Reading: Acts 17:22-32
This morning we catch up with Paul during his stay in Athens. He was indeed a very gifted speaker and of course a great preacher of the word. Paul knew his audience before he addressed them. In his speech this morning we have an excellent example of how he does this. In chapter 13 we see how he preached to Jews and God fearers of the one true God in the Synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. Here he is before a completely different set of people as he preaches to the Greeks who worshipped many false gods. Paul opens by telling them of the one true God and ends by telling them it will be this God who will judge all things. What he does in his speech is a masterclass in being relevant to your listening audience. Acknowledging how very religious they are he then makes no bones about it. Religion does not save anyone. Rituals are not the way to salvation. Millions of people follow a variety of religions although the argument may be made that they are religious this will not save them. How often have we heard or said
something along these lines? ‘Oh he loves his footie, he’s there every week, religiously.’ Or ‘Every Monday they meet at the same café for a cup of coffee, they’ve done so religiously for years.’ Paul is quite clearly saying religion is something different from faith. In fact, the original word Paul uses here actually means ‘superstitious’. Sacrifices are being offered to demons not to God. These Athenian men were well known for their high wisdom on many matters but they did not know God. The key that Paul uses to open up this speech lies in his finding an altar with the inscription ‘To an unknown god’. Could it be that amongst these Greek men there were some who believed there was this other god that they had not reached nor understood. Paul seizes the opportunity by telling them, ‘let me tell you about this unknown god of yours’.
His method of knowing the audience and his style of preaching the word combine completely. The Greeks have some knowledge of religion so that is where Paul begins. There is a lesson for all of us here when it comes to interfaith dialogue as well as speaking with people of no faith tradition. He does not pour contempt upon them, nor sneer at their ways, he was not in the business of mocking people, his sole intention was to build people up and lead them into faith in Christ. He uses their own poet as an illustration. Now he has their attention, they know that he knows something of their culture and ways. This unknown god of theirs is the creator God of all things and as such is Lord over all things. Paul uses their sacrificial rituals to point out that this unknown god does not need such things for it is he who feed us, not the other way round. God is the one who gives us all things, even our very life and our breath. Without this God we would not be in existence. As we cannot live without breathing so too we cannot live without God.
God does not draw differences amongst people. In his sight we are all one. Once again Paul is using his knowledge of the people to whom he speaks. Referring to slave and free. To the civilized Greeks and the uncivilized peoples around them, who were despised by the Greeks. Paul says, ‘This unknown God loves all of them equally without favour or end’. Paul recognises this unknown god may be the Greeks searching for God and offers them hope that God is not far from them. Wherever we go God is there also. Be it in a temple or a desert. Be it in a palace or a rundown shack. God is there waiting for his people to reach out.
As he closes he speaks of Jesus and the resurrection. As it does even today, this split the people. The Greeks were divided on such matters believing the souls were immortal and the body simply turned to dust. There is no record written in the New Testament of a church being established in Athens. Do we count this as a failure in Paul’s mission or do we accept that there will be those who will not believe. In some ways I suppose this displays something about the Greeks of that day and the times in which we live today. There are many people interested in what they might term religion, in seeking the truth, with no intention of doing anything when finding it. Preferring to talk about such matters rather than to believe them.
2nd Reading Acts 23:23-35
In the chapters between our two readings we get to know about Paul’s missionary journey. We have other letters that go into greater detail so for now let’s just note were Paul travels to before picking up his story again at our second reading. Corinth, Ephesus, Caesarea and Jerusalem. There was much preaching took place and there were many trials along the way. There are accounts of riots and imprisonments. Of death threats and beatings. We are introduced to new people along the way. I encourage you to read these chapters at home. For now, we re-join Paul at a most difficult time for him. His life is under threat and the powers that be get him away from it. Remember a couple of weeks ago. Paul and Silas were wrongly beaten because nobody asked if they were Roman citizens. When the truth became clear the authorities had to make a very public apology. The commander here may, or may not, have known about this earlier episode but he is not taking any chances that he ends up on the wrong side of things. 470 soldiers are given the responsibility of making sure Paul arrives before Felix the Roman governor in one-piece. But as we have discovered before not everything is as it seems on the surface. In his letter the commander states that along with his troops he rescued Paul. Not entirely true. He had given an order that Paul should be stretched out for a flogging and it was at this point he learned Paul was a Roman citizen. The overnight journey from Antipatris to Jerusalem, was about thirty-five miles, quite a stretch for the foot soldiers. It reminds me of Dale when he was young. If you ever said we were going to walk somewhere all you ever heard from him along the entire journey was, ‘this is a pure strut man.’ What we witness through the behaviour of the governor is the urgency of people trying to pass the buck of responsibility when dealing with Paul. So many similarities in behaviour when dealing with Jesus as with his followers. The authorities, it would appear, had no great appetite for the truth and only stick by the rules or the laws as and when it suited their own private agendas. When Felix the governor read the charges he decided to do nothing. Next week is our Remembrance service so we will step back from Acts then pick it up again the following week when we will look at the closing verses of the book. Suffice to say Paul’s trial before Felix does not go completely in his favour and he was kept in jail for a further two years. There were other charges and accusations made against him as the story unfolds but we will resume once Paul has arrived in Rome.
Until then may we know and stay close by the one true God who stays close by us every step along the way.