Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
1 Peter 3:13-22
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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. From 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, so 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. For ‘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.’
“Since 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because 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.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.
He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.
I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people. After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God. And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion. They cannot protect us and do not care. They are not worthy of our lives.
But I love Paul’s response: when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.” For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues. He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.” How marvelous!
First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood. Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief. It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.
Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty. In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God. He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful. He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”
Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God. And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding. Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!
And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people: he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message. In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.
You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God. They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand. And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.
And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name… And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.
Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made. Paul wrote this. And he was onto something. Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place. God is God, no matter the time or place. And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do. They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.
Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel. There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story. While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time. And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes. In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty.
And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul. Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture. And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader. Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.
Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all! Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst. But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective.
Today in America, we live in post-Christendom. There was a time when Christianity here was the norm. That is no longer the case. Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted. And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion. After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.
And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth. We can be in the world while not being of the world. We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.
In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results. But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving. And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your God.”