Have you ever been to a party and met a guy who knows more about everything than you? You tell him you’re an attorney, and he starts waxing eloquent on the American judicial system, and the urgent necessity of tort reform and financial ceilings for civil judgments.
You say you’re a physician and he loudly proclaims that the whole healthcare industry is a scam, and that traditional medicine is only an elaborate shell game perpetrated on unsuspecting consumers to get them to part with their hard-won cash—that the real future of medicine lies in plasters made from a mixture of goat intestines, horseradish, and Saw Palmetto.
You say that you’re in management in a medium size technology corporation, and he says that he knows what you mean, he used to be an assistant manager down at the Speedway, and that “us business types need to stick together,” and if you’re interested, he just got a hot tip about the little-known, but upcoming surge in fish stick futures.
You know who I’m talking about. You see him over with his hand in the dip, and you think to yourself, “Yeah, I don’t need chips right now, anyway.”
You agree with anything he says, just to avoid a conversation about the latest outbreak of bed bugs—because he recently watched a show on the Discovery channel that indicates that bed bugs, contrary to popular opinion (fostered by a shady cabal of federal regulators), actually make really good pets.
He’s got something to say about everything, and the infuriating but abiding belief that you’ll be missing out on something life-changingly important if he doesn’t share it with you.
A lot of folks apparently thought that this was an apt description of Paul. Hard to blame them, isn’t it? I mean, just look at how our passage for this morning develops. At the beginning of chapter 17, Paul heads to Thessolonica, after passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia.
What’s the first thing Paul does?
Verse two says, “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that description of Paul strikes me as an ominous beginning to a rather unflattering story. Paul goes charging through the Thessalonian synagogue like Ann Coulter at an etiquette convention.
I mean, if our text this morning is true, Paul apparently had a well-known habit of going into the sacred spaces of people he didn’t know … and telling them in detail how wrong they are.
Paul, to all appearances, is a notorious troll. In fact, he made so many people mad with the Jesus talk that they rounded up a mob—presumably, to teach Paul some manners.
All of this is not to say that Paul didn’t have friends. He had his share of supporters, and when they heard about the sternly worded Yelp review the Thessalonians had planned for him, Paul’s friends shipped him off to Berea.
But the folks in Berea were more receptive to Paul and his message. It seems they actually took the time to check his preaching against scripture, and thought maybe he had a point.
After a tough stay in Thessalonica, things started looking up in Berea. But then the Thessalonians got word that Paul was in Berea, and everything went to pot all over again.
Just like in the movies, the Thessalonians got a whiff of Paul’s scent, and the mob took off down the trail, kicking up dust all the way to Berea, where they endeavored to start riots in an attempt to get to him.
But once again, Paul stayed a step ahead of the hordes, and his friends shipped him off—this time to Athens—which is where we pick up our story for today.
Paul, on the lamb, a fugitive from vigilante justice, crawls into Athens—this time determined to keep a low profile. He stays in his hotel room, living off $6 peanuts from the mini-bar, and peeking out from behind the shades, trying to avoid housekeeping … just waiting for things to cool off a little.
This time Paul’s wised up. He knows he better lay low for a while … just until the heat blows over. Right?
Of course not. What does he do?
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).
This Paul’s really a piece of work. It’s tempting to dismiss his behavior as boorish. He just can’t keep his mouth shut. He’s got no social skills. He’s that guy on Facebook who, when everybody looks at the profile pic, do a collective eye roll.
I mean, after all, his custom upon entering a new city is to go to the synagogue and start harassing the locals. Every time he starts to open his mouth, you can see Silas cringe, “Please. For the love of all that’s holy, just don’t.”
Anytime someone has the sort of strong beliefs that Paul demonstrates, we get a bit uneasy, don’t we?
We’ve seen Paul-wannabes in action. They’re loud and obnoxious, always claiming to speak for God, always telling everybody else how they’re doing it wrong.
You know what I’m talking about. We get pictures in our minds of bullhorn-toting louts taking to the streets, dragging chains and crosses on wheels, a permanent scowl affixed to their faces. Or famous preachers jumping up and down, convinced they have the inside dope about whom God hates.
“That’s not,” we think, “what Christianity’s all about.”
Frankly, I too find all the screaming and bold certainty rather off-putting, if you want to know the truth. But, as hard as it may be, let’s give Paul the benefit of the doubt here for a moment. Let’s assume—it’s a stretch, I know—that maybe it’s not him. Maybe—here we go—maybe it’s them.
Now, before you think I’ve completely lost it, hear me out for a minute. What is it that Paul’s got in his crosshairs? What is it that Paul’s so hot and bothered about that he can’t keep his mouth shut, even when keeping his mouth shut would have eased his difficulties considerably?
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.”
What does Paul say? He makes the case that Christians have a different understanding about how the world’s ordered, and who’s ultimately in charge. God, according to Paul’s reading of history, created the world, and all that’s in it. Indeed, God created us, “In God we live and move and have our being.”
We’re God’s “offspring.” And here comes the crux of the argument: Since we, who are flesh and blood, are God’s offspring, “we ought not to think that [God] is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (17:29).
It’s tempting to dismiss this account of Paul at the Areopagus as pre-modern, unsophisticated superstition. After all, we aren’t naïve enough to believe that bowing down to silver and gold will bring us meaning.
We moderns would never be so hopelessly gullible as to suppose that something as crass as a material object could help to provide an intelligible account of our existence. We would never bow down and worship things that we’ve made with our own hands, ideas of our own creation. I mean, come on, we live in twenty first century America, for crying out loud. We don’t worship idols.
It’s been observed that the biggest problem in scripture, as well as the biggest problem we face today, isn’t atheism; it’s idolatry. All of which is rather hard for us who drink Heine Brothers and shop at Whole Foods to imagine. We’ve evolved to the point where idolatry has been revealed as an exercise in pre-modern myth-making—an exercise, the practice of which, is incomprehensible to us.
But is that really true? Are we so sophisticated that idolatry is no longer an issue that modern people have to deal with?
I don’t know.
Martin Luther once said that idolatry is merely a question of what god you would sacrifice you children for. And, I’ll have to be honest with you, I see just as much child sacrifice in the world today as there ever was among the “unsophisticated” communities of the past. We’re just less honest about it.
At least when ancient Near Easterners sacrificed their children to Moloch, they were up front about what they were doing. They never hid behind words like, “Food stamps just encourage poor people to be lazy.”
At least when Aztec parents marched their offspring to the table of sacrifice to turn them over to the folks in power, they didn’t try to ease their consciences by saying, “We have to preserve the 2nd amendment.”
When a Phoenician priest lifted a child up to the sky, he didn’t try to rationalize the sacrifice he was making by saying, “If this child hadn’t worn a hoodie, if he hadn’t appeared threatening, if he would have just done what the police told him, it wouldn’t have come to this.”
No. I don’t buy the premise that we’re more sophisticated because we sacrifice our children and our families, our friends and neighbors to less messy gods. We’re just less honest about what we’re doing. People—even good church folks—are bleeding all over their families to lay lives at the altar of lesser gods.
Heck, even the way we “do” church can be an idol at the feet of which we’re capable of sacrificing community. People still bow down to idols, all right; they just name them differently.
And Paul’s taking this message to the streets, at considerable risk to himself.
Why does Paul continue to make the case that worshiping something or someone other than God is misplaced devotion—even when doing so risks his life?
Is it just because he’s socially inept, an obnoxious bonehead? Or is it because the message he has is a matter of life and death?
“Oh, now . . . see . . . you’re just being dramatic!”
Am I? Do you really believe that lives aren’t lost every day—even in the land of 24 hour Wal-Marts and drive through drycleaners—at the altars of lesser gods?
What Paul’s getting at is that after Easter, if it’s true that we’ve been given the assurance that “by raising [Jesus] from the dead” God has said “no” to the the systems that sacrifice our children, then we have a story about a new world that we can’t keep to ourselves.
In a world willing to pray to any god who promises to keep us safe from people who don’t look like us, in a world where the music of our worship sounds like the ticking of a time clock, or the growl of an SUV, in a world in which we tithe our time and money to gods defined by national boundaries or party affiliations, we have good news about a new world God is busy creating that we can’t keep to ourselves—even knowing that in proclaiming it we risk looking like the very people we privately roll our eyes at.
After Easter everything looks different. All the attachments that formerly had a claim upon our loyalties have been displaced by a more compelling attachment. If God has said “yes” to Jesus in Easter, we have a story we can’t keep quiet about; we have a story that calls into question the stories of a thousand and one other gods that clamor for our allegiance.
Being chased from town to town because you’re insufferable is one thing. But if the reason you run into problems is because you see a different reality from the one popularly offered by the culture, a reality shaped by Easter and a God who pursues us even through the valley of the shadow of death, then, take heart, you’re in good company.
Better people than we have been tripped up dragging a cross around.