May 25, 2014: Acts 17:22-31

May 25, 2014

Year A, Easter 6                                                    

            Last year my husband and I decided to try something a  little different for our vacation.  We found a yoga ashram (which is kind of like a retreat center) and decided to give it a shot.  I called before making the reservation because I was a little worried about the twice daily chanting and meditation.  I have practiced yoga for over 10 years, but I have never gotten into the chanting.  I was also concerned that we would be forced to bow to Hindu gods and that would not have gone over well with my husband.  He was already upset about the fact that there were only 2 meals a day.  They assured me that it was in interfaith center and no one faith was emphasized over the others. 

            We arrived and discovered a beautiful center with breathtaking scenery. Our first yoga class was on a platform right next to the ocean.  We had dinner, which was pretty good. Even my husband was happy.  Then we walked into the temple and both of us freaked out a little.  There were huge pictures of Hindu gods as well as statues of their guru.  In the corner there was a tiny picture of Jesus with a rosary hanging over the edge.  Then we proceeded to chant Sanskrit.  I looked at the translation and it was pretty clearly directed to Hindu gods.  There was also bowing involved. My husband started looking for an escape route.

            The Book of Acts is essentially a sequel to the Gospel of Luke because it was written by the same person.  While the Gospels tell the story of Jesus and his followers, Acts tells the story of the beginning of the church.  The church began in a place where faith and religion was already established. In the Gospels we hear about the Jews and the Gentiles.   Often the term Gentile and pagan are used interchangeably, which is not correct.  Pagans are people who believe in multiple gods.  A Gentile is someone who is not Jewish.  Not all Gentiles were pagans, but pagans were all Gentiles.  Jesus spent most of his time with Jews.  He had a couple interactions with Gentiles, but it was very rare.  Things changed after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  In Acts the disciples began to preach to the Gentiles, who were often pagans. 

            In the reading from Acts today, the Apostle Paul addresses the people of Athens.  Athens was the home of the great thinkers and philosophers.   They were idol worshippers and had prolific idols to prove it. This is the first time that Paul addressed a group like this.  He was only in Athens because he was driven out of the previous two cities that he preached and he was really just waiting for his companions to catch up with him.  He had not intended on preaching to the Athenians.   

            However, while he was waiting, he walked around the city and grew exasperated at the sight of idols throughout the city.  He spent some time in the synagogue speaking to Jews but then engaged in conversation with some philosophers who passed by.   The philosophers were curious about this new idea that Paul was discussing and encouraged him to go to the Agora, which was basically the city center, and address the Aregopagus which was the prestigious court of the Athenians.  He was speaking to the philosophical leaders, which was a pretty big deal and the first time that Paul had addressed a crowd like this. 

            Paul took a slightly different tactic than normal.  Typically he was blunt and not too worried about who he would offend.  This situation was different.  It required some finesse.  So he preached the Gospel in a completely different way.  He started by flattering them remarking on how very religious they were with all their objects of worship.  It’s hard to believe he was sincere given that those objects of worship (idols) were the very same thing that exasperated him upon his arrival.  But perhaps in his conversations with the people, he started seeing these objects from a different perspective.  Maybe he realized that any community that would go to the trouble of creating these idols was clearly searching for something that was beyond their understanding.  

He then appealed to their common ground which was creation and nature.  The philosophers had a respect for creation and God’s part in creation.  They recognized that there was something bigger going on.  Then he pointed out that if God created all these things they worship, how could God possibly live in shrines created by human hands?  Paul did not rely on scripture to prove his point, as was his tendency.  Instead, he quoted two well-known philosophers.  He quote, “In him we live, and move and have our being.”  We can agree with that right? It sounds like something that would come out of the Bible.  The second quote was, “For we too are his offspring.”  If we were to use Christian terminology, we would say that we are all children of God.  What Paul was doing was brilliant because he was taking things from their culture and then putting it in the context of the Christian faith.   He wasn’t tearing them down; he was lifting them up.  He was not smashing their idols, he was changing the way they looked at their idols.  

What is fascinating is that he never even mentioned the name Jesus.  He referred to a man who had been raised from the dead.  And that is when things departed from typical philosophical ideals. After talking about us all being offspring, he said, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent…because he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has given reassurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  In other words, God proved himself when he raised Jesus from the dead.  Therefore, this man who has been raised from the dead is worthy to judge the whole world.  In my opinion that was a pretty big leap, but we probably don’t have the whole speech.

It was at that point (when he made that leap) that he lost a couple of people.  They ridiculed him.  But there were some who wanted to hear more and some immediately became believers.   This might not be the overwhelming response that was experienced in the beginning of Acts, but it’s not bad considering who he was talking to.   At least three people became followers and who knows whose lives they touched. 

My husband and I spent three days at the yoga ashram.  We went to the chanting sessions because it was required; but I resented it. I talked to almost no one the whole time I was there.  In the last hour we were there, we were killing time until our taxi came and one of the yoga teachers offered to give us a tour.  It was fascinating.  We had a wonderful conversation about their philosophy and why they did what they did.  I really regretted that I had been so closed minded that whole time, so unwilling to engage with others because I was uncomfortable.  I just did not know how to relate, even though we all had something in common, and that was yoga.  I’m not saying I should have evangelized to them, but I think we could have learned from one another.  They might have had some questions had they known there were two Episcopal clergy in their midst.

I think a lot of times we try to take things in our culture and change them to make them Christian.  We think that is how we might reach out to non-Christians.  But that is not really authentic.  Instead what we should do is what Paul did.  Find the common ground and put that in the context of the Christian faith.   That sounds harder than it is.   Because if we believe that God created heaven and earth, as well as humans….well then everything is God’s.  Everything belongs in God’s context.  It’s our job to make that real for people, to make it relevant.  We should never miss an opportunity to do that especially when you are not in church.