Summary: The story of Paul in the Areopagus in Athens will be a nice one for philosophers and the intellectuals of the times
The story of Paul in the Areopagus in Athens will be a nice one for philosophers and the intellectuals of the times and to some extent the postmodern folks of today who neither think much about science or of religion. Yet this story is also the story of our time and of ordinary folks who are confused and who wonder what the fuss is about in a world where religion has become a consumer item and carries no currency for so many. This morning, I want us to consider the subject of Religiosity and Spirituality and look at faith in the service of humanity. I want to invite you to reflect on the subject of Christianity and service and I shall use as our text, the story of Paul in the Areopagus as St Luke recollects that story in Acts 17 : 22 – 31.
Paul is in Athens during his second missionary journey. Athens was a center of learning and many philosophers spent a large part of their day studying and arguing about the latest philosophical ideas of their time. Different schools of thoughts dug in and held their positions and the idea was to ensure that each presented his position as the proper perspective of life. The Stoics were convinced that what would be would be and human effort to change or bemoan fate was a waste of time. The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus and to them, the main cause of action was to eat, drink, enjoy life because tomorrow we die. The most important thing, the Epicureans think was pleasure and maximum pleasure was to be pursued provided no one got hurt. The pursuit of happiness in all its forms was an acceptable act. These philosophical disciples spent their time debating their positions. These were the folks who were engaging Paul in Athens that day (V. 18). Having heard so much about Christ from Paul, which sounded strange to these people (v.20), they wanted others in the Aeropagus to also listen to him and this is where our story today begins.
The Aeropagus was both a council as well as a physical space where the council met. The council was in charge of education and religious belief for the city and made laws to regulate education and religious practices. It was at this council that Paul spoke to these philosophers and the council members. What I want us to pay attention to is the observation of Paul as he described to this learned people their behavior. I want us also to look within ourselves, our religious practices and the benefits of what we think we believe and how such faith affects our behavior and each other.
Paul began his remarks with the acknowledgement of the religiosity of those in Athens. V.22. The outward practice of their religion is evident everywhere from the displayed objects of worship including erected altars. Yet, he indicts them of ignorance. V. 23. They ignore the maker of the world the sovereign God and seem to lack the idea of the omnipotence of God. To these Athenians, there is a disconnection between service to God, and the idea of the oneness of humanity V.26. They lack the idea of the immanence of God and knowledge of God as the giver of life. He then called on the Athenians to repent and wake up from their ignorance and prepare for the day of judgement which will come about when God’s own son who was raised from the dead will return to judge the quick and the dead V. 31.
In our own time, there have also been strange things brought to the human hear. We have displayed our religiosity and divided ourselves between liberal and conservative camps. We try to show who is right and who is wrong. Indeed, the gospel sounds strange in each other’s ears. Yes, like the Athenians, we are all deeply religious and we know what God wants and what God does not want. We have figured out that those who are different should be treated differently and denied justice, but we sure do know that they are not wanted by God. Like the Athenians we have all kinds of objects of religions and temples dotting the landscape, but yet like them too we hardly know which God we are serving. The buildings and objects, like those in the Athens of Paul’s day, become mere inscriptions to “an unknown God” while we pay lip service to the eternal God that calls us to love each other.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. indicts the church when in response to a newspaper advertisement taken out by Pastors in Alabama who blamed him for inciting violence and not obeying authorities questioned the churches’ obedience to the scripture in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. You see the church actually participated in racial injustice and crafted a theology to justify racial discrimination. When the Ku Klux Klan gathered in Stone Mountain, Georgia on Thanksgiving 1915, they used religion to preach the ideology of hate. Social scientists have long known that intolerance is better sold through religion. Like a bitter pill, it makes hate easy to swallow. Williams Simmons who formed the KKK during reconstruction should know. He was a Methodist minister. He made protestant church membership a requirement to join the Ku Klux Klan. Yes the Klan was a religious organization and as its leader, H. W. Evans, told the faithful in 1925, “Just as the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men to Christ, so it is that the Klan is expected more and more to guide men to the right life under Christ banner”. The right life under Christ for these Christians was the killings and maiming of Jews, immigrants, blacks and anybody who was different.