I’ve been there. I’ve been at the very place referenced in Sunday’s first reading (Acts 17.2-31). Here’s what it says, “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said . . .”
Four years ago, my husband and I had the privilege of traveling to Greece to return a rare biblical manuscript to its rightful mountain-top monastery home. Before ascending the mountain, we spent a few days in Athens, acclimating to the time change and seeing the sights. It was a cold December morning when we made our way to the famous Areopagus, the ancient Athenian center of religious worship and political power. It was on that rocky outcropping, littered with the ruins of temples and libraries and government buildings, that Paul had, 2000 years before, challenged the whole religious system of the region.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an Unknown God.’”
In other words, the Athenians were hedging their bets. Statues and shrines to various gods and goddesses peppered the landscape. Castor and Pollux. Persephone. Rhonbos. Hera. Zeus. Too many to name. But in a religious climate that feared angering those gods and goddesses, they erected one “fail safe” statue: To an Unknown God. In other words, “We don’t want to miss anybody, so we’ll also revere the gods that might exist but with whom we are, as yet, unfamiliar. Our apologies.”
The Athenians lived in fear, in both senses of that word. “Fear” as in respect and awe. “Fear” as in terror and trembling.
Whom shall we worship? Whom shall we trust?
As we continue to practice physical distancing, we also struggle to know whom to trust. Epidemiologists? Economists? Governors? Business owners? Protestors? Though these figures are not exactly “gods,” we want to make sure we are hitching our hopes to the proper authority figure. We don’t want to make a mistake, listing too far toward either timidity or bravado. We fear these figures as the Athenians feared their gods: with both respect and terror.
What if virologist Richard Bright is right, and we are facing the “darkest winter in modern history?” What if the lawsuits against governmental regulation are spot on, that we need listen to nothing but our own experiences, our own intuitions? Is there another voice, another opinion, another answer we are missing? Shall we erect a Facebook page “To an Unknown Expert” just in case?
Paul offered the Athenians a single option, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, . . . nor does he need anything.”
In other words, Paul wanted to introduce them to the One True God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who didn’t need to be appeased or entertained. Merely trusted. It was a tough sell.
Their world, even more than ours, writhed in chaos. An incestuous ruling class fed on itself. Epidemics decimated whole populations. Invading armies planted their flags on a whim. Inequities between rich and poor were stratospheric. Half of their infants died before a first birthday. There were no protections for women or workers or those who did not “conform.” There were many reasons to be afraid.
Four years ago, on a brisk December day, the whispers of those ancient worshippers floated on the Athenian air. They filled my ears and piqued my imagination. And I realized what a bold claim Paul made that day, that in an environment drowning in fear, there was only one they could trust. Only one they needed to trust.
Paul’s message to the ancient Athenians rings true for us, as well: “We are God’s offspring,” Paul promised. “God is not far from each one of us.” It is “in God that we live and move and have our being.”
Though fear is all around, we need not adopt it. God is known to us, but more important, we are known to God.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post