Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Stumbling Block

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 21, 2017, Easter 6A

Acts 17:14-34

Stumbling Block

The climax of today’s account from Acts is set at a place called the Areopagus, in effect an open forum in the city of Athens in which, at this point in the city’s history, debates and philosophical discussions ranging from the serious to the dilettante-ish were carried out among the Athenian public. The name of this forum derived from the name of the ancient Greek god of war, Ares, to whom the site was tied in their mythology. You might recognize this story more quickly if the location is cited by its Roman equivalent, Mars Hill.

The name “Mars Hill” actually caught on at times in Western Christian culture as a kind of shorthand for the open and courageous defiance that Paul is presumed to have exemplified in his speech there. A Google search can turn up a number of Christian-supported educational institutions bearing the name, the most prominent probably being Mars Hill University in North Carolina. Originally given the more prosaic name French Broad Baptist Institute at its founding in 1856, the school received the Mars Hill name shortly thereafter, with verse 22 of this chapter cited specifically. In the King James Version prevalent at the time, that verse reads “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” I guess this defiant tone must have seemed appropriate to the school’s early supporters, which makes me wonder just how much mid-19th century North Carolina came off as an idolatrous spiritual wasteland to them. The name continues to this day, and private elementary and secondary schools also carry the name in various locations.

One can also find a number of churches bearing the Mars Hill name. Probably the most famous (or infamous) was the megachurch based in Seattle, which at its peak was the center of an empire of fifteen locations across five states, with a peak membership of nearly 6,500 and regular attendance over 12,000 across those locations. Revelations of improprieties on the part of its celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, and Driscoll’s refusal to submit to discipline over those irregularities and violations, led inexorably to that church’s decline and eventual dissolution in January 2015. (It seems that it wasn’t just the idolatrous world around him that Driscoll was intent on defying.)

What’s odd about these examples is that if those who chose the Mars Hill name had read the whole account more closely, or had read more than verse 22, I can’t help but wonder if they would really have been impressed by it at all. Far from being “in-your-face” pushy and defiant, the speech turns out to be quite a model of finding ways to work across difference and find common ground with persons of different religious persuasions, with the real stumbling block found only at the end.

When we join the story in verse 14 Paul has been forced to leave the city of Berea due to unrest stirred up by a group of synagogue followers from Thessalonica, a previous stop on Paul’s journey. The believers of Berea sent Paul away to keep him safe. His partners Silas and Timothy stayed, while Paul was put on a ship to Athens under the presumption that the instigators were unlikely to follow them there.

We don’t generally see Paul alone in Acts; usually he is traveling with a working partner – Barnabas early in the book, Silas and others later on. But here he is in Athens, all on his own, so of course he’s going to get himself into trouble.

First, as usual, he finds the local synagogue and begins to speak about Jesus there to his fellow Jews; somewhat unusual was his appearance in the local marketplace, not to mention debating local philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic persuasion. Always, traveling through the city, Paul took notice of the proliferation of idols, fighting off his gag reflex long enough to take note of one particular idol.

So when the local intellectuals asked him to come to the Areopagus to explain himself, Paul had experienced a whirlwind of dispute and debate, out of which he was suddenly on the spot to produce a persuasive argument for an audience with whom he had remarkably little in common.

And now we’re back to verse 22, the one in which the King James Version called the Athenians “superstitious.” You’ll note that the NRSV chooses a less harsh translation, instead having Paul call the Athenians “extremely religious.” You could look at that phrase two ways in this context; it could be a simple opening gesture of compliment or even flattery, or it might just have a tinge of sarcasm in it – “I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” Either way, the audience is much more likely to be hooked in than when being assaulted as “superstitious” from the very beginning of the talk.

With that opening, Paul moves to his “hook.” Here’s where that one idol he noticed earlier comes in, and becomes his opening to talk to the Athenians about what they don’t know, and what – by their admission – they know they don’t know.

The idol Paul found was one inscribed simply “To an unknown god.”

You have to wonder what prompted the establishment of such a shrine. Were they afraid they forgot one? Was it some strange way of being “welcoming” to out-of-towners? “Hey, we know you’re lonely and missing your local deities, so just in case one of our thousands of idols can’t meet your needs here’s one you can turn into whatever idol you need it to be!” Really, what was the reason for this idol?

Nevertheless Paul pounced on it: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

What follows is pretty striking for what’s missing as for what’s included. All the Mars Hill schools and churches might not have noticed that in this talk, Paul doesn’t really engage in any Bible-thumping. The things he proclaims certainly have scriptural warrant, to be sure. The God who created all that is, made humanity all out of one ancestor, allotting the times and seasons for the peoples of the earth – all of that you could back up from multiple sources of Hebrew scripture, but Paul doesn’t do so? Is he wimping out on “preachin’ the Gospel” or is it just possible that Paul realized that trying to confront the Athenians with a scripture they probably didn’t know might not have been the best start?

As if that weren’t enough, the two direct quotes that can be identified in this speech are not from any scripture, but from two Athenian poets of centuries past. The phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” seems a pretty clear quote from Phaenomena, by the poet Aratus, and “for we too are his offspring” could be from any number of Greek sources. Paul has challenged the legitimacy of the Athenian gods using the words of their own poets. Not bad.

Then comes the stumbling block.

First it was the idea of repentance. Huh? What’s this? In practices that mostly revolved around paying your homage and making your offerings to your chosen deities and, well, maybe not killing anybody or being otherwise horrible, the idea of repentance – not only confessing doing wrong but changing – made no sense.

Even that paled in the shadow of the ultimate stumbling block – speaking of a “man whom he has appointed, … of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Athenian philosophies were all about escaping the body. The idea of returning to the body – a body that had died, no lessthat was too much. You can almost imagine some of the crowd walking away after saying “dude almost had me until that coming back from the dead bit.” Many scoffed, a few were mildly curious, and some even believed, including one of the Areopagus regulars named Dionysus and a woman named Damaris., who apparently joined Paul as he left Athens.

We can adapt a lot in conversations of persons of other faiths or no faith at all. More than one scholar has observed that the typical tenets of many religions bear an awful lot of similarity to one another. At some point, though, the Resurrection happens. We come up against that inescapable, indispensible fact of our faith and can do no other than call it out straight, no matter what that does to those who hear us. It is what makes us, it is what makes us one.

Christ is still risen! Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #234, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain; #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #739, O For a Closer Walk with God; #839, Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!




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