May 17, 2020 – Easter 6A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be found here. Video of the entire service can be seen here (sermon at 25:15).
When the Senior Minister of the downtown Methodist congregation in Birmingham, Alabama, was asked to give the invocation at the commencement exercises of Birmingham-Southern College, he was both honored and delighted. His daughter was one of the students who would walk across the stage. He was an obvious choice not only because he was a proud parent and an alumnus but also because Birmingham-Southern is a liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. When he was given instructions on how the day would go, however, the Methodist minister was a little perturbed to learn that his invocation was supposed to be non-sectarian. Despite its Methodist roots, the college wanted to respect the diversity of religious traditions that would be reflected in the audience that day. Given the requisite political correctness, the minister wondered aloud whether he should begin his prayer by saying, “To whom it may concern…”
The apostle Paul had a similar reaction when he was walking around Athens and stumbled upon an altar that had been dedicated to an unknown god. How could anyone worship an unknown god? How do you address a deity in prayer when that deity’s identity remains unknown? We might dismiss such an altar as evidence of a baseless religion, but Paul saw it as an opportunity to engage the Athenians in a conversation about faith.
“I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul said as a form of flattery. Though his words contained no small amount of irony to a faithful monotheistic ear, Paul used the Athenians’ religious impulse as a starting point for his argument. Like every civilization in history, they used religion to structure their lives, to establish societal norms, to give meaning to inexplicable realities, and to provide direction and purpose for their existence. In Paul’s mind, the existence of an altar dedicated to an unknown god wasn’t a sign of the Athenians’ faithlessness but, on the contrary, of their extreme religiosity. Religion, after all, is a search for answers to life’s universal questions. Like everyone else throughout history, they wanted to know what was good, to know that good would ultimately triumph, and to know that, when it did, they would be found on the winning side. And, to be sure of it, they had even built a shrine to an unknown god.
To win them over, Paul didn’t discount their religious impulse. Instead, he redirected it. He made his case for the God of Israel by focusing on what he had in common with the Athenians. “From one ancestor, [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth,” he told them. “[God] 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 and find [God]—though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.” With those words, Paul celebrated the universal human search for the Creator of all things. To underscore the commonality he shared with his audience, Paul quoted not the Hebrew scriptures but Greek philosophy and poetry: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we too are his offspring.” If we are all children of the one Creator, Paul argued, then we all must share a common origin and a common purpose.
Paul saw in the Athenians the same religious impulse that had propelled the people of Israel to a covenanted relationship with God. Like his own ancestors, the Athenians wanted to know what was virtuous and to know that ultimately virtue would triumph and to know what constituted a life of virtue. The Athenians were willing to search for that virtue anywhere, but, for Paul, that virtue not only had a name but had proved itself beyond all doubt.
As Paul himself had discovered on the Road to Damascus, the resurrection of Jesus Christ had changed everything. Before the resurrection, God had made all the peoples of the earth but had chosen to reveal Godself to Abraham and his children. Yet, even from the beginning of that covenant relationship, God let God’s people know that they had been chosen to reveal the light of salvation to all nations. Now that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that purpose had been fulfilled. In the resurrection, God had revealed to the world God’s ultimate victory over death and had brought the light of salvation to the whole human race.
As Paul understood it, because of Easter, there is no longer any reason to wonder where good is to be found. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, there is no longer a question of whether that good will win. For Paul, this was very good news indeed, and he wanted to share it with the Athenians. “So far, God has overlooked the times of human ignorance,” he explained to them, “but now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” In other words, because of Jesus and his resurrection, we know for sure that one day God’s goodness will triumph. There’s no reason to search any longer, Paul said to the Athenians. You can stop offering sacrifices to unknown gods. Now is the time to repent and embrace the God whose identity and victory are certain.
But, when they heard it, most of them were unconvinced. When Paul mentioned the resurrection of the dead, he lost his intellectually astute audience. Some of them scoffed. Others gave the polite but insincere response, “We will hear you again about this.” Only a few—Dionysius and Damaris and a few others—were open to his words.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, here in a city of higher education, a center of philosophy and intellectualism, that building an argument upon an empty tomb isn’t an easy way to win converts. In fact, it’s probably easier to obtain affirmative responses by appealing to the least common denominator of goodness and hope and humanity. But aren’t we hungry for more than that? Don’t we want more than a twenty-first-century equivalent of an altar to an unknown god? Surely people are looking for something more concrete than the collective best intentions of a society that can’t figure out how to balance economic concerns with the health and welfare of its workers. Don’t we need to know for sure that, in a world where evil and greed and violence so often win the day, God will, in the end, make all things new and right and perfect?
We need the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t a sign that God has the power to bring the dead back to life. The empty tomb isn’t supposed to give us a glimmer of hope that we’ll get another shot at life when this one’s over. It’s a sign that evil cannot win. It’s God’s declaration once and for all that, no matter how strong the evil powers of this world may become, God’s victory will always be stronger. Jesus wasn’t resuscitated. He was resurrected to a new and different kind of life—a life where God’s goodness is complete. When the risen Jesus met the apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul got a glimpse of that new life and the world that was inaugurated because of it. After that, nothing else mattered to him. He had seen the fullness of what was possible with God. From that moment forward, he knew with every fiber of his being that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God had changed everything for the better.
The empty tomb isn’t part of the Christian faith. It’s the whole thing. It’s how we know that justice will win. It’s our confirmation that righteousness will triumph. It’s where we find the answers to the deepest longings of our existence, and it’s where we give ourselves back to the God who satisfies our greatest hunger. We believe the resurrection of Jesus not because it makes sense but because without it we cannot make sense of the world.