DELIVERED 3 NOVEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS
I want to start this morning by asking a rhetorical question…but it would probably be helpful to pause for a moment and actually define what a rhetorical question is. There are two parts to this term (which we encounter in our lives and our culture all the time) that we need to consider. The second part is the easiest to define: a “question” is a series of words we use to elicit information from someone else. It’s an essential tool in our “human being toolkit” for learning about concepts, as well as about other people. We use questions to get our bearings in the world when we ask things like:
“What’s the weather today?” “What time is it?” “When is this due?”
And we also use questions to gain a deeper understanding of others when we ask:
“What’s your name?” “How are you today?” “Is anything wrong?”
But as clear as this part of the definition of a “rhetorical question” might be, the first part of that term is often used to steer us in an entirely different direction. If I were to ask you right now how you would define “rhetorical question,” what might you say? Probably something to the effect of: “a question you aren’t really supposed to answer”…like the one you just asked! We use these kinds of expressions–which we refer to as rhetorical questions–in conversation all the time. Sometimes they are jokes, like: “is the Pope Catholic?” “Do bears poop in the woods?” “Do you have a better idea?” And sometimes we use them to create certain reactions:
“How many times do I have to tell you to do that?” “That’s not a good excuse, is it?” “How should I know?”
In all of these cases, the great irony of how we use rhetorical questions is that we don’t use them as questions at all: they take the form of questions, but they are really just ways for us to make our own point.
But that’s not what the “rhetorical” part of that term means. “Rhetoric” is a word that refers to the “science and logic of argument.” If something is “rhetorical,” it’s something with the characteristics of a logical argument. So, a “rhetorical question” is supposed to be a question where the answer takes us a step further down a logical path. It’s not supposed to go unanswered…its answer is supposed to lead to more questions.
This might sound like a lot of silliness, but to set a course for us this morning, I’d like to get to that “rhetorical question” I was promising you. It is, simply, this: What do you really believe? It might seem–when a pastor asks this question in front of a church on a Sunday morning–that the answer goes without saying. But my main point this morning is that I don’t think that’s true. I think your answer–your personal answer–is absolutely a thing worth saying, not because I’m trying to test you or trick you, but because your answer can and should lead you–lead all of us–a step further down a logical path. What we “believe” is the starting point for the real process of discovering and developing what we call our faith, and real faith isn’t something that you memorize or something you just roll your eyes and say “yes” to, like the User Agreement for your iTunes account…real faith is something that grows. And it grows through questions.
This morning, we are continuing in our series on the second half of the book of Acts, which recounts the apostle Paul’s three missionary journeys throughout Europe and Asia. Over the last two weeks, we have tried to dig deeper into the core beliefs of the early church: first, as those beliefs shaped the ways the church managed its own growth, and second, as those beliefs directed the way Paul and the other apostles actually approached new communities. Over the last two weeks, I have personally been struck by how generous and humble both the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and Paul himself were as they managed these early decades of growth. I think our conventional wisdom about leadership is that the more firm and demanding and even dictatorial a leader is, the more inspiring they are, and the more confident they will be as they lead from their strengths. But what I see in the book of Acts is a style of leadership genuinely interested in the feelings, beliefs, and struggles of those they are reaching. Interested in questions. The early apostles are focused on people, and as we saw in Acts 15, when that focus causes tension among them or with their doctrine, they pause, share what they think one another, and dig deeper into their faith in order to find a place of gentle and devout reconciliation.
It goes without saying that I want Revolution to look more like the church of the first century than the culture of dictators and strongmen we often celebrate in our own corporate cultures! But how can we really do that? What can we see in the patterns of the early church’s behavior that can train us to expand the circle of our church community while also honoring the sincerity of others’ beliefs? Which might be the world’s longest way of asking: what does it mean to share the Good News of our faith and the hope of our experiences with God’s love for us…with others? And my big point today is that the answer is one that has to start with that rhetorical question: what do we really believe?
Today, we are going to be looking at Acts 17, which picks up after Paul and Silas leave the city of Philippi and continue west into Macedonia. They visit 3 cities in this chapter, and although their approaches to each one mimic their approach to Philippi, the reactions others have to them in each city vary widely. In Thessalonica,
There was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked [them in] the house of Jason.”
After Paul and Silas are chased from the city, they go to Berea, and
when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.
At this point, Paul and Silas split up, with Silas staying in Berea and working to start a church there, while Paul goes on to Athens, where he was instructed to wait for weeks or months until the other apostles could meet him and they could return to Jerusalem.
So, along with Paul, let’s pause for a moment and see what we can see: in both Thessalonica and Berea, Paul and Silas start–just like we talked about last week!–by going to the places where people are already having conversations about their beliefs. In these two towns, those places are the synagogues, where the minority Jewish communities in each city gathered. Their approach in both synagogues is the same: they participate; they wait their turn to speak; and then, when they have their chances, they try to explain how the miracle of Jesus’s death and resurrection fulfills the ancient Law. Theirs is a Jewish faith, different not in its roots but in its branches: they believe Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have been looking for. And they are prepared to patiently walk this through, examining the prophecies and the evidence, for as long as it takes others to respond. In Thessalonica, they meet for weeks; in Berea, we know they met for at least some extended period of time, because the Jews there are “more noble” than those in Thessalonica, which they demonstrate not by just immediately going along with what Paul is saying, but by eagerly “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Their nobility is a factor of their sincere curiosity: in effect, Paul and Silas have asked them what they really believe, and now they are working through their beliefs together, with Scripture as their common warrant and their common cause.
What changes when Paul gets to Athens is that he begins to attract a different curiosity. The Bible says that
While Paul was waiting […], his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. [They] brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
Paul begins as before by going to the local synagogue…but he is genuinely curious about the religious culture of the city, and before long, it’s the locals who begin to ask Paul our rhetorical question of the morning: ‘what do you really believe?’ They invite Paul to speak at an important gathering place called the Areopagus because they are curious about this ‘new’ thing he is talking about.
Now, it’s important to pause for a moment and note that this is some typical Athens business. Luke, the author of this passage, makes a reference here to a common first century truism about Athenian culture: he says that the people of that city “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They are philosophy-drunk, in other words, and their own ‘religiosity’ isn’t so much rooted in devotion to a particular belief, but in devotion to the idea of belief more generally. In this way, the Athenians are much, much like our own culture: although any and every statistic will tell you that the numbers of not only Christians, but adherents to any organized faith, are rapidly declining in this country, forms of non-committal spiritualism are on the rise: the zodiac is back; so are fortune telling and shamanism. And I don’t mean to be unduly insulting to those things: I bring them up as examples of how the concept of religion has shifted and is continuing to shift away from institutions and towards personal exercises and experiences. It is my belief that the church has been playing this game itself for quite awhile now, building church and worship experiences that encourage anonymity and similar kinds of spectating, but they don’t focus on how communities of Christians can develop and strengthen their beliefs.
So, in the midst of this city that is culturally similar to our own country and home, what does Paul do? How does he approach this moment at the Areopagus? He starts as we have come to expect: by seeing people as they are. He says,
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”
He acknowledges that they are people who are curious about their beliefs. But then he pivots towards our rhetorical question of the morning: what do they really believe? He says,
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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
This is the heart of Paul’s message. He says, “I see that you are very much ‘into’ religion. You have temples and idols for worship all over the place! But for all your religious culture, you haven’t practiced digging in to the things you believe.”
He points out that one of their altars is to “the Unknown God,” which was an altar the Greeks would use as a kind of “catch all,” in case their other temples were missing something. Paul doesn’t mock this…instead, he uses it as a starting point for what he wants to share, which is a challenge to dig deeper into what the Athenians actually believe. He goes on to say, “let’s think through this whole ‘god’ business: if there is a god who created all of this, he would already exist somewhere. He wouldn’t need to live in a temple built by the people he created! And likewise, if he has the power to give life and breath to the world, he doesn’t need anything–he doesn’t need offerings or sacrifices–he can sustain himself. And another thing: if there is a god who made everything, everything that exists would have a common root in him; everything and everyone would be related. So there’s no point in discrimination or arrogance!”
We can point out that Paul doesn’t say, “here’s who God is!” He says, if you are willing to believe in a god–which your culture of spiritualism suggests you are–let’s think logically about what that god would be like.” What do you really believe? And, as you answer that question, where do those beliefs take you?
Paul makes the case here that if you can accept that:
- The world has a creator
- That creator has no need of his creation
- But that creator reveals himself to his creation
Then it stands to reason that 4) this creation wants his creation to seek him. And 5) that he wouldn’t intentionally frustrate that seeking: he would be possible to find.
So, we can know the unknown god.
“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
The God you are looking for is not far from any one of us. He is at hand. So, why would Paul land at this point, with this audience? I think he did it because it gets to the root of their–and perhaps our–biggest faith problem: we convince ourselves that God is remote; that he is a philosophical question we can have an opinion about. But if God is really God, and if it is true that we have this yearning inside of us to understand and relate to him, that can only be because he made us this way. We must be people of belief. And to feel that yearning, that desire, to believe…and then content ourselves with a statue to an ‘unknown god’…or, in our own culture, to content ourselves with saying things like, ‘yeah, there’s probably a god up there’ or by half-holding to a sense of ‘spirituality’ that is disconnected from any religious devotion doesn’t make any sense.
Religion, the Church: these things exist to lead us into deeper questions, which in turn are meant to generate a deeper relationship. This is the means by which we pursue a God who wants us to pursue him, and who is not far from any one of us.
A silly example, but one that I think gets at the crux of the matter for the Athenians and us: how many of you struggle to pick out a movie on Netflix? I would assume the answer is: everyone who has Netflix. That phenomena of scrolling forever, not being able to make up your mind, and then after 30 minutes just giving up or rewatching The Office for the 12th time…that is a picture of what the Greeks–and what we–do when we choose spirituality over religion, or over the church. We are afraid of making up our minds and really pursuing something. We are afraid of belief.
But where does that fear come from? I think it comes from worrying that if we pursue something, we are blindly committing to it forever. “What if it turns out that Breaking Bad isn’t that good?” But the absurdity in this attitude is that you don’t have to watch it forever. If it’s not good, you can turn it off. But if you don’t start it, you won’t know.
It might sound strange for a pastor to say “you can start with a religion, even if you don’t finish it,” but it’s the truth, isn’t it? Our fear of belief hurts us in both directions: we fear eternal commitment, and this fear keeps us from ever asking the questions that can deepen our faith. We become afraid of getting “sucked in” forever. And then, for those who have taken the first steps, we fear jinxing things, and this stops us from asking questions which might break our faith: “what I’m doing now is working…why risk it?” But that’s like stopping after watching a really good pilot for a show! I’m not afraid of saying “just take a step” because I believe in Jesus and in his church: I’m walking this out myself, step by step, and it is still holding me up. Do I know that it will hold me up forever? No, of course not. But every day that I put my weight on my faith and it sustains me is a day that my confidence in my beliefs grows. And that is how beliefs work!
I want to be clear: by comparing it to Netflix, I am not saying that our religious faith is a matter of entertainment. But I am saying that what we believe about God isn’t something we memorize and accept…it’s something we wrestle with and live out in our lives. It’s something we test and explore and test again. It’s a relationship with our creator…who wants us to know him more.
Why do I believe that?
Paul concludes his message to the Athenians by saying 2 things: the first is that what you believe about God matters: if God is God, he has set a way for his creation to be, and he will judge his creation by that standard. And second, that if God is truly relational, he will, in his own ways, reveal himself to his creation. He says,
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
God commands us to repent because we can’t browse things forever: we are either trying to be what we are created to be or we aren’t. And God’s desire to be known can be trusted because God came to live with us, to die with us, and yet he lives again. Jesus is proof of a relational God, and his resurrection is proof that God’s Kingdom is coming, and in it, things will be made right.
So, what can we learn from Paul about how we share our beliefs? We can learn that we should
- Speak with those who are seeking
- Reason with what is reasonable
- Believe in our beliefs
My prayer is that this last point in particular will challenge all of us: what do we really believe? What are you wrestling with and putting your weight on? Can you ask each other those questions today? Can you ask it this week, and listen to one another without judgment? It’s worth really and truly doing this: what do we really…believe? About God? About Jesus? About the church? About ourselves? About justice? About hope?
Are these “rhetorical questions” leading us to more questions, to deeper relationships, to more faith? God knows they can.