Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
Today’s reading from Acts is about Paul’s visit to Washington, DC.
Okay, it’s not about Paul’s visit to Washington, DC – but it could be. Let’s set the scene and step back to a few verses before our Scripture reading begins. Paul is in the Greek city of Athens because he is fleeing from Jews who want to imprison and kill him. This didn’t start out as a missionary trip; it was an escape arranged and financed by some of the believers in Berea.
After Paul arrives in Athens, verse 16 says that he was distressed to see that the city was full of idols, and so he began going out into the city and discussing things with some of the philosophers there. Some people weren’t sure of what Paul was trying to say, and other folks kind of got it but didn’t’ understand all of it, and so Paul was taken to the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was a cultural center in Athens. There were a lot of temples, there were debates, and there was a court that met there. Some scholars think that Paul was there as a kind of guest lecturer and others think that this was something of a trial for preaching about a foreign god. That’s not clear from the Biblical text.
Either way, when Paul got to the Areopagus the folks there invited him to speak. Starting at the end of verse 19, they said “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’” The Bible then adds, (“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”)
I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me a little like DC. In terms of religion, there are all kinds of churches and temples to all kinds of gods around town. The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington includes nearly a dozen different faiths – and by faiths I don’t mean denominations, I mean Muslim, Jain, Christian, Zoroastrian, large faith groupings. If we broke each of those down into various denominations and sects and sub-groups, there would be hundreds, let alone the number of buildings and gatherings and synagogues and temples and churches and whatever that you could find. I couldn’t begin to guess how many thousands of buildings like that are around town.
And then we get into other kinds of temples. There are plenty of secular temples and idols around DC. We call them statues, or memorials. We don’t think of them as objects of worship, and for most people they really aren’t, but think about it. When you see a Christian cross someplace, what is the person who put that cross there hoping you will do? Broadly speaking they’re probably hoping that you will take a moment and reflect on Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. They’re intending you to think about Jesus and his meaning in your life and how you should respond to him.
Isn’t that what people do at the Lincoln Memorial, except that there’s no resurrection there? Isn’t that at least one of the points of the Einstein Memorial, or the statue of Robert Taft, or the Vietnam memorial? I’m not saying those are churches, but people sometimes treat them as if they are and while there aren’t people that I know of who literally worship Robert Taft or Albert Einstein there are a lot of people who could see them as idols, as people to be followed and emulated. And that’s not even getting into the secular temples that are government buildings, buildings that are designed to inspire the same awe as a magnificent church or a temple in ancient Greece.
It’s not just the buildings, either. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” That sounds kind of like DC, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t say people here do nothing but talk about ideas, but it is a popular pastime and for lots of people it’s their job, this is one of the think tank capitals of the entire world and one of the media capitals of the world. That’s good work and valuable work. And that’s just policy and law type stuff, before we get into gossip and entertainment and everything else. Yes, I think that when Paul was in Athens, in many ways he might as well have been in Washington, DC.
The difference is that here in DC, God is not unknown. Jesus is not unknown. I mean, here we are, right? We’re Christians, we know about Jesus, we’re in DC. There’s another Christian church a half block that way, and another one a half block that way. Jesus is not unknown in DC. God is not unspoken of in this town. Many policymakers and many who lobby policymakers invoke God and their own moral code to support one policy or another, whether they are of the left or the right. Jesus is not unknown in DC.
Or is he? I have to admit that it sure feels like Jesus is unknown sometimes. There are times when I read the news and I think that none of our political leaders have ever heard of Jesus. That making Christ real in the world around us is impossible. That whatever I have done or anyone else has done to make Christ real has been in vain, that my efforts are hopeless, and that I should just give up.
David Lose, the president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, writes words of hope when we feel that way. “You have an advocate! Someone who is looking out for you. Someone who is on your side. Someone who encourages you and supports you. Someone who speaks up for you and is willing to hang in there with you through thick and thin.
“So, before going forward, take a moment and think about what it feels like to hear that – that someone has your back, that someone is invested in your future, that someone will not give up on you…no matter what.
“It feels good. More than that, it feels like a relief, especially when you feel like your back is up against the wall. Even more than that, it feels empowering, like when someone is with you and for you, you can take risks, you can try things you didn’t think you’d try, not because you won’t ever fail, but because failure won’t destroy you when you’ve got this kind of support. You can try, and try again, and try yet again because you have an advocate.” (www.davidlose.net)
That’s true. I know that’s true. In our reading from John, Jesus is about to go to Gethsemane. He is trying to prepare the disciples for what is to come. Hear again what he says to them: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
I know that is true. I know that Jesus left us the gift of the Holy Spirit. I don’t always live like it, though. I don’t always live like I believe God is with me. I don’t always live like I think the Advocate has my back. I don’t always live with that kind of courage, that kind of strength, that kind of faith.
People in DC today have it all over people in Athens a couple of thousand years ago because we know about Jesus. Many of us even know about the Spirit. Yet despite that Jesus and the Spirit can remain unknown and unseen.
They remain unknown and unseen when we don’t have the courage to live out of our faith. They remain unknown and unseen when we don’t claim the power of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, when we don’t put our faith above our comfort, above our convenience, above our kin, above any other consideration we may have. They remain unknown and unseen, even though we may know them and may have seen them at one time or another.
The only way that Washington DC will truly see and know Jesus and his Spirit is through the way we live out of our faith. That’s how it was for Paul. Athens knew nothing of Christ before Paul’s arrival. Even though Paul had just gotten chased out of Berea, and he was in Berea because he had been chased out of Thessalonica. Nevertheless, when Paul found himself in Athens he went to the marketplace and preached and he went to the Areopagus and preached and he made Jesus known. He made Jesus real through his words and his actions and because of that, people believed.
How do we make Jesus real? How is Jesus seen through our words and through our actions? That’s our call not just as Christians but as members of this congregation. We are a congregation who seeks justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. We are a congregation, we are a people who seek justice, wholeness, and community by living out the good news of Jesus, by making Jesus real.
We cannot do that alone. We need the Spirit, the Advocate, to help us be advocates. And just as the Spirit advocates for us before God, we can advocate for others in a variety of settings and we can advocate for Jesus and his values wherever we are.
I’ve heard folks say that they can tell everything they need to know about a person by looking at their library. If you look at mine you’ll see a lot of books on baseball, and a lot of mystery books, and some short story collections. You’ll see a few history books, a dozen or so theological or devotional books, a half dozen Bibles in different translations, and some humor books. What you won’t see is Jesus.
You don’t see Jesus by looking at books. You can learn about Jesus in books, you can pick up some of Jesus’ history in books, you can gain information about Peter and Paul and Israel and Moses and all of that from books, but to truly see Jesus you have to look at people. You have to look at people who claim Jesus is their Lord and see how it is they live their lives.
When people look at us, what do they learn about Jesus and the Spirit? Do we make Jesus real with our lives, or does Jesus remain unseen and unknown here in the metro DC area? Amen.