APRIL 16, 2023

May 14, 2023

Faith Among Other Faiths

Acts 17:22-31

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

Our sermon series during this Easter season is looking at building blocks of faith, and today, we continue that series with a story of how the Christian message pushed out beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community in a pluralistic society of many different faiths. Listen now for the word of God.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 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. 24 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, 25 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. 26 From one ancestor[e] he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[f] and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 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.’

29 “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. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

My first pastoral call was in a small, somewhat rural town in New Jersey. The church was on a neighborhood street, and the congregation owned two homes on either side of the church. One home was the manse where the pastor lived, and other house – which was directly connected to the driveway of the church, had been a variety of things: food pantry, meeting place, church offices, even at one time a second manse. Not long after I arrived, it was in the heart of the 2009 recession, the session decided to rent the house to help support the church budget if we could find someone willing to live that close to the church.

We found a renter willing to live that close to the church, a kind, quiet, and single person who was an excellent fit for that house. But then… a few weeks after she arrived, when the pictures were hung and all the dishes were unpacked, she placed a large Buddha on the steps of the front porch. The steps of the front porch of the house landed right onto the sidewalk that the congregation used to walk to church. It was just beside the main driveway where cars entered to park. There was not, as we did not know before but soon noticed even a cross outside the church or on the grounds.

But now there was a Buddha, and more specifically, a laughing Buddha, known in Chinese as Pu-Tai, and he is a representation of happiness, generosity, and wealth, and is a protector of the poor and weak. Pu-Tai is often found at the entrance to Buddhist temples in China, and this house was her temple. She was perfectly willing to tolerate the traffic and the visibility of living next to a different kind of temple, the church, but she wanted to make the house her own and this is how she would do it.

For some of the congregation this was humorous, and for others it was upsetting, embarrassing, and even offensive. It was also instructive for us. It reminded us that we live and practice our faith among other faiths. American society is no longer predominantly Christian, and we are more diverse than Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and “I don’t go.” If nothing else, a Buddha on the rented manse of the church is a metaphor for this truth: we live our Christian faith in secular society among other faiths and people of other faiths.

And this is a good thing. The kind of secular society we have in America is the kind where religious belief and practice and reasoning is welcome into the public square, as personal, but not private, expression. There is no official religion of the state, but we are free to take our faith into public life. We do not have to hide or cover our faith commitments. Christians are free to worship and express their faith, and so are people of other faiths. To put it simply, we live in a marketplace of faith.[1]

And today, the marketplace of faith in America is decidedly diverse. Surveys show declining religious affiliation in America and have been pointing in that direction for decades. Religious affiliation of all types is declining – religions and Christian denominations. The number who say they are Christian, as a proportion of the population, is now approximately 61% nationally and falling. The number who identify as having no religious affiliation is rising.[2] Surveyors call them “the none’s Faith,” as in checking the box “none” for religious affiliation, but that is a terrible term because it doesn’t tell the whole story. When it comes to religious affiliation, they may have none, but when it comes to spirituality, they often have very much. While religious affiliation may be declining, there is a diverse, interesting and growing marketplace of faith in America.

In our story from Acts, we find the Apostle Paul in the religious marketplace, in some ways in a marketplace of faith very similar to our own today. The text tells us that while he was waiting for his friends to join him in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was “flooded with idols,” probably sitting on the steps and porches; and so he talked and argued with whoever happened to be in the marketplace that day. This was not out of place because Athens was a philosophical city, the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire. This was Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, or Princeton, and debate was welcomed by other philosophers who were interested in new ideas.

So, Paul found himself in the middle of the council on Mars Hill, an open debating forum called the Areopagus, and he brought his faith into dialogue with the other worldviews and religious traditions present. As we look at this famous story, I believe we can learn at least two things to avoid and three things we may adopt as we live out our faith in the marketplace of faith.[3] So, what to avoid?

Well, this may seem obvious to us, but Paul was bold, and we may even say foolish, to debate with people that he did not know about their religious beliefs. That is something to avoid. That does not mean to avoid conversation about faith altogether, but conversation about faith in our culture must come from a place of humility and relationship. When we stumble our way into conversations of faith with neighbors, or co-workers, children, or grandchildren, we must do so seeking understanding. If we ever hope to be understood, we must first seek to understand.

To build on that lesson, Paul also caricatured and diminished the faith of the people he was talking with. How could they have statues like that? How could they worship like that? How could they live in such ignorance? We can understand why he did that, because their idols were forbidden by Jewish law and did not jive with his faith; but this is something else to avoid. We must never belittle, misrepresent or diminish the faith and practices of others, even if we do not understand them, even if they appear to make no sense to us, even if they contradict some of our most deeply held beliefs. Conversation about faith in our culture must proceed from a place of genuine respect.

So, there are two things to avoid. What can we learn to adopt? Paul said to the people on Mars Hill that God made every human nation and family to live upon the earth. Every nation and family. Paul affirmed the value and dignity of every person. This is the starting place for Christian faith in conversation with other faiths. Too often faith is used as a political weapon to divide others, to mark them as strange or different, or even to do violence to others in the name of religion. You will hear some of how that has happened in the past in the Julian of Norwich presentation on Friday, and if we pay attention to the news, it happens in other ways today.

It is fundamental to the Christian faith that every human person is of infinite worth, no matter what their faith is. It is a basic building block of the Christian faith that we clothe others with dignity, literally and figuratively, and we treat them with respect – no matter their religious beliefs, or worldview, or politics, or ethnicity, or citizenship. The stranger to us is our neighbor, we are both made in the image of God.

Paul also affirmed on Mars Hill that there is something in each one of us that is seeking God. He said, “God made the nations so they would seek him.” Even though we live in a secular society, society is not divided between spiritual people and secular people. We are all spiritual people. God made us this way, from our birth. Each one of us is spiritual because we are meaning-making animals, we search for truth, justice, beauty, goodness, love, mystery, and ultimately we are searching for God – even if we would not use that word. St. Augustine said it most famously, in his long prayer journal called The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Our hearts. All of our hearts are restless and seeking.

As we live and move and have our being in this marketplace of faith, we must remember and recognize that we are all searching for God. No matter what box we check on a religious survey, or what our religious affiliation journey has been, or how we may spend a Sunday morning, or what we may have on our front porch, God has made all of us to be spiritual people – and we are seeking. As Christians are at our best when we affirm the spiritual seeking in ourselves and in others. As the church, we are at our best when we perceive and respond to the spiritual hunger of those around us. All of us are spiritual.

And finally, at the end of his conversation with the philosophers, just before he leaves Athens, Paul affirms the uniqueness of the risen Jesus. Paul calls Jesus the one God has appointed to judge the world. And while that sounds antagonistic, what Paul means is this: Jesus is God’s benchmark, God’s standard of what it means to be truly human. The resurrection is God’s affirmation that Jesus is God’s Human One, and in him we will find what we are seeking.

As we live our Christian faith among other faiths, we dare not let go of the central claim at the heart of our faith. Jesus is the One we are seeking.

In a world that is searching for how to be human, to live in harmony with others and with creation, Jesus, God’s Human One, is the one we are seeking.

In a world that is torn by violence, division, fear of others and the other, Jesus is the One we are seeking.

In a world that is longing to hear and live the truth, Jesus is the One we are seeking.

In lives that are crushed by the pain of the past, who need to forgive and be forgiven, Jesus is the One we are seeking.

In lives that are looking for hope beyond what we can see, hope that endures even at the grave, and remains even when the world is coming apart, Jesus is the One we are seeking.

Living our faith with respect and humility in the marketplace of faith does not mean letting go of Jesus. Instead, it means lifting Jesus up. And, in the marketplace of faith in our culture, that means lifting up the love of God. Our faith teaches us that Jesus is our judge, and so he is. But he judges us with mercy, compassion, and love. Jesus is God’s love, in flesh.

Our calling is to lift up the love of God to the world with compassion, kindness, and understanding like Jesus; to stand, and serve, and walk in solidarity with the suffering and the seeking, like Jesus. Our calling is to lift up the love of God, with respect and humility, with action and conviction, so that in our lives we bear witness that we are all God’s family.

As Jesus himself said, to his disciples, if he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. Even now, Jesus is drawing us closer to him, and deeper into the transforming and life-changing love of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] See Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-1722-31-6#

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