Sermon for May 14, 2023, Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:16-31 (Sixth Sunday of Easter—Series A)

“The Culture Needs Christ”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

May 14, 2023

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text is the First Reading from Acts 17:

16While Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, it irked his spirit within him when he saw the city so full of idols. 17So he conversed in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks and in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be around. 18Now some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also debated with him, and some said, “What is this foolish babbler trying to say?” But others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange divinities,” because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection. 19So they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this teaching is, of which you speak? 20For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. So, we wish to know what these things mean. 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who live there found time for nothing else than telling or hearing the latest novelty. 22So, Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, began to speak, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in everything. 23For as I was passing through and looking at your objects of worship, I also found an altar on which was inscribed, ‘To the Unknown God.’ Therefore, what you worship as one unknown, this is the One I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, He being Lord of heaven and earth, does not reside in hand-made temples, 25nor is He served by human hands as if He needed anything. He is the Giver of all life and breath and all things. 26He made from one [man] every nation of people to live on the whole face of the earth, after He had determined the allotted seasons and the boundaries of their dwelling-place, 27to seek God, if indeed they might grope for Him and find Him. And yet, He is not far from each one of us. 28’For in him we live and move and have our being,’ as indeed some of your own poets have said, ‘for we are indeed his offspring.’ 29Therefore, being offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, the engraving of human art and thought. 30So, one the one hand, God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because He has set a day on which He is about to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom He appointed, having given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.”

          The apostle Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him in the great city of Athens. Let me try to paint a brief picture. In the time of Paul in the early first century A.D., Athens continued to represent the highest levels of culture in classical antiquity. The sculpture, literature, and oratory of Athens, the philosophy too, placed this city in the leading place. As Paul walked the streets, everywhere it seemed, he would have seen temples and images of pagan divinities. The city was full of idols, dedicated to the worship of gods that were no gods at all. In addition to the synagogue, Paul also spent time in the Agora, the marketplace, the very center of Athenian life and activity. There he talked with anyone who happened to be around. And as he did, he would have seen square pillars with sculptures of the head of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. Wherever Paul looked there was a forest of idols. Luke writes, not to our surprise, that all these idols and objects of worship “irked his spirit.” And yet Paul would not be deterred in his God-given mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection not only in the synagogue of the Jews but also in the marketplace of the pagan Greeks.

Today, the comparison is generally being made that our culture here in the 21st Century is similar to the culture of the first century A.D. Luke writes that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who live there found time for nothing else than telling or hearing the latest novelty.” If it’s new, it’s in! If it’s popular, everybody should think it, believe it, or do it. If not, you’re a bigot or a hypocrite or simply out of touch with reality. Maybe you’ve heard, or have even had, the conversation that begins, “Well, everyone else is doing it?” “If everyone was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” Just because something is culturally popular does not mean it is good for you. Jumping off any bridge, I assure you, is not good for you. Hurting or harming yourself in your body is not good for you. Your body is created by the only true God. As some of the Greek poets had written, “In Him we live and move and have our being, for we are His offspring.”

But the culture lacks the knowledge of the only true God, the Creator, who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, who doesn’t live in hand-made temples and is not served by people because He has a need. This God, the only God, is the “Giver of all life and breath and all things.” This was Paul’s initial message to the Athenians who had taken him to the Areopagus, or “hill of Ares” (the Greek god of war), to their official court to discuss matters, where Paul could expound his teaching before “experts.”

How, then, does our culture today reflect that of the first-century Athenian culture? How does our setting in which we are to live and move and have our being as Christians compare with that of Paul in Athens? Like the Stoic philosophers in Paul’s day, many people today lay the greatest emphasis on their own rational thinking, on individual self-sufficiency. Who needs God in their life when the person himself or herself has the best mind to handle things? Who needs God when someone is self-sufficient on their own? In fact, you can be your own god. Isn’t that what the devil said in his temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, “In the day that you eat of the fruit of the tree, you will be like God knowing good and evil”? (Gen 3:5). You already have it all in that great mind of yours. You know how to think and if something isn’t rational, don’t bother with it. None of this God nonsense is needed. What do you need a Savior from anyway? You’re fine just the way you are. And if your life can no longer be sustained with dignity, suicide is an honorable means of escape from life. That’s what the Stoics believed. And do not some in our culture support medically assisted suicides? Are there not people in our culture who say that if having a baby wouldn’t be good for you, simply get an abortion and let the child die? That proud Stoic spirit of personal independence irks the heart of the only true God. Can we, then, stand idly by and not speak God’s message of truth?

Paul also debated with Epicureans in his day. These followers of Epicurus said that pleasure is the chief goal in life. If it feels good, do it! If it makes you happy, get it! One’s pleasure in life is of utmost importance. As long as you are happy and pleased, no one and nothing else matters, even God. Besides, God doesn’t really care about people. He has no interest in your life. Doesn’t that sound like our culture today? “If there is a god, and we’re not sure that there is, he clearly doesn’t care. He’s not involved with you, why be involved with him? Do whatever you like so that you can have pleasure! Be who you are for your happiness and pleasure and don’t worry about anyone else or especially any of this religious blah blah blah.”

We live in a world and culture much like Athen’s in Paul’s day. It’s a culture full of idols, and the most popular idol is the self. “It’s all about me.” There’s another trinity on the block—me, myself, and I—that the devil, the world, and our own flesh uses to obscure the only true God and His Son, Jesus Christ, from our hearts and minds.

This is the malady for us today. This is the problem—idolatry, making of gods to suit peoples’ wants and desires and pleasures. And you and I are not immune from it. God forbid that we should sit here and think, “The Pastor is talking about those people,” whoever they are precisely. No. I’m talking about all people. I’m also talking about you and me. We, too, are tempted and fall into idolatry. We have placed ourselves first in our lives. We have put pleasure, greed, lust, and many other things before our fear, love, and trust in God. We have, at times, made for ourselves gods and lords, including our own selves, as we have bought into the thinking of the culture. This is our world, this is our culture, and we live in it, but we don’t have to be of it. Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 1 Pet. 1:14, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,” the ignorance of our sinful nature that does not know God or trust in God or live for God.

Paul was showing the people of Athens on the hill of Ares that there is a God, unknown to them, but known to Paul. He is the only God, the Creator. He’s not bound by hand-made temples and altars. He doesn’t need the service of humans like their deities because He is all-sufficient, all-powerful, all-knowing, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Giver of all life and breath and all things. He set up this very creation, the whole world, for the benefit and blessing of humanity so that they might find Him as their God, and Lord, and Savior. And Paul concludes that the period for this Almighty God to overlook the times of ignorance has ended. There is a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness. And the One who judges is the Man God Himself appointed for the task, the Man whom God raised from the dead.

And that Man is also God—Jesus, God-made-flesh, Crucified and Risen for the world, for the people of Athens, for the people of our culture, and indeed, for you. Now is the time of repentance, literally a change in heart and mind, for all people, including ourselves. Martin Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles of our Lutheran Confessions, “And God now ‘commands all people everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). ‘All people,’ He says. No one is an exception who is a human being. This repentance teaches us to discern sin: We are completely lost; there is nothing good in us from head to foot; and we must become absolutely new and different people.”[1]

You are a new and different person because God the Father and Son have given to you the promised Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth.” “You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). By the power of the Holy Spirit, God has brought you to repentance. He has given you, through the Gospel Word, a change of heart and mind in the gift of saving faith. The promise of God through His servant Ezekiel has come to fulfillment, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek. 36:26a ESV).

This gift is yours because God gave His only Son to be the world’s Savior from idolatry. Jesus, the very Son of God, gave up His life into death so that every Stoic, Epicurean, every idolater and unbeliever, might have the forgiveness of sins through the gift of saving faith in Him who is Faithful and True—Jesus (Rev 19:11). In Christ Jesus, your sins are forgiven. Your idolatry, selfishness, and greed are forgiven. The Spirit dwells in you, making you new people in Christ who live for Christ and who desire, like Paul, to share the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with the people of our culture to whom He is as yet unknown.

Paul saw that the people of Athens needed Jesus Christ. He saw their need for a Savior from their sins and their unbelief. He offered to the Athenians the One who alone is Savior and Judge, the God-Man, Jesus, whose Easter resurrection seals and guarantees forgiveness and eternal life won by His death on the cross. Paul preached Jesus and the Resurrection. He gave to the people the free gift of Jesus so that they might know Him who was previously unknown, so that they would come to know Him as God and Savior. Paul offered in the name of Jesus forgiveness and salvation. And through God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord created faith in the hearts of some of them.

People in our culture already have so many other gods—idols—things they place first and foremost in their lives, like pleasure and self-sufficiency. Now, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, you are like Paul. You are here in your “Athens” among a culture that needs Jesus Christ and the salvation He has already won for them on the cross. Salvation from sin and death is not found in any one other than Jesus. He alone is the Savior who died for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead guaranteeing forgiveness and eternal life for everyone. The things that people worship in this world as their gods will be of no value in the world to come. The one thing needful is a trusting faith in Jesus Christ. People need what you have already been given in Christ. The culture today needs the gift of faith in Jesus for salvation. We, the Church, the people of God in Christ Jesus, have the opportunity to show folks their need for repentance and forgiveness as we offer them their Savior through the Gospel.

Paul saw this need in Athens, and wherever he went. Do you see it? As Christians, we step out in faith, into our unbelieving, idolatrous culture. We step outside of our comfort zones as we renounce our fears and trust that the Lord will guide our speech and actions through His Holy Spirit, the Helper who is with us forever (John 14:16). As you speak the Good News of Jesus and His Resurrection, the Holy Spirit will teach you what you ought to say (Luke 12:12). He will lead and guide your words just as He did Paul’s in Athens. And as He did through Paul, the Lord, the only true God, will bless your proclamation about Jesus. Some people will mock you. Some won’t want to hear. Some will hate you and call you a bigot or worse. But think about those who will come to faith through the Gospel message. God’s Word never returns to Him empty, but always accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it (Is 55:11). By God’s grace, we pray that many people will be brought to repentance and faith as they come to know and to confess Jesus as Lord and God. Amen.

     [1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005), 276.

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