April 25, 2010

An Offensive Message

What is the basic thrust of the Gospel? Have you ever thought much about that? A couple of weeks ago we talked about what Peter included in his Pentecost sermon as the basic tenets of the Gospel. Remember those five things? Jesus came and died because of sin. God raised Him from the dead. He was glorified. The Old Testament told us about this way ahead of time. There.s only one reasonable response in light of this information. But if you think about it, that.s a lot of information to pass along to someone foreign to the ideas of Christianity; particularly if you plan on presenting it in a way so that the person can actually understand it. How can we break it down even more than that? What are the minimum facts a person needs to know in order to enter into a relationship with God? A lot of folks are going to argue in favor of John 3:16 filling this bill. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in Him will not die but have eternal life.” Billy Graham built his career as an evangelist on this verse so you.d have to say that it has some merit on that basis alone. But often this verse falls victim to a love reduction: minimizing the importance of everything but the love of God. The love of God is really important, but this characteristic divorced from His other character traits leaves us with a shell of the God revealed in Scripture and frankly not one worth worshiping. Make no mistake, the love of God for the world and the ability to have eternal life by believing in the Son is the basic idea we are trying to get across, but there.s something even more fundamental than that: the resurrection. The resurrection is the key to the faith.

I was listening to a preacher the other day tell the story of his journey to faith. He grew up Catholic, but went to Mass once a year on Easter, oblivious to the fact that many Catholics actually went to Mass the other fifty-one Sundays in the year. But when he did go he could always count on seeing the crucifix. He said there was something comforting about Jesus on the cross to him. He could identify with that person, empathize with his suffering. When he became a teenager he was invited by a cute girl to go to an evangelical church on Easter and went. When he got there he saw the cross up at the front of the church but there was no Jesus on it. This was really bothering him to the point that he leaned over and told her that they had forgotten Jesus. She quietly whispered back: “He is not here; He is risen.” This was a defining moment for him because it was the first time he.d ever heard the news of the resurrection. All of a sudden Jesus became much more important for him. Jesus was no longer a person with whom to commiserate. He was not someone for whom we can feel empathy. He was someone worth worshiping. Everything we say and do as followers of Christ hangs on the resurrection. Have you ever thought much about that? Without the resurrection, everything we stand for is a sham. Without the resurrection, you have no reason to be here right now. Christianity as a religion, the church as a cultural movement for the kingdom of God has a finite starting point. On the Saturday before the resurrection there was no church and on the day after there was. The Christian faith did not develop gradually as many others throughout the world did. Yes, the various aspects of theology and Christian practice developed over the centuries, but the Jesus movement itself sprang up over night. Without the resurrection, nothing else we do has any hope or meaning or truth: three of the most important things in our lives. The resurrection is the key to the faith. But you see, there.s a problem here. The resurrection is fundamentally unbelievable.

Have you ever thought much about that one? The resurrection at face value is absolutely ludicrous. Dead people stay dead. We understand that. The ancients understood that. It.s just how things work. When we die, we don.t come back to life. End of story. It never happened before and it hasn.t happened since. Yes, cultures the like Greeks had nice mythological tales of people going to the underworld and coming back, but people understood that those were just stories. But you see, there was one culture in the ancient world that had this primitive belief in a resurrection of the dead: the Jews. They believed that their God was going to bring back to life (if they were good enough) His people to a world much better than the one in which we currently reside. This idea was actually rooted quite deeply in Hebrew sacred writings dating back to incredibly early on in their history. In Jesus. famous interaction with the Sadducees over this very issue (for they did not believe in the resurrection themselves because they didn.t think the doctrine could be found in the Torah), He made very clear that it appears in God.s description as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus had to be born and raised as a Jew because any other culture in the world would have treated the resurrection as a sham on principle. The major Jewish objections to the resurrection were not that it couldn.t have happened, but that it couldn.t have happened to someone who was unrighteous, or else it couldn.t have happened before the end of time. But these were objections based on detail, not substance. When you left Jewish culture, however, you entered a world in which the very idea of a resurrection was implausible at best, dangerously foolish at worst.

This is the world Paul entered when he strode into Athens. Paul, the man who stood by as Stephen was killed as Saul, became the chief missionary for the young church. Our final story in Acts this month comes from the context of Paul.s second missionary journey. So far we have seen how Peter.s first powerful proclamation of the Gospel to world changed everything. We have also seen from the perspective of Saul how the blood of martyrs like Stephen has always proven to be the seed of the church. God is always faithful to redeem our sacrifices for His sake in powerful ways. This week we turn a few chapters over to see how the Gospel, now far beyond the borders of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, was presented to not merely a pagan culture (as was all of the Roman Empire), but to the seat of intellectual paganism in the Empire. The question was no longer if the resurrection was merely good news but whether or not it was true news. As Paul went out on his quest to spread the Gospel, the pattern for his journeys was usually along the lines of this: Arrive in town and preach the Gospel at the synagogue; get run out of the synagogue; go to the public forum and proclaim the Gospel there; cause a major cultural shift; draw the ire of the movers and shakers in town; get run out of town on a rail. This was certainly the recent pattern of Paul.s journey as Luke describes it in Acts 17. Grab your Bibles and turn there with me if you would. Paul had been run out of Thessalonica and Berea. When he was run out of Berea, he headed to Athens where he waited for his companions Silas and Timothy to join him so they could go on to the next place.

Listen to Luke.s description of his first few days there starting in Acts 17:16: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols.” This is one of those places in the Bible where the language of most translations is far more reserved than the actual Greek text. The word that Luke uses to describe Paul.s reaction suggests that he was far more than merely troubled in his spirit. Instead, the words suggest that Paul is ferociously angry. It suggests that he was furious, enraged, seething with anger. This was Paul.s reaction to the systemic culture of sin evident everywhere he looked in the city. Each direction he turned he was faced with statues of various gods and goddesses. Now, from our cultural standpoint in which people don.t worship statues (that would be silly) our first reaction is to wonder what got Paul so worked up. In Athens—one of the major hubs of religion and culture and philosophy for the Roman Empire—each of these statues represented a god or goddess that the people of Athens worshiped. Paul was so passionate about the Truth of Gospel that this culture that was sick with sin literally made him sick with anger. When was the last time you felt a reaction like this to the systemic sins in our culture? Often times, when I see sin in our culture, I just pass on by without giving it much of a thought. They.re doing their thing; I.m doing mine. As long as we don.t bother each other, nobody.s hurt. Right? The reality is that our heart should break with anger just like Paul.s. If we believe sin is slavery, then all these people around us whose lives are characterized by sin (that would include everyone who doesn.t belong to God) are slaves. Does this mean we need to go to the corner of Washington and Adams in downtown Petersburg at 11:00 pm and jump up on a soapbox? No, but it should at the very least drive us to our knees in prayer and respond in obedience to whatever God calls us to do. Let me preach to myself a minute and if you need to hear this go ahead and listen in: If I apathetically ignore those who are pursuing a path of death instead of offering them the hope and truth and life of the Gospel how can I call myself a follower of Jesus, a lover of God? Paul hated the sin around him, but he loved the people enough to tell them the truth. God had called him to a ministry of aggressive involvement and so he got involved.

Let.s keep reading in v. 17: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” So Paul followed his pattern to a “T” in Athens. We don.t know about the reaction he received from the synagogue, but I suspect the Jews and the Greeks who followed Yahweh without going through the rite of circumcision (can you blame them?) were just as put off by the rampant paganism, or spiritualism as it might be called today, as Paul was. From there he went out to the public places and took the same reasoned approach. Now things start to get interesting. Now we see for the first time how this thoroughly Gentile culture received the message about the resurrection. From v. 18: “Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, „What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?. Others replied, „He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities.—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”

Let.s stop there just a minute as there are a lot of thing worth talking about. The Epicureans and the Stoics were two of the major religious and philosophical movements in the Empire. The Epicureans were thorough-going materialists. They believed that the little particles that composed all life (not such scientific dummies were they?) were all that existed in the universe. They didn.t reject the idea of divine beings in the universe, but took a solidly deistic stance that assumed them totally removed from the day-to-day operation of the world. They took the fatalistic position that there was nothing more to life than to pursue pleasure. For most of them, this didn.t play itself out hedonistically, but instead by taking a sort of Buddhist approach to life: live at peace with everyone free from pain, passion, and superstition. Most importantly for our purposes, when people died their bodies returned to the particles and existence stopped. These guys would be like modern-day secular intellectuals who believe in at most a distant, uninvolved god, who think that this life is all there is, and who believe that our genes determine everything about us. The other group here, the Stoics, were just about the polar opposites of the Epicureans. They had a pantheistic approach to life in which the divine substance was in all life and that happiness was found in living according to principles of sound reason and ethics. Upon death people joined the universal divine consciousness. These folks are most like modern spiritualists of the New Age movement. In other words, we have folks in our world whose beliefs systems are awfully similar to what Paul encountered in ancient Athens. It was to these two different groups, neither of whom bought the idea of any resurrection, let alone the resurrection, that Paul brought the message of Jesus and the resurrection. The resurrection is the key to the faith.

There were some in the group who were open-minded and were interested in hearing more about these “foreign deities” this stranger was proclaiming. Others, however, cast him off as a “pseudo-intellectual.” Literally they called him a seed-picker. Imagine a bird hunting for seed. She twitters this way and that picking up whatever looks good with no real rhyme or reason. Thankfully, those who wanted to hear more won out: “They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, „May we learn about this new teaching you.re speaking of? For what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these ideas mean..” In other words, they were open to what Paul had to say. This was an open-minded crowd interested in hearing about the latest and greatest of everything. In fact, Luke makes fun of them a bit for this: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new.” This was a group of guys who sat around and gossiped about the latest news all day. I can.t think of any parallels to that around here.

Well, at this point, Paul takes the stage. Hear his powerful words starting in v. 22: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: „To An Unknown God.. Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man He has made every nation of men to live all over the earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live, so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, „For we are also His offspring.. Being God.s offspring, then, we shouldn.t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

When we plan to present the Gospel and in particular the resurrection to people in order to see them develop a relationship with God, our goal should be to meet them where they are and take them one step closer to Him. This is exactly what we find Paul doing here. He meets them at their place of trying to make the gods happy by not missing any and offers to tell them truth. Paul seeks to correct three false thoughts about God on the part of the Athenians here: that God lives in some finite structure we have made; that we could do anything to somehow meet God.s needs; and that some statue we could make could possibly capture God.s image. The truth instead is that the one true God has created the world and everything in it. He has created all people from a single starting point (Adam) and placed them exactly where they needed to be in order that they might seek to try and find Him. (This picture would have appealed to the Epicureans in the crowd.) The image Paul uses here is of a blind person groping about in the dark trying to find something. Indeed, this is an accurate image of a people blinded by sin trying to find a righteous God. The hope Paul offers is that this God can indeed be found. He is not far from us. (And this would have hit home with the Stoics.) If all this is true, if we are truly created by God (or the gods, as his audience did believe), then it doesn.t make a lot of sense that we should have to create our own gods and goddesses to follow. The Message translation puts this rather well: “If we are the God-created, it doesn.t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stones for us, does it?” In light of all this truth, Paul leaves them with a single response: repent. God had overlooked their sinful behavior in the past because they didn.t know any better. That didn.t make it right; He just wanted to give them a chance to knowingly repent. Paul acknowledges that he brings that opportunity with him. Judgment is coming and God has provided a righteous Judge to do the job. This Judge, Paul argues, has been demonstrated as worthy by God.s raising Him from the dead. Indeed, the resurrection is the key to the faith.

At this point things came to a screeching halt. As soon as Paul mentioned the resurrection again the place exploded in argument with everyone trying to get his point across. Some laughed at him and simply passed him off as a loon. Others asked to hear more. Still others, though, took him at his words and became followers of Christ. Luke notes that this group included both men and women, mentioning one of each by name, which probably indicated that they were both well-known leaders in the early church. All of this because of the resurrection. We said just a bit ago that the resurrection is the key to the faith. Everything Paul said in this speech was geared at presenting to the crowd the fact of the resurrection. If a person comes to a belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and understands the implications of this, a relationship with God will easily fall into place for them. But as I told you a couple of weeks ago, nobody is going to buy this unless the Holy Spirit enables them, which is why we must live lives filled with the Holy Spirit.

So let.s come right down to it then: what does this mean for us. Why does the resurrection matter for us? Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we can have hope that this life is not all there is. When we are burdened down by the loads we carry through this world, we can rest assured that the futility we face here is not the end of the story. In the resurrection we find the only true source of hope in the world. Because of this hope for a future life with God, we find that everything we do here is flushed with meaning. A father can get up every morning and go work at a job he doesn.t love because he knows he is providing a better life for his family than if he weren.t working. The work he does thus has meaning. This is mere temporary meaning, though. If tragedy strikes and his family is no longer there, he has no reason to work. In the resurrection promise of life we find that all the things we do (or don.t do) here are preparing us for life there. This is an eternal significance that cannot be touched by the trappings of this life. And in this eternal significance, we find truth. The resurrection revealed the deep reality of the kingdom of God. This is a reality untouched by the fickleness of this world. This is truth on which we can base our lives; reality to which we can anchor our souls and the storms of life will never blow us away. Hope. Meaning. Truth. Three of the deepest needs of our souls, and all three are revealed in the story of the resurrection. This is the message Paul proclaimed to the people of Athens because even though it was hard for them to swallow, it was most important thing they could ever hear. It was the one truly new bit of news in the world. It still is. The resurrection is the key to the faith. And faith brings real life. So regardless of how scandalous our message may seem, we stand on the truth of the resurrection and proclaim it with boldness so that all the world may hear and come to worship the God of the resurrection.