Grace Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2020, Easter 6A (livestreaming)
You Had Me Until That Resurrection Bit
Paul found himself in Athens as today’s reading begins, and it wasn’t exactly his idea.
First he had been run out of Thessalonica on a rail, then when he and his partners seemed to be making headway in Beroea, some of his opponents in Thessalonica found out and traveled there to stir up opposition and (hopefully) violence against Paul as they had in their own town. The newly-hatched community of believers in Beroea got Paul out of town fast, while his partners Silas and Timothy stayed behind to help get everything back in order. Ultimately Paul was deposited in Athens, more or less with the instruction to sit tight and stay out of trouble. As you can imagine, Paul was not the type who had even the slightest inclination to stay out of trouble.
Athens did have a synagogue, so Paul went there first, according to his usual pattern. His usual pattern of getting in trouble, though, got interrupted when some of the regulars in the marketplace got wind of what he was up to. Athens had what might be called an active public debate scene, and Athenians of various religious or philosophical systems (including some Epicureans and Stoics, as our author notes) jumped into the intellectual fray. Finally it was decided by the locals that this babbler of foreign deities might at least have something different to say, so he was hauled off to the ancient hill of debate known as the Areopagus.
At one time being hauled off to the Areopagus could be a matter of life or death, but by this time that no longer appears to have been the case. At any rate Paul was granted the opportunity to explain himself before the council there, and this speech became one of his most famous, even if it was one of his least typical.
What stands out about this speech is the degree to which Paul adapted his message to the intellectual and philosophical background of his hearers. He begins by acknowledging the plethora of idols offered up by the city, perhaps with tongue somewhat in cheek. By seizing upon one such idol – the one with the unprepossessing label “to an unknown god” – Paul forms a quick connection with his hearers, and from there proceeds through Athenian thought to approach the idea of a god unlike those the Athenians tended to idolize (and here that word really is being used literally). He quotes from their own literature; the phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” is taken from the ancient poet Aratus (although it was requoted many times in their literature), and the following “we too are his offspring” also appears in Greek literature frequently. And if we are the offspring of this god, it makes no sense to think of this god being reducible to wood or stone, does it?
Things seem to be going pretty well so far, with Paul acting out that bit of counsel in today’s reading from 1 Peter about “accounting for the hope that is within you,” but doing it “with gentleness and reverence.” He’s actually been identifying with his audience about as much as possible, and certainly showing respect for their own intellectual and philosophical traditions. Still, there’s only so far you can go in “accounting for the hope that is within you” before you end up having to say something that your interlocutor will disagree with, and Paul is now to that point.
First there is this notion of repentance and judgment, which wasn’t really a part of most belief systems among the Athenians, and probably brought about some grumbling on the part of his audience. But that wasn’t the worst of it, not by a long shot. Who’s going to be the one who carries out this judgment in righteousness? No less than “a man who he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance by raising him from the dead.” This is when the meeting broke up.
Some, as our author tells us, scoffed. Scoffing can take many forms; outright out-loud mockery, or a subtler but more dismissive “pfft” and walking away, or even just an incredulous facial expression. Whatever it was, that element of the audience was gone, intellectually if not physically.
It’s important to understand something here. It isn’t merely the idea of physical resurrection as a thing itself that underscores all the mockery. It isn’t just about the reaction “bodies don’t rise from the dead!“; there is, as would be the case with any good audience steeped in Greek philosophical traditions, an equal if not greater reaction “why would you want a body to rise from the dead?” Greek thought (or at least some corners of it) had no particular problem with the idea of living beyond death, but frankly one of the good parts of such a post-mortem life was being free from the physical body. Disembodied spirit was the ideal.
We should be honest here; we’re not always free of such an idea. After all, what is reflected in a saying like “shuffle off this mortal coil” besides the very idea of being rid of this broken-down old body? And if we’re honest about it, it’s not hard to be sympathetic to the idea. After the various breakings-down my body has experienced in the past decade I can understand wanting to be rid of it, and I’m guessing some of you can too.
Paul goes into more detail on this in some of his epistles, for example when he speaks of how “we will not all die, but we will all be changed” in writing to the Corinthians. But here, the event dissolves over this notion that a large part of the audience just can’t accept. A large part, but not all; some were curious to hear more, and even a few followed, including one of the Areopagus regulars named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Sounds like a mixed result, I suppose, but at least they didn’t chase him out of town.
But again, there comes that point when our testimony has to tell the whole story, even the parts that seem wild and fantastical and unbelievable to some of those with whom we share. As we make our way through this most unusual season of Easter, that one thing – the whole God-raised-him-from-the-dead business that so offended some of Paul’s audience at the Acropolis – is still a lightning rod for disagreement, or for disbelief, or even for old-fashioned scoffing. But as Paul put it, again writing to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” It’s hard to make any kind of good news out of a resurrection-less gospel.
And even in this strange and dangerous time, with death a far more immediate companion than we normally acknowledge, our hope is still in the assurance that death did not have the last word for Jesus, and that death will not have the last word on us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #246, Christ is Alive!; #249, Because You Live, O Christ