ACTS 17:22-31

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.”

It’s questionable whether a lot of religious “objects” – presumably temples, altars, and idols – directly translates into a population being “extremely religious.” We know from our own day that the paraphernalia and even the practices of religious life do not necessarily correlate to a vibrant spirituality. A religion can be dead inside, underneath all the elaborate display and outward activity.

The gods of Greek culture were associated with the wide range of concerns in daily life. There was a god of commerce and a goddess of marriage, a god of wine and a goddess of the hunt, a god of war and a goddess of love, a god of healing and a goddess of the harvest; on and on across many domains of nature and society. Each god or goddess was represented by an emblem or idol, and since most Greek deities were anthropomorphic (human-like) in character, their associated idols were commonly statues – “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” –  set up in temples or sacred locations.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been a nomadic federation of tribes in their early history. Carting around an idol would have been a logistical challenge – although Yahweh’s war-box (the ark of the covenant) did serve as, or at least slip into the function of, an idol during that time. Eventually graven images and artistic likenesses of Yahweh were prohibited and violently rejected as idolatry, which refers to worshiping an idol.

A danger for the Jews, and for the Christians after them, was more a conceptual than physical idolatry – becoming so enamored of and devoted to a particular mental representation of God (in idea and doctrine), that it effectively closes down access to the divine presence. This is the mystery “in which we live and move and have our being,” which is really a definition that defies definition when you think about it.

How can you picture this mystery? How do you symbolize being itself? It would seem that the mere attempt would amount to constructing an idol.

                                                                                           

Jewish religion was really the first example of what is called ethical monotheism, a belief in one god whose primary relationship to humans is as the absolute moral authority. Yahweh demanded purity, obedience, retribution and repentance; and at some fateful time in the future, he will judge all people according to their righteousness or sin, rewarding or condemning them as they deserve.

As Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism, this was its basic worldview and expectation as well. As the religion got going, Jesus was simply inserted into the existing program as the long-anticipated savior and final judge. His death on the cross had paid the penalty for sin, but only for those who believe. For everyone else – all those nonbelievers – things would continue as before, with them punished according to the principle “You get what you deserve.”

Had Christianity stayed true to the life and gospel of Jesus himself, this entire system would have been thrown off by the radical force of his insistence that we don’t get what we deserve – none of us do. Instead we get grace, love and forgiveness out of the generous initiative of God. Nothing has to be earned, paid, or believed; and no membership is necessary – if it’s even possible to talk of insiders and outsiders any longer.

In fact, it could even be said that our belief in God is the last idol to set aside.

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