May 4, 2008

Acts 17:16-31
John 14:15-21

Until I started to explore this morning’s text from the Book of Acts, I had no idea how much wonderful stuff about God was packed into such a short little speech by Paul at the Areopagus. Your typical modern-day preacher takes at least ten minutes, if not fifteen or twenty minutes to preach the Gospel in most of our churches. And rarely do we manage to do it as eloquently as Paul’s little sermon to the philosophers in Athens.

The element of Paul’s speech that really spoke to me this week was the idea that God does not need us, but that we need God. It’s humbling for us — even the brightest and most gifted and most accomplished and independent — to listen to Paul’s words: “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 is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

It’s humbling to remember that everything that we have and everything that we are comes from God. It is in God and by God that we live and move and have our being. And it’s natural and to-be-expected that we would depend on God, like young children depend on their parents. “For we are God’s offspring,” as Paul said.

Today’s lectionary text is one of three major missionary speeches attributed to the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts. And it’s the only one that’s delivered in Athens to a group of non-believers. It does make a difference who Paul was speaking to. A good preacher pays attention to the congregation or audience to whom he or she is speaking. She uses language that is familiar to the listeners. He speaks in a format or style that the people are used to. And she draws upon experience and examples and cultural references that the people will understand and be able to relate to.

In this case, Paul’s audience was a bunch of philosophers. He was in Athens, after all, a place famous through the centuries for its philosophy. Athens was a great university town. It symbolized the “high culture” where ideas were valued, discussed, debated, and carefully considered by the intellectually curious.

In another speech, at Lystra, Paul spoke about “the living God who made the heavens, the earth and sea and all that is in them.” And he told the people that they should “turn from their worthless things [their idols and false gods] to the living God.” But now he’s in Athens, and Paul has to be careful and strategic about how he presents the Good News about Jesus Christ and the One God of the universe.

This is a place where religions abound, where ideas about gods are an open topic for discussion amongst anyone with the education and intelligence to engage in the conversation. No one is going to take Paul’s word for it when he says that there is One God only who created all that is. They’re only going to listen if he can speak their language and explain this “new teaching” to their satisfaction.

Athens was a place of many religions and a pantheon of gods. When Paul arrived, he was deeply distressed by what he saw around him. The city was full of idols — objects and altars and art work that the people worshipped like gods. In my reading, I discovered that it was typical in Athens for new gods or religions to be discussed in the marketplace, and accepted into society if they met certain criteria.

First, the person introducing a new religion must claim to represent a deity. Second, he must provide evidence that this deity is eager to reside in Athens. And third, the deity’s presence or residence in Athens must benefit Athenians in some way, as a mark of the deity’s good will.

What was surprising to me about these so-called deities was that they were so DEPENDENT on the people of the city. They needed somewhere to live. They needed a sponsor or advocate to argue their case and get them a space in the pantheon of Athenian gods. And they needed to buy their way into the marketplace of religions. They needed to provide some benefit to the people of Athens, or they would be rejected and homeless. Their power was derived only from the attention and worship that the people gave to them. And without it, they were nothing.

I think it’s the same with many of the idols that draw our attention and allegiance today. Whether it’s money or material possessions… whether it’s success, or prestige, or food, or some other pleasure that becomes a god in our life… None of these things has any power or worth in their own right. They depend on us to WANT them, to think we NEED them, to make space in our lives for obsessing over them.

It’s our choice to buy into the idea that we can’t live without all these things. We choose to accept the idea that our lives will be so much better, we’ll be so much happier, if only we lived in that neighbourhood, or drove that car, or ate that food, or looked like that model, or went on that vacation…

Paul makes it clear that the God he is talking about is not in competition with the other gods of the Pantheon. His listeners are likely ready to accept another god into their lives, as long as that god can fit into their system and offer them some kind of worthwhile benefit. But Paul is saying that this god, THE God, is way above and way beyond the gods that they are used to worshiping. This God doesn’t need them, but they do need God.

And our God (the One God of the universe) does not stoop to bribe us into putting down our fashion magazines, or our home improvement catalogues, or our video games in order to pay attention to him either. You see, God didn’t need the Athenians’ worship and devotion. Nor does God need ours. “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 is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.”

The One God of the universe that Paul is describing is not dependent on anyone, human or divine. This God, unlike the false gods and idols to which we often give our attention, is TRANSCENDENT — above all and over all, Creator and Ruler of the the universe. God does not depend on us, but we do depend on God “since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

Independence seems to have become a very important value within our society — perhaps another idol, I might suggest. Though we acknowledge that children are dependent on caregivers for a time, we expect them to grow up and gain independence — to think for themselves, to work for a living, to make it on their own without relying on anyone. We worry about and often look down on people who depend on others for help — whether they depend on social assistance, or parental support, or the income of a spouse. And as people grow older and start to have difficulty maintaining independence, many people experience a personal crisis. They feel like they’ve lost themselves or their dignity when they need to ask for help to get around or to take care of daily needs.

I think that one of the most important things for us to learn about what it means to be the church is that this is a place and a community in which we are free to depend on one another. We are free to be vulnerable here, to trust that we won’t be judged or ridiculed, and that we won’t be sent away to find help elsewhere.

Though we’re all affected by that strong desire to be independent and self-sufficient, most of us have learned through experience that we simply can’t manage on our own. Even the most competent, strong, and wise person will have times of crisis or upheaval when they need to depend on someone else. We’ve learned that it’s good to ask for help when we need it, whether it’s practical support, guidance, a listening ear, or simply prayer and presence through a difficult time.

In Christian community, it’s okay to need one another, and it’s definitely okay to need God. There’s no one who doesn’t need God. “In him we live and move and have our being.” God made the world in which we live, and all its gifts and resources that sustain us. God made us in God’s image, and gave us life and breath and all things.

And that’s not all. God didn’t just set things up with a world and people in it, and leave us to make it on our own. Instead, God continually reaches out to us to call us to live in relationship with him and in obedience to his commands.

Though we constantly fall short of God’s standards, our faithful God comes to us in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit, and draws us again and again back into relationship with him. God shows amazing love and amazing grace towards us, and since none of us are capable of living perfectly, we must depend on God’s grace. We must depend on God. And it’s okay.

It’s okay to depend on God because, as Paul said, “We are God’s offspring.” We are the beloved children of the One God of all the universe. God is over all, and yet in Jesus, God comes close to us. God is perfect, and yet God forgives our imperfection. God is independent, and yet God invites us to depend on him.

This morning, we are invited to gather around the table of the Lord. We do so, not because we are strong, but because we are weak. We come, not because any goodness of our own gives us a right to come, but because we need God’s mercy and help. We depend on God.

And here, at God’s table, we will be fed, we will be strengthened, we will be filled both physically and spiritually. May we depend on God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth. May we depend on God who gives us life and breath and all things. Amen.