5/21/17: The Scandal of Presence, Acts 17:22-31
The Scandal of Presence
Sixth in the series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 66:8-20
Second Lesson: Acts 17:22-31
Rev. Scott Dickison
Paul was a preacher.
Of course, like any human being, the Apostle Paul was many things: Jew, Christian, citizen of Rome, churchman, missionary, tent-maker, agitator, convicted criminal, theologian, apostle, martyr. But before all of those things, when it comes to what we have in his letters, these documents of the early church that continue to shape so much of our life together—we need to remember that Paul was first of all a “preacher.”
Which is to say, he was someone who felt a calling to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ by whatever means available to him. And so like any good preacher, he paid attention to his audience. He knew who they were and where they were coming from, and so he used language they would not only understand but be that would invite them in to this good news he was spreading. So across his many letters we find a rich variety of language and images to describe the good news. It’s an incredible tapestry we’re left with—at times confounding and at other times even contradictory. But it’s a beautiful mosaic of images, these colorful attempts to describe the indescribable—which is what we attempt to do whenever we speak of God and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, we should note, was a preacher too, and took the same concern for his audience. How do you describe the Kingdom of God to a bunch of farmers and country folk? You say it grows like the plants in the field, and like grapes on the vine—that it’s as free as the lilies of the field and the birds in the air. What do you say to build up a bunch of folks who’ve been told their whole lives that they’re small and superfluous to the world? You tell them what God is doing is like a tiny mustard seed that grows and grows; that it’s like yeast working below the surface in your loaf of daily bread. You say blessed are the poor. You say blessed are the meek. Blessed are you—notice it’s not just about using familiar language; it’s about speaking to their heart, to the heart’s deep need: Know that God is with you. God is present to you. Know that you matter.
And so, Paul, the preacher, standing there at the foot of the Areopagus, this ancient memorial to Athenian government and philosophy and wisdom, speaking to those cultured-despisers who we’re told just a few verses before have written him off as a backwoods “babbler” and “proclaimer of foreign divinities”—read, “religious fanatic”—Paul is standing there before these cosmopolitan skeptics and after stroking their ego a bit—another preacher’s trick—appealing to their gods and altars and philosophies, speaking in grand phrases that would make Plato blush: The Lord of heaven and earth, who made all nations to inhabit the earth and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the place where they would live. After speaking to them in their own language, he then makes a turn and speaks to their heart, their heart’s deep need, and it turns out it’s not so different from those bumpkins out in the Galilee: Know that this God of all creation is with you; God is present to you—“indeed God is not from each one of us.” Know that you matter. Scandalous.
This sermon of Paul is sometimes lifted up as a model for how Christians can engage “secular,” modern culture and its skepticism; how he refrains from quoting Scripture at the Athenians and instead turns to quoting their own philosophers and appealing to observations of the natural world, speaking to them in their own language—and that may be true. But what strikes me is not that Paul made an effort to speak the language of city-dwelling intellectuals, but that in the end what spoke to them was the same thing that speaks to any of us: we all have that same nagging suspicion that there is more to this world than what we see on the surface of things. There’s a part of each of us that searches for God, which most of the time feels like groping around for God in the dark. Which is all driven by the same basic need, which is to feel as though we have a place in it all. That our lives have meaning and purpose and consequence. That someone is noticing. These aren’t just the concerns of skeptics and philosophers and cultured city-dwellers. These are human concerns.
Some 15 or so years ago Jane Fonda was interviewed by Rolling Stone and was asked about what they called her “most recent and perhaps most dramatic transformation” in becoming a Christian, after living most of her life as an atheist. Even with your flair for controversy, that’s pretty explosive? they said. She responded by talking about how she’s been drawn to faith because “I could feel reverence humming in me.” (1)
The hum of reverence—isn’t that it? Isn’t that what you’ve felt? Isn’t that we all long to feel.
St. Augustine spoke of spoke of this nagging “hum” in his Confessions, this profoundly stirring and, well, confessional, account of his spiritual journey—the years of running away, and the slow, at times painful process of being pulled back in by forces he could only call the grace of God: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, he wrote, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (2)
John Calvin had another word for it. He called it the sensus divinitatis, the “sense” or “awareness” of the divine. He said that God “implants” in every human being a “certain understanding of divine majesty…a seed of religion…this part of us that’s drawn to the transcendent, that feels in some indescribable way there is something more. Which for Calvin was wrapped up in the mystery and beauty of creation and the marvel of human beings: Each person, he wrote, is a “rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them.” Even “infants,” he said, “while they nurse at their mother’s breasts, have tongues so eloquent to preach [God’s] glory that there is no need at all of other orators.” (3)
A baby is a marvelous preacher.
But we have to be careful here, because these images can slip into the arena of Hallmark melodrama—over-sentimentality can be the death of faith. As I’ve heard it put, some things that are true when whispered, when shouted have a way of becoming false. (4) And yet to write off this impulse toward the divine, to tune out this hum is to choke faith before it has a chance to breathe. We must take them seriously; more seriously than we’re used to taking them. And more than this, we must share them, more than we’re used to sharing them.
One of the greatest blessings of being a pastor is being entrusted with people’s stories. Hearing them recall memories they haven’t summoned in years. Some of them out of great joy, or pain or grief or embarrassment but more often simply the unexplainable occurrence that has stuck with them that's kept their heart open—sometimes by the slightest crack—to the possibility of God.
Tom Long tells a story about an older gentlemen who came up to his pastor one Sunday and said, Pastor, I need you to correct my theology. Last Sunday when we came up to receive communion, I felt, in the strangest way, my late wife kneeling on one side of me. And on the other side I felt our daughter who passed away many years ago. And I know that just can’t be, so I need you to correct my theology. The pastor said to him, No, I think you had it right. (5)
Small things. A hunch. The sensing, the awareness, of something bigger than us that we can’t explain—even moments when we’re overcome by joy or relief or gratitude—I suspect we’ve all had these experiences and they contribute, in some way to our being here, well after week.
The poet Christian Wiman says,
Religion is not made up of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life…Religion is what you do with these moments. It’s a means of preserving and honoring [them]. (6) Faith is what allows us to incorporate these moments of joy or pain or gratitude or calm or relief of peace into our lives and understanding of the world, instead of dismissing them as some superstition, and thus making our world as small as our own perception of it.
Paul senses the Athenians’ sensing of God. Their awareness of something more, their restlessness. And he says, I’ve sensed it, too. I too have looked at the world and wondered of its author. I too have searched and groped for this God who is “indeed not far from each one of us,” this God that is as close to us as our own breath, this God “in whom we live and move and have our being”—isn’t this powerful?
The God in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul isn’t quoting from Scripture here, but from Greek philosophy. And yet in his quoting it and our reading it, it has become Scripture. The God in whom we live and move and have our being—this is high Scripture for me. This, this is the God I know. The God I sense. The God I’m drawn to. The God that’s so big as to create the universe with all it mind-blowing expanse, yet who is as close as a newborn’s gentle breathing; as the beating of our own needy heart. The God in whom we live and move and have our being, and if our being is in God—us and all people—then that means we’re never truly separated from the people we love whom we see no longer. This is the God I’ve sensed.
But Paul knows the good news doesn’t end there. The good news is that this God who we’ve sensed in the miracle of creation, in the mysteries of the human body and experience. The God who is as close to us as our own breath—the good news, he says, is that this God came and breathed with us. This is the good news that we proclaim in this season of Easter: that this God took on our form, that even as we live in this God, this God came and lived with us. This God was put to death and was raised—in ways we can’t fully understand but nonetheless proclaim. This is the good news he tells them: that you’re searching and you’re groping for this God. That this one life is a symbol for all life. This one life ended, but was raised again.
The good news, he tells them, is that in this God, death is not the end. The good news is the promise of resurrection.
And for many of them, this was too much. It says, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed.” But others said, “We’ll hear you again about these things.” And that’s enough for any preacher.
(1) As told by Rob Bell in his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, p.10
(2) Confessions, Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5
(3) As found in Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God, 87
(4) Fred Craddock says something like this in a meditation entitled “The Protest March” from his A Southern Folk Passion album.
(5) I heard Tom Long tell this story in a sermon given at the First Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN, as part of the Mercer Preaching Consultation in October of 2015.
(6) Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p.70