In the movie, “Elf,” Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, is working in the toy department of Gimbel’s Department Store in
City. The announcement is made over the loudspeaker
that Santa has arrived to greet the children and Buddy loses it.
“Santa! Santa! I know him! I know him!’
That’s how I felt when I first read this passage from Acts and saw two names: Epicureans and Stoics.
“Epicureans and Stoics!” “I know them!” “I taught them!” “I taught them!”
In case you were wondering, I taught a brief overview of Epicureans and Stoics when I was teaching Ethics. While what I learned from teaching intersects with my ministry in a myriad of ways, it doesn’t always happen this overtly. So, yes, I was excited to see Epicureans and Stoics mentioned in the scripture passage I was preaching.
Epicureans were hedonists. But not in the way we tend to understand hedonists. They were not the drunken, toga wearing gluttons ala Animal House. Epicureans believed that the only thing that was intrinsically good was pleasure. That which increased pleasure was good, that which decreased it was bad. Pleasure and pain came in both mental and physical form, and to Epicureans there were two types of acute mental pain: fear of the gods and fear of death. The Epicureans believed in the existence of the gods, but they did not believe that they intervened in human life. The gods were set apart from humans on a completely different realm, indifferent to humanity and all of its ills. The Epicureans were materialists; they believed that everything down to the smallest atom, including humans, was made up of matter. Matter does not have an eternal soul. So when we die, we are dead. The Epicureans point was why fear gods who were indifferent to humans, and why fear death when it was a complete end? There would be no punishment in some life after this one. Live for today and live in simple moderation and tranquility.
The Stoics valued reason. They believed that the universe was based on reason and rationality. The Stoics, like the Epicureans, believed that tranquility and peace of mind were the foundation of happiness. That tranquility and peace of mind came from reason governing our desires, self-control. The universe was based on Divine Law. That Divine Law was based on reason and rationality. Therefore, there was no point in getting bent out of shape over anything because everything was happening as it should. The example that I learned to illustrate the Stoics was a dog being tied behind a moving cart. The universe is the moving cart and humanity is the dog. If we fight against the rope tying us to the cart; if we chew and pull and resist, then we are going to be miserable. We are going to be unhappy and in pain, always hurting ourselves. But if we resign ourselves to follow along behind the cart, trusting that the cart is moving according to reason then we won’t be in pain. We will not expend our precious energy on useless resistance and struggle. The cart is reasonable and rational, and we just need to accept that it is going where it should.
Then along came Paul. Remember last week, in the story of Stephen’s stoning, we get our first glimpse of then Saul. The people doing the stoning laid their cloaks before Saul’s feet. While we have skipped over the story of Saul’s conversion, and his transformation from Saul to Paul, we now meet him full on as Paul. Knowing what we know of Paul; knowing what we know of his zeal for the gospel, perhaps it is easy to understand why some in the crowd called him “this babbler.” Paul was preaching the good news of Jesus – God born into human flesh, crucified on the cross, resurrected into new life – pretty much the opposite of everything the Epicureans held dear. Paul preached the good news of Jesus – God willingly becoming vulnerable by being born into human flesh, taking on its frailties and weaknesses; not just dying as a human but being brutally executed as a human, then not staying dead! This upside down gospel also seemed to be the exact opposite of the reasonable universe the Stoics valued so highly.
One of Paul’s best traits is his mastery of rhetoric. The man knew how to use language – in his writing, in his speaking. He knew how to turn a phrase, and articulate ideas that still have scholars and commentators and preachers like me trying to fully grasp his thought process. This sermon is no different. Our passage starts off with Paul wandering through
distressed by the vast number of idols found in the city. But when he is
invited to the Aeropagus to speak, he does not chide or chastise the Athenians
for being pagans or heathens, etc. Instead, he uses that to draw them in.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
That’s a way to win friends and influence people. He goes on to say that he found a particular object that intrigued him.
“For 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. 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.”
My first thought when I read this was that the Athenians were covering all their bases. They did not just believe in their own gods, they believed that there might be other gods out there. And if there were, they wanted to make sure they recognized that god as well. It seems to me that Paul was telling them that they were on target when they recognized this other god. But what the Athenians think of as an unknown god is actually the God. This god is the God, the creator of the universe, the One from whom they are all offspring. This is the God, the One who made them, not the other way around. They did not make God. This God, the God, is not enshrined in objects. God does not live in anything made by human hands – even the most beautiful of things made by human hands. This God is the God, and this God is not unknown but known. This God, the God, is not far way on some other plane, in some other realm, but right here; close by, at hand, in their midst and up close.
This God, the God, is a known God, known through Jesus his Son. This God, the God, is the God they have been groping for, searching for, looking for, hoping for, even if they did not recognize that God was the object and the subject of their search.
This God, the God, is the known God, and God is known because Jesus, God’s Son, was resurrected from the dead.
As so often happened (and happens), the resurrection was the wall that some people ran headlong into. Remember, in that crowd were Stoics and Epicureans, people who believed that dead was dead, and the universe was a rational cart leading us along on a reason-lined trajectory. Resurrection was too much, too irrational, too unreasonable, too upside down, too illogical, too much for some to take. So at those words, some scoffed. But not everyone; some wanted to talk with Paul again, and some believed and joined him.
It seems to me that this is the eternal struggle of our faith. To really tell the gospel, to really preach the good news, we have to share a story that sounds … just weird. God becomes flesh and dwells among us. God lives. God is executed. God rises again. At some point, reason and logic only go so far. Don’t get me wrong, part of what I love about being Presbyterian is being allowed, encouraged even, to think critically about faith. It isn’t that other denominations don’t do this, but I have not always been given permission to do so in other denominations. I love that I feel free to ask questions, to argue, to wrestle with angels. My arguing and questioning – with professors, with others, with God – has not diminished my faith, it has deepened it. But I also know that at some point, faith is an experience. I can tell you about my experience of the Holy Spirit. I can tell you about the moments when I felt as though God was pushing me or pulling me to see or feel or think in a new way. I can tell you about the times when it seemed as though God was right next to me, holding me hand, telling me it was going to be okay. I can tell you, but I cannot make you feel it. You have to feel that, you have to experience that for yourself. I cannot make you understand why our upside down, illogical faith makes complete and utter sense to both my head and my heart. You have to experience it for yourself. Paul told the Athenians that the unknown god they paid tribute to was the God he knew, the God of Jesus, the God of resurrection, the God of all Life and Love and Grace. Paul’s God was the God they were groping for, but they did not know it. But they could not know it, they could not know God the way he knew God until they experienced God for themselves. You have to know God in your heart and in your hands and in your feet and in your mind. Our God is a known God – here in our hearts and here in our minds. Our God is a known God, a lived God, an experienced God. And once you know it, you know it.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.