“Remain in the Truth”
Text: Acts 17:16-31
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder;’…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.”
Again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
And also, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus spent much of His time in His Sermon on the Mount turning the prevailing wisdom of the time on its head. Debunking the accepted philosophies of the time. Getting everyone to look at a situation from a different perspective. From His perspective. “You have heard that it was said” is a great way for us reflect on the past, but unless ‘what has been said’ is still true today, unless it is the truth that endures for all time, it’s ignorant to follow blindly. God still delivers the truth to us today, even in the midst of a world that would prefer not to hear about it. And the truth God provides today comes to us through His Word and the Spirit of Truth that John speaks about in our Gospel reading for today.
Jesus also said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” We heard that last week. Although we’re not exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount today, nor are we going to focus primarily on the Gospel of John, these passages inform our understanding of Paul’s interactions with those in Athens. Because Paul uses much the same method Jesus did to take the prevailing wisdom of the day and clarify it by putting it into a new framework. A framework that acknowledges the death and resurrection of Jesus which Paul was proclaiming. For in all their ‘wisdom’ the Athenians were ignorant of true knowledge. And ignorant of the Truth. Yet Paul proclaims to them that
THEY MUST NOT REMAIN IN THEIR IGNORANCE OF THE TRUTH, FOR THE DAY WILL COME WHEN ‘HE WILL JUDGE THE WORLD IN RIGHTEOUSNESS.’
And this is a message not just for those in Athens in the 1st Century, but for us as well.
Just as there was prevailing wisdom, and there were accepted philosophies in the 1st Century, we have them as well. ‘Do what makes you feel good.’ ‘Believe whatever you want to believe.’ Our culture would have us believe that all knowledge is equal and that there is no universal truth. Our culture tells us a lot of things that don’t line up with what we know to be true from Jesus’ own words. “Go ahead and hate your brother. Speak badly about him on facebook.” But Jesus says this is an offense of the 5th Commandment. We twist the Golden Rule to make it fit our purposes. But Jesus says, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Our accepted philosophy and prevailing wisdom puts up altars to the ‘unknown god’ all the time. Every time we raise anything to a level of worship reserved only for God Himself, we have trespassed against the 1st Commandment which says, “You shall have no other gods.” In any time and place where the Truth, Jesus Christ, the Way and the Truth and the Life, is not known to the people, our need for what He provides causes us to attempt to raise something up in His place.
As we see in our lesson from Acts, Paul, who was a very intelligent man himself, engages with some of the brightest people of his time in Athens. People, who the text points out, “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” There was no absolute truth, just new ideas all the time, each having equal merit. These philosophical debates would serve to pique the intellectual curiosity of those engaged in them, but would also be the basis for developing some of the prevailing wisdom of the day. And yet, even those who were immersed in these debates were intrigued by Paul and the new teaching he was presenting. For it was strange to their ears and they wished to know what these things meant. Because he was teaching of Jesus and the resurrection. A Truth that is above all other knowledge and wisdom. A Truth that casts out all uncertainty and overcomes ignorance.
You have also heard it said that ignorance is bliss, but I tell you that lack of knowledge, lack of understanding of the Way the Truth and the Life is certainly not bliss. In other words, ignorance does not lead to bliss, but to death. In some cases, this concept of ignorance being bliss may be a partial truth. Because the concept really boils down to this, “what I don’t know can’t hurt me.” If I’m unaware that someone is speaking ill of me, then I’m unaffected by that speech. If I have no knowledge that the tornado is about to hit my house, then I’ll save some anxious and fearful moments being concerned about the impending doom. But what Paul knew and could not ignore is that for the Athenians, in their worship of false gods, and in their quest for knowledge apart from Jesus, ignorance of the true God was certainly not bliss. That ignorance would only lead to one eventual result. An eternal continuation of the spiritual death in which they currently lived. For apart from the Truth, which was the message Paul was delivering that day, this would have been the fate for all of them.
And “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Aereopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’” And Paul goes on to reveal to them the identity of this god, unknown to them, who is in fact the true God. And he does so in a way in which they can understand. He uses the concepts of their pagan poets, who through their natural knowledge of God correctly asserted that “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Without having heard about the true God, they know that there is one, but can’t put a name to Him, so they put up an altar to Him, even though He remains ‘unknown’ to them. Yet without hearing the message that Paul has come to bring of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they remain dead in their trespasses, not fully knowing the saving Truth that is Christ Jesus.
How many of us know someone who is seeking? Who is longing? Who desires to know the true God, but hasn’t had someone speak the name and truth of Jesus to them? I’d suggest that we each know many people like this. People who know the prevailing wisdom of the day, and yet need to know the Truth. Who need to see Jesus. And sometimes that someone is us. We need to be reminded of the name and the marvelous acts of the One who we worship. And I’d also suggest that each of us is called to be, like Paul, one who helps to reveal this ‘unknown’ God to others. One who puts a name to that altar at which they already worship. Only God Himself, through the Spirit of Truth which John speaks about, and which we know to be the Holy Spirit, can draw someone to Himself. But He also uses His people, each of us, to be messengers of that Truth.
Now you have heard it said that Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended into hell and on the third day rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. We’ve spent the past 15 minutes hearing how Jesus turned these ‘now you have heard it said’ statements on their head. But this one needs no reframing. It needs no clarification. For this is what we believe and teach. It was what Paul preached to the Athenians and it is what we hear over and over, yet which sometimes gets lost and forgotten as we go about our everyday lives.
And so, I say to you, as Paul said to the Athenians, ignorance is no longer an excuse. Paul says it like this, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And to those who repent, He offers forgiveness and life. So, we must no longer live in ignorance, pretending that it’s bliss, but rather we know the Truth. The Truth who takes our sins upon Himself. Takes them to the cross for us. So that we would be forgiven. Let us never forget the name of God who guides and directs our lives in Him. His name is Jesus and He is the Way and the Truth and the Life.
When Paul shared this message some mocked him, others said, “We will hear you again about this.” And still others joined him and believed. We rejoice with and for those who believed, for theirs is eternal life. Not all who hear this message will believe, but for those who hear it and believe in Jesus and His saving work on the cross, that final day of judgement, which Paul speaks about, will be a glorious one of reunion with our Lord and Savior. With the ‘unknown god’ who is now known to us. And who has a name. And that name is Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.