God Loves Idolaters (Easter 6A)
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 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. 24 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, 25 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. 26 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, 27 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. 28 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.’
29 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. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.”
“God Loves Idolaters”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
In Acts 17, St. Paul delivers his famous speech to the philosophers in Athens. We could extol Paul’s rhetorical skill and depth of theological insight or we could laud Luke’s brilliant accounting of the event. But the important thing for us to remember here is that Paul does not act on his own. No, when the Apostle opens his mouth, the Holy Spirit of God speaks in and through him!
Mind you, the Holy Spirit does not only speak through famous saints and apostles. The same Spirit that lived in Paul lives in each of us and dwells with us here in St. Matthew’s Church. The Holy Spirit doesn’t force us to behave against our will, but the Spirit lived in and worked on Paul for his entire life. Paul was a believer in God’s Good News for the world. The Holy Spirit revealed God’s heart to Paul, and Paul’s will inched closer and closer to the will of God.
In his speech to the Athenians, Paul expresses God’s will in its clearest and purest form: God is love. God is love to all and for all. This is the simplest truth in Christianity, but it is also perhaps the most challenging truth.
Like us, St. Paul was born into a world he did not create. He inherited generations of culture, learning, and wisdom, but also bias, prejudice, and hate. To belong to a family, clan, or nation, is to be exclusive of others. And the 1st century children of Israel were as guilty of this as any other people group ever has been.
In the New Testament era, Israel was an oppressed and dispersed nation. They had been stripped of sovereignty through years of war and hardship. Jews were allowed to practice their religion and culture freely, so long as it never interfered openly with the continued expansion of imperial power. They held this second-class status as a small minority group within a large, sprawling, powerful empire centered in Rome. The Romans of course borrowed so much from the Greeks that historians tend to call their culture “Greco-Roman.”
So, in Athens, while Paul isn’t in the political heart of the empire, he is in its cultural center. You might think of Athens the way we think of New York or Los Angeles -- they aren’t federal or even state capitals, but those places influence the rest of us almost as much as the government does.
Greek religious and philosophical culture was pluralistic to the extreme. Polytheism was the name of the game, and they had no problem adding more gods to the pantheon. And again, this dominant Greco-Roman culture is fundamentally oppressive toward Israel, Paul’s people, both religiously and politically.
So when he arrives in Athens, we are not surprised that “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul was a trained Pharisee. He knew the Law better than most anyone in his day. And the Old Testament is clear about the moral, spiritual, and even physical dangers of idolatry. The Hebrew Prophets criticize the worship of idols more than any other sin.
Paul is taken aback by the open display of these hundreds of gods and shrines in Athens. But consider the many ways he could have responded. Paul could have “pulled a Jesus” and cleared all the tables in the temple area. He could have preached condemnation and judgment (“you’re all going to hell!”). He could have simply run away from the Athenian heathen.
But the Holy Spirit had other plans! The Spirit moved in Paul’s heart and led him to a different reaction. Rather than revulsion or rage, Paul demonstrates love and compassion. Rather than hellfire and brimstone, Paul preaches mercy and grace. Rather than driving Paul away from the Athenians, the Holy Spirit drives them all together. When Paul sees people he hates, with whom he would never associate for any earthly reason, the Holy Spirit reminds him, “I love them too!”
By the power of the Spirit, Paul says that the Creator God does not need idols made of stone, wood, or metal. But that Creator made all the peoples of the earth, and invited them to find and know that God, “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’” (Acts 17:27b-28). Here, St. Paul quotes Greek philosophers back to the Athenians as evidence for the God of Israel! The Spirit speaks the truth in any and every language.
But more importantly, Paul emphasizes to the Athenians that, despite their idol-making and idol-worshipping, the Creator God of Israel still loves them. We are all still God’s offspring. And Israel’s God has created an opportunity for “every family, language, people, and nation” to become “a kingdom of priests to serve our God” (Revelation 5:9-10; BCP, p. 94). This opportunity comes in the form of Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh, the Word of God crucified and risen.
In him, we have our assurance that God loves the whole world, even these crazy Athenians. Even in the mess of their idolatry, the Triune God of Israel never abandoned them. God continues to love and desire fellowship with even the worst sinners you can imagine. God loves idolaters. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is seal on the letter that assures us of this universal love for creation.
God’s love for idolaters is good news for us too, of course! Lord knows the church isn’t perfect. It’s not like we are the pure and holy ones and everyone outside our four walls is a lost idolater. No, even we Christians fall into the worship of false gods. But, crucially, even in our sin, God loves us. For “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” (Romans 5:10). To be loved while being sinners should humble us. It should lead us to the same truth that the Spirit revealed to Paul. God loves them too, even your enemies.
Because God loves the world so much, God sends Paul, the grumpy Pharisee that he was, to preach Good News to the wacky philosophers of Athens. The Spirit is at work to reconcile these enemies, to join together these people who we thought could never live in harmony.
This is in fact always God’s desire. The Spirit of God will always “press into disciples the divine wanted, longing, and claiming of creatures” (Jennings, Acts, 177). God plants in our hearts that love so deep, broad, and high. God will push us out of our comfort zones by asserting again and again, “I love them too.” God will make us one with Jesus by making us one with the very people we cannot stand.
The same Holy Spirit that pushed Paul to bring the Good News of Jesus to the idolaters of Athens is here with us now. The Spirit is still at work in the church to end our segregations and isolations. The Spirit is pushing even us, right here and right now in this church, to be marvelously joined together with the people we least expect.
I’m not sure who God is calling us to join with, but I do know this. With the Holy Spirit of God, it’s not going to be the same old, same old. If God is doing it in us, then we will be a new creation, together! Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts (Belief: A Theological Commentary of the Bible). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.