Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
I think Paul would recognize the world in which we live, not the technological advances, but the attitudes, the approach to life. Our world is not so different from the world he found in Athens. Athens was quite different from the “religious” society of the Israelites. Athens was a multicultural city with a multitude of attitudes about religion. As he “toured” the city, he saw idol after idol. And, he saw that even though there was a Jewish synagogue, its members had had little impact on the society around them. So, he had conversations with the Jewish people, with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The narrator tells us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul noted their interest, and to paraphrase he said, “Athenians, I see how extremely ‘spiritual’ you are in every way.”
“I’m a very spiritual person.” That’s a common assertion in our society today. “I’m a spiritual person – but I’m not religious.” So, we see people seeking the newest, the latest fad in what it means to be spiritual. I did a quick internet search and you can find approaches to spirituality that based on art or music or nature or meditation. The approaches to living a spiritual life are numerous and changing day by day, year by year. Anthony Robinson noted that it is, in some ways, a surprise. In the 1960s and 1970s scholars assumed that we were moving toward a fully secular society. They thought that by the 21st century we would have only remnants of spirituality or Christianity. Although some might complain that Christianity is tattered and increasingly sidelined, the interest in spirituality has, if anything, stayed strong – or even strengthened.
Modern spirituality speaks to our human hunger. Robinson writes that the Epicureans with whom Paul spoke considered “personal pleasure” to be the aim of human existence. Does that not sound familiar? The Epicureans critiqued the gods that Paul saw because they considered those gods to be powerless. So, they sought their own pleasure apart from religion or religious observance. (They were “spiritual, but not religious”.) It was a “me” centered approach to life. The Stoics had a different emphasis. They sought a civil religion that would enable human beings to live together with tolerance and peace. The god they worshipped would accommodate the differences. That god was the god in whom they “lived and had their being.”
The Epicureans and the Stoics were comfortable with a spirituality that served them and their perceived needs. The Epicureans sought personal pleasure. The Stoics sought a stable society that lived comfortably with differences. Robinson suggests that Paul recognized in them the human desire for a god who somehow transcends our differences and a god who meets us in the very depths of ourselves.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel in her book When “Spiritual But Not Religious”Is Not Enough wrote of her experiences encountering the “spiritual but not religious” people of today. It struck me that her experience was not all that different from Paul’s in Athens. She wrote of a man who told her, “I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.” Her reflection sputtered, “So you find God in the sunset? Great, so do I. But how about in the face of cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?” She noted that “suffering is seldom accounted for in these self-made spiritualities, other than as something we might overcome, by hard work, exercise, and reading the op-ed page. But worldwide disaster, how do you wrestle with that?”
One of the big “spiritualities” she noted was one that I found in my internet search – “gratitude”. That one finds its way into our Christian practices as well. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But, Daniel says, “When you witness pain and declare yourself lucky, you have fallen way short of what Jesus would do. ….while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky. I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and, rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.” The spirituality that is so much a part of our culture is little more than a projection of one’s own values. It demands little.
Paul and Daniel note the spirituality of the culture. And in that spirituality they saw/see the human need for God, for God who is more than a human projection of our own limited vision. Robinson says that Paul described Israel’s God who is “transcendent yet personal, sovereign yet fully engaged in human life.” Paul was offended by the lack of intellectual integrity in the spirituality in Athens. The great philosophers hadn’t seen that their gods were little more than human projections. He proclaimed the transcendent God of Israel who was beyond what human beings could dream up.
Daniel focuses more on the modern spirituality that has as one of its components the rejection of organized religion – and in Christianity, of the church. She acknowledges all the faults and flaws of the church. We know them well – and the outside world is very happy to point out any flaws we might ignore – or, worse, relish. Yet, Daniels suggests that the church is what God has given to us – even in its imperfection. She writes, “..in the church, as everywhere, we are stuck with one another, and being stuck with one another, we don’t get the space to come up with our own human-invented God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In church, in community, humanity is just way too close to look good.”
That got me thinking. How might I speak about the church when someone says, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Why does church matter? Why is it that I see the community of believers as an important, vital – even central—part of the life of faith?
Maybe it is because, as Daniel said, it is in and through the community that I encounter the transcendent God – the God who is much more than I can imagine. The church pulls us from self-defined and self-centered “spirituality” toward the God who transcends human culture and yet, speaks to the depths of who we are. The community of the faithful – which we need to define not narrowly but broadly – challenges our assumptions, proclaims God known and experienced by saints current and past, educates and nourishes us, comforts and strengthens us, and calls us beyond ourselves, to participate in God’s work. Daniel said that there is a hunger in this world for testimony --- not that soap box, self-righteous condemning voice – but honest speech about seeing light in the darkness, about encountering God’s grace and hanging on to the hope that there is something more than what we can readily see and know.
Eugene Peterson suggested that modern spirituality’s usefulness “is not in its precision but rather in the way it names something indefinable yet quite recognizable: transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy. Transcendence: [the] sense that there is more, a sense that life extends far beyond me, beyond what I get paid, beyond what my spouse and children think of me, beyond my cholesterol count. Intimacy: [the] sense that deep within me there is a core being inaccessible to the probes of psychologists or the examinations of physicians, the questions of pollsters, the strategies of advertisers. Spirituality, though hardly precise, provides a popular term that recognizes an organic linkage between this beyond and within that are part of everyone’s experience.”
Jesus said to his disciples that they needed to look around and see how the fields were ripe for harvesting. He was sending his laborers out. Robinson noted that Paul was “out in the field” in a way, meeting the Athenians in the places that mattered to them. The synagogue was not engaged in the city. So, there had been no harvest. Robinson suggested that the church of today is often so involved in its internal life that it has forgotten the need to be out in our own communities, our own society. That message is resonating with many. For a long time the church has operated under the assumption that people will find us. “If you build it, they will come” was the motto of new church development. Now, the approach is to find ways of connecting with people in the community –and seeing what might happen. Many creative approaches have been generated—Beer and Bibles, a bar ministry—a ministry in strip clubs—Bible studies brought to the homeless—truck stop church—a churches in malls or shopping centers.
Yet, the Book of Acts says that Paul ended up with two converts in Athens! Two! Obviously the harvest was a long time in coming! Yet, Paul’s apparent lack of success might also be a warning to us. So often I hear people speak of evangelism (telling the good news) and what they really mean is finding new members so that our churches can survive. Or, we present God as the god who will meet our needs. I saw a church sign the other day that asked, “Got God?” I’m sure the intention was good. But, it sounded like something you would get to serve yourself rather than an invitation to God’s invitation to be “gotten” by God and invited into God’s work.
Spirituality – even Christian spirituality—becomes just another means of serving ourselves, of meeting our own needs. We try to tame, to domesticate God to serve us rather than remembering that we are called to serve God. We might note that way Christianity is offered as a way by which we might all get along -- or the way Christianity gets used in service of nationalism – in many, many nations. It is an easy slippery slope. We get things backwards. We think of God serving what we know instead of acknowledging that we are to serve God. So, our evangelism, our testimony is not for ourselves – and we need to be careful about our motives. Our testimony, our sharing is of the good news we have received from the witness of the saints who have gone before us and who are around us. Paul proclaimed the God who was and is beyond all human schemes and understanding.
Robinson concluded that Athenians, like many affluent and well educated people, didn’t really accept Paul’s message. He said, “Today some people who are fascinated by spirituality will respond in similar ways when their self-centeredness is challenged, when they are presented with a God who cannot be reduced to fit their world or domesticated to serve their agenda…In our day, spirituality holds within it a great lure and potential: people long for the beyond and hunger for within – for both transcendence and intimacy. These hungers are real and powerful, and we should respect them and take them seriously.”
The world around us is hungry. That is good news for us – because we are witnesses and bearers of the bread that satisfies. We can offer – with grace, with humility, and with respect. The harvest is God’s responsibility. Amen.