Are you religious? Would you call yourself spiritual? Do you believe in your church? In your pastor? In your faith? How about in the Bible? Or, do you believe in Jesus?
Now, understand me correctly. Your church, the Bible, your pastor, your faith — they are all blessings from God and a benefit for you. The Spirit living in you is your power to face the foe and all the temptations of the world; so it is good that you are “Spiritual” as long as you understand that word correctly, not using it in that “I’m spiritual but not religious” way. Have you ever heard that? That’s a nonsensical statement since the Spirit uses the tools of religion (Word and Sacrament) to dwell in us. Anyway, I digress. All those things are good. But….those things are not what it is all about. Those things are a means to an end, not the goal. So what God’s Word (Acts 17:22-31) does for us today is refocus us on what it is all about.
And we need that. As important as it is to cling to the Bible, as beneficial as it is to be so connected and interwoven with our church family, as good as it is that you feel a connection through the Spirit – those are not where our focus ought to be – those things ought to be what help us keep our focus. Those things should all drive us to Jesus. Those things should teach us again and again that In Him We Live.
Our section starts with Paul beginning his speech: “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious…” And it’s true. When you think of ancient Athens, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? It’s the temples, isn’t it? They were all over the place. In fact, Paul was standing on the site of one to the god of war — Ares, right below the big one for Athena — the Parthenon. There was no question for anyone who could look around. They were “religious”.
And my goodness, how much more accurate could he be if he were describing the culture in which we live today! “Religion” is all around us. There are churches everywhere you turn. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are out on the streets, Islam is on the rise, Buddhism is the new buzzword; even Confucianism is making a comeback – all as ways to try to address that part of us that needs a relationship with God – that needs religion. So Paul could say “I see that in every way you are very religious.” And then look at how he goes on: “23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”
Do you see what’s going on there? As religious as they were, they were admitting that deep down, they were clueless. It’s the realization that “religion” isn’t quite enough. Just following the rules, just doing what seems right doesn’t cut it, does it? The Athenians realized they didn’t have all the answers. They didn’t get it all - so just to cover their bases they had this altar where they could bring sacrifices as a safety measure, to make sure that they weren’t ticking off whatever god might be in charge of whatever it was they were dealing with.
Think about it — this was the “Just in case we missed the real god — here you go” altar. It almost sounds funny. But the scary thing is the truth behind it. It’s even scarier when you realize that our society is in the same boat. It’s just that we’re not honest enough to admit it. Our society likes to pretend it doesn’t matter.
In fact, take it one more step and realize that way too often even our “religion” misses the point too. And our “unknown god” takes the name of our job, or our kids, or our free time, sometimes even our practice of religion. And it’s so sneaky – hard to notice until it is out of control.
So hear Paul’s main point of all that he says in this sermon. See where Paul steers those “very religious people” who clearly weren’t getting it — to Jesus. In Him is Life. Not in church or in pastor or in how you feel about God. Life is in Him. And Paul makes it clear that that’s the only place to look. All the “religious” stuff doesn’t do it without Him. Look at verse 24.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
What we do could not cause God to love us. It’s his love that affects what we do, because he “gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
As Paul says in verse 28: “In Him we live and move and have our being.” His forgiveness, his redemption, his resurrection, his gift of eternal life powers us. Nothing else. Jesus’ resurrection is what proves what our verdict will be. He did what he did to ensure that verdict. Because he lives we also will live. And because he lives, our lives now are for him. So, yes, there will be a church and a pastor and the Bible and the spiritual feelings involved — and praise God for those things - but those things are not our life. Let them always drive you to Jesus. In Him we live, because Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!
Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Worship every Sunday at 8 & 10:30 a.m. Full sermons and more information can be found at www.abidinggrace.com.