When we moved to Tennessee, a friend said, “you must go to a UT football game- it’s like a religious experience!” We tailgated and did the Vol walk, the band leading us in. It was fun. Now I grew up in Kentucky, and Big Blue Nation wears a lot of blue, you just notice the “set-apart” orange clothing clothing a little more. 109,000 together dressed in orange is a festival. Our UMC hymnal tells us to “not be afraid of our voices” and Knoxville fans sing “lustily and with good courage”. They put up banners with religious messages “I gave my all for Tennessee.” We are not immune to idol worship. We have a TV show dedicated to becoming an american idol. We worship (give our passion service and energy to) a lot of things less than God: politics, entertainment, hobbies, sports, success, money, diet, or even fitness.
While Paul waited in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. Paul began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day.
The Apostle Paul, a diaspora Jew, grew up amid Greek culture. Tarsus was a very cosmopolitan Roman colony with perhaps the best university in the ancient world. Still Paul’s Pharisaic upbringing raised him to live a separate life. Athens idolatrous culture troubles Paul maybe along the lines of 2 Kings 2:15, “They went after false idols and became false.”
Does the culture distresses you? Do we see our idols?
How do we engage an idolatrous culture, focused on less than God? Some church folks recoil and retreat- walling themselves off from the world. Some Christians want to legislate a Christian culture, forcing others to adhere to their vision. Have they forgotten the preachers and politicians came together to crucify Jesus? Do we forget God loves everyone- even the other side? Did we hear how Paul preached that “God made the nations to strive” with spiritual hungers?
While working our booth at Pride, I listened as a pastor’s daughter almost say under her breath, as to herself “I grew up in a cult” amid “a sea of “nos” … “they were against everything.” I wondered what her dad might think of her candid remarks? Instead of offering a ravishing portrait of the love of God manifest in Jesus, her church gave her a list of lifeless rules. Do we forget the only people Jesus had problems with were church folks?
So what did Paul, Silas, Luke, and the rest of Team Paul do? Do they stand on the corner and condemn people? Do they work to change laws or hearts? “Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged Paul in discussion. Some said, “What an amateur!” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” As our nation’s birthday approaches, let us treasure the Bill of Rights enshrining religious liberty and freedom of speech for everyone. Let us not miss how Team Paul was arrested for ideas and words.
“Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill”. What will Paul say? Will he attack, judge, or ridicule idol worshippers? “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’” Paul likely walked around the city for months chatting with people and reading up on the pagan practises. He entered into dialogue, learned the poetry, observed their worship. Paul engages with the culture that distresses him. He even compliments it! He searches for common ground!
Now I have a caution for us today: Paul is better prepared than many of us to engage with other cultural or religious expressions. Many of us will send our young people go off to college with a bag of religious warm fuzzies – but without a rudimentary understanding of Christian teaching. You can not build a moral foundation, in a few hours, a few times a month. So many of our young people will lose their faith without seeing who Jesus really is. Others will gravitate to an easier-answer-faith. Paul is grounded in his faith- he knows the texts and traditions. Buoyed by deep faith and a firm theological foundation, Paul engages in conversation with those who see the world differently. One of my favorite seminary professors taught: “All mission is dialogue. If we love our neighbors, then all evangelism must be conversation!” (Dr. Mathias Zannihizer). Paul knew “a love that surpasses knowledge,” and so Paul navigates different faith streams without fear of losing his oar. (Ephesians 3:19)
A second caution: Paul has something to say- he does not subscribe to the modern notion “that whatever you believe is okay”. Paul is distressed by people bowing to something less than love. Friends, we are in each others faces, and at times, at each other’s throats, over politics, but we are not very passionate about deeper soul issues. Are we arguing about symptoms and ignoring the deeper soul-level malease? If I love my neighbor, do I not chat with them about my deepest understanding of the Way, the Truth, and The Life’s commandment or a deeper soul-level expression of Love? If we do not love God with all our heart, what will we love more: money, the market, pleasure, ourselves, or science? What do we bow down to? Science and the markets are amoral tools that we can employ for solar energy or nuclear weapons. Why would someone care for the widow, welcome the stranger, tend to the sick, or feed the hungry if they worship market gods? Faith speaks of reconciliation, restoration, rebuilding, empathy, compassion, community, grace, loving-kindness, and moral justice. Without ethics born in love for neighbor and stranger, equal protection and opportunity under the law do not resonate! Paul knows that love matters- that loves changes hearts and lives. Our materialism distresses me- for we, America, worship the market. You can’t worship God and the market. (Matthew 6:24) This is a soul level issue, deeper than surface politics. We need to talk together about that.
Standing on Mars Hill (the greek god of war) Paul will speak of the Prince of Peace- the Crucified God- who loves the world. Luke only gives us a snapshot, showing us how Paul finds a common link in an unnamed god! “I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. God doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed something, since God is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. …God made the nations so they would seek after God, perhaps even reach out to God and find God. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are God’s offspring.’
Paul is not worried about Jesus being polluted by the world in a synchronistic process. Paul puts no one down nor rails against the culture. Paul knows that insults and mockery may fire up the base, but rarely change someone’s mind. It amazes me how people think beating up someone else’s faith might change it! If you put down my team, my music, my mother, my teacher, my politics, my prophet, I am unlikely to hear your next point. :”We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) I have learned this the hard way- in college, I wasted a lot of time convincing Connie’s roommate, Mary Beth, that the Methodists were wrong. I wish that was a joke!
Paul has mixed results! When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” At that, Paul left the council. Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.” How beautiful that the church records that some folks put Paul down! It speaks of dialogue and the challenge of sharing our faith. That Paul has only two named converts, critiques our church that views faithfulness through market born lenses.
On this July 4 weekend, I offer one more caution: Jesus and Paul did not come to set up a theocracy. Neither Jesus nor Paul sought to build a Christian nation. Indeed, Paul seems okay with a just pagan ruler. (Romans 13) Jesus tells us to “render unto Caesar”! There is no Biblically prescribed Christian culture. Paul moves about comfortably within a pagan culture. Listen to Pentecost- for it speaks of the variety of languages and styles that Christianity can fit within and transform. I love the Acts 2 list: “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene; Rome, Greeks and Arabs.” Christ must stand above all cultures, laws, nations: judging, redeeming, healing, and transforming them all.
It is the devil who tempts Jesus with the thrones, laws, and crowns of this world. (Luke 4) Jesus will wear a crown of thorns, a scepter of twigs, and be mocked as a “King”.
Still Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us to live, pray and work so that “God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven.” (Luke 11:17) Jesus tells us to seek the kingdom before everything else. (Matthew 6) But what kind of Kingdom does Jesus bring?
The Jesus Kingdom is “not about this world’s” methods. John 18:36
You can’t go observe Jesus’ Kingdom- it is not “over there” or “looks like this” (LK 17:20)
One must experience a spiritual rebirth to enter Jesus Kingdom’s (John 3)
The Jesus Kingdom is usually paired with free healthcare. (Matthew 10:7-8)
The Jesus Kingdom welcomes the stranger and feeds the hungry. (Matt 25)
We are close to Jesus’ Kingdom when we love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28)
Violent people try to take over Jesus’ Kingdom from inside and outside (Matthew 11:11
Jesus’ Kingdom is not taught through laws, but best understood through parables. (Mark 4:30)
The Jesus kingdom is like yeast, a mustard seed,a contaminated field, a net, buried treasure…
It is like a costly pearl, a generous landowner, a harvest, an indulgent father…
It is like when Jesus said, “Follow me”, “You without sin”, “Forgive them”, or “feed them”…
Children enter the Jesus Kingdom easier than adults. (Matthew 18)
White collar criminals and sex workers found Jesus’ Kingdom before the pious. (Matt 21:31)
Religious leaders usually drive people away from Jesus’ Kingdom. (Matt 23:13)
It is hard for the rich to enter The Jesus Kingdom. Matthew 19:23
Greatness within Jesus Kingdom comes through service. Matthew 19
Jesus gave us the keys to his kingdom, allowing us to loosen up some rules… (Matt 16:19)
God’s Kingdom is sewn and grown within our hearts. (Matthew 13:19)
So if you are distressed about our culture: get to know your faith better. Let God’s love dwell richly in your heart. Observe how Christ loves the world and moved about within it, and then start talking at the local sportsplex or office about things that matter more than the World Cup or the Interest Yield Curve. Remember- love people, honor people, find common ground, and don’t worry about Jesus getting polluted, for the message will survive, even when we compliment idol worshippers. Amen.