Sermon - 29th May 2011
Paul on Mars Hill
Scripture - Acts 17:22-31
Rev Andy Braunston
Today’s reading comes from the Book of Acts and recounts Paul’s attempt to preach to the intellectual elite of ancient Athens on Mars Hill. This part of Athens was where the highest court made its deliberations, where the intellectuals would gather and where there were various altars to the different Greek gods. Paul made links between the faith he had in God and the culture that the people in Athens had. He tried to build a bridge between his beliefs and the beliefs and aspirations of those who heard him. In this respect we seek to do the same as Christians in our own age. We also want to build bridges between God and our contemporaries. This is our task as Easter people, Paul’s approach can teach us a thing or two.
The Athenian Context
In ancient Greece, as in ancient Rome, people believed in and worshipped many gods. The Greeks had gods for everything – Eros the god of sexual love, Dionysus the god of the grape harvest, Aphrodite the goddess of love and beauty, Zeus the king of the gods, Artemis the goddess of the hunt, Athena the goddess of wisdom etc. The Romans had a similar view of gods and simply mapped their names onto the Greek names, so Zeus became Jupiter for the Romans. These gods were represented by statues and people made sacrifices to them in order to appease them. Wine might be poured to the ground as an offering to a god, or an animal sacrificed to them. The gods were not all-powerful – they had to obey fate – but they were immortal. If you read any Greek mythology you may be struck at how human the gods were – they had the same petty jealousies, anger and emotions that humans do and their behaviour was very human indeed around sexuality.
Because people thought about the gods in very human terms it made sense to make statues of them as human, or superhuman, figures. After all the gods were like us but endowed with some extra powers.
Religion wasn’t a private thing for either the Greeks or the Romans. Religion was the glue that held their society together – to be an atheist was to be profoundly anti-social and no one would admit to it. In fact, in Roman society, to believe in only one God, as the Jews did, was remarkably anti-social. No one would have minded the Jews believing in their god if they would also pay homage to and worship the other gods. Eventually, as a concession to the troublesome Jews the Roman laws were changed to recognise the Jewish faith as a “legal Religion”. Part of the problem in the Early Church was the self definition of the Christian church – was it Jewish, or a Jewish sect in which case it was illegal or was it something new, in which case it was illegal, anti-social and in danger of severe legal sanctions. The Greeks and Romans, then were religious, or at least they were so in public. The Roman custom of naming the previous emperor as a god and, eventually, of the current emperor as a god meant that religion united with the state to ensure control and good order.
There were many gods and the Greeks in Athens clearly didn’t want to anger a god they hadn’t yet heard about so they had an altar dedicated to the unknown god. It was this altar which gave Paul his way in.
The Way In…
Paul uses his knowledge of Greek religious ideas to make his point. He praised them for being very religious and noted that they even had an altar to the unknown God. Paul then says that the God they didn’t know was the God of the Jewish people – the God who can’t be reduced to a statue or graven image, the God who is the creator of the universe and true ruler of the world. This God doesn’t dwell in shrines, doesn’t need us and is the source of all our life. We don’t know how successful he was but ultimately Greece became a Christian nation, which it remains.
For me, the interesting thing in all this is the way in which Paul uses his knowledge of the culture and religious views of the Greeks to make links with the message that he has to convey. He could have taken a different tack and condemned them for worshipping many gods, for having statues and idols and for making the divine too human. But instead he meets them where they are at and then sees if he can make links. This is a model we should follow.
Contemporary Religious Muddles
We live in a society which is not particularly religious. People are turned off by the church – and it’s no wonder. People who are lgbt have particular issues with the Church but it’s not just linked to those issues. This week whilst the Church of Scotland was starting to open the door to lesbian and gay ministers, deacons and elders, it was leaked that the Archbishops of the Church of England had been asking lawyers to tell them how to avoid the provisions of the Equality Act around the appointment of gay bishops. The Free Church of Scotland was gripped in a debate about whether or not to sing hymns – they normally just sing the Psalms. The church manages to look ridiculous without really trying.
But despite this lack of interest in the church, people are interested in the spiritual. There is a widespread interest and belief in angels (and vampires). The Robbie Williams song Angel linked into this belief that children who die become angels. It’s not a Biblical belief, but it’s widespread. There is interest in people who try and tell your fortune, people will describe themselves as “spiritual” and may mean many different things by that. Often Christians are quite scathing of these types of spirituality. We can be suspicious of anything labelled “New Age”, critical of ideas around angels, and impatient of spirituality which is centred on the self, doesn’t take place in community or traditional ways and so prove ourselves intolerant.
Paul could have found much to condemn in the Greek approach to religion, instead he chose to try and make a link. I think we need to do the same.
When people talk about angels, we could talk about the Biblical view of angels as messengers of God. Sometimes these angels look human (the visitors to Sodom and to Abraham), sometimes they are powerful heavenly beings (those visions Isaiah had) sometimes we have no idea what they looked like (Gabriel and Michael are never described). The Church has always taught that we each have a Guardian Angel building on Jewish ideas and ideas in the New Testament. The fact that people are interested in the messengers of God may be a way in to talking about the God who sends the messenger.
The desire to know the future is about needing security and stability in a fast changing world. It can be about the person seeking knowledge having a hard time and being in a dark place. Perhaps a better way to engage is to encourage trust in God, to offer to pray for, or with the person, to have confidence that God gives us the strength to deal with whatever life throws at us, to be aware of the fact that Jesus travels into the future with us.
There are many forms of Christian spirituality which may be of interest to those who look at other types. Candles, pictures, incense, chanting, meditation are all rich parts of the Christian heritage. Helping people know and use these could help and provide an alternative to much of the New Age.
Paul didn’t condemn or correct the Greeks who believed in so many different gods. Instead, chose to engage them on their own terms. But he didn’t accept all their pre-conceptions. We can do the same, not accepting all the religious ideas that swirl around us but not condemning them either. Instead, by engaging with them, and those who hold them, we can find our own Mars Hills where we can, with love, present God’s loving kindness to our people.