The Idols of the City: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2014

I’ve long been interested in how our built environments, our cities, for example, reflect our deepest values and passions. You can see that clearly in a city like Madison, which was laid out as Wisconsin’s capital, with capitol square in the middle and streets radiating out from it. If you’re familiar with cities on the east coast—Boston, for example—you know that such planning isn’t always the case. In Europe, it’s interesting to see how order and power were imposed and projected on capital cities—Paris or Vienna, for example.
What do the cities of today say about our values? On the one hand, there are cities like Detroit, that have collapsed economically, demographically, and politically and have become laboratories for experiments in creating new ways for people to come together. On the other hand, there are cities like San Francisco where gentrification is running amok, with housing prices again going through the roof, and forcing lower income and working class people to relocate. Madison is closer to the latter than the former as we are seeing a boom in the construction of upscale apartments across the city but especially downtown. We’ve been learning about the consequences of such economic growth—increasing inequality, growing gaps between rich and poor, white and black.

I was talking this week with a woman who grew up on the near west side but has lived for many years elsewhere. She remarked on the congestion, the dense development that characterizes our community. I wonder what a visitor from another planet would make of our city. What conclusions would they draw concerning our most important values and concerns, our society’s passions and prejudices?

A similar question lies behind the first few verses of our reading from Acts, but let me provide a little context. Each Sunday in Eastertide, the 7 Sundays of Easter, in all three years of the lectionary cycle, we hear readings from the Acts of the Apostles. This year, our lessons have taken us from the beginning of the early fellowship of Jesus’ disciples in the days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Last week, we heard the story of the martyrdom of Stephen and this week, we jump forward several chapters to the dramatic and engaging story of Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.

Paul has come to Athens after traveling through Asia Minor to what is now Greece. He had already been to the Roman colony of Philippi and to Thessalonica the Roman capital of the province of Macedonia. In each place, he had won converts from among both Jews and Gentiles, but had also aroused the opposition of leaders of the Jewish community and some political authorities. In fact, he had to flee Thessalonica and was waiting in Athens for the rest of his companions to join him there.

Athens in the first century had something of the same reputation it has today, in the twenty-first century. Although it was by no means the center of Hellenistic culture and civilization, it still had an aura about it. Rome copied many of its artistic and architectural glories, and its philosophical traditions were important as well. When describing Paul’s arrival in Athens, Luke writes that he was distressed by its many images of the gods. Now Paul, although born and raised a Jew, was at home in the Hellenistic world, so he would not have found Athens’ temples or images of the gods particularly strange. He would have grown up surrounded by them. But it’s likely that he would have found them to be sad reflections of misdirected faith. By the way, Luke also reports that Paul engaged in debate with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.

It’s likely that what is intended here is for us to imagine Paul brought before the city council to give an account of his activities, his mission, and ministry in this place. As such, it is carefully constructed, designed to appeal to a well-educated, cultured, Hellenistic audience. We don’t know whether it comes from Paul’s mouth directly, or whether it was reshaped, or indeed, completely written by the author of Acts. But its origin is not really the important issue. Rather, the speech as it stands reflects an attempt to reach out to a non-Jewish audience to explain and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, using language, imagery, and symbolism that the audience could understand and appropriate.

There’s evidence, too, that the speech draws on Pagan literature; it apparently uses at least two quotations from such sources–both are noted in the text as it stands in our service bulletin. God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” and the second being the notion that we are “offspring of God.” So Paul draws on pagan literature but he does something else. He connects the religious quest of the Athenian people with the quest for God.

There’s a little ambiguity in the speech’s opening. Our translation puts a positive spin on Paul’s words: “Athenians, I see how supremely religious you are in every way”–the King James Version reads instead, “I see how superstitious you are” The intent is clear, however. Paul wants his listeners to know that he has observed their religious practices, commends them, but most importantly, that he wants to lead them in the correct direction. He claims to have seen an altar dedicated “to the unknown God” and uses that desire to worship God to draw his listeners’ attention to the God of Israel.

He does this by emphasizing several key aspects of the biblical tradition. First, that God is the Creator of all things including human beings who are created in the image of God. We are also created with a desire for God: “created to search for God, and perhaps grope for God and find God.” That we are created in God’s image should make clear to Paul’s audience (and to us) that God cannot be contained, nor is, an image made of metal or stone, an image created from the human imagination. Instead, God has sent his son to judge the world, and for proof raised him from the dead.

Paul is doing here what Christians have done for nearly two thousand years. He’s trying to relate the gospel, a product of a particular time and place, to a new, different, cultural and religious context. On the surface, of course, the issues facing Paul in first-century Athens seem vastly different than the issues confronting us as we think about the gospel’s meaning in our world. We seem not to have the same sort of religious concerns as the citizens of Athens had. But on the other hand…

On the other hand, the good news of Jesus Christ has become captive to the spirit of the age. It has been distorted and restricted to a very narrow range of meanings and possibilities—confined to a narrow, what is often called “spiritual” spectrum in the lives of human beings. There it is allowed to reign freely, but we rarely allow it to roam throughout all of the areas of human life, areas that were touched by the preaching of Jesus Christ. In fact, in those areas, we worship our idols of wealth, power, economic security, self-sufficiency, individualism, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Paul’s sermon challenges us in two important ways. First, he is challenging us to reflect on how we order our lives, where we pursue the idols of our desires as substitutes for the one, true, living God. He forces into introspection about what really matters to us, our values and priorities and whether we need to re-orient ourselves, to the God who created us and redeems us. Such introspection and reorientation can be hard work. It can also be self-revealing as we become more honest with ourselves, and with God. It can also be transformative as we allow God’s grace to remake us in God’s image.

The other challenge is equally difficult, equally discomfiting. As Paul sought to translate the gospel into language, categories, and images that his Athenian audience could understand, so to do we need to engage in that same work. But in some ways, our task is more difficult than Paul’s—not because the audience of our contemporaries is better-educated, more cultured than his, but because in addition to everything else with which the gospel competes today, we also have the competition of all of the false gospels of contemporary Christianity—false gospels on left and right.

What does a translated gospel of a crucified and risen Christ look like in the twenty-first century? Well, that question is much too big for a sermon on a lovely Memorial Day weekend Sunday, so I’ll leave you to ponder it in the days and weeks to come. But I will say this. If in our proclamation and worship, our fellowship and Eucharistic sharing, we do not experience the crucified and risen Christ, then we have no good news to share, no witness to make. Let us all pray and work to make that experience a reality in the life of this church, so that it we offer that transformation to all who come to us in search of God.

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