IN COURT Sermon by Pastor Fred
In the highest Courts of democracy in Athens, Paul testifies about Jesus. Okay, it was also the court of their religion. They didn’t separate the two institutions like we do. But Paul was certainly far from Jerusalem and Antioch, when he was dropped in, to the heart of western philosophy and the birthplace of democracy.
This was the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The city that welcomed, and craved new ideas, and debated them lustily. It was the place of the Parthenon, and every other famous shrine to the Greek pagan gods, much of which still stands today.
There in Athens, Paul will get in trouble for his preaching, as he so often did. He will also gain some new followers, even some of their important leaders, according to Acts, like Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Actually, he’s already in trouble before that.
Paul starts by reaching out to the Jewish community in Athens, like he does in every city, before visiting the famous Agora, the marketplace, to engage the citizens of Athens, people just shopping and hanging out, if you can remember what that’s like! And one day, some philosophers of the popular Epicurean and Stoic schools, stepped in to debate him as well. And it’s around these conversations that apparently some take offense at Paul. On the one hand, they derogatorily call him a “babbler,” that is, somebody who’s picking up and relating various bits of arguments to puff himself up, while trying to sell them something. Like your wild west snake oil salesman, or a contemporary Reality TV personality.
But others have a more serious charge, that he is a proclaimer of foreign deities – very similar to the charge brought against Socrates himself, 5 centuries earlier. Though some also think Resurrection, in addition to Jesus, is one of the deities he’s peddling! Jews, of course, wouldn’t make that mistake, even if they rejected Paul’s message. But the Athenians, so steeped in a pantheon of gods represented in the many gold, silver and stone statues all around them in the marketplace, confuse Resurrection — the power of salvation, and, font of new life – with just one more possible god they should consider worshipping.
So they bring Paul to a kind of pre-trial discovery hearing to stand before the Areopagus. Like our word church, meaning both the people and the building, the Areopagus could mean its democratic body of elected’s, or the actual Areopagus building – or maybe both. In any case, that Paul has spent time discussing religion with Athenians of every stripe, in the days leading up to this moment, must have been, suddenly, very helpful. And he decides not to give his regular stump speech, but is able to tailor his remarks to his audience.
"Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul begins (flattery, will get you everywhere!). “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
Pretty clever, picking up on that one, I thought, among the dozens of gods. But it makes for something he has in common with them, a starting-off place for Paul’s message. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
This was pretty bold for Paul to proclaim, even given, that it was true! There he stood, surrounded by the shrines of Greek religion, housed in some of the most magnificent monuments anywhere, and in so many words, said they were small and inconsequential, compared to the living God and creator of all things!
So, Paul was tactful, but he didn’t mince words. In his more secular approach, he didn’t slight or misrepresent the glory and grace of the King of kings, and Lord of lords. And like all good leaders, he ends on a decision point. “God overlooked our past misunderstandings about religion as long as we didn’t know any better,” said Paul – “but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and God’s calling for a radical life-change. God has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And God has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.” (trans: The Message)
In his whole speech, Paul never even uses the name Jesus, or his title, the Christ. But he has made a strong case for him in the minds of his listeners. In his pre-trial appearance, he has given them all they need to know, to make a decision. He has set the stage for those who hear the word, and who will follow, when Paul will have another chance to deepen their faith, and move them toward baptism in Christ.
We also are on trial in this time of COVID-19. This is our pre-trial in the Agora, in courts of democracy, waning as they are. We need to bring it to the sacred halls at every level. The foundations of our faithfulness in Christ are being shaken, as if by an earthquake. Are the meek to inherit the earth, as Jesus proclaimed? Are the poor to receive the kingdom of God coming down out of heaven like a bride to meet her bridegroom? Are those who mourn to be comforted?
Like the earthquake that shook the jail in Philippi, the city that Paul and his companions had recently left, they could have sat stunned and frozen in fear, or they could open their eyes to the possibility starring them in the face – which is what they chose. They took it as an opportunity to save all those with them, the imprisoned and the jailer. They lived out their faith in the God who was creator of all, slave and free, and even of earthquakes; they feared not, and continued on faithfully with the opportunity that was afforded them. Such a trusting and simple choice resulted in the adoration of the jailer, who took them home, fed and clothed them, and he and all his household received the gift of baptism from Paul.
Covid-19 is our earthquake, from which we can choose to act faithfully, or in fear. The pagan pantheon of false gods that has ruled almost every part of our lives, impoverishing us, pitting us against each other, and filling our heads with propaganda – like we can’t live faithfully in community and support one another in love, that it’s all up to us individually to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps – has been clearly exposed. Healthcare, housing, and schools, banking, jobs, and our food supply, have all been shaken to the core, and are crumbling in this earthquake, due to the ‘American-Areopagus-Philosophers of austerity,’ who invest in the dead gods of gold and silver. We were only barely getting by, before. Now in this earthquake of a pandemic, we can see with clearer eyes – we can’t go back; we cannot go back, to normal. And why would we want to?!
“God will not leave us orphaned,” Jesus says in our gospel reading. Indeed, he will send us another in his place, the Spirit of truth, one who will Advocate for us, and abide in, and with us, always.
Jesus provides halls of justice for us. He has shown us how very near God is, “indeed, God is not far from each one of us,” Paul says. And having been made God’s “offspring,” he continues, “we live and move and have our being” in God. In Jesus’ court, the world will be made right and just, through the power of love that is stronger than gold and silver shrines made by human hands, attempting to enshrine themselves.
The power of the Resurrection is not a deity – a mere statuette. But Jesus, who once was dead, is now alive, and ruling over all – our in-court Advocate – judging with forgiveness, grace and mercy.
Let us bring this message to all the courts of God’s world, until the living One has redeemed and made us right, in the kingdom and realm of God.