Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The name of our congregation, St. Paul, is taken from
him who was perhaps the greatest missionary in the Bible. It’s fitting,
therefore, that occasionally we should consider the work and the words of this
great man. It’s not that Paul was somehow holier than any of us, for he
claimed no such status. In fact, his humility in matters of faith and living
is clearly recorded in scripture. He called himself the least of God’s saints,
not fit to be called an apostle on account of his early persecution of the
On those occasions when Paul did toot his own horn a
bit, it was usually done only to demonstrate his pedigree as a Pharisee, so
that those reading or hearing his words would recognize his expertise in the
When he did resort to standing by his training in the
law, it was usually for no other reason than to point out that if anyone had a
basis for claiming salvation by works, ethnic heritage, or knowledge, it would
Yet Paul, above all other biblical authors, made clear
that it was not by works of the law, nor by human reason, that anyone
could be saved. Rather, it is upon the words which the Holy Spirit caused to
flow from Paul’s pen that our most firm understanding of salvation by grace
through faith is based.
Today’s first scripture lesson from the book of the
Acts of the Apostles finds Paul in the midst of one of his missionary
journeys. He has just arrived in the great city of Athens, the central jewel
of Greek civilization. Although it was no longer in its classical prime—Plato,
Socrates, and Aristotle having long since passed from the scene—Athens still held an important place in the Mediterranean world.
So far as we know, it is Paul’s first visit to the
city, and while he awaits the arrival of his companions Silas and Timothy, he
doesn’t simply play the tourist. Paul has a mission, a call from God to spread
the Gospel. He soon investigates how this might be accomplished, and rapidly
puts a plan into action. As had been his usual habit, Paul first visits the
Jewish synagogue in the city. There, he knows, he will at least find an
audience familiar with God’s word from what we call the Old Testament.
That’s not all, however. Paul knows that God’s
promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ are for all
people, so he brings the message to the Gentiles of Athens as well. He knows
it will be a challenge, for in his travels around the city, we are told that he
was greatly distressed to see the city was full of idols. Just as where
there’s smoke, there’s fire, Paul knows that where there are idols, there is
It’s not as though there are just a lot of beautiful
statues and architecture around the city, things to be admired as we do today
simply for their artistic elegance. Rather, these things were created with the
express purpose of facilitating people’s worship of false gods, and Paul knows
that those who worship false gods are doomed to an eternity of suffering in
Imagine for a minute Paul’s situation: He’s not a
country bumpkin, all starry-eyed at being in a big city for the first time.
He’s well-educated, from a good background, a complex and experienced person.
He’s traveled extensively, having seen Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, and many
other important places. Maybe those places aren’t quite Athens, but just as
someone who’s already been to Chicago isn’t going to be quite as intimidated by
New York the first time, it’s merely a matter of comparing the details, not
Even so, try to put yourself in Paul’s shoes. All
around him is a major city. People came there from all over the known world,
people of many nations and many languages. An affluent city of bustling
commerce. A beacon of higher education. A hub of governmental activity. A
center of artistic and cultural reknown. Sound like anyplace you know?
The similarities don’t end there. Athens was
considered a sophisticated place, where many competing and contradictory belief
systems and lifestyles were allowed to exist, even encouraged. Many of these
were considered acceptable and valid by much of the population. While each had
its constituency of supporters and advocates, one’s own truth and own choices
reigned supreme, so long as they didn’t interfere with the choices of others.
Almost any sensuality, any depravity, any perversion was tolerated, so long as
it didn’t spill out and bother someone else—and even if it did, well, those who
took offense were just closed-minded, not enlightened.
It was a city where temptations abounded. It would be
difficult for anyone who wanted to follow the path laid out by Yahweh, the Lord,
the one true God. It would be challenging to live a life that was faithful and
moral in such an environment.
Paul was greatly distressed by the idols he sees all
around him in the city where he finds himself. We might ask the question: Are
we? Are we greatly distressed by the idols we see all around us? And how
should we react to this situation?
Paul, as we have seen, doesn’t simply bury his head in
the sand or hide in the synagogue, staying among people he is most similar to,
and most comfortable with. Paul takes the message of Jesus and the
resurrection right into the teeth of the lion, as it were: directly to the
center of the city’s activity, the marketplace. Confronted and questioned by
those with differing beliefs and philosophies, Paul is accused of advocating
foreign gods and strange ideas.
Well he might be so accused. After all, the message
of salvation in Jesus Christ is truly foreign to mankind. Not “foreign” simply
in the sense of being from another country, but rather so unusual, so
unexpected, and so incomprehensible.
Christianity is indeed unusual. It is a completely
different way to understand God, is it not? When we human make our
gods, we insist that they do things predictably, in accordance with our wishes
and desires. So it is to Paul’s Greek listeners. They aren’t quite ready and
willing to hear and accept a God that operates so radically different from what
their well-crafted, highly-developed human philosophies would expect of a god
Paul’s approach which follows is a masterful one. It
is a methodology which we know must have been determined and guided by the Holy
Spirit, for in the end it produces faith in some of his hearers. Paul didn’t
try to pull these Greeks into the Christianity with a slick promotional campaign.
He didn’t try to entice them with entertainment,
giving them something that was a radical departure from what it was God’s
people did in worshipping God.
Instead, Paul’s creative mission approach was to reach
the unbelievers where they spent their day-to-day lives. He made connections
with them at points they could relate to.
In traveling around Athens, Paul had seen that the
Athenians, just like many in our day, were trying to hedge their bets and cover
all their bases when it came to worshipping God. They didn’t want to have
absolutes; they wanted flexibility. They wanted religion and spirituality, so
long as they didn’t have to commit to anything specific. And so, in order to
avoid the possibility of offending a deity, they’d erected an altar to an
Paul recognized that these people were caught in
uncertainty and doubt. They sought truth, but weren’t sure where to find it,
and even less sure that they had it, if they happened to come across it. And
Paul uses that fear, that doubt of being under the curse of uncertainty about
their futures, to preach the truth and the certainty of the Gospel to the
Confidently and clearly, Paul gives his hearers words
that turn their unknown god into the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God
of Moses, and David, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The God who is known through
what He has done in Jesus of Nazareth.
“The God who is unknown to you,” Paul essentially
says, “is the one and only creator of the universe, the Lord of heaven and earth.”
And we might add, “of all things visible and invisible.” There was one human
origin, Paul goes on to tell them.
And the God who made all things according to His will
is a God of perfect design and ongoing governance of His creation, not subject
in part to the laws of nature, as were the gods known to the Greeks.
Paul uses the Greeks’ own literature to illustrate his
point, developing the idea that while there may be elements of truth in much of
humanity’s knowledge, this God he preaches to them is far above the ignorance
of those who would worship images made of metal or stone.
Paul reasoned with these people, but he would be the
first to point out that logic won’t save you. Logic, after all, will
eventually only lead you to the conclusion that you aren’t perfect. Logic,
followed to its end, will make you realize your own limitations and flaws.
Reason tells you that you need saving from yourself, but reason can’t tell you
how to achieve it.
It’s not that Paul is dealing with people who are coldly
atheistic here, and rarely do we, either. Our major challenge in reaching the
lost is not that there is a preponderance of atheists out there in the world.
Oh, there are plenty who proudly claim to be, who defy you to “prove” that
there is a divine being of any sort. But let’s face it: anyone with even a
rudimentary sense of probability, and the ability to objectively observe the
workings of nature, would have a difficult time concluding that the things of
the universe exist as they do my mere chance.
The greater problem is that so many fail to understand
and confess God as God has revealed Himself to really be. Without the working
of God’s Word, no one can confess the Holy Trinity as we do, recognizing
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unless they hear that Word and receive the
working of the Holy Spirit, they cannot accept God as Creator, Redeemer, and
In the absence of that hearing and that receiving of
the one true God, people can only create God in their own image, imposing their
own preferences and limitations in an attempt to control their environment,
their lives, and their eternal destiny.
What’s far, far worse—both for them and for
ourselves—is that we as Christians too often fail to warn others of the
dangerous folly of their mistaken notions and concepts of God. We think we’re
supposed to be polite and tolerant as Christians, right? Aren’t we supposed to
“turn the other cheek” when offended? Well, turning our cheeks when persecuted
for our faith is one thing, but turning our backs on God and God’s truth is
another thing entirely. Are we to deny Christ and risk having Him deny us
before the Father? Are we to smile and nod our acceptance as others speak
words that also deny Christ, and condemn themselves to eternal suffering?
How many of these have you heard?
- “I think God is like your conscience, not a real entity.”
- Or: “Jesus may have been a real person, but he was just a great teacher of morality. He wasn’t divine, and there’s no way he could have been perfect or paid for my sins on the cross.”
- Or: “The resurrection of Jesus was just a symbolic thing to give people hope of a life after this one, it wasn’t a physical reality.”
- Or: “As long as you believe in God, it doesn’t really matter exactly what you believe.”
These are just a few of the mistaken notions and
concepts people in the world around us have about God. Some of these ideas
have been around even before Jesus was born, and many of them persisted as
heresies in the early church, and even to today. These ideas are human
creations, not what God has revealed to us in His word.
If you’ve heard these sorts of things from others and
let them go unchallenged, repent. If you’ve ever thought them yourself
sometimes, or haven’t felt them important enough to lose sleep over, repent all
the more. We all have a lot in common with these Athenians who disputed with
Paul, who scoffed at Paul’s proclamation of the risen Christ, He who would come
again to just the living and the dead.
Paul testifies to the Athenians who would listen, just
as God’s word continually testifies to us when we listen, that we are
God’s creation and offspring. God is not our creation, or the child of our
This sometimes needs to be a new teaching to us, just
as it was to those in Athens who heard it from Paul for the first time. But
it’s not a new teaching about God at all. It’s the same teaching God has been
giving to humanity from the dawn of time. Mankind just hadn’t been paying
And you know what? Much of mankind still
doesn’t pay attention, despite the even greater evidence we have now that the
Savior has indeed come, and fulfilled all God’s prophecies.
Yet that ignorance, that inattentiveness, that
flat-out rejection of a God who indeed hates sin but loves us sinners enough to
rescue us from it—none of those objections and difficulties relieves us of the
duty to proclaim the Good News about Jesus and the resurrection.
We are called to make the “unknown god” known to those
who walk in darkness. As offspring of God, we who have been adopted by Him
through the washing of water and the word have an obligation to fulfill. It is
an obligation no less important or urgent than that which Paul carried to the Athens of his day.
We don’t serve God with our human hands; we only serve
our neighbor that way. Instead, we serve God by using our hearts and our
mouths to bring His message of salvation in Christ to those who are ignorant of
His plan. Through us, through the proclamation of His word, He commands
repentance of all people.
Prepare yourself, then, for this noble, God-given
task, as Paul did. Hear and study God’s rich, life-changing Word, so that you
are prepared to give an answer for the hope you have in Jesus. Point others to
the cross of Christ and tell what He did for them there. Continually remember
that in the waters of your baptism, you have been forever linked to His atoning
death, and by extension, to His glorious resurrection.
And finally, come regularly to His altar. Not to an
altar which carries an inscription, “to an unknown god.” Not to an altar of
foreign gods and new teachings. Instead, His altar carries the body and blood
of the God who has been made known to you by the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ. As
often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, the eternal teaching which
remains ever new proclaims our Lord’s death, until He comes again.
In His Holy Name, Amen.