August 20, 2017 “Common Ground” – Acts 17:16-34
August 20, 2017 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
If you visit Athens, Greece, one of the first things you may notice is the smog. It may be getting worse. A twenty-year ban on diesel vehicles in the city was lifted in 2012. More recently, economic hardship has caused the price of fuel oil to soar, so more Greeks are burning wood to keep warm in the winter.
The Parthenon, one of the most beautiful and famous buildings in the world, has long been the victim of smog and acid rain. It’s constantly being cleaned to try and preserve it, and many of its statues, like the Caryatids supporting the roof, have been moved to museums and replaced with replicas. That ugly haze in the sky wrecks both health and the nation’s architectural heritage.
We join Paul this week as he was alone in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. He wasn’t troubled by smog, but verse 16 tells us that “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” To his eye, the spiritual health of the Athenians was being wrecked by a cloud of false religion surrounding them. His response in verse 17 was a confrontation with both the Jewish community he found in the synagogue and the Greek intellectual community.
Last week we left Paul in Philippi, his first significant stop in Greece. He had moved westward along the Macedonian coast line until he came to Berea. There he left his companions and sailed south alone, landing in the ancient city of Athens. Rome might have conquered the western world, but in the process Rome itself was conquered by the legacy of Greece. Rome’s gods, politics and culture were almost completely borrowed from and modeled on Greek examples.
Athens was the center of Greek life and thought. This was the birthplace of Socrates and Plato. Aristotle had lived here. Athens was the place where democracy was first conceived. It had been the greatest city-state of Greece. It was the home of the finest artistic and architectural achievements of western civilization. Above it soared the Acropolis, the “city height,” upon which the glorious Parthenon was built to honor their namesake goddess Athena.
Even by Paul’s time the glory of Athens had faded a bit. When he walked from the port at Piraeus eastward into the city, coming to the agora, the great courtyard marketplace, he found magnificent statuary and temples on every hand. Everywhere he looked he saw marble representations of Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Artemis and especially Athena. Her statue was 50 feet high, carved out of ivory covered with gold. It alone cost one third of what the Parthenon cost to build. These monuments created by the Greeks for their gods made the Jewish temple in Jerusalem look puny. Paul must have felt like a little boy from Kansas on his first drive through Seattle or Los Angeles.
Paul was not intimidated, though. The beauty of the statues and temples did not awe him so much that he had nothing to say. Instead, he approached all that false belief and misguided art in a Christlike spirit of concern and love and gentle persuasion. He did not immediately condemn pagan religion, but instead tried to find common ground from which to share the truth.
Of course, he already had common ground with the Jews there. So verse 17 says that is where he started, in the synagogue, talking to Jews and “devout” people, converts to Judaism. Evidently the discussion soon spilled over into the agora, the marketplace, and the larger public got involved.
Verse 18 tells us that some philosophers began to debate with Paul, Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans were materialist fatalists who believed that the only goal in life was to live as peacefully and comfortably as possible until you die. The Stoics were pantheists, believing that there is a spark of the divine in all things. Their philosophy called for deep moral commitment. In the next century, a Stoic named Marcus Aurelius became the emperor of Rome and brought a brief period of peace and prosperity to the empire.
These philosophers did not know what to make of Paul. They heard him speaking about Iesus and anastasia, Jesus and the resurrection, but they thought he was talking about two new gods. Iesus may have sounded a little like the Greek word for healing, so they imagined he was suggesting worship toward gods of health and life.
Typical of the highest culture of the west, their response was relatively civilized. They brought Paul before the Areopagus, the most ancient court of Athens. This court began centuries before as a group of leaders meeting together on a large rock, the Hill of Ares or “Mars Hill.” You can still see the steps they climbed and some rough seats cut into the rock. We do not know if Paul actually met them atop the rock or whether they gathered in one of the porches of the marketplace as was more typical by Paul’s time.
In any case, they placed Paul before the court and asked him to explain himself. Verse 20 says they were intrigued because he was saying something new and strange to them. In verse 21, Luke makes the sarcastic remark that the people of Athens liked nothing better than sitting around and talking about whatever new ideas came along. A Greek himself, the great orator Demosthenes, confirms that judgment, by pointing out that when Philip of Macedon rose to power, an event that called for action, all the Athenians did was sit and wait for some news to talk about.
We imagine that our current climate of diversity and pluralism is a recent development. What happened that day in Athens two millennia ago makes it clear that very little has changed. Get on Facebook or Twitter and you will see that the Athenian desire to hear something new, anything new, is still going strong. Mark Zuckerberg has made a fortune off that same desire. Bored and jaded users just keep scrolling, hoping for something strange, something novel, something new and controversial to post or tweet about in an endless conversation that never really concludes anything.
Despite the superficiality of his audience, Paul did not let his opportunity slip away. Whether or not the court was genuinely interested or serious about their inquiry, Paul was prepared to engage the best minds in the world on their own turf. And so with the words “Men of Athens!” verse 22 begins one of the most famous speeches recorded in all history. In modern times its Greek words have been cast in bronze and set into the rocky side of the Areopagus, a visible record of Athens’ first encounter with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Notice the differences between this speech and the sermon recorded in Acts chapter 13, when Paul preached to the Jews in Psidian Antioch. There his speech was full of quotes from Scripture, references to prophecy, the promise that sins will be forgiven. He calls Jesus by name and proves that He is the long-expected Messiah. None of that is to be found in his response to the Areopagus.
What is more, Paul showed that he was absolutely unafraid to take the questions and beliefs of his audience seriously. With his first words he affirms them, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He described how he looked very carefully at their statues and religious monuments. He investigated so thoroughly that he even found one labeled “To an unknown god.” Greeks were so religious they did not wish to leave any base uncovered—they made sure that even gods they did not know about got worshipped!
That altar dedication to an unknown god gave Paul the text for his sermon in Athens. He was ready, he said, to teach them about the God they did not know. They wanted something new. He would give them new information about that unknown god. He began on common ground with those philosophers and reasoned with them until he arrived at his goal of proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Paul pushed ahead on more common ground. The Greeks recognized, like many people still do, that the world had to come from somewhere. Plato wrote about a “demiurge” who fashioned the material world. Aristotle reasoned that there must be an unmoved mover behind the moving universe. Those Epicureans there thought everything was only atoms, but even they had to posit an unexplained swerve in the flow of atoms to get the world going. And the Stoics attributed it all to the logos, a word by which everything existed.
In verse 24, Paul explained to them that the real source of the world was a creator God who made it all, yet remains outside and above it all. That “Lord of heaven and earth” is too great to live even in a temple like the Parthenon, and in verse 25, He doesn’t need anything humans can offer. Instead, it is this God, the one they don’t yet know, who gives them everything they have, “life and breath and all things.”
Paul was doing what Christian philosophers came to call “natural theology.” Instead of starting his teaching about God from the Scriptures, like he did with the Jews, he started from what he had in common with those Athenians, from the basic human experience of the natural world and the need to explain where it came from. You can also hear Paul doing natural theology like that in Romans chapter 1. You can find it in Psalm 19 as well as little bits and pieces in the wisdom books of the Bible like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.
Natural theology is not a huge theme in Scripture. Most of the Bible, even from the beginning in Genesis, simply assumes that God exists. But it’s there. Scripture recognizes and affirms that people can and do know something about God even if they’ve never read the Bible or been exposed to Christian teaching. As Paul says in Romans 1:20, that’s why they have no excuse. There is common ground, a point from which one can begin a natural theology which leads to God.
The problem is that natural theology often goes off the rails. Left without the witness of Scripture and the message of Jesus, people get a little bit right and an awful lot wrong about God and who He is. All that idol worship there in Athens shows that. All the misguided and false religion in our world today shows that.
That is why some Christian theologians have been totally skeptical of and opposed to natural theology. In 1934 Emil Brunner in Germany wrote an essay in support of natural theology. Not long after, his friend Karl Barth published a scathing reply entitled simply Nein! “No!” said Barth, there is no room in Christian theology for any common ground with non-Christian thought or knowledge. There can be no natural theology.
Let me tell you, though, what Barth was so worried about. Natural theology in Germany had gone way off the rails. Instead of thinking that what they learned about God from nature and human life led them back to the God of the Bible, the German people began to believe a leader and a political party who told them that their government was a new source of theology, a revelation equal to the Bible itself. The German church began to say that it was God who put the Nazi party in power, that God was at work in the man named Hitler. That was what their natural theology told them.
All I’m going to say is that we as American Christians need to be very careful not to go off the rails in the same direction those German Christians did. Let us never fall prey to a theology, natural or otherwise, that leads us to believe God is to be found in a politician or a government that is utterly opposed to what Scripture teaches, opposed to what we have learned about God through His perfect revelation in Jesus Christ our Lord.
That said, we do not need to join Karl Barth in totally rejecting natural theology. Just look at the rest of Paul’s speech about the common ground he found there in Athens for his own natural theology. In verse 26 Paul talked about the common ancestry of all human beings. The Bible and science both teach us this today. We are all one species. We are all human beings. Races and nations are equal in God’s eyes. Paul declares in verse 27 that God is not far from anyone.
Then Paul says something as desperately important for us to hear today in America as it was 2,000 years ago in Athens. In verse 28, he quotes from two Greek pagan poets. The first quotation is something the poet may have thought was about Zeus, “in him we live and move and have our being.” But Paul applies it to God, saying that every human being lives and exists only in and through Him.
The second poet Paul quotes is Aratus, one of the Stoics’ own writers. What he wrote was definitely about Zeus, but Paul claims it as the truth about the God of the Bible. “For we too are his offspring.” The point is that all people on earth are the children of the God who made this world. Paul went on in verse 29, “Since we are God’s offspring,” including both himself and the Greeks as descendants, as children of the one true God.
There is a natural theology for our time, a natural theology of which Karl Barth has nothing to be afraid! It’s a theological truth recognized by thoughtful people, whether Jew or Christian or neither, down through the ages. Human beings are all God’s children, loved by Him and sought by Him. We all come from Him. Like one of our own non-Christian English poets said, “Trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God who is our home.”
Paul’s speech shows us that natural theology itself has at least some answer to Karl Barth’s worries about a perverse natural theology which sets itself up as equal and contrary to the Word of God. Those Greek poets’ understanding of all people as children of God is enough to allow a vehement and unqualified “Nein!” to the Nazis, a “No!” to the white supremacists, to the alt-right and to racism of all sorts. Natural theology and biblical theology are totally in harmony on that point. All people belong to God and He loves and wants to save us all.
As natural theology always should, it leads in verses 30 and 31 to theology which comes from Scripture. Paul told the Athenians that because we all belong to God, He holds us all accountable. He graciously overlooks our ignorance of Him, is merciful to people who’ve never had a chance to hear the Gospel, but in the end there is a day of judgment coming for those who persist in their sin, who persist in harming and treating others as though they were not God’s children.
The one coming to judge, says Paul, is the one God validated “by raising him from the dead.” Paul was gently leading those Athenians toward the way in which God was calling them all back to Him, leading them back into His family, into the eternal home from which they came. That is Jesus Christ, who died for their sins and was raised from the dead to show them just how very much God does love them all, and how much He loves you.
We have common ground with the people around us. The Bible says so. God has placed within all His children a desire for Him, a need for Him. That desire can get off track, can go down dark and ugly paths like it did in Germany 80 years ago and did in Charlottesville last week. But like Paul we can try and reach that common ground in our common humanity, in our common need for the grace which God offers us in Jesus.
Karl Barth and Emil Brunner’s friendship was ruined by their dispute over natural theology. They would not forgive each other and hardly ever saw each other again for over thirty years. But one day in 1966 Barth received a letter from Brunner’s pastor telling him that Emil was dying and asking if there might be any reconciliation with his old friend. He sat down and wrote a letter. This is what it said.
Your letter of the second touched me greatly—also because you wrote it.
If I were more active after my two-year illness I would take the next train to press Emil Brunner’s hand again.
If he is still alive and it is possible, tell him I commend him to our God. And tell him the time when I thought I should say No to him is long since past, and we all live only by the fact that a great and merciful God speaks his gracious Yes to all of us.
With sincere thanks and greetings,
The story is that the pastor rushed to Brunner’s hospital bed where he was awake and conscious. He heard the letter read and then closed his eyes and lapsed into a coma from which he did not awake. His old friend’s words about the gracious Yes of God were the last words he heard on earth. I believe they were the first words he heard in heaven.
With Karl Barth, you and I must always be ready to say a vehement “No!” to the evil of this world, and to evil people when they do it. We must beware of any theology which even suggests that God is complicit in that evil, complicit in hatred or oppression or racism or murder of innocent people. Ours must always be “No!” to that kind of false theology and heresy, as our Covenant president Gary Walter called it.
Yet with Barth and even more with Paul, we must even more be ready to say God’s gracious and loving “Yes!” to those who, as verse 27 says, “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Let us find our common ground with them and lead them on to the ground before the Cross and the ground broken open at the empty tomb, the ground on which we kneel before our risen Savior Jesus Christ. Let us arrive there together, one in Him, all of us God’s children.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj