The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

May 29, 2011

First Congregational Church

I Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31

War, Peace, and the Unknown God

Good Morning, faithful remnant.  I would imagine that a good number of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ are off taking advantage of the three-day Memorial Day Weekend today. And this is not a bad thing.  In fact, the days between Memorial Day in May and Labor Day in September are pretty sacred here in Alaska and each should express his or her gratitude to God in whatever way seems most meaningful.

But again, I want to thank you for choosing to spend your Memorial Day Sunday here with us.  When I first starting thinking about a sermon for today, I was going to offer something “spiritual,” something “theological,” something even “psychological,” about the Apostle Paul’s instincts, his people skills, when he arrived in Athens.  Then I noticed a sentence earlier in the chapter that wasn’t originally in the reading for the morning and I did a little further reading.  Now I wonder if this passage is an example of Paul’s best evangelical work, or perhaps, an example of where he missed the mark. We can learn from it either way.

 The Book of Acts at this point is divided up into little reports of the Apostle’s work and his success or non-success in various towns and cities.  Sections in my Bible are headed, “Lydia’s conversion in Philippi,” “In Thessalonica,” “In Athens,” “In Corinth,” “In Ephesus,” etc.  Our reading this morning comes from the section about Paul’s work in Athens.  And the sentence at the beginning reads, “He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  If this is true, Paul hides his distress pretty well later on. In fact, he might even tell a bit of a white lie about it.

If you remember, we’re told Paul praises the Athenians for their religiosity and especially for their many objects of worship – these being idols. Knowing how he really feels about these idols, I’m thinking that Paul wasn’t being particularly honest with himself or the Athenians and that it just might have come back to bite him later. 

Paul’s visit to Athens is often used as an example of really good evangelism.  Meet the people where they are, find a common point of agreement, and move on from there with you conversion plan.  Paul was attempting to do that.  He takes a look around town, thinks for a little bit, and heads for the synagogue.  He will debate stoic philosophers and the epicureans in their own town. And by gum, he’ll win. Given Athens' acceptance of many different philosophical and religious traditions, Paul's message was greeted with curiosity and interest.  So Paul is invited to share more about his God, Jesus and the resurrection before the "high council" of Athens made up of the leading aristocrats of that city.  It is his speech before that council that Kate read for us a few minutes ago.

This is one of the most famous sermons preached in the entire New Testament.  Indeed, Paul demonstrates that he is able to speak to the Athenians in their own language.  He relates what he has to say with their customs, traditions and teachings. Paul opens by complimenting the people of Athens on their extreme religiosity.  He tells them that he has admired the many temples in their city (even though we know that he is personally horrified by the number of idols there). 

Paul then sees the monument to an Unknown God, and uses it to speak of a different God, a God with entirely different values and requirements than these Athenian gods. To relate to Paul’s God one does not have to go to certain shrines or pay homage to certain images.  This God desires repentance and righteousness.  This God, it seems, is vastly different than any with whom the people of the Athens were familiar. God is a god of relationship, not an impersonal force or cosmic principle.

It is indeed a brilliant speech.  Paul has taken the conventional wisdom and the accepted customs of Athens and skillfully woven them together with his insights into the God which he follows and proclaims.  In doing so, the traditions and teachings of the Athenians are turned on their heads.  The wisdom of the philosophers is refuted.  The practices of the people are called into question.  The truth is revealed.  But hardly anybody is converted to the new faith.

On Pentecost, we’ll learn, Peter preached and some 3,000 people were baptized. After one of Peter's later sermons to the friends and family of Cornelius, all of them were baptized as the first Gentile Christians.  But the response to Paul's message was much less enthusiastic.  We are told that some scoffed; some were interested enough to want to hear more, but only a few actually believed what Paul had to say.  The end of the chapter mentions only two people "and others with them" who joined Paul and became believers.  And nowhere in the New Testament is any mention made of a church in Athens.  The message did not take root. Why not?

Paul was brilliant.  His reason and logic were impeccable.  He spoke the language of Athens both culturally and linguistically.  But the people didn’t form even a tiny house church as a result.  Intellectually stimulating, yes, personally fulfilling, not particularly. 

Ultimately, the lesson we can learn from Paul's wise but rather unsuccessful venture into Athens seems to be that it takes more than words alone to change peoples' lives.  It takes time.  It takes commitment.  It takes relationship.

Paul was a masterful evangelist.  Without him, the church would not have flourished at all.  But some efforts were more productive than others.  And the Athenian effort, I believe, was doomed when Paul decided to hide his true feelings and praise the Athenians for their religious objects which he secretly abhorred. The second failure factor, I think, came out of Paul’s determination to win the debate, win the Argument at all costs.  The relationship he was trying to build with the Athenians was built on a flawed foundation.  Paul was close – the monument to the unknown God held some important clues, but even Paul, misunderstood some of them.

Like ancient Athens, our society wants logical explanations.  It wants to know the answers to questions about life and meaning.  But it seems to me that those answers are not found in rational analysis or intellectual debates.  The answers to the ultimate questions are found in honest relationship, not clever rhetoric.

So it seems to me that there might be a lesson for the church here and well as for us as individuals.  Maybe we should spend less time trying to convince people that we are right and more time trying to connect with them.  We should be less concerned with saying the right words and more concerned with doing the right works.  We should model ourselves less like a corporation and more like a family— a family that lives and laughs and loves together; that works and worries and weeps together; that disagrees and debates and differs with each other but always remains a family.

Paul sought to give some of these attributes to the Unknown God in Athens, but he didn’t follow it through all the way.  He was too intent on winning the argument with the philosophers.  So he won the debate, but he did not win the hearts of the people, and I’ll explain more in a minute.  I’m going to digress.

This is Memorial Day weekend, Memorial Day being the day we originally set aside to remember, to honor our war dead.  In my family, I remember my grandparents tending to all the family gravesites on Memorial Day.  It was the time for a bit of spring cleanup at the cemetery; weeds were pulled, peony bushes were trimmed and cared for, a time the family found some sort of way to do something loving for those who were now gone.  It was their way of showing love and maintaining an on-going relationship with their dead. Logic was not the point.

I’m reminded of my negotiations days. Working for the teachers’ union for a number of years and then for the nurses’ union for many more years, I remember training new negotiators in the art of developing proposals, determining the one-hundred percent right position for each one, and then reviewing a collection of silly sentence forms designed to win an argument and to make the opponent feel like an inarticulate loser.  The point of the game was to win big gains for the members. A winner seemed to require a loser. Of course, making someone feel like they have been bested in an argument, humiliated intellectually, is not necessarily the way to convince that same someone to work with you on other issues or give you a ten percent salary increase.

After years of practicing and teaching these “verbal skills for negotiations” someone introduced us to a new approach, called “interest-based bargaining.”  The idea was to build an honest understanding of the other side’s needs or interests and to try to meet those needs in addition to meeting one’s own.  The goal was for both sides to win.

Even the language was different. Under the traditional labor model, we developed proposals, final proposals, even calling them “demands.”  Under the new approach, we developed areas of concern, and “supposals” – suppose we could do this, do you suppose you could see your way clear to do this.  Just supposing, of course.  Nobody demanded anything; we discussed areas of mutual concern until we came up with some possible solutions. We tried it a couple of times; it took longer, but it worked – and we tended to leave the negotiations table with a sense of camaraderie.

In closing, I’d like to draw our attention to the passage from the Gospel of John that Kate read for us earlier. I hope it has some relevance for our comments today. It’s where Jesus promises his followers, that even though he will be leaving them, he will send a special Counselor to be with them forever – the Spirit of truth.  It is this spirit that I think is sometimes guiding us when there is no other explanation – when we somehow say the right thing, make the right decision, do the right thing even when we know we are hopelessly inadequate.

This spirit of truth, Jesus tells his disciples, lives with you and will be in you.  You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 

Perhaps, these thoughts can shed some light on the character of the mysterious Unknown God. Perhaps, the Unknown God is our God at work within us, both as individuals and hopefully as a nation, calming our warring spirits and bringing peace to our souls.  Logic and rhetoric are fine in their place, but our God offers more, a critical “more.”

I have an internet friend who sends me meaningful comments now and again.  This week, I think he sent me a possible clue to understanding the needs of God’s people, a clue Paul missed in his determination to win the debate in Athens, but a clue that we need not miss at all.  What did the people want?  They wanted “more.”

‎"They wanted a church where they could bring their sorrows, their gifts, their entire messy lives: where they could find community."

May our church ever provide such love and community one to the other. 


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