Easter 6: Acts 17:22-31
To some, Paul’s speech at Areopagus is the “touchdown football spike” of religious debate. “You’ve got it all wrong building these statues. Let me tell you what God’s really like.”
The King James translator falls into this camp, using the phrase, “too superstitious”(v.22), while virtually every other translator chooses “extremely religious”(NRSV) or “very religious”(NIV). Most commentators explain that Paul is not complimenting the Athenians but employing biting irony or strategic flattery.
But it’s also possible that Paul meant what he said, genuinely impressed by a people earnestly seeking God. Before speaking, he “carefully” immersed himself in the traditions of his audience (v. 23). In his argument he uses biblical theology and stoic philosophy to speak his truth while building common ground(v.28-29). Paul’s interaction with the traditions of the Athenians not only gave him a fresh way to articulate his message, but potentially enhanced his own appreciation of God’s work.
He starts by explaining that the God of Israel is the same God grasped for in the Parthenon. Not a people-specific God, but the God of all peoples. For Paul, the veneration of the statue indicated that Athenians were in tune with this mysterious reality whether they knew it or not. But it also indicated they had taken their groping for the divine too far.
Our Judeo-Christian history is complicated when it comes to this. Towers that rise too close to the heavens and golden calves are off limits, while a bejeweled box and an ornate temple that symbolize God’s dwelling are blessed. Icons of Mary and other saints, give many a powerful human vehicle to connect to God, while others find this practice heretical. Traditional churches spend millions on the soaring architecture of stained-glass sanctuaries, while start-ups think it is more Jesus-like to meet in storefronts. Some pulpits stand in the shadow of the cross and the American flag.
The line between idolatry and piety is subjective, and whatever your definition, easy to cross. We are all “groping” for something more”real” in a world where faith means believing in what we can’t see.
Paul brilliantly builds on this impulse to talk about the incarnation. God came close to us in a man from Nazereth. Someone living and breathing that we could talk to, eat with, touch, and see. God answered our desire to fashion God in our own image, an image we can comprehend, by putting on flesh.
Not Far from any of us.
Not just “not far”, but not even fully external. Paul paraphrases biblical and Hellenistic tradition to proclaim we are God’s descendants. Made in God’s image and likeness. In the other lectionary text for this day Jesus explains of God’s spirit, “he will be in you.”
If we want to see God, we should look to Jesus. We should look no further than the works of God’s hands. Each other.
Paul manages to articulate the unique message of the gospel, without sacrificing the bond of our shared humanity.
A valuable lesson for our pluralistic and ultra-confrontational world.