April 19, 2015
Luke 24:36b-48
1 John 3:1-7
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4

Ya Gotta Know The Territory

Sixth Sunday of Easter

from the book
Sermons For Lent And Easter


Printer Friendly Version
click here for printer-friendly version

I. Old Wisdom For A "New" Era

The overture to The Music Man1 plays happily one of the show's top tunes - Seventy-six Trombones. With the mastery of the composer's hand the happy tune is soon transformed into train-slowing-down2 music. As the scene opens, the train's conductor sticks his head into an early 20th century railroad coach and announces the next stop - "River City!" Six salesmen are in an animated discussion about the changing times and their impact upon a salesman's livelihood. Most conclude that "It's not like it was." In a rhythm remarkably like a train's wheels rolling rapidly along the track, the conversation gains momentum in a blending of speech rhythm and text until the train is traveling along at full speed. They discuss the changing wares, the problems of credit, the impact of the automobile, and even the biscuits in "an air-tight sanitary package [that] made the cracker barrel obsolete."

With the exception of Charlie, there is a consensus: change has made selling different and more difficult. Each time the conclusion is affirmed, Charlie insists: "No it didn't, no it didn't, but ya gotta know the territory."

The train slows and comes to a stop with Charlie having the last word, this time about a "Professor Harold Hill:" "But he doesn't know the territory!"5 Before the train leaves the River City station, we are introduced to Professor Harold Hill.6 He will prove Charlie's thesis though with deceptive intent. He knows the territory. That is to say, he understands people very well, even the stubborn people of this little Iowa city. So begins the story and the musical that continues to delight audiences.

Not a SermonSuite subscriber? Get a 30-day FREE trial
See Our Lent Easter Resources

II. Knowing The Territory: Identifying With People

It appears inappropriate, even trivial, to speak in the same breath of Paul and of the likes of Professor Harold Hill. Professor Hill is a shrewd salesman, but he is a fraud, even in the happy plot of Music Man.

Both men knew and understood people. Both had the gift of perceptive insight. One was a salesman, the other an evangelist. Both understood that a good presentation must take the audience into careful account: Who is this audience? What are their traditions and understandings? What are their needs?

Paul, following his short stay in Athens, explained what it meant to know the territory, identifying with his hearers: "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law - though not being myself under the law - that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law - not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ - that I might win those outside the law. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)."

III. Paul In Athens

"All things to all people!" Already in Acts Luke has demonstrated the gospel's power to reach both Jew and gentile, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, slave and free ... male and female. Even so, can the gospel "hold its own in the sophisticated intellectual environment of a university town,"7 the town of Plato and Pericles?

The Athens that Paul visited was a proud city whose history began in the fourth millennium B.C.E. It was the cradle of democracy. Solon the Lawgiver is credited with establishing the foundation of democracy in the sixth century B.C.E.8 The city-state of Athens played a leading role in ousting the Persians in the fifth century and resisted the Macedonian invasion in the fourth. It was a center of wealth, commerce and academic, cultural and political influence, even as a city of the Roman Empire in Paul's day.

F. F. Bruce writes that "no city in the Hellenisitc world could match Athens for those qualities that Greece counted most glorious.... The sculpture, literature and oratory of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. have never been surpassed; in philosophy, too, she took the leading place, being the native city of Socrates and Plato and the adopted home of Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno."9

The Areopagus had a history reaching back into legendary times. Though its roles had changed in authority and in function over the years, it was the most venerable institution in Athens.10 Here "Athenians spent their days doing what intellectuals enjoy - relieving their boredom by searching for new ideas. Novelty attracts their attention more quickly than truth."11

It is not clear what Paul's role is here, whether he has been summoned or whether he is voluntarily claiming the opportunity for the gospel (v. 19). Though in Athens for only a brief time, we know Paul would allow no preaching opporunity to pass. It is a new arena and a new challenge. Paul relishes the opportunity!

IV. Paul: The Provoked Pragmatic

There is in the hallways of educational philosophy an old maxim about teaching: "A teacher is one who meets people where they are and leads them." That is just what Paul does.

Athens was both a cultural and a religious center. Wherever Paul walked he would have seen altars and shrines, statues on pedestals and in niches. As a faithful Jew, he would have been twice enraged. They were graven images to which was ascribed supernatural power (idols - i.e., images of false gods). "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children (Deuteronomy 5:6-9a)."

We can only imagine Paul's mounting rage, or would it have been pity, as he walked past shrine after shrine, statue after statue, altar after altar. The evangelist-missionary spirit must have burned at full flame within him. The RSV says "his spirit was provoked within him (Acts 17:17)." Indeed it was!

"Men of Athens," he begins, "I perceive that in every way you are very religious."

Thus begins what Gerhard Krodel calls the "classic speech of Paul's missionary career to the gentiles."12 Though throught of as a Pharisee, Paul has an extraordinary versatility in style that shows the considerable freedom and ease with which he moved in every society. He has been called an inspired pragmatist,13 and perhaps more pointedly the Christian Socrates.14

Paul's knowledge of the Greek world is surpising. He knew the territory very well. In Ephesus Paul taught in the school of Tyrannus. In this city of Socrates, Paul discusses moral questions in the marketplace. He walks into the councils of the intellectuals. He is a model of diplomacy. This flexible and creative preacher to the nations frames the gospel in their own language, traditions, literature and symbols.

This is no sermon - will travel preacher. We are not hearing Paul's standard synagogue sermon here. There are no quotations of the Hebrew prophets, no reports of the Palestinian carpenter's preaching, and no references to the political and ecclesiastical betrayal, nor to the guilt requiring specific repentance and acceptance of the Messiah. All such stories, concepts and traditions would have been unknown to these Athenians - at least in any detail. They would have aroused no old loyalties as they were intended to do in the communities of the faithful Hebrews. Only at the close does Paul introduce Jesus' death and God's raising him up, issuing the call to believe and telling of the coming judgment through the resurrected Christ.

Instead, Paul frames his prsentation in Hellenistic philosophy and hellenistic poetry. He addresses Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v. 18) quoting from Aratus of Silo and the Stoic Cleanthes (v. 28).15 He argues, as he does in Romans, that God can be seen and (in a broader sense) known through his power and deity revealed in creation itself, suggesting that truth can be accessed and acknowledged outside of the Hebrew scriptures without accepting the pantheistic content16 in which the Hellenistic writers had taught and written. Paul moves from his usual pattern of revealed theology (Moses and the prophets) to natural theology (creational theology). He centers his witness and preaching around the theology of the First Article of the Apostles Creed.

Paul found in the altar to the Agnosto Theo (unknown god) a point of contact which enabled him to speak to his Athenian hearers about something with which they were already familiar and comfortable. He could then lead them to hear the good news about the true living God. Paul calls the Athenians from their superstitious idol worship to faith in the biblical god. He does as he has done often: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9:22)." On this occasion, this dedicated and well-educated preacher has become a Christian Socrates. He has paid his listeners the honor of learning about them before preaching to them. Such a posture suggests an empathy and understanding that helps people trust the preacher and risk listening to his message. Luke has reported to us the work of a skilled and dedicated missionary.

However, it just may be that Paul was too clever in this sermon introduction and in the proclamation of the gospel message. Some ask whether he ever really gets out of the language of the philosophers and into the solid proclamation of the gospel. In more contemporary terms, can we preach in the "language of the world" and, perhaps, worship in the idiom of the modern and the contemporary, and ever hope to make the transition to things spiritual, to visions heavenly? In language even more blunt, did it work?

Some scholars aruge strongly that Paul was too flexible, that this sermon Luke has recorded and reported is foreign to New Testament theology ... and even to the theology of the Pauline letters. He has compromised too much. Still others contend that the sermon was not successful17 and that by the time Paul had reached Corinth, he had firmly determined it to be so.

This is not so. We are reading entirely too much into Paul's powerful affirmation in 1 Corinthians 2:2: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." His rejection of the wise in the verses that precede this reference can be made to sound like a reaction to the non-committed response of the Athenians. However, the Corinthian letters are written to an audience entirely different from the philosophers of Mars Hill. "For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26)." In preaching as in many other things, "Ya gotta now the territory."

But, did it work? We need to pause just a moment with this question. It is the natural and pragmatic question to ask. All the more we need to be reminded that we are not required to be successful in our discipleship. The Spirit has a hand in this endeavor as well. We are asked only to be faithful. The lesson itself gives a hint at the specific answer. Some mocked, some believed and some (whether out of courtesy or of curiousity) said: "We'll hear you again about this (Acts 17:32-34)." These are the usual responses to the best of preaching in the best of preaching environments! Clearly, there were conversions.

A more responsible question and one that is far more difficult, is this: "Was Paul faithful to the gospel?" What was the message then, after the sermon illustration about the altar was finished? What is the message today? Did it preach to them? Does it preach to us?

V. Timely In Any Language

The pointed of contact for Paul and the gospel remain exciting and relevant in any language and in any age. These points for Paul began with the altar to the unknown god and continued through Paul's use of style, literature, and the clear needs of his hearers to reveal the God of creation, the God of mercy, the God of righteous responsibility and the God of judgment. Of the many ways in which the gospel is heard in Acts 17:22-31, here are three.

1. On Altars and Idols - By erecting an altar to an unknown god, the cult of pantheism acknowledged its incompleteness and its futile attempt to come to any functional terms with the full diety of God. With the possibility of a god or gods who are unnamed and unknown, all that the Athenians had was a generic religion, one that lacked identity and substance. In having every god, they possessed and were possessed by none in particular. By having everything, they had nothing. So it is with all pantheism. Since god is in everything and is everywhere, god is nothing and nowhere in particular. Idols become the natural outgrowth of the need to make concrete and specific that which cannot be identified, that generic being to which no one can relate individually.

Further, the presence of altars to unknown gods, so popular throughout the region, reveals a "hunch, a vague notion that the reality of God, his diety, is to be found beyond all pagan cults, temples and religious efforts."18 Paul moves swiftly to affirm the hunch and to announce who this god is.

In preaching against idols, Paul would appear to converge with the philosophical criticisms raised by Stoicism and with the monotheistic polemics of Hellenistic Judaism. However, he rejects the philosophical argumentation of first principles and moves to proclaim the God of Creation who creates us, sustains us, and judges us.

Make no mistake about it, Paul is not compromising the gospel by suggesting that the unknown god is one among many. This is the God of all creation, the giver and sustainer of life, and the lord of history who holds us accountable through the Christ whom God has raised up as a demonstration of that power and the vehicle of that accountability (Judgment). Without this faith and knowledge, with or without the "generosity" and caution of the altar to the regrettably overlooked diety, these people are superstitious idolaters no matter how "curious" or "religious" they may be. After all, "religion" is "any" system that has to do with the supernatural. The word is generic and non-specific. It is not enough, says Paul, to be religious. One must live in a faithful relationship with the living God.

All idols become a contradiction to faith in the creator. Human beings are God's creatures. The creature does not and cannot create - in any fashion whatsoever - the creator. The creature cannot build houses or images that define or confine the fullness of the creator. Stephen, quoting the prophet Isaiah, makes Paul's point forcefully: "Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, 'Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest' (Acts 7:48-49)?" Moreover, Paul claims to find affirmation in this apparent recognition of the creator in the Hellenistic poets. For his bearers, he had made the transition from superstition to biblical witness.

Paul's message is especially relevant in our day, for the matter of idols is not alone a concern for the ancient Greeks. John Calvin once wrote: "The human mind is a perpetual factory of idols."19 So it is.

Anyone or anything to whom or to which we ascribe absolute devotion, setting the purpose of our days and the destinies of our lives, is an idol. Money, success, status, sex, possessions and even careers can become idols if they define our values and our loyalties.

During the days of Hitler and the Third Reich, Karl Barth and the Confessing Church wrote the Barmen Declaration, confessing the single Lordship of Jesus Christ, forthrightly stating that there can be no other Fuhrer in the ultimate sense. "So Barth and Bonhoeffer and Tillich and Niemoller and Piper and many others opposed Hitler because Jesus is Lord, the one and only Lord. All others are usurpers, if they demand our complete allegiance and obedience."20

William H. Willimon has written: "Idolatry is not necessarily the pastime of the ignorant and the simple. Intellectuals play the game quite well. Natural inquisitiveness and delight in the novel and the strange, so prevalent in the academy, can be little more than the itch for some new graven image. The God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion, not an accommodating God to be content among many. The God who sent the Christ is still the Holy One of Israel, a jealous deity without rivals, an exclusive lover ... who fiercely judges all idols made by hands or minds of men."21

2. Through the Resurrection of Christ - Paul has already established God's ongoing nearness to us. Nonetheless, the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has a profound meaning for both the present and the future. God's involvement in the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that God, the creator of all things, is also the God of all human history and the ongoing source and hope of love here and hereafter.

Here Paul departs from any hope of further convergence with what his hearers may already have believed, at least in part. Had Paul spoken of the "immortality of the soul," he would have had significant company among some of the philosophers - excepting of course, the Epicureans. Resurrection, however, was a new idea. To most it was simply absurd. Some believed. Some mocked. Some said "we need to hear more." Paul would write to the Christians at Corinth that the preaching of the cross (and resurrection) was a "stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23)." Nonetheless, the resurrection is central to the good news about God that the gospel has for us. It is the ongoing revelation of "creation theology" that brings the creator of yesterday into the existential moments of our lives here and new - and tomorrow.

We must pause for a moment here to emphasize the inadequacy of the proclamation when left only with the Creed's first article on creation. I recall being a participant in a week-long campout in an intense training program for camp directors. We were told to find a lonely spot, overlooking the valley, and write down our thoughts about God. For this writer, it was a disaster. Having just cleared out a nest of copperheads in this campsite, I was not altogether comfortable sitting alone in the brush! What if ...? Moreover, this was the time when two astronauts were stranded in space with a faulty computer. The balances of creation seemed to make the hand of God - one day and long ago - very clearly evident. However, for the copperheads who made the mistake of moving, for this writer if he made the mistake of sitting in the wrong place, and for the astronauts if they pushed the button a tenth of a second too soon or too late, God seemed very far away. There appeared to be no redemption for mistakes. Creation shows the hand of God, but not the redemptive presence of God.

The resurrection gives us evidence of the mind of God - creation theology alone does not. Coupled with Paul's understanding of the resurrection is the purposefulness of it. The God of creation and of history has looked on the former days without the revelation of Christ with grace. Now, however, he holds all creation accountable. Judgment, necessitated by this accountablity is to be carried out through the resurrected one, Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). The resurrection is God's demonstration of his ongoing creative power and of his just intent. This intent of accountability through the resurrected one demonstrates that the knowledge of God is not simply a matter of right information. It requires a right relationship as well. Our knowledge of God needs to be lived in faith, obedience and hope.

3. In Repentance - God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The days of groping about in darkness and ignorance are past. As long as people had to search in the shadows, they could not know God and God excused their dullness and mistakes. Now, however, the truth about God is ablaze in the light of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the day of decision has come. The god who created all things and governs history calls to all people everywhere to return to him. The call is to turn away from idols made with human hands or human imaginations and to live under his lordship. The call is to turn to him who raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as judge over all forms of idolatry.

The indicatives of God are always followed by the imperatives of God. Once God reveals himself and his expectations, we have no choice but to respond. No response is a response ... rejection. It is not enough to be curious. It is not enough to be knowledgeable. It is not enough to be "religious." It is only enough to respond in faith and obedience, setting aside all idols, no matter how much they might excite us.

VI. Of Style And Of Substance

Paul's reference to the altar of the unknown god and his use of Greek poetry and style are solid tools in preaching. He shows good stle, we might say. Putting our message into the language of the people of our times is the mark of skilled preaching and prophetic vision. It is also a mark of one who knows the territory.

Clearly Paul made it his duty to know the territory. However, this is not alone a matter of style. Gifted is the pastor and preacher who can look at everyday routines and see the prophetic issues to be addressed.

Knowing our people is more than a matter of style or inspired salesmanship. It is also substance; that is, a substantive dimension of the doctrine of the incarnation. Paul was not the first to "become all things to all people in order to save some." How else are we to hear Philippians 2:6-9? "Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him...."

God did not just "know the territory." He lived in it!


End Notes

1. Meredith Wilson, The Music Man, (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958).
2. Ibid., p. 15.
3. Ibid., p. 19.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 23.
6. Ibid., p. 25.
7. Ibid., p. 143.
8. J. Finegan, "Athens," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, George Arthur Buttrick, Dictionary Editor, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1984), p. 307.
9. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 237.
10. David J. Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, Vol. 5, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990), p. 303.
11. William H. Willimon, Acts, (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1988), p. 142.
12. Gerhard Krodel, Acts, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 327.
13. C. Bruce Vawter and William J. Carl, III, Easter, Proclamation 2, Series A, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Gerhard Krodel and Charles P. Price, Editors, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1981), p. 48.
14. Willimon, op. cit., p. 142.
15. Krodel, op. cit., p. 338.
16. Ibid.
17. Gunther Bornkamn, Paul: Paulus, Translated by D.M.G. Stalker, (New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971), p. 66. Gerhard Krodel discusses this same concern, dismissing it, in the work elsewhere referenced.
18. Krodel, op. cit., p. 331.
19. Willimon, op. cit., p. 144.
20. Carl E. Braaten, Stewards of the Mysteries, (Minneapolis, Augsburg 21. Ibid., pp. 144-145.