May 29, 2011
“How Religious Are You?”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
On Thursday morning past, just around 11:00am, I was on the phone in my office talking to a colleague far away from here. I had swung my chair around and I was looking out the window. Some of you may not know, I have the absolute best view from any office in Princeton. So it was shortly after 11:00 on Thursday, while I was on the phone, that I had my first sighting of the season. Over on the sidewalk, right on Palmer Square, right above the Tiger, heading toward the kiosk. It was the first alumni P-Rade outfit of the year. Of course, I mentioned the citing to my phone partner and then found myself describing Reunion Weekend at Princeton University with what can only be describe as an appropriate mix of admiration, envy, fascination, and a distant, observer surely I will never quite get this kind of tone. From the other end of the line came the question, “Do you think it is the people or the place?”
Others know the right answer and it probably comes in some version of “yes”. The question, “Is it the people or the place?” that’s the same question of the biblical text this morning. The selection of Book of Acts offered for you hearing this morning, it is the account of Paul preaching at the Areopagus. As you heard, Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens. Paul couldn’t get over how many idols he saw all around the city and he apparently didn’t hesitate to point them out and argue about them with just about everyone and anyone he saw. He argued in the synagogue with the Jewish leaders and the kind of devout people who hung out there; “what about all these idols?” Out in the marketplace, he stopped people who just happened to be there; “did you see all those idols?” He debated the philosophers, and some who just thought he was a babbler, and others who just assumed he was proclaiming some foreign diety; “what’s with these idols?”
But notice it wasn’t all the idol chatter that landed Paul there in the middle of the Areopagus. It was the new teaching that he was presenting. It was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Yes, he was deeply distressed about all the city was so full of idols but Paul kept talking about the resurrection and that’s why. according to Luke in the Book of Acts, that “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus.” Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Paul at the Areopagus. A place referred to in other English translations as Mars Hill. Scholars and commentators and footnoters point out that the Areopagus can refer either to a particular hill up there the Acropolis (Mars Hills), or it could refer to the council of leaders that met to hear cases, and do public business, and talk about heady things there at the Areopagus. They took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus. Paul stood in front of the Areopagus. The Areopagus. The hill and the council? The Areopagus. Would that be the people or the place?
The answer is probably some version of yes. As Luke puts it in vs. 21, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Living there. There. At the Areopagus. The Athenians. The foreigners. All that telling or hearing. Nothing but telling or hearing. The Areopagus. The people. The place. And all those words. Nothing but words. And then there’s Paul and his witness to the resurrection. At the Areopagus.
It has always seemed like such an argument. Paul at the Areopagus. Leading up to that speech, Paul was just itching for a good go around, a good debate, a good late night dorm room kind of battle of the minds. One can analyze the speech with ancient rhetorical observations.analysis. His move right at the beginning, appealing to the audience. “How religious you are!” Telling them he has been moving around the city observing so carefully, a nod to knowing your audience, knowing the context. The example he cites of the inscribed altar that all the listeners would have known. How Paul draws on familiar sources; philosophers and poets: In him we live and move and have our being…we too are his offspring. Form. Style. Content. Rhetorical criticism. Cicero. Plato. Aristotle. And the classically trained Apostle Paul at the Areopagus. What an argument!
Except that he didn’t win. Paul apparently didn’t carry the day. Yes, some wanted to hear him again about this. Yes, some joined him and became believers; Damaris and Dionysius. But it wasn’t a rousing success with thousands joining the church that day (like elsewhere in the Book of Acts), not a great speech for the ages, not when the first responders mentioned are the scoffers. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed.” The resurrection; which was why Paul was standing there in the middle of the Areopagus in the first place. His main topic. The matter they most wanted to hear about. It’s actually not such a great sermon on the resurrection. Paul doesn’t even mention it until the very end, the last recorded line. God has given assurance to all by raising this him from the dead. Raising him from the dead, and when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed. I can tell you from experience, some folks hear what they don’t want to hear in a sermon. Those scoffers must have just been waiting for him to say resurrection, or raised from the dead, and Paul hardly got there.
If they think that is the Apostle Paul on the resurrection, they ought to read I Corinthians 15. “Now I would remind you brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you….for I handed on to you as first important what I had in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain….For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…what is sown is imperishable, what is raised is imperishable….Behold, I tell you a mystery! We will not all die but we will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet…therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Now there is an argument.
Paul in the middle of the Areopagus. Maybe it is not about the argument at all, Paul’s witness to the resurrection. It is not a treatise on the bodily resurrection; not some defense of the afterlife, no pictures of heaven painted here. Paul’s witness to the resurrection. It is his pointing to a Living God; a God not far from each one of us. A creator God, the one who made the world and everything in it, a God who can’t be served by human hands or reduced to this shrine or that idol. As if God needed anything from human hands, or that God depends on human ability to define or defend or declare. This Living God, gives to every mortal, to everyone, God gives life and breath. God gives all things, and God is not far from each one of us. It’s not the argument, it’s the affirmation of life in God’s hands; a life where maybe the best one can do, when it comes to being so very religious, is to grope after, to search for, to find God, the living God.
Paul on the Good News of Jesus and his resurrection. That’s not a redundant statement. The Good News is Jesus’ teaching, his proclamation, his ministry; Jesus’ life and the kingdom of God. His resurrection is the assurance of God’s lifegiving, life sustaining, life redeeming power. Not human ignorance, but God’s righteousness. Repentance and judgment not as a threat but in service to the coming reign of God. A God not confined to silver or stone or some image or some other creation of our imagination, but the God who raised this Jesus from the dead. Paul offers a witness to the resurrection of Jesus as the assurance that life, that this life, that my life and your life matters to God. It’s not just an argument. Paul standing there smack in the middle of the Areopagus; a place and people devoted to nothing but telling or hearing….Paul’s witness to the resurrection, it can’t be just words.
Just this week Tara Woodard Lehman, our Presbyterian campus chaplain, handed me the new brochure for Princeton Presbyterians. The front cover of the tri-fold has offers a dictionary definition of the term Princeton Presbyterian. The term is broken down by syllables and then a phonetic pronunciation is provided. And a definition: Princeton Presbyterian… a noun….one who cares about this life as much as the next….now there’s a “Paul-like Areopagul” witness to the resurrection. That all of this, all of this, all of this matters to God.
It is a people and place thing. Your Areopagus opportunity…when words are too many and arguments are too loud and selfish arrogance abounds and those around you seem to spend their time in nothing…your Areopagus moment to witness to the resurrection…to life and and move and have your being…knowing that your life is precious in the eyes of God, that life, this life, that what you say, and what you do, and how you live, that we live is important in this Eastertide kingdom of God. Living, moving, being in the Good News about Jesus and his resurrection.
I was at a dinner on Monday night over at the YMCA celebrating the ending of the year for the Y Scholars program, a tutoring and mentoring program for young people in our community. At one point in the evening, the various adults and the young people paired off for some discussion. The kids had three or four questions to ask us about our work, our education, our advice. The adults included sales people, lawyers, bankers, teachers, MBA’s, PHD’s. You get the picture. The instructions were for the kids to find three adults a piece so the conversations were brief, a kind of speed dating thing. The first person to come up to me, she was a freshman in high school. She asked my occupation. I said “minister”. She was unimpressed and went on to the next question. So when the 7th grade girl came up to me and asked my occupation, I said “pastor” thinking I might get an acknowledgement or some eye contact that would at least indicate she knew what I meant. She didn’t even look up. So when the very young boy approached me with the same question, I said rather proudly, “I am a preacher” And he looked up at me, and he said, “Could you help me spell that?”
Preacher, pastor, minister…..religious professional….yeah right. It’s not the title, and it’s not just the words….it is no more complicated than this….you and I living the life of faith, the Christian life, our life in Christ Jesus, one step, one letter at a time….our witness to the resurrection.
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