Friends in Christ, if Paul was to wander through your life — your daily routines, where you spent your time and your money, where you made sacrifices: the things that bring your great joy, the things that get you really upset, and the ways you speak — if Paul was to wander down “your street”, stand at the center of your personal “town square” (the Areopagus) — WHAT WOULD HE NOTICE?
The question is not: “Are you/is anyone religious?” The question is: “In what ways are you extremely religious?” Everyone worships something. The word worship, broken down, “worth-ship”. What’s worthy of your sacrifices? That’s what we worship. Lots of people go to church but don’t worship God. Because God’s not worthy of their sacrifices, the church is not worthy of their sacrifices: traveling the world is what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices. Clothing or hobbies or housing or sports or fancy alcohol or knives or guns or shoes or concerts or cars or crafts are what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices. We all have our thing, I think. What’s your thing?
The best way for Paul to wander down any one of our “streets” is for him to take a look at our credit card statements, right? Or however, if you even can, track how and where you spend your money. (I was shocked at how much this past tax season my family spend on food — organic, locally sourced, healthy food. It’s more expensive. We’ve admitted that’s a place we’re willing to make sacrifices. I guess you could say it’s one of our idols.) What’s on your credit card statement? That’s the real “giving record,” right?
That’s where we can see where we really make sacrifices. I know the whole, “but it’s not just about money when it comes to church” idea. And that’s true, but so often, I think, we can hide behind that. So much is about money... x2 That’s why Jesus talked about money all the time!
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6.21; Lk. 12.34). What is it that you treasure? What is it that you protect? What is it that you make sacrifices for?
This was true in the ancient world as well, as Paul walked through the streets of Athens, “Athenians,” he says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
But there’s something else: Paul notices that there is an altar to an unknown God. You see, the people of Athens — like us today — worshipped all kinds of gods. I think it was more overt then: maybe less shame about it. They made sacrifices openly to the gods of sports, food, parties, travel, transportation, music, crafts and weather. (We worship weather here in San Diego, don’t we? Willing to make sacrifices for beautiful weather?) Same back then! But there was this one altar that was unmarked. It was like the fill-in-the-gap altar...
...and Paul seizes on that image to introduce them to a different kind of God. Now that altar was in fact, a fill-in-the-gap altar: Like today, the people lived in great fear. If you didn’t sacrifice to every god, if you didn’t appease every god, then trouble would inevitably befall you. So just in case, there was this little “fill-in-the-gap” altar. Just in case you missed or forgot about a god or two. You could sacrifice at the altar of the unknown god.
Paul seizes on that to draw them into a new understanding...
See, it’s like, there was “something else.” The people even knew it. This way of living and worshiping at all these altars, this way of being extremely religious was coming up short.
Don’t we see that too? Do you ever feel that? All these things we worship, and yet, somehow, it’s never enough?
We’re always pouring more and more out at all these different altars? Everyone and everything is happy to take our sacrifices, our money, our time, our devotion, our energy, our whole lives. But it’s like they’re never appeased. The gods are never appeased, and they’ll just keep taking… (Just talking with dear friends about the tolls that stress takes on our bodies...
..the frantic pace at which we run, from altar to altar to altar. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way!” Paul exclaims.)
But then there’s this one other little altar. This little tiny chapel, this insignificant table. This ugly, old cross. Laughable really, in the shadow of all the other towering altars.
But Paul seizes on that little altar, and takes that fearful theology (study of God) about that altar — how that can be like Christianity now too: fearful theology — and fills it with incarnational theology. God is with us. This little, tiny, insignificant altar you see here, Paul says, “I proclaim to you that the God who made the world and everything in it, [the God] who is [composer and conductor] of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…[this God] allotted the times of [our] existence and the boundaries of the places where [we] live, so that [we may] search for God and perhaps grope for [God]...though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being….’”
We don’t grope for God, as if God is some object of our attaining. We are IN God already. My whole life changed with I started to accept that. [say it again]
This little, un-named altar is an entry point into experiencing a God that is above all other gods! A God who’s got the whole world — the whole universe — in a loving embrace. A God in whom we “live and move and have our being.” A God whose name is love, in Jesus Christ.
This is where Paul takes us...along with his ancient hearers. Paul preaches of a God who is beyond time and space, who is above all our petty obsessions and weaknesses, who holds us even as we try to appease other gods!
This little Altar, this Book, this Water doesn’t contain God (God doesn’t live, cooped up in here)! But they do, we confess, carry God. This little altar, this old book, these drops of water, point us to a God who is loosed in, with, above, below, all around and throughout this entire universe!
We cannot encapsulate or domesticate this God of whom Paul speaks! All we can do is give ourselves up to it — this holy movement — sacrifice ourselves to what we’re already in:
...Think of when children are angry and restless in their mother’s arms: there’s no use in trying to overpower her, “Just rest. Just breath. It’s OK.” Can’t we be like restless children running from altar to altar to altar? (Paul was once a restless Saul!)
Friends in Christ, we are truly IN Christ. Not every day do we get to reflect on the all-inclusive, all-loving, all-surrounding embrace of a God in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Being in Christ is where we find ourselves. So now all we we can do is enjoy it, take a breath...and go make disciples. Go invite others into this understanding, into this joyful awareness. Tell them that we don’t have to make all these other sacrifices at all these other altars! Go, make disciples by pointing them to the water and the word of life, and this community of love, this bread of heaven and the wine of salvation. For simply in this following, there is peace.
Peace that is fuller and deeper than any other peace that any idols can offer. Jesus calls us away from those, to come and follow, make your sacrifices here, and make disciples. You are Christ’s witnesses to these thing: you have a job to do! It’s a blessed burden, a labor of love. Thanks be to God, who holds us and this whole cosmos now...and forever more. Go spread that Good News. Breathe. It’s gonna be ok. Because God’s got us. AMEN.