Text: Acts 17:22-29
Imagine for a moment that you have been summoned by the justices of the United States Supreme Court to appear in person to give a defense for what you believe and why you believe as you do. They have followed your Facebook and Twitter feeds and have reports from your friends and colleagues as to some of the things you regularly speak of. Now they want to hear from you. They have asked that your defense include your religious, political and philosophical beliefs. The question is, “Are you prepared to defend?”
This was exactly the position that Paul was in as he stood in front of the Areopagus in Athens. To set the context, “the “Areopagus” was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens. More importantly, though, “the Areopagus was the most prestigious and privileged council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece’s eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy, [religion], and politics were adjudicated.” (Daniel Clendenin)
Paul, who had been publicly proclaiming the Jesus Way in the marketplaces and synagogues with anyone and everyone who would listen, was ridiculed by these culture shapers and opinion makers as a “babbler” who advocated “foreign gods,”…But more than anything else, these culture shapers and opinion makers loved to learn about the latest and newest, whatever the latest and newest was, and Paul came proclaiming something new. So they invited Paul to a meeting of Athens’s most powerful and important venue to explain what they considered as his “strange ideas.”
Paul begins his defense with a compliment, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” His statement concerning their religiosity is based on his tour of the city: “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I even discovered an altar upon which had been inscribed, ‘To an unknown God.’” It is worth us stopping at this point in the story to ask ourselves a question. What might someone walking through our city of Raleigh observe about the objects of our worship? What are the altars of Raleigh?
As I studied this passage this week I did two things. Early one morning this week I took a stroll through downtown Raleigh simply observing what a stranger might note as our “objects of worship.” And then, a couple days later, I expanded my tour by riding around the City of Raleigh taking note of what I saw. There were several altars that stood out to me.
In downtown Raleigh and around the periphery of downtown it was easy to identify the first altar: it is the altar of local beer brewing. Within a half mile radius of my home which is in downtown Raleigh, I passed the Boylan Bridge Brewery Altar, the Trophy Altar, the Clouds Brewing Altar, the Flying Saucer Altar, the Crank Arm Brewing Company Altar, The Raleigh Times Altar, the Whiskey Kitchen Altar and those are the names I could remember. As the week passed I even observed that some of these altars are mobile if you are willing to peddle. Now hear me carefully. I make no judgments about these altars. Honestly, I don’t. It is simply an observation. If a stranger walked through our city looking carefully, they could very easily come to the conclusion that beer is an object of our worship.
Another altar that stood out to me is the altar of the new and shiny. Again, no judgment for on our property sits a prime example of the new and shiny. Some in the community have even named our chapel the “shiny diner.” Everywhere you look in our city, the old is being torn down and the new is being built. From a purely observational point of view it appears that we worship things that are new and bigger and better and shinier. The altar of the new and shiny.
The other and final altar that stood out to me that I will mention today is the altar of consumption. I don’t want to shock anyone this morning, but there was a time in this country when coffee was made at home. It’s not a complicated beverage to make, and I would wager that most homes have a coffee maker. And yet, we have coffee houses left and right. We walk around with our very recognizable disposable coffee cup (or the not-disposable one that is made to look like the disposable one). We buy clothes to replace clothes that still fit, and that don’t have holes or stains. We buy cars to replace cars that still run. We buy food that often tastes less good than what we could make at home. And we throw away as much as we consume. We buy treats like ice cream and candy and cupcakes. These days if our phone or computer or camera stops working, we throw it away and buy a new one. They are made to be disposable. We buy. We buy. We buy. And our city is full of signs that remind us, lest we forget, that we are proud of our consumption. The altar of consumption.
Unlike me, it is important to note that Paul made no judgments on the objects of worship that he saw as he walked through the city. That says something important to me. It says to me that Paul didn’t observe these objects of worship as good or bad. Paul’s interest was not on judgment but rather in drawing the people’s attention to the altar he bowed before, to the God he knew and worshiped. There is an important lesson here worth mentioning. Sometimes we get so focused on telling people what they are doing wrong, that we miss our opportunity simply share our message of how we think things can be better. Sometimes we are so busy telling people how bad they are that we miss the opportunity to inspire them with a message that they are God’s beloved.
Paul didn’t shout and scream, “You crazy Athenians, what are you thinking? What idiots you are. Don’t you know better?” No, Paul said in his defense: “I found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…” And then Paul proceeded to tell these culture shapers and opinion makers about the God he knew and worshiped.
Just a quick word about the altar with the inscription “To an unknown God.” The Greeks worshiped many gods and as a result they erected many altars to these gods. This altar to the unknown God that Paul came upon was actually a CYA or catchall altar. In fear that they might have left out one of the gods, the people of Athens had built this particular altar just in case they hadn’t covered all their bases. It is this altar that Paul uses to build his defense before the council. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
What follows then is one of the most beautiful affirmations of who God is in all of scripture. Paul makes known what the Athenians called the unknown. He tells them: This God you call unknown is the God who made the world and everything in it. This god you call unknown is the God of heaven and earth, who does not live in sanctuaries made by human hands. This god you call unknown is the God who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. This god you call unknown is the God who gives us the desire to search and grope for and find the Sacred, the Holy, the Divine. And this god you call unknown is the God who is never far from each one of us. This god you call unknown is the God in whom we live and move and have our very being. And it is this God who is worthy of our worship.
All throughout our sacred text we are cautioned about the objects of our worship—idol worship. There is the familiar story of the Golden calf. There is the very first commandment: “you shall no other gods before me.” Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is there our heart is also. And here in Acts we read again that we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. And I would take that one step further. It is not just the tangibles we need to be concerned about when it comes to our idols—the objects of gold and silver made by human hands. It is also the intangible idols we worship made of the mind that we stand in need of being reminded of: the altars of power and self-interest, individualism and capitalism, hetero-normative thinking and liberal leanings, narrow-minded justice and national pride, greed and militarism—just to name a few. A stranger walking through any city in America would note these are the real American idols.
David Foster Wallace, American novelist, short story writer, and essayist wrote before his death:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intrangible set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
Strong words. But if there is any truth in them, then Paul’s words to the Areopagus are worth our consideration and reflection. As you walk through the city, as you walk through your house, as you stroll through the recesses of your mind and soul, you might ask yourself, “What are the objects of your worship? What altars do you bow before? It’s not important that you judge them. Simply recognize them and then consider the altar with this inscription: “To a known God”—the God in whom we live and breathe and move and have our very being. The God who calls you, Beloved! The God who searches you out. And then consider that God a God worthy of your worship—our worship.