Last week we were introduced to Paul’s sermon in Athens and his particular way of addressing the God question that brings everyone into the conversation. Rather than diminish the worldview of those in Athens, he instead includes them into a bigger framework of understanding. I think the church would do well to adopt a similar posture.
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’…” Acts 17:22-23
The Areopagus, where Paul is standing, is the cultural and philosophical city center. Think Plato, Aristotle, and the profound influence Greek philosophy has had on the world. It’s not only a place where the cultural and intellectual elite convene around big ideas, it’s the epicenter of the modern conversation. Like headlining a national TED talk, Paul is there promoting a strange new thing (v.21).
Today we consider the modern conversation. I’ll access it by first making what might be a startling statement, then I’ll talk about Jesus, then Paul and then get back to this Areopagus.
The statement is: Christianity wasn’t intended as an alternative religion. This may be a bit of clinker if you’ve only known Christianity as such. Modern evangelical christianity sees itself as a distinct world religion which is in direct competition with all other world religions, belief systems and truth claims. It’s easy to see how we got here when we follow church history. The reformation was Christianity’s version of the renaissance- the bridge to the modern age. This cultural shift allowed matters of faith to be packaged into the binary frameworks of the new rational mind. This change turned esoteric belief into formulas and structures, just as literacy did to the textual environment-It was the birth of systematic theology. By creating the distinctions, Christianity lost it’s “experiential fluidity” and became rigid and fell into “otherness.”
Jesus didn’t come to establish systematic theology. His proclamation was for a counter-intuitive kingdom, where down was the way up, giving is how we get, and dying is how we persevere our life. The rule of his kingdom (love) made obsolete the covenant of rules that governed how people were to relate to God (Hebrews 8:13). Prior to Jesus, religion offered a behavior modification system that was the means to access God through appeasement (Tribal religion). Jesus undermined institutions or systems which can’t bring us to God, but instead impose burdens on people. For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). Jesus’ ministry closed the gap where religion and state systems failed to liberate their constituents.
Back to Paul. The disciples and Saul are not so much converted to another religion, as they are completed from wherever they started-which is varied. Fishermen (working class), tax collectors (ruling class), centurions (enforcing class), samaritans (immigrant class), prostitutes, invalids, and the sick (poor class) each had a unique theological grid. Saul’s elite pharisaism (religious class) wasn’t eradicated by conversion, but completed in Christ. Jews remained Jews, gentiles-gentiles, samaritans and centurions each to their own, only now they had a framework of how the Christ completed and expanded their faith system or God question.
Early Christianity wasn’t a new religion, but an alternative means to God. Religion is a framework of ascending to God, the Christ story is the opposite. It’s not till much later in Christian church history that we effectually rebuilt our temples, the ruling class, and diminished Christianity into a competitive religion. There’s power and money in behavior modification.
Back to Paul at the Areopagus. He’s saying, “I get your religion-I came from one.” The unknown God is that something more that they all intuited but had no framework into which to put such an experience. The altar (religious framework) is there in case we have to appease this god. Paul is giving a name to that deep thing that we all seem to intuit.
As a pastor for 25 years, I can tell you modern evangelicalism falls on its face. It became obvious when I took my ministry online. The work of the gospel is not to make converts as we understand it a binary framework. There aren’t others out there. It’s to complete any and all faith systems because none of them are able to get us to God-they are but containers. Christ (Christianity) is not a container- but the contents of everything (life, breath, everything-also Colossians 1:16). The cosmic work of Christ in Jesus is the only thing that liberates the captives found in both church (Religion) and state.
Now we can see the real meaning of Jesus’ exclusivity claim in John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s not saying, only Christians go to Heaven (Proved by Abraham, Moses, Elijah), but that if anyone anywhere experiences God (Creator, Father,etc..), it was Christ that made it possible. In this way, God is not “unknown”, but known by everyone-precisely Paul’s point. “This I proclaim to you.”(v.24)
Paul is saying: “Yes, I see your framework, but there is something beyond it that ties us together. We are not “other” than each other.”
This is a profoundly inclusive, wide open, proclamation of Paul. He shows us the way to speak to our world which is rejecting Christianity as an alternative religion. He’s showing that the “unknown god” is where everyone who has ever lived begins their journey. Paul models here that the church is not about arguing our differences, but to go deeper with that tiny awakened part within us that knows there’s something more. Following that voice is the new framework where the unknown god becomes experientially known and everything changes from the inside out.
No wonder thousands heard this message and believed. May this be the case today.