Acts 17:22–34 (NRSV)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
I’ll never forget my visit to the Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London 6 years ago. Those who have been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have described a similar experience. It was gut-wrenching. It was disgusting to see the lengths the Nazi regime went to in order to eradicate the Jewish people and others they viewed as impure. But the most startling thing I saw was not the images from within the death camps. It wasn’t the pictures of emaciated bodies near death. It wasn’t anything particularly graphic at all. The most shocking thing was a video, toward the beginning of the exhibit, that detailed the history of Christian anti-semitism, the religious ideology that, together with the racist pseudo-scientific ideologies of the early 20th century, fueled the Nazi regime.
I wish I could say that I was primarily disgusted by the ways the Christian church had been complicit in anti-semitism and sometimes even the perpetrator of religious violence. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t. Instead, I was angry at the way this museum had misrepresented my faith, the faith I knew to be true and transformative. The faith that would never allow such a thing to happen, but would instead actively work against such evils. I knew of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister, who had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. I knew that the United States, a land ostensibly filled with faithful Christian people, had liberated the death camps and freed the Jews. I knew the triumphant elements of the narrative, but I refused to admit the darker, sad truth.
Of course, there were many Christians like Bonhoeffer who had resisted the Nazi’s, but he only had to resort to underground resistance tactics because the German church as a whole had embraced the Nazi Party Platform, which stated:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
Most of Germany’s 40 million Protestant Christians embraced that platform, though the Confessing Church did attract a small group of dissidents. The German church removed pastors who did not accept the party platform, expelled members of Jewish descent, discarded the Old Testament, and viewed Jesus as an Aryan figure whose mission was to expose and end the Jewish faith. They had refused to acknowledge that Jesus himself was a Jew, as they proclaimed that it was the Jews who had killed Jesus. They continued a thread of anti-semitism that had endured throughout millennia of Church history, perhaps most prominently among Protestants in Martin Luther’s 1543 work, “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
We can’t claim innocence as a country either. We’re not the pure, benevolent heroes we claim to be. The restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s and 30s, fueled by nativism and anti-semitism, meant that the United States, along with many other countries, did not accept Jewish refugees until 1944. A particular political cartoon, written by the famous children’s author Dr. Seuss in 1941, is burned in my memory. A character with a sweater that says “America First” is pictured reading a book about “Adolf the Wolf” to his children, reading that “the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones…But those were Foreign Children, and it didn’t matter.” Even after the war, after the concentration camps had been liberated and we had declared victory in war, anti-semitism persisted both in fringe groups and official policy. We, as a country and as a Christian church, struggled to do what is right. Though we may be personally innocent of this behavior in many ways, we are called to repent so that we might learn from our corporate mistakes.
Though anti-semitism is still prevalent on the fringes of our society, we can be thankful that it is less influential than it used to be. However, in my lifetime, a new breed of religious and ethnic discrimination has arisen in the United States. Since the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001, committed by extremists who adhered to a radical interpretation of the Islamic faith, many have struggled to see Islam as a peaceful religion or even to see Muslims generally as their neighbors.
Six days after the 9/11 attacks, then President George W Bush held a press conference with Islamic leaders stating definitively that “the face of terror is not the truth faith of Islam.” He noted the contributions of Muslim citizens at every level of American society. He noted the fear of many American Muslims who endure taunts and various forms of prejudice while just trying to go about their day. On numerous occasions throughout his first term, President Bush tried to preach a message of tolerance, to remind us to do what is right, without being driven by our fear of the other. It seems however, that for now at least, the narrative of peace, trust, and tolerance has been silenced by similarly extreme voices who incite fear and hate. Images of Christians and Muslims around the world joining hands and protecting each other from violent extremists aren’t what you see in the media. Instead, we’re reminded day after day about the extremists who, though they claim adherence to the Islamic faith, violently persecute moderate Muslims and Christians alike. In the face of this evil, we must persist in doing what is right, without being driven by the fear of our neighbor.
Most of us don’t know what it’s like to endure such persecution. We live in a place where no one gets in the way of our expressions of Christian faith. No one is inciting fear against us. But, in many places, Christianity exists as a religious minority in a precarious position. Extreme nationalism and religious ideologies make it difficult for those who do not adhere to the majority faith. But Christianity has not always enjoyed the kind of status that we have benefited from in the Western world. In fact, the first followers of Jesus had to endure the type of persecution that Christians experience in other parts of the world and the kind of widespread fear that many in our country express toward Islam.
The words we heard from 1 Peter express the guidance early Christians were given about living in a world where their faith was a minority. Many wished to do them harm. Many Christians faced death for their faith. But this letter reminds them, “If you do good, no one will want to harm you. And even if they do, you will still be blessed for doing what is right. They might fear you, but don’t fear them. Instead, remember that Christ is Lord. If someone questions you about your faith, tell them about the hope you have because of Jesus with gentleness and reverence.”
That’s exactly what Paul does in the Areopagus in Athens in the book of Acts. Paul sees this polytheistic religious center full of idols made for the Roman Gods, and he uses it as the basis of his proclamation. He knows that not everyone will be convinced by his faith in Jesus, but he preaches with conviction and hope anyway. He tells them that they are right, that we are the offspring of God, and God is greater than any image you could make. He says, God is calling everyone, of every nation and religion, to turn to God in repentance and to follow Jesus Christ.
Paul listens to the faith of those in Athens and responds based on the faith he has. It reminds me a bit of an exchange I heard on the Podcast “On Being” recently, where a Rabbi and an Imam honestly shared about the strengths of their traditions and even the strengths of the tradition of the other. At no time did they, or did Paul for that matter, try and hide their differences. But they had conviction, the strength, and lack of fear that enabled them to respectfully talk about their faith.
Now, last week I shared with you about the importance of learning how to respectfully engage with the differences within the Christian church. I stressed the importance of recognizing our shared identity, the fact that we have become in Christ part of one family. I suggested that learning to love our Christian brothers and sisters can help us to learn to love our neighbors who are different from us, whether that difference is in religious belief, ethnic background, or in political ideology.
We know that we are called to love fellow Christians because we are siblings in Christ, but to what theological resources can we turn to learn how we should love those of different religious traditions? I think there are three things we can turn to: our Christian Scriptures, the Christian tradition, and our experience in the world.
First, we turn to the book of Genesis. In the very first chapters, we are told that all of humanity was created in the image of God. We all share a common pair of ancestors, Adam and Eve, who were fruitful and multiplied so that the world might be populated by those who bear God’s image. We are reminded, in these chapters, that all of us bear the image of God. We all, to some degree, reflect the glory and the goodness of the one who created us. We remember too, that God called Abraham and promised to bless him and his offspring to be a blessing to the nations. We remember God’s promises to both Ishmael and Isaac, that they would become great nations. Through Jesus, we have become spiritual descendants of Abraham through Isaac, and we remember our shared heritage through Abraham with Jews and Muslims. We are reminded as well in Deuteronomy 32:8 that our God is the one who appointed all the nations and gave them their inheritance. From the very beginning, our God was not only the God of his people Israel, but also the Most High over all people on earth.
As we read through the Prophetic books toward the New Testament, we remember that God said through the prophet Joel that God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh. God is not only interested in our salvation, but in the salvation of the whole world. As we proclaimed in our call to worship, God sent Jesus into the world out of love for the whole world, not just those of us who would be called Christians. In Jesus’s ministry on earth, he taught this love in both word and deed. In the Golden Rule, he taught us that we should treat others as we would like others to treat us. In his parable of the Good Samaritan, he taught us to be good neighbors by showing mercy across religious boundaries. In his ministry of teaching and healing, he rejected traditional boundaries and proclaimed good news to all so that, in Mark’s Gospel, it is a pagan Roman soldier who first confesses faith in the crucified Christ.
In the rest of the New Testament, we’ve already considered Acts and 1 Peter, but we should also remember the book of Romans, where Paul suggests that God still cares even for those who did not immediately accept Christ. Finally, in the book of Revelation, we recall the great heavenly scene where every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. We know that this is our firm belief and hope—that the whole world will come to know God through Christ Jesus our Lord. But we know that our neighbors of other religious traditions understand the ultimate end of humanity differently, which we should seek to understand while continuing to share the hope we have received.
In our Christian tradition, we also have rich theological resources that have been informed by the prayerful discernment of generations of believers. As Methodists, we can appeal particularly to the work of John Wesley, who throughout his life became convinced that the grace of God had been given to all humanity. He stressed that God’s eventual goal for creation is “universal restoration,” reminded the Methodists not to pass judgment on those who did not believe, believed differently, or had not yet heard the gospel. His acknowledged that all would be judged according to their response to God’s grace manifest in them through Jesus Christ.
We should also draw from the broader Christian tradition. I’m inspired especially by the statements regarding the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions that came out of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church in the 1960s. With our Catholic brothers and sisters, we can should remember in the words of John Paul II that “every quest of the human spirit for truth and goodness…is inspired by the Holy Spirit.” And in the statement Nostra Aetate from Vatican II, we can agree that all humanity struggles with the same questions of existence and that we refuse to reject anything that is “true and holy” in the religious beliefs of others, since they reflect a ray of the truth of God.
All of this knowledge in our Scriptures and Tradition is helpful, for sure, as we seek to do what is right, without fear. But we cannot leave things in the realm of theory if we are really going to do what is right and love our neighbor. We have to take the first steps into practice what we preach. Rather than just avoiding the evils of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we should strive to do good. We should go out into the world in search of Jesus our savior. As Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25:31–46, it is in showing love for our neighbor that we encounter Jesus in our world, whether that neighbor is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu. As the Rev. Billy Graham, who died this past week at age 99, was fond of saying, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”
May we, throughout this season of Lent, continue to give up our indifference and repent of our complicity in evil, especially evil shown toward our non-Christian neighbors. Let us, motivated by the love shown to us in Jesus Christ, truly go into all the world doing what is right, with love and not fear. Amen.