This is the manuscript of a sermon Shelly Tilton gave at Vine Street on March 3. Her text was Acts 17:22-32
I attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. I mention it because, along with all the perks of the place, there are a few drawbacks. One of these drawbacks visits regularly in the form of a man dressed in a billboard gown of epithets, toting a megaphone and a nasty temper. He stands at the corner of the street right in front of the school and throughout the day informs us generally that we are going to hell, sometimes telling each of us individually as we pass him. This typically produces a couple of results. The first is that he is ignored. The second is that plots are devised by some of the more outspoken students, who go down en masse to pick apart his logic. Neither of these are what you would call constructive dialogue.
Not even accounting for content, I believe if Paul were alive today, he would take issue with this man’s approach. Though I don’t think VDS would be his first stop in preaching the gospel, if Paul really wanted to promote his message, he would have come to our weekly coffee hour, which the entire community attends, and where, under the influence of massive amounts of caffeine and pastry, everyone is inclined to listen. If Paul had a motto – besides take a pair of sunglasses on every road trip, just in case – it would be “Meet them where they are.” Here’s where the Athenians were. During Paul’s day, there were two lines of idol worship going on. What we usually think of is the old Greek Pantheon – you know, Zeus, Hera, goats playing harps. But after Aristotle’s time, another, more philosophical paganism had taken hold – that of the unmoved mover, the god that set the world in motion but by definition couldn’t be bothered to take care of it. So, working with the assumption that there are gods out there that might or might not care, the Athenians had done the pragmatic thing: made another idol to worship, another altar to visit. Where’s the harm, right?
Now, we know that Paul wasn’t a big fan of idols, and from his letters, I would guess he wasn’t thrilled about the Unmoved Mover theory, either. And yet, here he is, at the top of the Areopagus, having an informed conversation about both. He knew exactly where the Athenians were, and he went out to meet them. He starts with what the Athenians know about God: that God made everything. He even quotes Greek poets and philosophers – “For in him we live and move and have our being…We are his offspring.” This is the God that animates all life, that acts through every movement, that sings through every voice. And this the Athenians could agree with. And this is when Paul starts to really preach. Coming from the Jewish tradition where iconoclasm is written into the most fundamental text of the law, Paul tells them that the human race cannot create God, cannot mold God into statues of gold, cannot make God into what they want God to be. God is more than that and cannot be controlled through human mechinations. But neither is God untouched, a transcendent being above all knowledge and contact. This is the God they name Unknown, but the unknown is not unmovable.
Here is where Paul makes his masterstroke, where he offers them a revolution, a path between paths: God has a face, but not one made of gold. And God is not portable, but neither is God unmovable, for here is the proof: God came, died, and was resurrected. This God, we hear Paul say – the God that gives you life and is present even in your living bodies – this God is the one who has spoken through Jesus, who was resurrected.
Now, the Athenians are quiet during Paul’s sermon, but this is where one of my friends from school would speak up. “That’s all fine,” she’d say. “Beautiful. But why are we hearing about this? Why are you even talking?”
There is a kind of stigma that exists at VDS that can be summarized with a story. On some days, our reading room at the school is invaded by an undergrad prayer group. An amusing pastime of some of the grad students is to watch other grads walk into the reading room, see the prayer group, and begin to become visibly uncomfortable. And these are grad students that, in the main, believe and confess their faith in God. There’s something going on here that Paul would have to adjust himself to. He may have had an inkling of the issue – that what we worship speaks more to our identity than it does the identity of God – but his Christian identity was under a different kind of duress than Christian identity today. Christians during his time were in danger of being stoned; Christians of our day are in danger of quietly slipping away.
In a society in which identity is the most lauded and sought-after aspect of an individual’s being and – paradoxically – the most readily diffuse and contingent concept that we can talk about, we must face the question of Christian identity. Even within Christianity itself, divisions – denominations – indicate many issues, but the most fundamental is the question of who we are and where we take our stand. The Christian must ask herself what makes her different from her neighbor, in order to have any idea of how to act toward that neighbor. “Boundary” is sometimes considered a bad word in our present lexicon. What are boundaries but walls of separation, chunks of concrete and barbwire over which we shoot our guns and with which we keep the other out? But boundaries, besides being limits to openness and possible barriers to our hospitality, are also our defining lines. They are what make us who we are. They may sometimes act as detriments, but they are also our source of identity, the anchored points we can defend with faith and where we proclaim, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And I’m sure we all believe that – but why are so many people unwilling to identify it publically? Paul’s proclaiming enthusiastically on the Areopagus, and divinity students are obviously shaken by God’s name whispered in prayer.
Perhaps it is because the God of our public discourse is, in fact, an idol. If nothing else, the upcoming generation can peg idols as expertly as Paul did as he walked into Athens. Today God’s name is being shouted from street corners and associated with hatred and violence. God’s name is being paraded on inaugural platforms where millions bow down and worship the American Dream. God’s name is scrawled on bombs that treat God’s children as collateral damage. The gods of our culture are made by human beings to kill other human beings and to destroy creation. And in such a world, many have turned to the theory that the true God, if he exists, does not care about his creation – how could he? All evidence points to the contrary. So when my friend asks Paul why he is speaking, it’s not because she gets her kicks from kicking back. It’s because God, in our culture, is molded by the hands of greed, hatred, and militarism. And people are tired of worshipping such a God and are embarrassed to be seen with him. Who would want to tie their identity to something as heinous as that?
So, Paul, for God’s sake, why are you still talking? What is it about your God that makes you qualified to speak? And Paul offers not another name, but a story – the Christian story. There was once a God who became a man and stayed with us for a while. And while he was here with us, he wiped the blindness from people’s eyes and brought good news to the poor. He fed thousands and told us that the food would never run out, that water would never run dry. He looked out over the land and said, “This is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how I made it.” Then God, instead of resorting to violence and reinforcing our habits of fear and hatred, took up a cross, the death that only political uprising warranted. Then God, who wanted to be with us always, followed us down the long road of suffering. And then God died.
This is no human name, no idol, no unmoved mover. This is a story of a love so strong that shame and death could not stand in its way – that overcame the power of death and all its worshippers with it – a love so revoluationary that an empire shook in its armor. And as a Christian, Paul found his identity there and could not help telling that story. This is why the Christian message is so important. It’s important because the idols never really went away, they just got bigger, and their worshippers can launch nuclear weapons, when before they bandied words. It’s important because without it, the God clothed in billboards and toting a megaphone will be the only God the world can see, when what we need to see is a God carrying a cross and clothed in his love for us. It’s only when we can see that God that we can start the hard work of preaching against our own idols. It’s only then that we can call ourselves Christians and not be ashamed.