Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A
Based on Acts 17:22-31
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Human beings are ultimately religious. They all have an inborn need to seek out and worship something or someone. In today's first lesson, the apostle Paul's missionary sermon, addressed to the people of Athens, affirms this truth. Paul begins by saying: "I perceive that in every way you are very religious." The New English Bible translates it this way: "I see that in everything that concerns religion you are uncommonly scrupulous." In other words, religion, for the people of Athens, was an extremely important matter.
The Greeks indeed, were religious in the sense that they worshipped many gods and built altars, shrines, temples in honour of these gods. They had different gods for almost every aspect of life. The gods were able to do good and evil. The Greeks based their worship of these gods on fear, superstition and appeasement. In order to avoid evil, they even built and dedicated objects of worship 'To an unknown god,' hoping to pacify any forgotten god.
The irony at work here is that even though human beings know there is an unknown God; they are still ignorant of the exact nature and personality of this God. Whether the world's most renowned atheist admits it or not, deep inside they know God exists, although they are ignorant of God.
King Duncan, in Dynamic Preaching, tells the following story. "The philosopher, Bertrand Russell saw himself as the enemy of faith, and opposed Christianity at every opportunity. First-year university students still read his essay, "Why I am Not a Christian." Yet his own daughter in her biographical sketch of her father says, "He was in temperament a profoundly religious man. I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God."
The apostle Paul--deeply familiar with the religious search himself, and also aware that there were some Epicurean philosophers in the crowd who viewed themselves as atheists--makes the connection with his audience by saying: "Let me tell you about this unknown God, whom I know very well."
Paul then goes on to say that the one, true God is Creator of heaven and earth; does not dwell in human objects of worship or temples; gives humans and all creation life, breath and everything; in this God, we live, move and have our being.
Theologian Paul Tillich, in his book, The Shaking of the Foundations, made the following very insightful observation: "Even the atheists stand in God--namely, that power out of which they live, the truth for which they grope, and the ultimate meaning of life in which they believe. It is bad theology and religious cowardice ever to think that there may be a place where we could look AT God, as though He were something outside of us to be argued for or against. Genuine atheism is not humanly possible, for God is nearer to a person than that person is to her/himself."
Although human beings search for God and long for God through religion; there is one great danger which exists in every religion. The apostle Paul describes this great danger to the Athenians in this way: "Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of human beings." In short, the one great danger which exists in every religion is that of idolatry--the worship of false idols and false gods--in violation of the First and Greatest Commandment.
Right from the beginning, human beings have denied or forsaken the one, true God by worshipping other gods. The human sinful condition tends to pervert and distort the true image and nature of God. In every period of history, including ours, human beings have worshipped false gods such as: other humans, money and material possessions, sex, race, the creation itself, sports and the list goes endlessly on. Today, the gods of science and technology claim that they are able to explain the greatest mysteries of the universe.
Scientific knowledge and research account for the intricacies of childbirth, the cause of lightning and earthquakes, along with other "natural phenomena." Life is believed to be much easier due to the benefits reaped by the present-day gods--including, ironically enough, the computer, which I'm using to communicate this message to you! Yet, when all is said and done, hidden deep within the hearts, minds and souls of human beings is an empty void or vacuum, which discovers all of these false gods to be disappointing or inadequate in one way or another.
In the face of all false gods fashioned and worshipped by human beings, the apostle Paul tells the people of Athens that the one, true God, through Jesus Christ is the judge of all false gods. This is true because human beings no longer have a perverted and distorted god. Now that Jesus Christ has come to earth to reveal himself, human beings are given the true, clear image and nature of God. God in Christ is not to be worshipped on the basis of fear, superstition and appeasement. Rather, the basis of worship is trust and love. Trust because Jesus is trustworthy in what he says and does. Love because of Christ's great love for us by dying on the cross. Because he has loved us so much that he died for us, we are able to love him and one another.
Christ also judges the false gods because he has power over life and death by his resurrection. The false gods do not have power over life and death. Only Jesus Christ has that power because he has conquered death to live, rule and judge over all creation. Over against the Stoic philosophers in the audience--who did not hope in life after death--Paul says that all who believe in the one, true God, Jesus Christ, have hope because there is life after death through Christ's resurrection.
Moreover, this God of the Resurrection is constantly in search of us until he finds us; befriends us; reveals his true identity to us and promises us life now--life full of wonder, joy and love, which is so irresistible that we cannot help but worship him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength!
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