This service celebrates our Vacation Bible School, which is spending the week in ancient Athens with Paul. Thus, we’re reading Acts 17:16-34.

Where are we?

Um, Athens. Try and keep up.

After their brush with imprisonment in Philippi, Paul and Silas have made stops in Thessalonica and Berea. In both places, their message has been received by Greeks and resisted by Jews. Silas and Timothy have stayed behind in Berea, but Paul has skipped town to avoid an angry mob.

What’s going on here?

Paul’s discussions in the synagogues of Athens are typical for him, but the public debates are unusual. Luke suggests that Athens is more idol-ridden than other Greek cities, which would make sense in terms of the size and cultural importance of the city. It’s like the difference between debating capitalism in a one-Walmart small town or taking it to New York City.

Neither Epicureans nor Stoics believed in life after death. No Greek philosophical schools believed in anything resembling Jesus’ resurrection.

Some listeners think Paul is talking about “foreign gods,” hearing Jesus and anastasia (resurrection) as names of deities. This may have been part of the charge leveled against him in Philippi, but it doesn’t seem problematic to these listeners. In fact, the narrator seems to criticize this openness as idle curiosity.

The altar “To an Unknown God” may not have been a shrine to mystery as such; it was probably an old altar whose dedication had been lost to memory (Athens had been around for a while). It’s a historical stretch, but rhetorically effective, to connect this numinous unknown with the God of Israel who explicitly denied the need for a human-built home. Paul is drawing on sources from Genesis to the Psalms, including the great prayer Solomon had offered at the dedication of the first Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 8). He’s also touching on Greek poetry. That’s something he could have had some exposure to as a Greek-speaking Jew, or it could have been a part of prior debates in the Athens marketplace.

Paul only comes around to Jesus at the very end of his speech, and then only by oblique reference to “a man [God] has chosen,” who was raised from death. Most of the speech lays out an argument for an esoteric God who would fit the philosophical/religious categories he’s observed. Notice that he makes this argument from the Greek context, not from established Jewish depictions of God. Presumably he takes this approach because Judaism, as “someone else’s religion,” would have carried less weight for his hearers.

For all his concern over numbers at the beginning of Acts, Luke is vague about the sizes of Paul’s congregations during this missionary journey. Dionysius and Damaris are named, “some other people” also believed, but we have no other indications of how successful (or not) Paul’s evangelism in Athens turned out to be.

So what?

I really resonate with Paul’s message, starting from the philosophical unknown and progressing to a more robust understanding of God in Christian terms. As Matt Skinner points out, the speech (or dare we call it a sermon?) begins in a comfortable place for the audience and then takes them somewhere they weren’t expecting. When I preach, I’m often trying to destabilize fixed notions of what God is like – pointing out that God is bigger than our places of worship or our ritual forms. Here, Paul is destabilizing my abstract ideas by bringing me face to face with the resurrection of Jesus. That, at least to the philosophically advanced audience in Athens, is just as unsettling as the idea that God is far beyond our conceptions.

This God beyond all our categories is yet closer to us than we can imagine. God is big and unknown in such a way that God is not actually too big to fit within us, not too unknown to be present to us. It remains that anything we say about God – even if we said everything we can know – is still only partial. Yet, God can be spoken of, and what we talk about when we talk about God is basically true. That’s part of what the story of the incarnation does for me, conceptually: it affirms that God can simultaneously be far beyond my understanding and be present to me in everyday experience.

The church, serving a God who is incarnate in this way, will always need to translate its experience of God into terms that are more natural to the world around it. At the same time, our terms must never be completely co-opted by the world, precisely because our God is always unsettling and expanding our categories. It’s an ongoing tension. We can bear witness to this God by living in the tension, allowing holding our experience lightly enough that others’ experiences can also make sense alongside ours, in their own terms.

It’s up to us to do this, particularly because in the US we as Christians have a privileged place in the spiritual conversation. I take seriously the fact that Christendom is over and the Church no longer has a lock on spiritual meaning, but we still have a remarkable amount of cultural weight. We’re not the only answer anymore, and for many we’re assumed to be the stuffy, antiquated answer, but we are still “the Tradition.” When “the  Tradition” allows other experiences into its conversation, that has powerful impact on the world around us.