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Saturday, 28 April 2018

April 29, 2018

Paul in Athens - Easter 5

Paul’s Sermon at Athens – Easter 5

April 29, 2018

Act 17:16-31


From the April 11 issue of the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

DE PERE - Tibetan monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta are creating a sand mandala this week at St. Norbert College.

It's a sacred art form in which millions of grains of colored sand are painstakingly placed into a geometric figure representing the universe in Buddhism. The monks started on the mandala on Monday in the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice and Public Understanding. They'll finish on Friday with a closing ceremony at 1 p.m.

Traditionally, sand mandalas are destroyed shortly after they’re finished as a metaphor for the impermanence of life. Half of the sand is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water so the waters carry the healing and purifying powers out into the world. 

I do respect other religions and those who follow them.  I was very impressed by the work the Tibetan monks and the skill and patience shown by them.  But really, do we need people to do a week’s worth of work and then destroy it to teach us that things don’t last, that life is impermanent?  I learned that lesson a long time ago with an Etch-a-Sketch.


There is a need for toleration of peoples’ choices to follow different religions.  But the effects of religions on people can be very different and some can be less than healthy. 


Buddhism teaches something called the “8 Fold Path”.  It teaches discipline that helps people rise above “this” impermanent world. The goal is to work your way to a higher level consciousness and life.


Hinduism teaches the concept of “dharma”, which is also a way of living intended to be in synch with the gods of a higher order.  The way of dharma is followed so that in lives to come a person may rise to the level of the gods . . . and not be demoted to a chipmunk or squirrel.  


Islam is based on the teaching of the Quran.  The Quran is a book of “guidance” that leads to right living which leads to life in heaven after death.  In order to please God, the teachings of the Quran must be followed.


The Jewish religion is based on the good news of God’s choice of the Hebrews to be God’s people.  The sign of that promise is the gift of the Torah, the Ten Commandments and the other Biblical laws.  To acknowledge being God’s people the laws are followed. 


The great majority of religious teaching either lead people to follow rules in order to please God or teach them to practice emptying oneself from attachment to this world . . . or both.


Today’s Bible lesson finds Paul in Athens.  At one time Athens had been the cultural center of the world.  Some of the greatest minds of the western world had developed their philosophies in Athens.  The Romans had conquered Greece and Rome had become the major hub of power in the western world.  Athens was just a shadow of what it had been.  But it was still a place where the knowledge of the Greek world affected its people and others.


The Greeks had a pantheon of gods.  The gods had certain function and positions of power.  The Romans had, for the most part, adopted the pantheon renaming them in an attempt to “Romanize” them.  (I think of this was kind of a Marvel/D.C. comic rivalry.)  Zeus was the chief Greek god.  The Romans called their chief god Jupiter.  Ares was the Greek god of war.  For the Romans it was Mars.


When Paul came to Athens, he found shrines to the Greek gods with some acknowledgment to the Roman gods and other gods.  There were numerous places to worship these gods.  He also faced members of the two most popular schools of Greek philosophy.  The Stoics, like followers of many religions, believed that a fulfilled life came from discipline.  The Epicureans believed that life basically ended in emptiness, so the goal of life had become enjoying this life as much as possible while you still had it.


Paul knew that the religions and the philosophies led away instead of to the one true God.  While commending the people of Athens for their attempts to connect with higher powers, his goal was to connect them to God in the most meaningful way, the way of the Gospel.


He calls on them to repent.  Unfortunately the word repentance has developed the meaning of “say you’re sorry!”  What it really means is to turn around and go a different way.  Paul doesn’t motivate the people to make this turn with fear.  He induces them to turn and live a new way with the Good News of Jesus.


Paul proclaims that there is one God.  This God created everything and everyone.  Paul’s message was that all people are God’s children.  But instead of insisting on following a rule book to please God, Paul tells the story of love that is so great that God would send his Son into the world . . . and he would live, suffer, die and be raised to give us forgiveness and life beyond this life as a gift.  It’s a gift we don’t deserve and cannot earn! This was and is something radically different from other religions and philosophies.


In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledges the difficulty of his task.  He wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”


It’s two thousand years later and things have not changed.  The idea of the Son of God coming to earth, dying and rising still seems foolish and hard to believe to so many.  But to those who are given the gift of faith, it is life.  It is life not just right now, but life forever.  It’s a life in which we live in love and live to share God’s love.


We can learn things from other religions.  This life is fleeting and we need to make the best of our days.  Discipline can and does lead to a better quality of life.


But the way of Jesus tells us we cannot be loved and accepted by what we do or how we live. We are loved and accepted as God’s choice.  It’s confirmed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And it’s because we’re loved and accepted that we can love and accept others.  AMEN