A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 29, 2011.
Psalm 66:8-20; Acts 17:22-31
It didn’t take long for the early church to start establishing itself as an institution. Certain leaders, not the least of which was James, the brother of Jesus, began forming the new movement into a duly-constituted religious hierarchy. They established bishops and deacons and all manner of offices, all for the expressed purpose of bringing the followers of Jesus into order.
And then along came Paul. And while Paul acknowledged these offices, even provided guidance and advice to those who were in these exalted positions, you can’t help but get the feeling that he really wanted nothing to do with the church as an institution. However, when he finished what was to be the last of his three missionary journeys and returned to Jerusalem, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, he had some ’splainin’ to do. They wanted to know why he felt compelled to be in the company of Gentiles, along with other concerns they had about the way he conducted his ministry.
Let’s eavesdrop on his conversation with the bishop at Jerusalem, shall we? The bishop sits down behind his massive desk and Paul takes a seat in front of him. The bishop asks for an account of his travels, so Paul whips out a notebook from his coat pocket. It is his personal journal that describes all that has transpired the last few months. As he looks at his notes the interview begins.
“Well, let’s see,” Paul says to the bishop. “As you may have heard, Barnabas went with me, and we took his young cousin John Mark with us as well. John was a big help… for awhile. I’ll get into that later. Our first destination was… yes, to Seleucia, but it was just overnight. The next morning we sailed for Cyprus and stayed a bit at Salamis. That was our first real preaching opportunity, and we were excited about it. Of course, we went to the synagogue for that. That is our custom, you know, to go first to the synagogue and share the gospel with the Jews. They were always the first ones with whom we visited. We covered the entire island of Salamis, going from village to village, town to town.
It was in Paphos that we met a magician. He made himself out to be a prophet and called himself Bar-Jesus, which, of course, means “Son of Jesus,” though his real name was Elymas. Elymas worked for Sergius Paulus, the Cyprian proconsul, and tried to keep us from sharing our faith with the proconsul. How in the world such a man ever got a position of authority that high, I’ll never know. But we were not going to let him keep us from having an appointment with the proconsul, let me tell you.
I don’t know what came over me. I really don’t. The only thing I can say is that it must have been the Holy Spirit. The next thing I know, I’m finding myself pointing a finger at Elymas and saying, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?!’
And suddenly, he was struck blind. Just like that. This… this mist-like thing came over his eyes and he couldn’t see a thing! As you can imagine, the proconsul started believing then! Who wouldn’t have believed when seeing something like that?!
We left there and sailed to Perga, over in Pamphylia. That’s when John Mark left us. I don’t know… I was beginning to exert myself, that’s true. Barnabas kind of took a back seat and let me lead – maybe because of the incident with Elymas – and I think John Mark was jealous for Barnabas. They are family, you know, and blood is thicker than water. Either that or he was just homesick. John Mark is young. Maybe he missed his mama. Anyway, he came back here to Jerusalem and that left just Barnabas and me, and pretty soon we arrived at Antioch in Pisidia.
On the sabbath we went to the synagogue to worship. I did tell you that was our practice, didn’t I? Yes, I thought so. After the law and the prophets were read, as is the custom you know, they asked us if we had a message for them. Well, you know me; I’m not going to let an opportunity like that go by. So I told them about Moses and how the Israelites conquered Canaan. I reminded them of the judges and the prophet Samuel. I mentioned King Saul and David his successor, how he was a man after God’s own heart. Of course, up to that point, I was preaching to the choir, not telling them anything they didn’t already know. But what I was doing was setting the stage for what I was to tell them next… establishing the context, you see. So then I said, ‘But if you want to know God’s heart, let me tell you about Jesus of Nazareth.’ It was then I told them about how Jesus is God’s fulfillment for all God has done up to this time.
Guess what? They invited us back! The next sabbath we returned and it seemed as if the entire city was there!”
“That was great!” the bishop responded. “I’m sure you were pleased at such a response.”
“It was good, that’s true… but it was also bad. The synagogue had never seen such a crowd, and some of the leaders in the congregation got mad. They were jealous of our ability to gather such a large crowd. It had never happened to them, that’s for sure. So they began debating with us and things got a little hot. We were afraid violence might break out, so we told them we’d take our message to the Gentiles. The Gentiles would listen to what we had to say, and boy were we right. They heard us gladly.
The synagogue leadership wouldn’t leave us alone, however. They kept stirring up things to the point that we had to leave. So we went to Iconium.
Let’s see… well, I don’t have numbers but I can tell you that a great many, both Jews and Greeks, became believers in Iconium. But some didn’t, and the ones who didn’t began stirring things up, just as they did in Antioch. We stayed a good while and continued to have success. But the city was divided between those who believed and those who didn’t. Some of the unbelievers were plotting to have us stoned, so we made our way to Lycaonia. You know, there’s always some place else to go, somebody else to tell about Jesus, so that’s what we did.
It was there, in Lystra, that the Spirit came over me again. I ran into a crippled man. He had never walked in his life, had been born that way. I could see that despite his malady, however, he had a strong faith. I could just see it in his eyes, so I found myself saying to him, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk.
Like before, it was both good and bad. We were glad the man was healed, but the people who witnessed the miracle tried to make us out to be gods. They even gave us Greek names. They called Barnabas Zeus and me Hermes. It did give us an opportunity, however, to point the people to the right and true God. And we were making real headway until, once again, the synagogue leaders from Antioch followed us over and began stirring up the crowds against us. This time they were successful in having us stoned, to the point they thought we were dead. But we were rescued by some of the believers and we escaped to Derbe.”
“It sounds like you got a pretty strong reaction everywhere you went, Paul,” the bishop responds. “Tell me about Athens.”
“Oh, you heard about that, huh? Well, first you have to know that Athens is different from any place we visited. There were altars everywhere. In fact, the story goes that about three hundred years ago Athens was experiencing a deadly plague. Epimenides, the philosopher from Crete, told the Athenians to turn their sheep loose on the Areopagus. Wherever the sheep lay down, there they should be sacrificed to the ‘appropriate god,’ that is, to the unknown god who was causing the plague.1 I saw the altar myself. ‘To the unknown God,’ the inscription read. I guess they figured that this idol would cover all the other gods they hadn’t yet discovered. So I attempted to use that as an entry point to my speech.”
“Speech? Why do you call it a speech, Paul?”
“Well, sermon just doesn’t seem to fit in Athens. They all think so… so… philosophically. To be honest, we hadn’t planned to go to Athens at all because of this. But, we got into so much trouble in Beroea that our friends there insisted we go. ‘Athens may not be your cup of tea,’ they told us, ‘but it should be safe. There are so many gods in that place,’ they said to us, ‘one more won’t be such a big deal.’ Unfortunately, as it would turn out, they were right. We were safe, but it was hard to tell people about Jesus. We decided to let things die down while we stayed awhile in Athens. However, I just couldn’t let all those pagan altars go unanswered. I had to speak up. You know me. I’ve always had the philosophy, if not me then who, if not now then when? So there I was, in the middle of the Areopagus, addressing a bunch of pagan unbelievers.
It was pretty strange. Usually, as I told you – a couple of times, I think – I speak first to my fellow Jews in the synagogue. Later, I may go to the Gentiles, but most of the time the congregation is a mix. Yet, for the most part, they know the history of the Jews. I’m able to preach Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s intention for his people Israel, and how God has now intended to take his message of salvation to the Gentiles as well. But in Athens, they were entirely pagan. I had no frame of reference with which to address them. What was I going to do?
I decided to appeal to their religious nature. And make no bones about it, they are very religious. But they’re not specific at all in terms of what they’re religious about. They’ve got a god for everything. I tried to tell them that their many altars were a misguided search for what I knew to be the one true God.
I told them that such a God does not have a roof over his head, that God doesn’t live in a shrine. He wasn’t made, nor is he served, by human hands. So God doesn’t need anything from us, we need everything from him… life and breath and everything. Such a God, I told them, is not far from us for ‘in him we live and move and have our very being.’ I said it with all the passion I could muster. Passion is in short supply in Athens, let me tell you.
Up to this point, I told them, God had ignored their ignorance. Well, God had overlooked it, anyway. But no longer. The age of innocence was over and now God would hold them accountable for their beliefs or lack thereof. But, I was quick to tell them, our God is a forgiving God who has made repentance available for everyone through one man.”
“But you didn’t mention the name of Jesus, did you?” the bishop asks Paul. “We have been told you didn’t mention the name of Jesus.”
“That’s true. I didn’t. I wanted to be careful about that, you see. But I did tell them that God had raised this one man from the dead. And that’s when the people started to react.”
“Oh, and how did they react?”
“Well, I have to tell you, the whole experience was pretty underwhelming. I didn’t get the same reaction as in some of those other towns. At least they didn’t try to stone me. Some of them laughed at me. A few, however, wanted to know if I’d come back and talk to them about it again, like it was a sport or something. But I took this as a favorable sign. Oh, we did get a couple of converts. That’s when Dionysius joined us, and a woman named Damaris. They brought a few new believers along with them. So our experience in Athens was certainly not a total loss. We had a few baptisms there. Admittedly, we didn’t get a lot of converts, but now that I think about it, it wasn’t all that bad either.
“But still, I’m not sure I’d want to go back.”
“Oh, why not?”
“Well, I believe that faith in Christ needs to strike a balance. There needs to be a great deal of thought that goes into it. But that’s pretty much all the people from Athens wanted to do when it comes to religious faith. Indeed, they are very religious. Religious expressions are everywhere. You couldn’t walk ten feet in Athens without tripping over somebody’s god. But all they want to do with God is think about him, not do anything for God or with God. They want a God who is a concept, not a God who breathes life into them and gives them a reason for living.
On the other hand, when I encountered people who wanted nothing but an emotional faith, that’s when I ran into real trouble. They were so excitable, that when I began proclaiming Christ and him crucified, their emotions took over and they wanted to stone me to death! I’m convinced there should be, and can be, a balance between the two. Why can’t we have a faith that requires thought, while at the same time enables us to be heart-felt in our thinking?
You see, the two extremes create distance from ourselves and God. That’s really what I was trying to tell the Athenians. By having altars everywhere, they had done the exact opposite of what they wanted to do. Instead of bringing God closer they had driven God from their hearts. They had made God a proposition, not a living reality, and when God becomes nothing but a proposition – an idea – God becomes a distant, unknown God. But on the other hand, those who worship God strictly on the basis of emotion end up worshiping their emotion. They make their feelings into their god, and the only word for that is idolatry.”
“What do you think is the key to this balance you’ve been talking about?” the bishop asks Paul.
“Well, as you might imagine, while traveling back to Jerusalem I’ve been giving that a lot of thought… and not a little bit of my emotion J. I think there are a couple of things that help us strike a true balance in our faith. The first is repentance. Repentance causes us to realize that none of us has a corner on God. We do not fully understand God, nor God’s intentions for us. We can only submit ourselves to God’s mercy and ask that in his grace God show us a way today that we did not see yesterday, and an even better way tomorrow that we can’t know today. Needless to say, that is the posture of humility. There’s not one of us who is able to live out what Christ requires of us, so the very best we can do is simply open ourselves to God’s mercy and grace, and ask for the guidance we cannot create for ourselves.
“You mentioned there were a couple of things.”
“Yes, there’s more. I’ve also come to the conviction that this cannot be done outside of relationship… a personal relationship with the risen Christ and with our fellow believers. It was absolutely amazing that everywhere we went we found those who were willing to affirm Christ as Lord. It’s almost as if they had been waiting for us. In fact, I believe that to be the case. I think God’s Spirit had traveled before us, preparing the hearts of those with whom we would share God’s good news. We had immediate fellowship with those we met, and that gave us strength in the midst of some of our greatest hardships. I don’t think faith can be lived out apart from the influence and fellowship we have with other believers.
You know, now that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with you, I believe I’ve come up with something else as well. It’s what I was trying to convey to the people in Athens, but since then it has become an even greater reality for me. Before it was a concept. Now it is a strong conviction. All of us have a tendency to search for God. We look here, we look there. That’s why there were so many altars in Athens. The people were searching for God. That’s why they attempted to cover all the bases by having an altar to the ‘unknown God.’ But God is not unknown, nor is God distant from us. God is as close as the very air we breathe, and all it takes to find God – or maybe I should say, to be found by God – is to invoke the name of Jesus.
When Christ lives within us, we don’t have to know all there is to know about God, nor do we have to give ourselves solely to an emotional response to God’s presence. We can have a true balance between the two because it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us. The unknown God becomes evermore known each day we walk with Christ. That is what this life is all about. It is God’s purpose and intention for each of us, and it is found in God’s grace.
Bishop, I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk. It’s helped me, and I hope it’s been of benefit to you as well. Can we pray together before I go?”
Father, may we find the balance to our faith that leads us to be thinkers who have a heart-felt response to your divine grace upon us. May your Spirit dwell richly within us that the journey with Jesus would bring us to your kingdom and to you. In his saving name we pray, Amen.
1Douglas E. Wingeier, Editor, Keeping Holy Time (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) p. 182
*see “The Unknown God,” May 1, 2005