The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday (Year A)
May 21, 2017
If you’re graduating this weekend, or anytime this spring, congratulations to you! It’s likely felt like a long and hard journey, lots of work, lots of projects, lots of writing—and hopefully lots of joy in the process and in the material you’ve engaged. If you’re a teacher or professor and your students are graduating, perhaps your grades are in, which may feel like even more work, so congratulations to you, too. And if you’re not graduating, if you’re not turning in grades, I’m sure you can join me in a collective sigh of relief that we didn’t have these particular deadlines to make—while still giving thanks for our graduates and the work they’ve accomplished.
We place a lot of importance in academic achievement in our world—especially in towns like New Haven. When I moved back to New Haven I joked with a friend that in New York people ask what you do—what your profession is. Here in New Haven folks are more likely to ask what your work is—what you’re researching, what you’re studying, what you’re writing about. I suspect Paul could have fit in well in New Haven.
Paul was from Tarsus, a large and wealthy trading city in the south of what’s now Turkey. Paul was Jewish, but he was also a Roman citizen. A professor of mine in seminary once wondered aloud if perhaps Paul’s father had been a slave who had purchased his freedom. His background isn’t exactly clear, but he had enough advantages that he was sent away from home to Jerusalem to study with the famous rabbi Gamaliel. We can tell from his writings that his education was broad—he has command of classical literature and is well versed in philosophy. On top of that Paul was a Pharisee, a member of a sect of Judaism that strictly interpreted the law; Paul, then, would have been a scholar of the law, a scholar of Torah. He would have known Greek and Hebrew if not other languages as well. It’s likely that if Paul were a student he’d be graduating with honors.
And so it’s no wonder that, when Paul is in Athens, he has a broad understanding of the philosophical and religious influences that inform the culture of that learned city. And he’s well equipped to engage the Athenians on their own terms, explaining to them the good news of Jesus Christ.
Let’s remember the context in which Paul is operating; a scholar of Jewish law and classical philosophy, Paul was originally fighting against the followers of Jesus; we read just last week about the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon and martyr; Paul, or in his Hebrew name, Saul, was there, holding the cloaks of the folks doing the stoning. His world was turned upside down by a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, when Jesus asked Saul why he was persecuting him. The early followers of the Way ministered to Saul and he was transformed. His zeal in persecuting Jesus’s followers was exceeded by his evangelism—his telling others about Jesus—and he became an apostle, one who goes and tells others, of the good news of Jesus.
That’s how he found himself in Athens, preaching and teaching in synagogues, and in the portion of Acts we read today in the public square, at the Areopagus, a rock outcropping near the Acropolis where, centuries before, criminals had been tried and civil suits settled. Paul has been trying to convince folks in the public square--Jewish believers, Stoics, Epicureans, whomever will listen--of the resurrection of Jesus, and some dismiss him—but the Athenians are intellectually curious enough to give him a hearing, and so they take him to the Areopagus and ask him to explain this new teaching.
Paul flatters them: Referring to the many idols he’s seen around Athens, he says, “I see how religious you are, Athenians!” And he is clever enough to engage them on their own terms. After all, this is Paul, who tells us in his letter to the Corinthians that his strategy is to be all things to all people so that he might save some!
You’ve seen at the Met and at the Yale Art Gallery the figures of Greek and Roman gods, these idols that Paul notices in the city, in the marketplace, in the temples. For us they’re historical artifacts, but for the Athenians they were contemporaneous figures of religious devotion. They would have made offerings and prayers in temples, in homes, at these objects of devotion. And there’s one failsafe image—the statue of the “unknown god,” just in case they’ve missed one of the pantheon of deities, as though a prayer might be addressed to Zeus, to Athena, and to the unknown god that might have been left out. And Paul seizes upon this opening. Look, Athenians! You’re already leaving space for this god whom you don’t know, and I’m telling you, that unknown god is the unnameable God of the Jewish people, whose son Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah, foretold in prophecy. He was born, dwelt among us, was killed, but then rose again and appeared to his followers! And he is alive and present even now, and it is in light of his life and his resurrection that the world will be judged.
Now, we don’t know exactly what Paul said, but I suspect that’s pretty close. He quotes the 6th C poet and prophet Epimenides from Crete, that this unknown God was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” as Paul renders his quotation. (Acts 17.28) Epimenides’s verse was about Zeus, whom he argued was immortal, against other Cretans who believed that Zeus was mortal. So we see that Paul is appealing to the Athenians’ sense of religiosity; he is referencing an ancient source of their own tradition, linking the immortality of Jesus with that of Zeus; and he’s creating space to argue that the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, is the one in whom the Athenians live and move and have their being—they just haven’t recognized it yet!
He goes even further to make a connection. “We, too, are his offspring,” Paul continues. (28) Here Paul is quoting the popular 3rd C poet Aratus, who wrote a poem called Phaenomena about the natural order of the constellations. In its introduction, Aratus writes:
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring (emphasis added)... He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations…
Aratus concludes the introduction with praises to Zeus before going on with the main point of the work, which is to describe the constellations.
So we can see in this reference that Paul is doing two more things—replacing the idea of Zeus’s pervasiveness with that of the God of Abraham—it is the God of Abraham that creates and fills all things—and the making the connection that we are children of the God of Abraham, as evidenced in the story of Jesus, the very Son of God.
Paul goes on to argue that God is not something that we can make, an idol of gold or silver or stone, but in fact is the source of all things, of all life, and that God’s own son Jesus has been raised from the dead.
The Athenians can’t quite get their heads around this idea of resurrection, but some do; Acts tells us that Damaris and Dionysius are among those who come to believe because of Paul’s testimony.
So what does it matter that Paul is clever? That he argues, successfully or unsuccessfully as you might count it, with the Athenians? After all, these old gods, Zeus and the rest of the pantheon, aren’t around any longer, and yet the God of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ is… So Paul must have had some effect! And those old philosophies the Athenians clung to, Stoicism and Epicureanism, those are long gone.
Except are they really?
The Stoics held that, to live a good life, one must align his or her will with the reality of life, with the nature of life itself, so that, whatever situation one might find himself in, he may be happy. That is to say, accepting the world as it is, aligning one’s own will with the reality of things, is a virtue. Even in suffering, if one accepts it, one may be happy.
Epicureans weren’t quite what we think of today; they weren’t hedonists, cooking gourmet meals and feasting. Actually they lived quite simply, for, by containing their desires, they believed they could avoid pain and fear and live in tranquility. That is to say, the good life, a life of virtuous pleasure, was one lived simply, yet avoiding pain or fear.
These don’t seem too far off some of our own philosophical systems, our own ways of living, today—not too far from what one might find in a self-help book, or a TED Talk, or a personal philosophy. “It is what it is,” we say. “Live simply,” we say. And so much of what we do is designed to avoid pain and suffering. It’s not surprising that some of our own contemporary values line up with those of the Stoics and Epicureans; it’s how we think as humans. There’s nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes says (1.9).
Except that what Paul is suggesting, who Jesus is, is something completely different from our philosophical systems, our ethical constructs, even our religious frameworks.
We read in the gospel today more of Jesus’s long farewell discourse--after the Last Supper and before Jesus goes out into the garden, before he goes to his crucifixion. Jesus tells his followers to keep his commandments—to love one another as he has loved them. And he promises that, even when he is gone, God will send God’s Spirit to be with them—with us—forever. Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14.17, 20)
Jesus is promising that God is not only the one in whom we live and move and have our being—but that God is desiring to be with us, reaching out, coming again to us. Jesus is promising that we are more than the created offspring of God. We are the adopted children of God. That God has chosen us.
Following Jesus is more than a philosophical commitment, an ethical system, a way to live. It’s an ontology—a way of being, an actual identity, a presence, a reality. Because God has—in the incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus, in the sending and abiding of God’s Holy Spirit—God has chosen to be with us forever. God has chosen us.
Living a good life seems like a moot point when we can live a life that is God’s, that is a part of the very presence of God. Avoiding pain or fear or anxiety seems less important knowing that God has in fact suffered death and risen, disproving the very power of pain, of fear, of death itself. Paul is engaging the Athenians with what they know. But what he’s offering—what Jesus is offering—is so much greater. No philosophy or system can compare to the knowledge that, in God’s great love, we have been chosen. We have been sought out. We have been incorporated into the very love that is God.
Paul gets a passing grade. He gets his diploma. He’s a good teacher, a good rhetorician, a good evangelist, telling the good news of Jesus. But how are we doing? How are we going to tell the city around us that God loves them—that God has chosen them?
Will we do it with our words, with well-thought out arguments and stories? Will we do it by sharing our own experiences of God’s love? Will we do it with our lives, by showing people, in words and actions, what it looks like to offer ourselves in love and service to God and neighbor?
What will we say? What will we do? How will we share that great news of God’s abiding, transforming, incorporating love?
The good news is that it’s not our work alone. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit, that revealing, self-offering, abiding presence revealing God’s love in the world—by whom, and with whom, and in whom we have our being. Receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells his disciples. Will we receive it? And like Paul will we share that good news of his abiding presence with the whole world?
 This connection is supported by a reconstruction of Epimenides’ text published by J. Rendel Harris in the Expositor (Apr 1907, 332-37), found online at https://books.google.com/books?id=facQAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA336#v=onepage&q&f=false. For more information see the Wikipedia entry on Epimenides, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epimenides (accessed 5/20/2017).
 From a translation by G. R. Mair in Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus. Translated by A. W. and G. R. Mair. Loeb Classical Library Volume 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921. Online at http://www.theoi.com/Text/AratusPhaenomena.html (accessed 5/20/2017)