Psalm 66:8-20; Acts 17:16-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Reason, [A]lways being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect… (v. 15b).
St. Peter speaks of the church’s faith. Holy Thursday’s Supper inculcated Jesus’ apostolic band to the church’s one foundation aligned on Jesus in faith and practice. The baptized built on this singular foundation are witnesses in an inquiring world.
God searches out men and women through his Shepherd, to be their Father. Jesus assures, “[H]e who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do… [I]f you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (Jn. 14:12, 14).
Today Jesus drives home the necessity of unity in him, and him with us, and by the power of the Spirit, obedient love to manifest the Father’s desire to be God of all; to this end the church proclaims Christ crucified and risen.
What this suggests is that our baptismal vocation is more than attending Sunday mass for assurance of personal well-being. We are called to be witnesses, of Jesus, “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (Jn. 14:6); of this witness Peter urges preparation; that his word become a lamp to our feet (Introit).
St. Paul, in Athens, was brought-up on a charge of religious heresy, a denier of Greek paganism’s “principle of universalism”; a serious charge from which only the Jews were exempt. Athenians perceived Paul’s witness to the Resurrection as teaching a new religion.
Previously in Thessalonica Paul reasoned in the Jewish synagogue, arguing from Scripture Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Some were converted; others were enraged, beyond all reason, driving Paul from the city.
Paul escaped to Berea, not far away; there, “noble men” received his preaching that Jesus is the content of Hebrew Torah. The Bereans examined their Scriptures, so that many believed Jesus, the Christ. Still, the enraged Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul to again, drive him away, down the Aegean Sea coast to Athens.
Paul preached in the synagogue of Athens, but also engaged the Gentile community in their agora, the market place of debate, dialogue, and discussion according to time honored logic and rhetorical conventions. Outside the synagogue, Paul discovered he must initially put aside assumptions of the synagogue and arguments premised on Scripture.
In the agora Paul witnessed to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and brought before the city rulers, the Areopagus, an Athenian body like Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin, to defend his “new” teaching under accusation of religious heresy.
Paul tells the Areopagus, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). In fact, these pagans, as regards the principle of universalism, were fanatics, a religious mentality akin to bumper-stickers that spell “coexist” substituting religious emblems for letters. The Athenian state religion demanded all gods and demigods be equally acknowledged without prejudice. Again, Paul was in trouble, this time from Gentiles.
Imbued with a spirit of universalism, Athenians dared not neglect any god, giving homage in their pantheon to an idol titled “the unknown god”. It was this “god” Paul made as the only true and exclusive God in Christ, crucified and resurrected Lord, who has worked salvation of all men who believe his word. Paul had turned the tables; the Areopagus admitting ignorance of God to whom Paul witnessed; reason dictated, to accept Paul’s God to whom they built an altar required abandon of all other “gods” whom they claimed to “know”.
It was one thing for Peter on Pentecost Day to witness in the old temple to Jesus resulting in the conversion of 3,000 Jews and proselytes familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures; it was quite another for Paul to preach to Gentiles having no knowledge or regard for of God’s word among the Jews.
Of course the “very religious” Greeks were not without their “holy writ”; the Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey, undergirded Hellenistic history, story, legend, identity, and religious assumptions from which sprang numerous philosophical schools, such as Epicureans and Stoics.
If Trojan War sea crossing history, legends, and aftermath provided Hellenist understanding of the ways of gods and men; then the 4th and 3rd century B.C. tragedian playwrights were the interpreters of that “writ”, notably Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides annually offering competing plays on the festival of Dionysius.
Ironically, Paul’s first Athenian convert, Dionysius the Aeropagite, stands marker to Paul’s preaching among religious Greeks. Paul would write;
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves… They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:14-17).
Natural law and sin are hallmarks of Greek tragedy, typically pitting a protagonist against a superior force, such as destiny, fate, random circumstance, or society represented by competing gods. Inherent conflicts within the pagan “story” ultimately play-out to disastrous conclusion.
Christian Scripture reveals man’s inhering problem as original sin. So also, Greek tragedy oft explained sin in terms of an hereditary curse, the sins of the fathers cyclically befalling the lives of men. Moreover, “inherited curses” magnify conflicts of duty, especially toward family and the polis as irresolvable.
Thus, in the play “Agamemnon” (Aeschylus) the sin of excessive violence is endemic within the house of Atreus, rivaling Cain’s murder of brother Abel. The curse of the father befell Agamemnon his son whom Zeus enlisted for war against Troy; but the goddess Artimus, prevented the launch of Zeus’ 1,000 ships, until Agamemnon sacrificed his beloved daughter (cp. & contrast, Gen. 22:1, 2).
Agamemnon must choose: spare his girl as faithful parent; or avenge the state’s honor for Paris’ seduction and kidnap of Helen, his brother’s wife. Ten years later Agamemnon returned home victorious over Troy to be assassinated by his wife for killing their daughter; choosing duty to army over love of family. To obey one god was to offend another; law and curse collided in cyclical tragedy to generations.
How did the Greek universalist mentality resolve sin’s curse? Mention of Epicureans and Stoics in today’s Reading implies religious extremes of the day, either, “eat, drink, be merry for tomorrow we die”, or seek inner harmonic peace within the cosmos, fatalistically accepting our cursed lot; either way, man is condemned to know and worship only loveless and capricious devils.
But God’s work in preaching Christ crucified for sin prepares “new” soil; once death’s dust now a dormitory to resurrection life. Christians prepare for “gentle and respectful” dialogue, aware of the circumstances of others, who without faith inevitably adopt the universalist posture.
Paul was summoned to the Areopagus in hostility; but with gentleness and respect he makes clear his reasons and preaching are nothing new; only the one religion long before Homer.
Paul preached the good news of one God who from before the foundation of the world resolved all sin between man and God. In Chirst crucified and risen, there are no conflicting loyalties; yes, law and gospel stand in tension; but God has exalted Jesus on the cross, placing him above all powers, authorities, “gods” and “demigods”. In Christ, God’s gospel love trumps all condemnation and curse. The only tragedy remaining, is unreasoned unbelief, to be resolved the Last Day.
Apostolic unity with Christ in word and Sacrament impels our witness of his love, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you… with gentleness and respect.” Amen.