As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Scripture Reading: Acts 17:22-31
Recently in a sermon I made passing reference to the exclusive claims Christianity sometimes makes to having the truth. We’re not the only religion that does this, but it’s challenging in an age that claims to be tolerant and wants all religious faiths to get along with each other.
That’s why I find this week’s reading from Acts to be so very helpful in establishing a good attitude.
Paul addressed the Athenians at the Areopagus (by invitation, it should be noted: he had been debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and they wanted to hear him in the traditional place where new ideas were presented and debated).
Paul was no stranger to the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. He came from Tarsus, the capital of a province in what is now Turkey, with a pagan temple that was famous in the Roman empire. So, when he went to Athens, he wasn’t a wide-eyed tourist or a naive monotheist Jew facing all those idols for the first time. He was accustomed to rubbing elbows with pagans. He knew already how to live and let live; he was quite sophisticated.
And what he did was clever, even sort of funny: “You know that god you worship as unknown? Well, let me introduce you!”
And you can see what he thinks about religions in general in his very words: I would put it as “all religion is a response to God”. People reaching for the One who made them.
And Paul wasn’t being totally exclusive, either. He wasn’t insisting on having the exclusive path to salvation. He acknowledged that some of this reaching does succeed in connecting people to God.
At the same time, his words also reveal a strong perspective shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims: a rejection of idols. He didn’t condemn them as happens in the Hebrew scriptures. After all, the Hebrew scriptures were aimed at the Hebrews and the laws of Moses forbade idols. They were being ordered to behave.
In Athens, Paul was speaking to gentiles who were not under the Mosaic law. Idols weren’t banned for them, so Paul had to be persuasive. He was in no position to give orders.
Rather, he made the point that I touched on a couple of weeks ago: the gods and goddesses represented by so many of the idols were like flawed humans writ large: superheroes, who were often jealous and unfaithful and petty; self-centred and prone to violence; far from perfect.
And Paul contrasted all of that with the Jewish vision of a transcendent God: one for whom no mere image would ever be enough; one who is the source of everything; who needs nothing from us; but who chooses to love us and engage with us. The God who chooses to relate to us.
Paul concluded with what we might find to be a startling point, but which reveals his motivation for his tireless travels and evangelistic work: his conviction that judgment day was immanent.
Paul’s vision of Judgment Day doesn’t contain a lot of detail, but what he does say is actually quite reassuring:
First: the judgment would be righteous.
That is important: the image of righteousness in the Hebrew scriptures is pretty clear. Righteous people love justice, showing no preference for the rich and powerful. They are charitable to the poor, ensuring that no one starves or freezes. In other words, the righteous of scripture love their neighbours, have the best interests of the community in mind and are not self-centred or unfair in their dealings.
To be judged by this standard may not be easy for everyone but it’s not like sending someone to Hell because they believed in false gods.
Paul wasn’t actually asking people to change their faith; he was asking them to change their ways.
The second point Paul makes is: Jesus is to be the judge appointed to that position by God.
This is also reassuring. Consider: the Athenians were accustomed to gods who were quite callous toward humans. We were like play-things to the gods, like dolls, or maybe pawns on a chessboard.
Paul had just presented a vision of God that could have made God seem even more remote, even less sympathetic. After all, a totally self-sufficient creator has no need for us, as Paul just said. So what do we have to offer God? What can we bargain with?
With Jesus as judge, that’s not an issue. Jesus is human, with his own experience of human life. To be fair, there are lots of humans I wouldn’t want judging me, but consider what people expected in the first century: judgment by petty, bickering pagan gods or the prospect of an all-powerful creator who is so amazing as to be almost unknowable. Jesus instantly makes a reassuring candidate.
So what does all of that say to us today?
We know that judgment day didn’t happen 2000 years ago, but we also know that we will each face a time, when we leave this life, and it is fair to ask what kind of a life we’ve lived.
It is also a concern as we live in a world that still has many faiths, to think that if some versions of Christianity are correct, then most people are condemned to eternal suffering, just for believing the wrong things.
Paul’s words to the Athenians give us a very different picture. He understands that all religion is a response to God and that all people are groping towards a better understanding of the source of all life and good. And he makes it clear that God cares less about the brand of your faith and more about how you live.
Are you righteous? Do you make ethical choices and treat others as you would wish to be treated? Do you avoid selfishness? Do you care for others? Do you work for a world where everyone is respected and loved?
Those are what Paul sees as the issues on judgment day. Those are the things we should be concerned with.
And like Paul, we shouldn’t be shy about sharing our faith. Not because we’re out to convert people, but because what we believe is really Good News. God, who is superior to all things, and who doesn’t need us, loves us, and wants a relationship with us.
God isn’t out to get us. God isn’t judgmental and nasty. In fact, God gave Jesus the job of connecting us even better with our creator and teaching us how to live the kinds of lives that reflect God’s values.
That is good news, and should help us in this multi-faith world; to live lives that every religion will recognize as good.