|Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,May 29, 2011 – Easter 6AActs 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-22
Luko-Pauline Theology: Acts 17:22-31
Here we get a little Pauline theology, by way of Luke’s hand, or the hand of some author we’ll call “Luke,” who wrote the gospel of Luke and Acts.
Stephen Harris (Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985) says “Luke” presents a Christianity that is “divine, respectable, law-abiding, and international.” Luke is educated. His Greek is the best in the New Testament: vocabulary, complexity, syntax, grammar. His agenda, in part, seems to be portraying to Most Excellent Theophilus (perhaps an official or perhaps symbolic of all “lovers of God”) Christianity that is no threat to the Empire or civilized society. Official persecution will not be necessary. Some say he tames the anti-Empirical themes of Paul and the other evangelists. I’m no so sure. The tension has always been there. The Passion narrative is inherently anti-Empire, but Christianity is far from anarchy. Not in bed with the Empire, but not hell-bent on overthrowing the Empire either. As Niebuhr would say, not Christ for or against culture. Rather, Christ transforming culture. In the world but not of the world.
Paul’s more a man of the Empire than the disciples were. He may have gone to Pharisee school in Jerusalem, but he grew up in Tarsus, out in the big, bad diaspora. His parents probably spoke Greek and Latin, not Aramaic. Good, kosher food and meat not sacrificed to idols were hard to come by. They probably fudged a bit. He grew up around pagans practicing the Rite of Mithras. So, he knows how to talk to these people – a man of the world. Paul teaches people to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13). The irony is not lost on us that his life is probably eventually ended by that same Empire, presumably for not being entirely subject to all their anti-evangelistic rules.
In Acts 17, Paul is in Athens. It is his second missionary journey (in the early 50’s?), Acts 15-18. Paul and Silas pick up Timothy in Derbe and Lystra. Timothy is also a ripe evangelist: His mother is Jewish an his father Greek. He has a foot in both worlds. It is not likely that Paul had ever been to Greece before. The vision Paul had in Acts 16, in which a Macendonian is pleading with Paul to come there, hints that this is new territory, terra incognita for Paul.
And there, in Troas perhaps, Paul picks up a fourth member of the missionary team, the author of Luke/Acts. We conclude this because of the infamous shift in voice that takes place in Acts.
Verse 8: “So they passed through Mysia and went down to Troas.”
Verse 10: “After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia…”
The narrative shifts. Everything prior to 16:10 is “they.” Everything after is “we.” Luke is now on the trip, a silent partner. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke wander into Europe, and with them the gospel.
Neapolis, Philippi, Apollonia, Thessalonika, Berea, then Athens. After Athens Paul heads to Vorinth to catch a ship home, but ends up staying there a couple years.
|Paul’s Second Missionary Journey 2
Corinth (100,000) was much more important than Athens (21,000) as a commercial center. Athens had declined since the Pelopennisian War, due to war’s ravages and some plague. But Athens was the still the university capital of the world.
Paul tells us nothing about Athens other than the fact that he went (1 Thessalonians 3:1). So we depend on Luke to fill us in. According to Luke, Paul left Silas and Timothy in Berea. He’s probably not alone, but he doesn’t have his key players with him. He sends for them, but while he’s waiting for them to arrive he gets antsy. The evangelistic impulse cannot be squelched.
Walking around Athens for the first time in his life, Paul must have been wowed, by the Acropolis, with it’s temples and Parthenon, by the 30,000 statues and shrines of the many gods. (Factoid: the Parthenon became a Church in 630 A.D. and then a Mosque in 1460 A.D. It was blown up in 1687 by a Venetian bombardment.)
Paul saw the idols not just as art, but as big business. In fact, Paul’s reductionist monotheism was a threat to the financial well-being of many people in the religious marketplace: priests, priestesses, Temple prostitutes, idol-manufacturers. If he had preached a Jesus-god to add to the pantheon: no problem. Add him to the list. But Paul preached an exclusive deity who left no room for bird-gods and such. Fiddling with people’s religions may be dangerous, but fiddling with their wallets is deadly.
Paul sees even more than art and commerce in the idolatry. He sees an opening: their religious impulse. Perhaps we can learn from this. When speaking the gospel to the world, listen for what impulse is already there. Evangelists need to listen more.
You don’t visit Athens without visiting the Areopagus. The Areopagus is northwest of the Acropolis. In pre-antiquity it was the meeting place of the Council of Elders (the Greek Senate). By Paul’s day it was the appellate court for criminal and civil cases. Areopagus means “Ares’ Rock.” It is the site where Ares (Mars) was tried for the Murder of Poseidon’s son. It’s also sometimes referred to by it’s Roman name: Mars’ Hill.
Like speaking on the steps of the Cpunty Courthouse, or a Capital Building, speaking at the Areopagus would give you a decent hearing. Athens’ philosophers would be accustomed to hearing a speaker hold forth on religious topics. Theirs was a diverse religious atmosphere with Epicurean atheists and Stoic pantheists.
The Epicureans were, say, more like Stephen Hawking’s comment this week. When you die, it’s all over. Your brain is like a computer turning off. The information is lost. You are done. There’s nothing else. They withdrew from the world to live private lives. These folks found Paul to be a babbler.
The Stoics were probably familiar to Paul, as Tarsus was a Stoic stronghold. The Stoics believed the divine Logos ordered all of life. (John would identify Jesus with this Logos, even as Paul identified God with their unknown god.) They had a Buddhist-esque desire to rise above the suffering of this world through inner serenity. These pantheists were interested in Paul’s preaching, but for all the wrong reasons. Paul was presenting another new thing. Another god (or two, or three?) for the pantheon.
Paul could choose to be deeply offended at the excessive Athenian idolatry. Like the prophets in the Hebrew Bible he could have a righteous indignation against the prophets of Baal, and seek to strike them dead. Like Muhammed, he could go around smashing all the idols of Mecca and Medina. But this follower of Jesus, this evangelist, has a different approach. Jesus trashed the Jewish Temple, not the Roman Shrines. Jesus’ critique was against his own corrupt religious establishment, not a parochial condescension of others’.
Instead, Paul plays the “Unknown God” card. His evangelism style is not combative. He could write the manual on how to proclaim faith to atheists.
Lesson 1: Find common ground and build on it. “I happen to notice you have this shrine to an unknown god. I’m here to tell you about this unknown god of yours. This god made the heavens and the earth and cannot be contained in shrines made with human hands. This is the one who created humans. Who made us yearn for him, to find him, though he is not far. In fact, as your own poets say, “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Lesson 2: Quote their own poets and philosophers to them. build on their already accepted wisdom. As your own poets have said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” We are swimming in God. Perhaps that’s why you haven’t noticed. You take the air that you breathe for granted. Not pantheism, but panentheism. Not God is everything, but God is in everything, like your own poets have already pointed out.
God has put up with our ignorance for a long time. We see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new hope for the world, with a new world view. Can I share it with you?
This is a great segue to 1 Peter 3:13-22. “Peter” says we should always be prepared to share the hope that is in us (verse 15). This is not just for preachers, however preacher above all ought heed this. Always have a sermon in your back pocket. Always be prepared to share your hope and joy. Always be prepared to talk about how God has worked in your life in the past and is currently active in your life today. What is God doing in the world, and why should I care? What’s your heart-pounding vision and message?
Peter’s theology is slightly different than Paul’s, Lukes or John’s. Jesus is “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.” His baptismal theology heathens to the flood, which saved eight people. This isna prefiguration. Baptism is not a physical washing but a spiritual one. Not a removal of dirt, but appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection. This is not the Pauline theology we’re accustomed to, but this Petrine theology or Deutero-Petrine theology is not as far from Paul as we might think. Paul’s theology is not “pie in the shy when you die.” It has very practical implications for living. And Paul is big on following your bound conscience.
Finally, a segue to the Gospel reading, a continuation of last Sunday’s John 14 reading: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Sounds like my mother.
But what are Jesus’ commandments? Not Torah. Not Leviticus. Sorry. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Or after washing the disciples’ feet: ”
Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Paul doesn’t deny the validity of Biblical Law, neither is he bound by it. The law never gave the power to save. The law of Christ, the law of love is what has power to save, transform, redeem.
So we come full circle. This is the hope that Paul proclaims to the Athenians, and all of the Roman world, that Christ has done what the law could not, what all of human religion could not, by his death and resurrection.