"BECOMING" - Acts 17:16f
In the Richmond Times Dispatch on Thursday of this week, there was a large picture depicting significant events in New Orleans. The picture showed a crane removing the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. The headline reported: “3rd Rebel Statue pulled down in New Orleans.” Then, a few paragraphs into the article the mayor of New Orleans commented: “Today we take another step in defining our city not by our past but by our bright future. While we must honor our history, we will not allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of New Orleans.” (see RTD, Thursday, May 18, 2017)
This morning’s newspaper has a front page article about the complexities and questions regarding Richmond’s famous monuments. Everyday, even several times a day, I ride past the numerous monuments on Monument Ave. This daily journey generates a mixture of emotions. Are these symbols of honor, reminders of a noble cause? Or are these symbols of oppression and racism? Are they statues, memorials to another era of American life, . . . . or are they idols?
With this in mind, we turn to the Scripture passage for today from the Acts of the Apostles. Just to refresh your memory, the story of Acts follows the story of the Gospels. In fact, the writer of the gospel of Luke continues his writing, his story about the disciples, in Acts. Acts is the sequel to Luke. Following the resurrection, Acts tells the story of what happened to the disciples. After seeing the risen Jesus, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples continue Jesus’ ministry of bringing about the kingdom of God. They teach and preach and work miracles. So the book is called “The Acts of the Apostles.” An Apostle is one who had seen the Risen Christ.
We jump into Acts today at chapter 17. And the Apostle Paul has joined this band of followers of Jesus – he has seen the light, converted from Judaism, seen the Risen Christ; so Paul becomes a primary figure in the emerging Church of Jesus Christ. In Chapter 17, Paul is in Athens, a bustling, vibrant, place of cultures and business. Listen to Acts 17, beginning at verse 16:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
“The city was full of idols.” The word “idols,” for me, changes the context and the conversation. Monuments are often important to us. When they become idols, we may want to begin re-thinking and re-negotiating.
And here is a bit more context. Athens was one of the largest, most busy, most international cities, where cultures crossed and philosophies and religions engaged each other. Then, the Areopagus – in the center of Athens - was a place of learning and listening – where cultures interacted and religions and philosophies pushed and tugged at one another. The people heard Paul speaking, and they took him to the Areopagus, asking, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting. . . .we would like to know what it means.”
And the story continues –
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Paul is in Athens to engage the people with the truth of the gospel amidst the busy, crazy, often confusing life that can swirl around all of us. Paul’s goal is to engage and give orientation to people so their lives can be open and transformed by God.
So he begins with a compliment: “Hey, people of Athens, I see how extremely religious you are. You have objects of worship, shrines. You come and talk about many gods.” Paul seems impressed with them.
But then Paul begins to appeal to them with his own important message. “This God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom made shrines… Starting from scratch, God made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable. And God made us to seek after God, not grope around in the dark. Indeed, in God we live and move and have our being.” We are to live our lives in God. (see Peterson, The Message)
And those who heard all of this were seemingly engaged. Some scoffed for sure, but others said, “We’ll have to hear more about this.” They were beginning to wonder - who is this God of the universe and what might that mean for our lives? And then I LOVE how this story ends: “but some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
“Some became believers.”
What are we becoming? BECOMING.
That is a good word for high school seniors heading off to new ventures and college. What are you becoming?
It is a good word for others of us who might be in the midst of some new challenge – illness, recovery, a new stage in life, new difficulty within our family. This is how life goes – we move through transitions and confront various issues along the way. What are we becoming?
It is a good word as we think about the nation and world: what are we becoming? Do we find life in God – in whom we live and move and have our being – so we are becoming more and more God’s people? Or what?
This is what Paul and the New Testament affirm – life is held by God – in whom we live and move and have our being. And life is about gentleness and compassion, living out our faith as devoted disciples of Jesus in every circumstance. It is not about monuments and shrines, and things that do NOT really matter. It is about a Source of our being that leads us to acts of peace and hope for a hurting world. It is not about slogans and detached conversations that sound good – like in the Areopagus – (maybe the Areopagus was the original place for tweets) that make for good sound bytes. No, it is about God’s pervasive love that covers us, good news of life in a world of death, grace in a world of grudges, hospitality in a world of harm, and forgiveness in a world of hurt.
BECOMING - It is about our lives deeply faithful to God, not shallow. It is about the core of our lives – we are made in the image of God and made to live and love as Jesus lived and loved – with grace and generosity, not empty religiosity.
Listen to these words by Soren Kierkegaard (from Provocations):
Worry about making a living, or not making a living, is a snare. In actuality, it is the snare. No external power, no actual circumstance, can trap a person. If we choose to be our own providence, then we will go quite ingenuously into our own trap, the wealthy as well as the poor. If we want to entrench ourselves in our own plot of ground that is not under God’s care, then we are living, though we do not acknowledge it, in a prison. (from The Daily Dig, May 20, 2017)
Paul reminds us, “in God we live and move and have our being.” We are God’s offspring. Our life is from God and for God. Are we becoming that? Or are we trapped in some other prison of our own making?
There is a song by Dave Matthews called “Big-Eyed Fish.” It is about a big-eyed fish that did not want to be a fish anymore, but a bird in the sky. So he caught a great big wave hoping to fly, but ended up on the beach. “Silly fish – a fish belongs under the sea.” This same song is about a monkey who climbed up in a tree, but decided that the city is where he wanted to be. So he ran off to the city, and what happened? A monkey cannot survive in the city. A monkey belongs in the tree.
I am not sure what kind of theologian Dave Matthews is. But there is great theology in that song. We have been given so much – grace, life, blessings. What are we becoming? We often go searching in all the wrong places – and what happens? It can lead to emptiness, loneliness, and even death! We have been showered with abundance and a life of possibility. Are we going to go chasing after this and that and then have no life at all? In God, we live and move and have our being. And this city, our country, this season of life in the world needs our heart, our gifts, our devotion to God’s work.
Friends, we are made to live for God, live for others, live working to make the world a better place. The lesson from John’s gospel reminds us too: if you love me, says Jesus, you will keep my commandments . . . God abides in you and God will always be with you. We seek to live in God and for God.
I am aware that I have learned a great deal about BECOMING from faithful people in my life. I am aware that I have learned much about this from you, devoted people of faith in this church. I have learned about God as the source of our being from many faithful people who have been members of churches where I have served – people whose lives embody love and light, hope and peace, God’s presence and purposes in all the seasons of life. And I am also aware that my own parents lived this out so well for me and my family – through the challenges and changes of their own lives, through cancer and chemo, through a devotion to God’s work in the world. From them, I have come to appreciate what it is like to strive to have God as the One in whom we live and love and have our being. That does not mean it is always constant, or that it is without challenge. But I have seen it lived out, and I am so grateful for all those who have lived by faith. This is our calling.
So we all might think about what is becoming of us, and then we might, in God’s grace and mercy, seek to become the people God made us to be. How different would our lives be if we actually were daily more intentional about striving to live and move and have our being in God?
It is like the hymn says – “breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.” See, that is Paul’s message –the God of the universe is in our midst and at work in every circumstance.
We don’t just move through our days, we seek to celebrate that there is nowhere we can go when God is not with us. We don’t just live, we live out our lives in the certainty that we are enfolded in God’s love, and we are called to live and love as God’s people in all things. We do not just let the circumstances of our lives dictate how we feel or how we function; we seek to live and move and have our being in God and let that dictate everything about us, sharing love and hope everywhere. It is not easy but it is our calling. It may come and go for us, but it intends to be the constancy in our lives.
One of my favorite of all prayers is this one that I keep in my Bible. It is a prayer written by Thomas Merton. Some of you may be familiar with it. The prayer goes like this: My Lord, God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing it. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (From T. Merton, Thoughts on Solitude)
We live in a crazy world – but we live in God - in whom we live and move and have our being. Whether we are fretting about statues, or sorting out some personal crisis – we belong to God and we seek to BECOME all that God would have us to be – people of God who live for God. May it be so. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O God; help our unbelief. By your Spirit, show us the way following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on May 21, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.