In this week’s Narrative Lectionary reading, we continue our journey with Paul as he moves through what is now modern Greece. Silas and Timothy stayed behind in Beroea (Acts 17:14) and Paul continued to Athens. Here, he encountered his first, completely Gentile audience.
The Athens that Paul visited was a hotbed of philosophical inquiry. At that time philosophy was not separate from theology. The schools of thought including some which argued for a single god, but polytheism was the primary religious expression. One interesting aspect of ancient Greek religion was that it was based on the concept of reciprocity, an exchange of gifts. If a person wanted something, they gave a gift to the god(ess) with the expectation that the deity would reciprocate. If a person experienced an answer to prayer, they would give a gift to that deity. It is possible that the altar “to an unknown god” was the creation of a person who received an answer to prayer but didn’t know which god answered and would be expecting a gift. That, and the related idea of gifts given to appease an angry god, was the basis of their religious practices.
In this passage, we see that the Athenians (insofar as described by the writer of Acts) are seekers of knowledge: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21). This is presented here as a criticism, probably not because they were seeking novel ideas, but that they may have been flitting from one idea to the next, not holding on to anything long. Whether this is true or not is a matter for another time, but it is not disputed that these Greeks were seeking after ideas.
It is this curiosity that gave Paul the opportunity to go before the leaders of the city, not in chains as often was the case, but as an invited speaker. There, he took the words “unknown god,” originally meant “which of the many gods,” and he turned them as an opportunity to describe the one God whom he represents.
The God that Paul describes is not one of many, ruling over a small part of the world, but the Creator and Lord of everything, including our human lives. This God is not the distant deity of philosophy, but a God who is intimately involved in human history. This God cares what we do and how we treat others and has a specific code for human to live up to, based on which the Resurrected One will judge on the last day.
An interesting point to me is that, as seen from the Lutheran tradition, this speech is all Law and no Gospel. There is no good news here, unlike what he was proclaiming earlier, “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” This was a call to repentance.
God Seeking Us
However, we know that the call to repentance is not the whole story. That’s not the good part. The good news is that God is seeking us; it is God who loves us first. There is no required reciprocity. There is nothing we need to give God before God gives to us. God gives us love and grace without limit, even though we do not deserve them.
With the philosophical context needed to understand this story, it can be difficult to present to an intergenerational audience. One good way to present it is to simplify it and have volunteers act it out. But, the key here is to simplify the story. Kids to seniors are unlikely to be familiar with Epicurean or Stoic philosophy or any of the other cultural contexts. So, make it basic and end with questions about seeking. What are we seeking? How can we seek God together? How do we invite in outsiders who are seeking God?
As Paul is describing our God, he starts at the beginning: God as Creator. You can begin your faith formation time (worship, class, or other) by starting at creation, too. This week’s free resource, “Scrabble Creation Prayer” helps participants of all ages meditate on all that God has created. This activity comes from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship product for use in worship, but it also can be adapted for classroom or other settings.
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2018-2019 (NL Year 1) faith formation materials are now available for purchase! Fall lessons can be downloaded right away!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!
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