Easter 6 • 21 May 2017

Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Rev. Chris Udy

In our reading from Acts for today
Luke records one of Paul’s
open-air sermons.
Paul had travelled to Athens -
a city that was immensely proud
of its intellectual traditions
and its cultural heritage
(a bit like Melbourne or Adelaide, really -
… not so much Sydney or Brisbane) -
and as he toured the city
he noticed it was full
of little shrines and altars
and places of worship.
In each there was a statue -
of Athena, or Zeus, or Artemis, or Hermes,
virtually any god worshipped in Greece or Rome
or anywhere else.

These gods were a kind of insurance.
The idea was
that if sacrifices were made to all the gods,
none would send disaster
or calamity against the city -
and to make their insurance comprehensive
they even had an altar
to any god they might have missed -
and this one they dedicated
to the unknown god.

Paul had been in Athens for some time,
and as a good Jewish theologian
he was quite distressed at the number
of what he saw as idols.
So he went to the synagogue
and vented his distress.
He also went to the marketplace –
the Agora – the FaceBook of his day -
and argued with anyone he could find there -
and before long he’d attracted the attention
of some of the resident philosophers.
They took him up
to the foot of a rocky little hill
just above the marketplace
where the people of Athens gathered
for religious and political debates,
and they invited him to speak.
So - this was a bit like Paul’s address
to a Press Club luncheon -
and Paul took full advantage of his opportunity.

‘Athenians’ he said -
‘you’re obviously an extremely religious bunch -
I’ve toured your altars and shrines and temples,
and among them I saw one
dedicated to an unknown God.
Well, today is your lucky day,
because I happen to know your unknown God,
and he’s actually the only one there is.’
And Paul continued his sermon
to talk about the difference
between the gods in their little shrines -
the gods the Athenians had made,
and the God who’d made the Athenians,
the creator of heaven and earth -
the one in whom
‘we live and move and have our being.’

Not too long ago
the idea of many deities,
and the notion that people might worship
a little gallery of gods
would have been thought primitive and quaint.
Most people thought
that the days of idols and temples
and competing gods and goddesses
were over -
a theology that modern people had outgrown.
But over the last 50 years,
as people in the west have moved away
from the authority and traditions of the Church,
and explored other ways to find meaning
and express the movements of their spirits,
gods and goddesses have made an amazing recovery.

There are now
more than 32 thousand people in Australia
who call themselves pagans –
and meet together to worship natural powers
and celebrate natural seasons & rhythms.
50 million people around the world
bought a book called
‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ -
in which human behaviour is described
using stories and ideas that were associated
with those little statues in the shrines in Athens.

Religions that most people thought of as long gone
are booming -
Druids celebrate the rituals
once used at Stonehenge,
followers of Wicca saw their religion revived
in Harry Potter books & movies,
and there are some who believe
that the growing number and strength
of viral and bacterial infections
might be the attempts of the earth-goddess - Gaia -
to rid herself of a dangerous infection - humanity.

The people who set up this week’s headline scam
that stole $165million from the tax office
called their company ‘Plutus Payroll’
presumably after Plutus
who was the Greek god of wealth:
Paul would have seen his shrine in the Athens Agora.
Millions of people
religiously read their horoscopes every day;
they go to fortune tellers
before they make big decisions,
and they whisper to lady luck
as they scratch their Lotto cards.
Most people don’t take the gods seriously at all,
they see them as interesting, undemanding,
a little bit quirky and strange -
and they say ‘you never know,
there might be something in it’
as they throw a little money or time in their direction
for fun - for insurance - a little sacrifice to the gods.

In the verse before our reading
Luke describes the Athenians as
people who ‘would spend their time in nothing
but telling or hearing something new.’
They were educated, cultured, affluent,
interested men and women - just like us -
and just like us,
they found gods and goddesses convenient
and not too threatening,
because anytime their religion
started to get too serious -
or too demanding, or too boring,
or if the other worshippers were a bit difficult,
it was easy to change;
easy to find something new.
Many people feel most comfortable
with a god they’ve made for themselves -
a little image of security and meaning
they can create and control.
That’s why people also make gods
of their money, or their technology,
or their work, or their politics, or their family -
but that can be extremely dangerous religion,
because the gods we create
we can also destroy,
and when we break them
we also lose our sources of meaning and hope.

In Athens Paul continued
to talk about the one true God -
the God who made humanity,
the one in whom we live
and move and have our being.
That God, Paul says,
isn’t made by us,
and can’t be destroyed by us.
‘We are his children - his offspring’ - Paul says,
quoting an Athenian poet to his audience.
We’re born of his love,
we live and move in his grace,
and we’re accountable to his justice.
God is demanding - Paul insists -
and we are accountable.
A day will come, Paul says,
when what we have done
to each other and to the world
will be tested against God’s measure of humanity –
against the righteousness of Jesus,
the firstborn of God’s children -
who could not be destroyed -
even by the worst
his brothers and sisters could do to him,
and was raised to lead God’s children home.

In the reading from John’s Gospel
Jesus also insists on our accountability.
‘If you love me’ he says,
‘you will keep my commandments’ -
and the one commandment
Jesus himself gives to his disciples
is to love - to love as Jesus loves -
with his intensity, and inclusiveness,
and with his willingness
to offer himself in sacrificial love.

The gods we create for ourselves
might be clever and pretty and fun.
They might also be easy to live with
and even easier to leave behind,
but they’re also fragile and subject to fashion,
and they have no strength of their own.
But the God who gives us life,
the one who counts us all as his children,
is an insistent, and protective,
and fiercely committed parent
and when any of God’s children are hurt or abused
or kept from achieving the potential
God has given them,
God holds us responsible,
and God demands an accounting.

With a market place full of gods and goddesses
it’s not too difficult
to find some reason to deny the value
of another human life.
Lives become expendable and cheap
in a world of many gods -
but the one true God
claims men and women as his children -
Jews and Palestinians,
Muslims and Christians,
blacks and whites -
and none of God’s children
are more or less valuable than the rest.

That’s why issues like euthanasia, and abortion,
and welcoming refugees, and going to war,
and class, and race, and wealth,
and all those other matters
of life and death and justice
will never be easy for Christians -
they will always be serious,
and we can never be satisfied
with simple or partisan answers -
because we are accountable -
not only for ourselves and what we do -
or fail to do -
but also for the way we love -
the way we treat and care for
all the children of God.

Not long after he preached his sermon
Paul left Athens and travelled to Corinth,
where he worked to build a worshipping community
that - for the first time -
valued and included Gentiles as well as Jews,
where they apparently encouraged the gifts
of women in leadership
as well as men,
a congregation that became the model
for the new communities Paul established
on his way to Rome.
We can’t be sure,
but maybe it was in Athens -
where the vision of political democracy was born,
that Paul also caught the vision
of a God who was bigger than one race,
or one culture,
and so Paul began his proclamation
of the God who claims us all as his children,
and who makes us all accountable
for the welfare and protection
of all our sisters and brothers.

The Athenians thought of worshipping many Gods
as a bit like having insurance -
but ultimately -
as the record of insurance companies has taught us -
all forms of insurance are fallible and fragile.
Sometimes they’re exposed as junk, or worse:
as actively misleading and exploiting.

The gods we make for ourselves are not enough
to ensure a community’s welfare and protection.
In the end - whether we acknowledge it or not,
all humanity is bound together,
and the pain one person suffers -
the suffering of one race, or gender,
or class, or culture,
will find its way across and through
the boundaries and divisions we create -
until we accept that none of us can live
in freedom or in affluence or in peace
until we all do.

There are no children of lesser gods
who can simply be rejected or dismissed;
we all belong to the one God of love
who gives himself in sacrifice and grace
to heal and save
and lead his children home. Amen.