Sermon for Easter 6 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It will be no surprise to you that I’ve never been of the opinion that all religions were just paths up the same mountain, because I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is not only the fullest expression we’ve ever seen of godliness, but that he was and is none other than God (full stop). But Paul’s sermon to the Athenians strikes me as providing an important caveat to this view.

“Men of Athens,” he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Of course, he could be speaking ironically, and no doubt “religious” meant something very different in Greek- and in English before the nineteenth century, for that matter. Specifically, the definition of “religion” had to do with one’s practice of piety rather than any particular set of doctrines and practices which constitute distinct faiths; this is, I believe, an important distinction.

But then Paul uses several Greek words which should give us pause. They’re all translated imprecisely in our English versions, a testament to the fact that the act of translation is always an act of interpretation. “[I] looked carefully the objects of your worship” the NRSV says, but in Greek it’s “I beheld your σεβεσματα” that is “devotions”. The NRSV says “what therefore you worship as unknown”, in Greek is “what ignorantly you ευσεβειτε” or “are being devout to”. While the NRSV gives a weak translation “served by human hands”, the Greek uses a word with stronger religious significance: “θεραπευται” meaning something like “attending to”.

Devotion and attendance. These are the actions of sincere worship. This is the language that would have been used for priests of God’s temple in Jerusalem, and they are still used (if, sadly, less often) to describe what we do in church. They are words implying a response of love and commitment and genuine conviction. I try, sometimes, to model a language of worship. It is not preciousness but precision; not meaningless grandiloquence (I hope) but appropriate care for that which is, I believe, sacred. So, we don’t just put on a church service, but we devote ourselves to prayer. We don’t just “serve Communion,” but we attend to the holy sacrifice.

Now the problem with the Athenians was that their love and commitment and conviction (their devotion and attendance) was misplaced. They were devoted to objects unworthy of devotion; they attended to pagan idols rather than to the ministrations offered to the God of Israel. They are not being let off the hook. Nonetheless, Paul’s language acknowledges what might be fairly called sincere religion. We can see in the Athenians this nascent desire to reach out to what is greater and truer than their pedestrian lives. In other words, they have an inherent disposition to religion, and it’s more a matter of directing that devotion and attendance to its rightful recipient. Paul even goes so far as to suggest that some have felt inklings of this truth before having heard the Christian Gospel: “Even some of your poets have said, ‘For we indeed are his offspring.’”

The new critics of religious studies with whom I became enamored as an undergraduate suggested that “religion” was not a category into which we could place the various paganisms outside Christendom, and this was the rather extreme position I held for some time in my more callow youth. What Paul suggests is quite the opposite. The seeds of faith, of true religion, may well be innate. It gets to what that good Anglican priest John Wesley called prevenient grace. We are disposed to worship the one true God and to worship Him rightly; we just need to be told about the Way.

This is good news for we who are called to labor in the fields of the Lord. The fields are more ready for harvest than we might have imagined, because God has given all His children a keen disposition to seek Him out even before they know his name. When we, like Saint Paul, share the hope that is in us, when we point to the statue of the unnamed god and say “I know his name, it is the blessed name of Jesus, which has been exalted over every name”, then we may well be surprised to find an audience open to that very possibility. We may well find an audience that has been eagerly waiting for that Good News without even having realized it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.