“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it…does not live in temples made by man.” Acts 17:23-34
This Sunday my pastor preached a sermon on Acts 17, which recounts Paul’s trip to Athens, Greece and his message to the Athenians in response to the numerous statues of the Greek gods that Paul sees on his visit. As I was listening to the sermon, I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversy over the removal of four Confederate statues from their places of honor in New Orleans.
As Paul walks through the ancient Greek city, he notices statues everywhere. He describes them as being made of “gold or silver or stone” and being “formed by the art and imagination of man.” The Athenians had even erected an altar with an inscription that read “To the unknown god,” so as not to anger any gods they may have omitted. Referencing their “objects of worship” in his teaching, Paul tells the Athenians, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” However, Paul explains that they are stuck in outdated traditions, superstitions, and beliefs of their polytheistic religion, Paul uses the altar to an unknown god as a teaching tool to pivot to a discussion of the God that he believes in, God as revealed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul tells the Athenians not to feel bad about their former ignorance or to dwell in the past, but to move forward. “The times of ignorance God overlooked,” he says, “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” The word repent means to turn away. By sharing with them the good news of Jesus, Paul is challenging the Athenians to turn away from their man-created idols and to turn toward the God of all creation.
Judging from the vitriolic response towards the removal of four post-Reconstruction-era Confederate monuments, I think some New Orleanians (and probably plenty of folks elsewhere, too), are overdue for a shift in thinking. Throughout most of our country’s history, rules and structures were created by white, land-owning men who created conditions favorable to them and their predecessors and that were often terribly violent or grossly negligent to all other groups. Our country’s future, however, will be determined by men AND women of ALL races, classes, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations. Looking toward our future, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu encouraged us in an inspiring speech last Friday to turn away from the symbols that divide us and to turn toward each other in community, inclusion and love.
As my pastor pointed out in her sermon, Paul’s challenge produces mixed results in the short-term. Some listeners mocked him. Some were more open, saying, “We will hear you again about this.” And some men and women believed him and joined him that very day. But I believe the arc of history bends toward truth and justice. Today, the good news Paul shared continues to be retold, while Greek Hellenic polytheism has been resigned to myth and literature.
Like the Athenians, we face a choice today, too. We can continue to cling to old paradigms, old traditions, and old statues, idolizing unknown gods. Or we can understand what Paul was trying to share. God isn't served through devotion to man-made statues. God is served when we serve our neighbors, and that means being loving, welcoming, and even sacrificing a few statues to move our community forward.
Thanks, as always, for reading.