St. Paul to the People of Athens–and America

This coming Sunday in the reading from Acts we will hear the account of Paul’s first visit to the renowned city of Athens.  As the capital city of “the glory that was Greece,” the people of Athens represented the diversity in opinion and interest that existed within that nation and, indeed, throughout most of the world. It was highly energized and enormously cosmopolitan. And it had a deep and seemingly unquenchable thirst for spirituality. Writings and discussions about spiritual matters from its famed philosophers to its everyday people drew enormous amounts of attention, and the “ratings” for public airings of divergent perspectives probably reached at least the same high percentages as similar conversations taking place today on NPR or television specials. Paul is deeply intrigued by the depth and diversity of public interest in these matters and sees it, not as a challenge to Christian faith, but rather as a hunger and thirst that is honest and deeply spiritual.  But he also realizes that it is still rather vague and unclear, as symbolized by an altar he passed dedicated to “The Unknown God.” This is the kind of uncertainty with which our own world is very familiar.

21st Century America is infused with what the writer Phyllis Tickle calls “god-talk.”  It comes through the media through people like (and divergent as) Joseph Campbell, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Moyers, and Stephen Hawking.  It permeates the Internet, whose religion-related websites get billions of hits.  Whether it is about meditation or moral values or visions of heaven or spiritual healing and wholeness, spirituality and its related issues have become commonplace subjects of discussion in a world that used to avoid them in polite society at all costs.  But, as in ancient Athens, it is often a conversation without focus or direction.  Paul’s words speak to us as well today.

If we want to know God, want to get a true sense of who God is and what God is like, Paul tells them, we can with confidence look to Jesus as the embodiment of the divine. Standing on the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) looking up to the Parthenon at a site commemorated to this day as the central place of Greek dialogue and debate, Paul affirmed, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you,” that Jesus Christ, who is alive and risen from the dead, now makes all life new. As we look at and explore the meaning of our own mission and ministry at St. Alban’s during this interim time, it is important for us to reflect on the spiritual hunger we see and feel around us in our own immediate world and strive to discern the opportunities we have to proclaim to reality of the God we have found and are finding revealed in the person of Christ.

That Good News we proclaim is not meant to be purely abstract.  In age after age through history, it is expressed in very clear and focused ways, one of the chief of which is through relationships.  God is not simply an idea or a principle, but the source of connection and grace in our dealings with others.  Christ comes, not primarily as an example of goodness and truth, but in order to transform our lives through the community of faith and hope as we minister and care for each other.  His new life comes in his relationship with us, and we transform our world by sharing that new life with those around us.  It’s more than “god-talk”; it’s God-love—and Christ makes it real for us all.

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