The Open Secret: Paul in Athens
Sermon #185 St. James the Less #92 5/17/20
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.”
We are continuing our journey through the book of Acts this Sunday. You may remember last week we talked about how Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit right before his death, and how his ability to forgive his murderers likely made an impact on them.
And I invited us this past week to be like Stephen, and throughout our day to pray, “Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit.”
Now this Sunday we fast forward to chapter 17 and we see the Apostle Paul, who was one of the witnesses of Stephen’s death, now he is filled with the Holy Spirit while preaching in Athens.
Paul in Athens
Paul has arrived in this once-bustling-city as part of his second missionary journey. Athens is not what it once was. The city only had around 5,000 inhabitants while Rome at the time had four or five million.
Though its glory days were behind her, Athens still held a certain mystique in the ancient world. It was the birthplace of Western civilization, and home to great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The magnificent temples dedicated to the pantheon of Greek gods were still in use when Paul arrived.
Paul wanted to immerse himself in the city and get a sense of what life was really like. And so, like any good tourist, he walked around the metropolis, taking everything in.
We all do this as tourists, don’t we? When Megan and I lived outside of Washington D.C. we were always hosting friends and family who wanted to spend a few days in the nation’s capital. We had our tour down pat after a few years.
We knew the best way to hit most of the monuments, making sure to get a great picture in front of the Lincoln Memorial, stop to get lunch at a food truck, and then walk up the mall and go through a couple of the museums, all in a day. We knew the highlights of D.C. and how to navigate the city.
Think if Paul came to Nashville, what he would need to see to get a true sense of our city? He would have to walk around Lower Broad, maybe go to the Johnny Cash Museum, look around Centennial Park (where he’d see a familiar structure from his visit in Athens), and then have dinner at some trendy place in East Nashville.
Paul was just being a good tourist when he arrived in Athens, seeing what the city had to offer. And while walking, he came across many different temples and altars, which was one of the highlights of the city, and one, in particular, caught his attention. It said, “To an unknown god.”
He decides to reference this altar later in the day when he is speaking to the Athenian elite, who always love to hear and debate new ideas.
Paul, quite cleverly, points out that having an altar to an unknown god showed that they were open to the possibility of another god being out there that they didn’t know about.
The Greek inscription on this altar read, ᾿Αγνώστῳ Θεῷ (agnosto theo). This is where we get the word agnostic. There are still people today who consider themselves agnostics, you likely know one or two. Generally, agnostics believe that nothing is known or can be known about God. They neither believe nor disbelieve that there is a God. For them, there’s not enough information to make a definitive decision on the matter.
Most Greeks, on the other hand, believed in many gods—they were polytheists. Zeus and Poseidon, Aphrodite and Hermes, but they left room for a god that they might not know about, and that’s why there’s an altar for an unknown god. It was a good backup just in case, you didn’t want to offend a god that was out there, but you accidentally ignored.
But we should give them some credit, they were open to being wrong or better yet, open to the possibility of another god making himself known.
Two Kinds of Agnostic
Paul talks to this crowd about their open-mindedness to the reality that there may be something more out there. Clearly, they had an open heart and mind that they didn’t have it all or know it all.
But living with this unknowing can create two different kinds of agnosticism:
Some in the crowd may have tended to be a more closed agnostics and would say to Paul, “We don’t know, we can’t know, and I like it like that” (Wright 87). They just brush him off and say, “I don’t know, and I don’t care to know.”
Others in the crowd might’ve been more open agnostics, a little more humble about their situation and would say to Paul, “We don’t seem to know at present, but that means it’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that there is something more that we could know…if only we could discover how; I would love to know if we could” (Wright 87).
Paul is really preaching to these open agnostics who are willing to accept the possibility that an unknown god might exist. The apostle declares to them that this God (the God of the Jews) has now made himself known to the world.
There is some good and bad news: The Greeks don’t know him yet they have been worshiping him on this altar. And though they worship him, they also have been worshiping many other gods (which is a serious problem).
Paul says that what once was unknown is now known. God has shown himself fully in the person of Jesus Christ, and through his death and resurrection now the entire world can know the one true God who created the heavens and the earth. These other gods they have been worshiping are all frauds.
By saying this, Paul is uprooting their polytheistic worldview, but in doing so he is letting the Athenians in on an open secret.
The Open Secret
The 20th-century missionary, bishop, and writer Leslie Newbigin wrote a book entitled, The Open Secret. He spent much of his ordained life as a bishop in southern India, and then returned to England in retirement to write about the lessons he learned while in the mission field.
Like Paul, Newbigin understood quite clearly that the good news of Jesus Christ had cosmic implications—it was news for the entire world and the entire world deserves to hear it proclaimed. That’s the church’s call and mission.
He said that “Christian mission is the declaration of an open secret – open in that it is preached to all nations, and secret in that it is manifest only to the eye of faith.”
This was not just good news for the Jews or the small band of disciples in Jerusalem, but now all people, everywhere: both Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. It was, and is, available to anyone and everyone willing to leave even a slim possibility that there is more to life than just what we see in front of us. But in the end, it is still a leap of faith. It’s an open secret.
When Leslie Newbigin returned to England in retirement he was horrified at the state of churches in what we consider the “developed” countries in the West after spending so much time witnessing the vibrancy and growth of Christianity in India. When he talked about mission, it was not only globally but locally as well. He knew that we in the West needed to be reintroduced to the missional nature of the church.
Like Paul in Athens, we may find ourselves from time to time with an opportunity to tell people about this open secret. The mission field is no longer in some distant land—our mission field is right here in our backyard—in Madison and Inglewood, Goodlettsville and Hendersonville, White House and Portland, Ridgetop and Springfield.
So many people we know are like the Athenians who have left an opening in their heart that there may be something more to life; those who long for something eternal and transcendent. Who say, there is more to this world, who hope for a deeper sense of truth and justice. Who long for this broken world, torn by violence and greed, to one day be set right.
Some may say what we believe is a cop-out. That we cannot accept the realities of life, so we live in a world of fantasy. They say that we should accept that we are just a bundle of atoms and that there is nothing else to life.
But we Christians point to something deeper. We can’t help but accept that there is something more to life than this—that there is meaning and purpose to all of this.
There is a yearning, down in our soul that there is something more. And ultimately we believe in a God who can be known and wants to be known. And that he has shown himself, in all his love and power and glory in the Crucified and Risen Jesus. If we want to know God, all we must do is look to Jesus.
Like Paul we have work to do; our mission field is right in front of us. We don’t have to memorize a speech or get into an argument, all we must do is point people towards that deep longing that we all have, and help them realize that they may have set up an altar in their heart to an unknown god. And that what was once unknown has now been revealed.
It’s a secret that is meant for everyone.
Easter VI. Year A. Acts 17:22-31. Acts for Everyone Pt. II, Wright.