping for in this world. The way that gives us meaning and purpose. The early followers of Jesus were called “the people of the Way” by historians of that era….because they clearly marched to a different drummer. They were not guided by the standards and expectations of their cultures or communities. They had a different way of being in the world. The way of Jesus…the way of forgiveness and love. They gave away their wealth to help others…they cared for the hurting, even among those who should have been their political enemies. They believed that everything…everything in creation, every person, every breath…was held in the embrace of God. They lived with gentleness and mercy, kindness and compassion…because that’s who Jesus was…that was the way of Jesus.
And that is who we are. We are people of the way. And when we see people who feel hopeless, who are grieving….who feel like life will never be okay…that they will never be okay…we introduce them to Jesus, so different from the God many understand…the ‘unknown God”.….who is not full of anger and vengeance, demanding sacrifice…but rather who breathes life into us and calls us beloved just as we are. Yes, in a world where so many are searching for meaning, our only job is to say “I’d like you to meet Jesus”…who knows us and calls us by name and is never far off. Who invites us to see ourselves from a whole new direction….to see ourselves through the eyes of God…who is with us — who eats with us and laughs with us and cries with us…who forgives us and holds us and never abandons us. Here, my friends, is Jesus. Who loves you. Amen.