Sermon St Eustachius 9.45am Sunday14 May 2023 6th Sunday Easter Year A
Paul Mars Hill Sermon Acts 17v22-34 John 14v15-21 (1Peter 3v13-end) (Psalm 66v7-end)
May God the Holy Spirit open our hearts and minds to hear His voice. Amen
I wonder how often you may have heard someone say “O my God”?
Perhaps, if you can think quickly enough, which is not one of my best traits, I can always think of what I should have said about 2 minutes too late, you could say back to them “And what god is that then”.
This is rather like the situation that Saint Paul found himself in when in Athens around the year AD 50 when on his second missionary journey to Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth.
Luke tells us in our reading from Acts, that while Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, his spirit was provoked as he saw the city full of idols, full of many false gods. Although in Paul’s day Athens was not at its zenith, one of its most prominent features was its numerous pagan temples. In fact Petronius, a Roman courtier during the time of the emperor Nero, made the satirical comment that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Paul took this diverse mix of gods as a cue to give a sermon after seeing an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.
But before we look in more detail at this famous sermon I want to ask a question. Why do we not use the name of our God, the one and only, true and living God? If we did, it would be clear that YAHWEH is distinct and different from all the false gods that abound in our world today. Those of you who may have visited places like India will be aware of the many divinities worshiped there. Today however we live in a culture where we have to be careful what we say so that we give no offence. I wonder what ever became of ‘the offence of the cross’ that Paul speaks of to the Galatians (5v11). Using the true name of God does has significance.
We often hear in the media that an Islamic terrorist has cried out ‘Allah Achbar’ which they then translate as ‘god is great’. But which god is great? What it actually means is ‘Allah is greater; I leave you to make your own deductions as to what that implies and points to.
So what do we know about Paul’s time spent in Athens?
First Luke tells us that while Paul was waiting for Timothy and Silas he reasoned with the Jews that he found in the synagogue in Athens. This was typical of Paul, to first seek out the diaspora Jewish community and to give them the opportunity to hear the gospel but usually they rejected that offer.
So Paul went to the market place or, as it was known, to the Agora, and there he met with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It would seem that some of them wished to hear what this ‘babbler’ had to say to them for ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities,’ for Paul was preaching ‘Jesus and the resurrection’, a new concept for some of them (Acts17v18).
Would it not be great today, both in this country and wider afield, if there were more evangelists raised up who could engage in preaching ‘Jesus and the resurrection’, and calling people to repent. Please make that a prayer, a prayer for revival in our country as we have seen in the past. Pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit to come upon our society.
The men of Athens then took Paul to the area in the city known as ‘the Areopagus’. The Areopagus is the ‘hill of Ares’ the Greek god of war, and it was where a long established body met that held extensive authority over both the civil and religious life of the people of Athens.
It would seem that the Athenians liked nothing better than spending time ‘telling or hearing something new’ (v21), and just to cover all the options, they had also erected a shrine to ‘the unknown god’ A second century geographer called Pausanius mentions there were also shrines with that same association in both Olympia and Pergamum. Paul stood up in the middle of the Areopagus and addressed the Men of Athens.
This address by Paul on ‘Mars Hill’ is the most detailed in his missionary career that is recorded in the New Testament. It touches on five main issues: The ignorance involved in pagan worship (vs23)
That there is one true creator God whom we should worship (vs24-25)
The relationship of God to humanity (vs26-28)
That God cannot be fashioned into idols of silver or gold (vs29)
And that now is the time to bring ignorance to an end & Repent (vs30-31)
How many of these same issues are still appropriate to society today?
I would suggest all of them. Human ignorance of YAHWEH, of the One True and Living God, does not seem to have changed over the course of two millennia despite our advances in knowledge, science and technology. Moral development has sadly not kept apace.
In fact Pope John-Paul II called the modern media-the new Areopagus. This shows to us Christians the urgent need to declare and make clear our beliefs and ideals to the disbelieving society in which we live. A society which has made silver and gold the idols of modern materialism. As Peter said in our epistle “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you”. That implies that others when looking at us recognise we have a great hope, that of eternal life.
One result of Paul’s address was that ‘some men joined him and believed’ (vs34). One of those was an Areopagite, a member of the Areopagus. He was a lawyer-judge called Dionysius, and also a woman named Damaris. According to the early Church historian Eusebius, who lived in the late third century, following his conversion Dionysius became the first Bishop of Athens and was later martyred in Gaul in AD 96, needless to say he is considered the patron saint of lawyers.
In his address Paul makes reference to two quotations from pagan Greek writers that he, and his hearers, would have been familiar with. Most of us have probably never realised that these were pagan quotes.
The first ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ comes from a hymn to the Greek god Zeus, penned by Epimendes of Crete around 600 BC.
When Joy and I were on a short break in Crete a few years ago, one of our guides made reference to a derogative comment from this same Cretan poet referred to in Paul’s letter to Titus (1vs12) where he says, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”. I am not sure that would pass for political correctness today!
The second quotation Paul makes is from the Stoic poet Aratus who lived around BC 320, “For we too are his offspring.”
What is interesting with both of these quotations is that although they come from so called ‘pagan’ poets, they do reflect a similar understanding to ours of the inter-relationship of God and humanity.
For in Him-God we do indeed live, move and have our being, and we are children of God, God’s offspring, created in His very own image.
But Paul then makes a new and significant point, the time of ignorance is now past, for like us Paul knew that Jesus had come and revealed to us the full nature of God and of His Holiness.
As a result we need a new relationship with God, not one dependent on sacrifices made to idols of silver and gold, but we have to repent of our former ways and turn to the true God as the one who is to judge the world.
Judgement is not something that sits comfortably with many in today’s society. But as God is Holy he must judge the world for our rejection of him, but it will be a judgement in righteousness through the one who lived a truly righteous life, Jesus, who God raised from the dead and through him has reconciled us to himself if we but put our faith and trust in Jesus.
So are you rejoicing brothers and sisters, that having put your faith and trust in Jesus all the many promises found throughout the scriptures become personally true for you? For those who do believe one of those beautiful promises is that ‘as far as the east is from the west, God has removed our transgressions from us’. I hope I heard an Alleluia, after all this is the Easter season.
When Paul delivered this sermon, I believe that he had the express hope that his hearers would respond and put their trust in the one true and living God YAHWEH, who has been revealed and made known to us through our Lord Jesus. Paul expressed that believe for all people when saying (vs27) “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
And what a comfort those words are for us who do believe, our God is not far from us, He is not just close to us, He indwells us by His own life giving Holy Spirit.
We shall shortly go on to obey our Lord’s command to remember him, and to meet with him as we take the bread and the wine at his table.
So let us this Eastertide remember that “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, and so let us celebrate the feast, not with the old leaven of corruption and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”.
If we have humbled ourselves before the cross of Jesus and repented of our sins, we are promised God’s forgiveness and a share in the life eternal. But we must also remember that we are then called to go out into our communities, in that resurrection power of the risen Lord Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to love and to serve one another. Let us always remember that Jesus, King of the universe, came to love and serve, not to be served. Amen
Let us pray:
In the face of Jesus Christ
your light and glory have blazed forth O YAHWEH,
God of all the nations;
may we, with all your people,
make known your grace and love
and walk in the ways of peace;
to the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord, our Saviour and coming King.