! Peter 3:13-22 and Acts 17: 22-31
Practicing our faith, in our society with its freedom of religion and multiple faiths, in this secular age with, you could almost call it… freedom from religion, faith is something we often believe just shouldn’t be practiced too publicly. Well, at least not in obvious ways– barely seen, nor heard, nor spoken about.
How many of us actually want to be noticed or identified and labelled as religious or Christian? More likely, we prefer our faith to be something personal, interior, private. Sure, it makes a difference, but can’t that be between our God and us? We don’t have to go around looking different to everyone we meet!
We have a good warrant for our… timidity:
Jesus, he was just a regular guy after all. One of the people. Hung out with everyone. Even seemed to prefer the least religious, or at least those who the religious most easily looked down their noses at. Jesus wasn’t stand-offish. In fact, Jesus came into the world so God could rub shoulders with
us, among us– not as some sort of super-religious hero or fanatical zealot who made others feel nervous or judged. His faith, rather than separating him, led him over and over again right into the crowd.
That’s after all why he was always critiquing the Pharisees for all their…what could we call it? Religious showy-ness. Showing off.
Separating themselves. Making of themselves a different class of people,
setting themselves off as those who were unquestionably more religious and righteous.
Praying in public. Talking about how much they gave to the poor. Parading their good works before others.
We like to think of ourselves as Jesus kind of Christians — who don’t segregate, who don’t even look all that different. Who want our Jewish friends and friends of no faith to think to themselves,
“I like so and so’s religion– why, I can barely tell that he or she believes anything!”
Can’t faith after all be done quietly, sort of on the inside, mostly on Sunday mornings in church, anyway?
Not so for Paul. He is on this unexpected visit to Athens because his faith has gotten him in trouble. His preaching of “Christ crucified” had angered the Jews at Thessalonica who then followed him to Berea to incite riots in the crowds there. Rather than risk Paul’s safety, the Berean believers had sent him off to Athens trying to lose him in the big, capital city,
where so much was happening. Who would notice anyone strange, even Paul?
Paul on the other hand, while he waits for his colleagues to catch up with him, he is taking in the sights, touring the city, trying to learn something about the people of Athens.
I can almost imagine him, wandering around Old City,
visiting Betsy and Ben and the Bell, watching hoards of Junior High School groups march around in matching t-shirts… They, like Paul, here in order to learn something about being Americans.
But Paul’s not just a quiet observer, a tourist taking it all in. Nope, Paul’s more like that relative who makes us sort of wince, you know, you’re showing someone around, and he or she just keeps talking to everyone.
And not just talking, but sharing unpopular, prickly opinions.
Paul doesn’t just ask about the shrines and altars, or the faith of the Athenians, he debates the existence of their Gods, wherever and with whomever he can:
~in the synagogue with the Jews,
~in the marketplace with the buyers and sellers,
~in the town center with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.
In today’s passage from Acts, we find Paul at the Areopagus — his only recorded speech to an entirely pagan audience — if we listen to Paul in Athens, we can hear why he wasn’t so popular in Thessalonica or safe in Berea. Paul’s not just interested in the People of Athens, or Berea or Thessalonica and their religious practices.
No. instead, he’s taking every chance he can get to tell them why they’re wrong. He’s at the height of his missionary fervor: less interested in interfaith dialogue — learning about the faith of others — rather, he sees his travels as too good an opportunity to pass up, his chance to tell everyone about his faith, why Jesus is a better way than their traditions and beliefs and Gods.
Paul’s got the people he meets on his vacation in his sights. You’ve heard of eco-tourism? This is missionary tourism… he’s aiming to convert them to what he believes.
Does this begin to make you nervous? We’re not really the “stand on the street corner and preach loudly” types. Neither are we the “knock on the Door and witness” sort.
Some of us are quicker, more comfortable to speak of our faith,
to tell others about why it’s important to us, to actually tell someone why the church or Jesus means to us, how faith makes a difference to us.
But we’re more likely to do that in these hallowed halls, then, say, Mikveh Israel, the synagogue down 4th Street, or at the Terminal Market
or at City Hall with Mayor Nutter and City Councilor at Penn or Temple with a bunch of professors.
And, we have good reason. We tend to be Christians who are not just aware of, but willing to admit, …sensitive to… the injustices committed, the condescension involved in church history… in the name of the propagation of the faith… when Christians in the name of sharing their Christianity
have conquested and killed, crusaded, subjugated and holocausted…
We’re don’t mind being faithful, as long as we can shy away from evangelistic efforts… as long as we can still affirm others in their faith traditions, even when it’s a “no-faith” tradition!, and leave religion,
like sex and politics, out of the conversations polite people have,
best left unmentioned in mixed company.
You can imagine how surprised I was then, when on Tuesday, I walked in our Social Hall and my colleague, Deborah Savage, pastor at Hope UCC in Kensington, who had gotten here early, had her nose in a big heavy text book on Apologetics.
Apologetics is a branch of theology. It’s the “defense of the faith.” I’ve always thought of it as the pugilistic side of theology. Making its case…
not the internal conversation helping believers understand and articulate their faith, but the more external, rough and ready realm of making our faith convincing for non-believers.
If theology, for me at least, is like poetry, that helps me reflect more,
and begin to deep my understandings of myself and my world and God,
apologetics — I may be showing my own prejudices here — is more like standing on the street corner and shouting at the top of your lungs,
“Damnation is nearer than you think; repent today or perish.”
It’s sharing Christianity with outsiders. Not just in some open, interfaith dialogue for mutual cultural edification. Rather, it’s explaining our faith
that others might see the errors of their ways and, well, become more like us.
Deborah was loving her apolgetics class. She asked, had Iever taken “Apolgetics.” I laughed and replied, “At Union Seminary, um, no class called Apologetics. If we did, it would have been a survey class of the injustices Christianity has done to the rest of the world!”
I continued, “Deborah, you’re not taking that class at the UCC’s Lancaster Seminary (where she had been studying)
are you? She responded, “No, I’m taking it on-line from Liberty Seminary.”
Liberty Seminary was founded in 1971 by Gerry Falwell. Founded on biblical truth, to educate “champions for Christ” and “to defend the founding principles of our nation.” Liberty, not surprisingly, has Apologetics,
it’s probably a required class.
But rather than worrying so much about our evangelical brothers and sisters, doesn’t the question become, can we talk about our faith?
Or, how can we talk about our faith? Or more to the point, is it ever appropriate to believe that what you believe could add to another’s life?
Paul appeals to the Athenians inherent religiosity,
even as he warns them that their worship and practice are often misguided searches for the divine. He suggests that the Athenians, whose altar is dedicated “to an unknown god,” are trying to cover all the bases. Just in case, the gods of their other altars or shrines fail them, perhaps this “as-yet-unnamed” deity will look favorably upon them.
Is this only an ancient, Athenian problem? Something that could happen in a polytheistic setting? I’m not sure, but I think it’s got a sort of modern American incarnation too. I got in a car recently, and besides all the litter from fast food consumption, I saw a rabbit’s foot in the cup holder,
a sacred heart of Jesus air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror,
a bobblehead Buddha sitting on the dashboard and a Darwin “fish with feet” emblem on the trunk.
Ok, maybe those are just outward expressions of North Americans “spiritual openness.” But, if Paul were to join the throngs of tourists to Philly, what various altars and shrines would he see around town? How are we reaching for an experience of the divine, who are the Gods of our hoping?
Some express their search in their automobile shrines: the promises of Detroit and American industry, or the freedom of the open road or
what the most expensive, newest model of the hottest car say about them.
There are other altars of American life too:
mammon and our 401ks or portfolios;
youth and all our supplements and diets and gyms and the perfect physique;
our nation, the flag, unbridled patriotism and might makes right;
science and the promise of conquering any and all limitations our world or mortality try to impose on us;
I heard a Hindu visitor from India, where there are altars to all sorts of gods, marvel once at North American polytheism — where, she said:
“You have here more restaurants dedicated to the gods of our stomachs,
where you build multi-million dollar stadium-temples to your sports teams, where all the chairs in your homes are lined up dutifully facing your t.v.s.
Another popular altar, these days, is kneeling before — what can we call it? — let’s try, “Superlative Experience:”
seeking the greatest thrill,
the highest high,
the most extreme sport,
the most sordid confession on a reality show,
the most incredible pleasure, no matter what the cost.
The “experience” idol doesn’t stay out of our churches; in fact the demands for “a personal experience” often ride into the sanctuary taking on a religious overtones. Christians grope for God by chasing mountaintop emotions in worship and prayer time. I have heard church members remark that only if the sermon makes them laugh or cry, or only if the music suits their fancy, only then can they say they have worshiped. Perhaps the idol of entertainment is at work here too… an idol that NYU professor Neil Postman described in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Athenian philosophers bowed — not to a god of personal experience, but to the god of sharp intellect. Elsewhere Paul’s preaching usually led to riots or mass conversions. But in Athens, the response is lukewarm.
No church is founded. A few listners scoff. Others may be willing to hear him speak again. But mostly the reaction is “Whatever.”
Epicurean and Stoic philosophers only wanted to grapple with God as a concept, not to be engaged by this God-man Christ who can lay a claim upon one’s life. When I was in the Ph.D. program at Religion at Columbia University, I marveled that my professors knew so much about religion. All religions, it seemed. But few of them practiced any faith.
An intellectual search for God is as inevitably unsatisfying as expecting a steady diet of personal religious experience. As if, once I know or understand enough — or feel enough — that will make me a Christian.
But, beloved, only God in Christ can make any of us Christians. And that’s God’s mystery, something beyond our experience and beyond our intellect, outside of us. Thank God, because otherwise, we’d end up subjugating God
to commitments or project that are already ours — God as an endorsement or a cause!
Both idols, the idol of experience and the idol of intellectualization,
ultimately distance us from God. Rather than following God, we end up worshiping our intellect or some theory, or our emotions and some experience.
And the emotionalists don’t trust too much book learning. And the intellectuals mistrust too much emotion. And no one trusts anyone else, especially those who are different. And here we are sitting in the same sanctuary. Where some prefer the tomes of Paul Tillich and others want to filled with the spirit they feel when they sing Praise Music.
What are we to do?
This week, Old First will finally get a bunch of your faith stories up on the front fence. They should be there when you come to church next Sunday.
They’ve been on the virtual fence of our website for months.
Are they Apologetics? Yes and No. If so, I pray, apologetics with a human face. That’s why each person’s face will be so prominently displayed on their sign! They make no claim to be the whole truth.
…In fact, Jackie’s suggests the pastor fibbed: let’s call it “hopeful thinking,” or “openness to what we are becoming!”…
They don’t speak an answer for everyone’s need. …Kristen says for her faith is never about answers, but more questions…
They aren’t the witness of our elite. …Gus and Cody talk about being convinced by how our children are respected and listened to…
They are individual’s stories. …Daniel sharing that church is his own choice,
even if he might not be considered a “devout Christian…”
The Gospel, as we glean it, from our own peculiar journeys– …Adam growing up outside of any formal faith tradition; Alice looking for a church home after she remarried…
As much as we’ve figured out. … I confess life still confounds me more often than not, but my faith is a clue; Marta is thankful for a faith community who teaches her to appreciate her doubts; Margaret tells of a faith that sends her out into the world…
Humility advertised: about ALL things, even Godly things we don’t know.
But our own sort of “this much I know is true.”…Bob Schneider talks about exasperating contrasts (imagine this community being exasperating!) that engage him deeply. Bruce talks about supporting one another because we all get cut off sometimes; Larry talks about how faith helped him gather up the pieces after his life fell apart…
We share our stories, not because everyone will or HAS TO see things the same way we do. …Mindy’s is about room here for being different; Susan’s is about inclusivity; Miguel’s is about coming home after having felt thrown out; Ruth Anne’s is about recognition that one and one’s family are o.k. Jenn’s is that there are no exceptions to God’s love.
We share them because they may, in ways we don’t expect or ever know,
add to or bless others’ lives. That’s the sort of support that Laura’s story talks about.
Interestingly, no one says anything about accepting Christ. In fact, Jesus is only mentioned once. Many of them don’t even reference God. There’s no threatening that people must repent that one might be saved….Suzanne’s is titled “No More Judgement…”
As Paul said to the Athenians: God is not far from each of us. May God bless and strengthen our sharing to help others, wherever they are on life’s journey, feel neither lost nor alone.