Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – Church and Cultures

Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – October 25, 2020

We’ve got just a couple more weeks in our sermon series: Borders, Bridges, and Bodies. This week’s story is from Acts 17. It’s been a rough couple weeks for Paul and his friends, getting mobbed and kicked out of places, you know the usual. At this point Paul stranded…alone…in Athens. His buddies are stranded somewhere else and they’re hoping they can meet up at some point. But remember no cell service or anything so you never know. Paul is all on his own.

While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 

Paul starts getting to know the people of Athens. He’s very disturbed by their religion. He might be looking around thinking, “how could there possibly be room for Jesus here, when they’re obsessed with so many other gods?” But everywhere he has gone, God was already at work there getting people ready to receive the good news about Jesus. Just because it’s full of idols doesn’t make this place any different. So he starts getting to know people. And he finds out that Athens isn’t just a place with a lot of idols. Athens is also a place where people love talking together about what they believe! It’s the perfect place for a guy like Paul!

Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

Now it sounds to me like our narrator is unnecessarily critical of the the Athenian way of life. But God still cares about people who spend their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to new ideas, so that’s good news for Athens and for anyone who is in a graduate program right now.

Now it’s time for Paul’s big pitch.  if there’s one thing he has learned in the past 10 chapters, it’s that Jesus is good news for people everywhere he goes, but the way to tell that story is different everywhere he goes. Watch how he invites the Athenians into a relationship with God: without a miracle, without a bible verse, and without a critical word for their way of life.

Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’

I’ve never been prouder of Paul than in this moment. For a man who can be so long winded in his preaching that somebody once died and got brought back to life before he’s gotten to the end, to be this concise. For someone so rooted in the scriptures to find a completely different way to tell his most precious story. For a person who feels loathing and disgust at these rituals and religions to look at them closely enough that he can find a piece of it he relates to.

This is the epitome of the “cultural-barrier-free” Christian community that Paul has given his life to. He doesn’t start with “well the first thing you need to know is that God chose a man named Abraham to be his chosen family.” Paul steps out of his own cultural narrative and starts with theirs instead: the people of Athens care so much about worshiping every possible god that they even have a backup altar for whatever god they might have left out. Paul doesn’t criticize their idolatry–he capitalizes on it! He says “YOU BET there’s a god you’re missing out on, and this is a really good one!” Paul leaves his Torah at home and instead he quotes a few of their well known poets whose sentiments echo a Biblical longing for God. Instead of debating religious differences, Paul is all about getting on the same side of the figurative table for this. He says, “you know what you and me and everybody have in common: we’re alive. We breathe. We exist. And a part of us is always reaching out for something bigger than ourselves. All of that is because of God.”

The truth is, God doesn’t need our defending. God doesn’t need other religions or cultures to get crushed as a show of our loyalty. Paul does the opposite—he looks for any sliver of their culture and even their mega collection of idols that could be a window into God’s love and desire for them. I love how one commentator Willie James Jennings puts this: “God wants the Gentiles. God desires those who desire idols….This speech is driven by the irrepressible longing of God to embrace wayward creatures by every means pos-sible.” There’s a lot of ways to find God in your life, and one of them is your desires. Our deep longings direct us toward what God has always wanted for us. That’s at the heart of our verse we’ve been working on: “God made the nations so they would seek him, so they would reach out to him and find him.”

Now let’s talk about the Bible for a minute. When I was a teenager once, some youth pastor taught us this plan for leading our friends to Christ. We all marked these specific verses in our Bibles, with little notes telling you which one to look up next. The idea was that this way, when the time came, we could read them all in order to our friend or family member, which would, with a little commentary, add up to a message of salvation. I truly believe that God honors and rewards that faithfulness, of being as prepared as possible to share the gospel. But nobody every coached me through finding God in blockbuster movies. I never learned the Romans Road of Pop Songs. And that’s exactly what this moment was for Paul. Paul shows them that behind their most heartfelt longings, right in the middle of the things they were already doing and already looking for, God’s irresistible love has been calling them, all this time. The Bible is a super important, wise, transformative book. But it is not the only way to learn about Jesus and not the only way to tell someone about Jesus. And in case that makes you feel like you’re letting down the Bible, you can remember that in the Bible, Paul chose NOT to use the Bible when he invited the Athenians to join God’s family.

So it’s not going against the Bible to use other stories. Also, to clarify, this doesn’t mean evaluating books and movies and songs like “is Elsa the Jesus of this story, or is it Anna.” We gotta think a little bigger. The stories that captivate us are a window into those deeper desires that God put in our hearts to lead us toward Jesus. As people of God we collect those stories everywhere we go and we use them to show others God’s heart for them. So you don’t have to find an episode of Friends where one person lays down their life for the others…Friends is about how all of us want to know we belong in a group of people who have our backs no matter what crazy stuff happens in life and who will forgive us even if we go off our rockers now and then, among other things. So if you’re trying to explain your relationship with Jesus to someone, a Friends reference may go farther than a Bible verse would. If Acts 17 happened today, and the Athenians dragged Paul into the Diag to ask him what he really means, he might start singing so no one told you life was gonna be this way.

I want to tell you a story about our church. Once upon a time our church moved from being a church in Milan to a church in Ann Arbor. Milan and Ann Arbor are culturally different. So one question our church asked themselves at that time was “what cultural barriers are keeping the Ann Arbor folks from meeting Jesus?” One barrier they found was this fight that has broken out for the past few decades between faith and science. They decided, we’re not going to be a church that makes people choose between the two. We’re not going to tell a scientist that they can’t do science and believe the Bible. We’re not going to tell a literary scholar that genre criticism and literary theory don’t apply to the Bible. We’re not going to tell a historian that they have to believe in Jesus without asking any questions about the historical Jesus. So they did some work. They learned about these things. They studied creation and evolution and how the Bible was written and research on the Historical Jesus. This was fun for some people. This was really challenging for some people. But I think a lot of us who are here today, we’re here because of the work they did. We love that this is a church where are whole hearts and our whole minds can seek God together, and we’ve never had to think twice about it. I just want you to know that getting here meant doing a lot of work. And we too are at some point going to be asked to do that work in order to remove cultural barriers for someone else. That’s what it means to be the Church!

Okay I’m going to let Paul finish his sermon now.

29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.

Resurrection is the climax of Paul’s message, and for some, this is too much to swallow.

Our God is a God with a body. Our God promises to restore the whole world into joyful, flourishing relationships—that’s what we call Justice. It’s one thing to exchange ideas, it’s another thing to challenge the basics of the world we live in: that the passage between life and death can only be made in one direction. Resurrection separates Paul’s listeners into a crowd that turns to ridicule–that’s what we do when an idea isn’t even worth disagreeing with–and a crowd that gets curious and wants to hear more.

It’s the beginning of another multicultural community of Christ-followers. It starts with a council member named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. We know next to nothing about their story, who or what they worshiped before they heard about Jesus. They probably don’t stop being nerdy Athenians who spend all day talking and listening to the latest new ideas. But of course that’s no barrier for Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus makes a way for all of us to participate in ONE family table, with all of our ethnicity, gender, culture, and religious backgrounds. That is a miracle and that more than anything is our testimony to how good and present Jesus is with us.

I’m delighted that we’re working together to grow into a multicultural church here in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. Let’s not forget though whose work it is that brings God’s goodness, truth, and shalom to people who look and live very differently from each other–it’s the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit is always starts the work before us and goes deeper than we can go. So let’s keep our eyes peeled for how the people we pray for are already reaching out to God with their desires.  Let’s keep our eyes peeled for what God is doing in our own lives. Not just in our church time, but in all the times: laughing with your friends and fighting with your parents and cooking and stressing out before exams and and watching a movie and wondering if your relationship is going to make it and playing with your dog, going to the doctor….God is doing God’s big loving and welcoming and wooing you ALL the times. And God is doing all that for everyone else too.

Our God has an answer to our deepest longings, hurts, joys, hopes, or fears because that’s how God made us!

God made the nations so they would seek him, so they would reach out to him and find him. God isn’t far away from anyone, God is everywhere around us and inside us.