Thought for the week - 14 May 2023
In today’s first reading, Saint Paul preaches a sermon at the Aeropagus in Athens, a place which could be likened, with only a hint of an eyeroll, to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, where everyone likes to speak and few care to listen. Athenians, we hear from Luke in Acts; Luke in Acts 17:21: “Now, all the Athenians and the foreigners living among them spent their time in nothing other than (trying) either to say or to hear something novel.” Despite the Athenians’ insatiable appetite for “new things” (well known in antiquity: Demosthenes, Oration 4:10; Aristophanes, Eq. 1260-63), Paul demonstrates that the true identity of the “unknown God” is anything but new.
Paul does not burst forth into careful oration very often and this is his longest recorded sermon – and it would hardly pass for one now in terms of length at least, although in structure and content it is quite perfect. We read it as follows;
A: Introduction — Evidence of the ignorance of pagan worship (17:22-23)
B: The object of true worship is the one Creator God (17:24-25)
C: Proper relationship between humanity and God (17:26-28)
D´: The object of false worship are the idols of gold, silver, or stone (17:29)
E´: Conclusion — The time of ignorance is now over (17:30-31)
Paul ends his sermon by announcing that the time of ignorance is over and calling for eschatological repentance (17:30-31). Now Paul’s purpose is clear. He is not seeking to add a new god to the Athenian Pantheon; he is rather seeking the Athenians’ repentance! God will no longer “overlook” this ignorance (cf. 14:16; Romans 3:25); now is the time for repentance (17:30), now is the time for the God who revealed Himself on the Cross and at the Ascension to be preached and believed in.
This sermon by Paul is perfect in that it is the response to the frequent questions asked of Christ by His detractors – are you the Son of God? Who do you say you are? Are you the Messiah? He hardly ever answered these questions because He was not talking just to one person, and He was not and is not a God who forces belief on people, rather He chooses to reveal Himself in His work through others, as He reveals Himself through Paul, and as He chooses to reveal Himself through our works in our lifetime as well. People will know Him not because of what he says, but of how we allow Him to speak through our actions. We are told, later in Acts, that some come to believe in what Paul says. So it is that the Church grows, so it is that evangelism works. The time of ignorance is now over.
How are we to find that eloquence that Paul found? It is the Spirit of God, no longer seen as a thing outside us, but as he truly is, the person of God, not a thing at all, but the unchanging stillness of the divine Trinity dwelling in us and us in Him who will enable us to live as part of His body. We cannot perceive the Spirit properly, unless we are thereby drawn into the heart of the Trinity. This is how the Spirit conveys something of its peace to the church. As long as we stay back, and remain uncertain, the Spirit seems to be spinning and twisting, like Ezekiel’s bizarre vision of God:
Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (1:20)
It’s as if we were born on a merry-go-round, a carousel, and never having left this, we think that the rest of the world is spinning while we remain perfectly still. At the incarnation, Jesus jumped onto the carousel, and by his death and resurrection jumped back off, just to show us it could be done. Just to show us that we have to have faith in Him if we are to overcome the world. The wild spirit beckons us to follow him. If we make that leap, against all expectations, we will find ourselves on the still rock of solid ground, in a place of stillness, where we transcend the things of this earth and preach the word of God from a solid rock, from these cliffs.