1 Peter 3:13-22
(3:15-16) Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence
(Acts 17:16)While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols... (Act 17:22-23)Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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
As a good Jewish boy, Paul has been almost hard wired to be offended at the sight of idols because the Hebrew scriptures are full of cautionary tales against idolatry.
In my Old Testament class in seminary I remember laughing about how the Hebrew people would be going along just fine with HaShem …who would be providing them with signs, and miracles, and prophets to speak God’s word, all pretty convincing stuff, but then it seems like 20 minutes later their neighbors would show them a statue of a cow or something and inevitably they’d be like “ oooh sparkly!”, dropping Ha-Shem like a bad habit. It can be hard for us today to see the appeal of a cow statue really.
So anyway, Paul, who’s kind of just sight seeing in Athens until his buddies can catch up with him, is a little creeped out by the idols that populate the city.
I imagine the Athenians (as our epistle from today says) demanding from Paul an accounting of the hope within him.
It is here that Paul, that crazy thorn in the side eccentric afflicted to the core with the dangerous beauty of the gospel, encounters the Epicureans and the Stoics.
The epicureans – for whom pleasure is the greatest good, not easily dismissible, libertine, anything goes pleasure, but measured moderate pleasure that endures.
This is we who tend to mask self-indulgence with virtue. Perhaps in the form of a brand new Prius, or hording away all our wealth in socially conscious investments, or maybe through believing in salvation through “self-care”.
And then there are the stoics seeking to be dispassionate. This is us who engage mightily in spiritual and personal disciplines as though they were a sin management program providing the avoidance of suffering through detachment.
So perhaps it is actually us before whom Paul stands saying:
People of Denver, 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: the flagship REI store to the God of outdoors based fitness, the Invesco field to the Orange and Blue horse God, and the smaller shrines dotting the landscape of the city dedicated to Starbuck the God of corporate coffee to which the devout offer small offerings daily, sometimes 2 or 3 times. You are indeed, religious in every way.
Perhaps we are also too easily distracted by our own sparkly cow statues.
And if this is true, how then can we ever account for the hope that is within us when we construct our own images of God?
It can feel inevitable, this impulse to construct the shapes which we feel comfortable having God fit into, but in the end, they offer little hope. There’s the red white and blue God that unexplainably blesses America and not Darfur.
There’s the dollar sign God who wants everyone to be as rich as Joel Osteen.
And there’s the liberal academic God, sitting in heaven in his elbow-patched tweed blazer nodding his head in agreement with us.
But here in Acts Paul doesn’t give us any of these.
Instead Paul comes to us here in our own areapagus to bring us again to the simple elegance of a God who defies being known through these objects of false hope, and yet is never far from us.
Paul, wild and unleashed in the midst of the stoics and epicureans proclaims that God has provided our boundaries and limitations as a way for us to grope for God.
So maybe our own inability to define the boundaries of God is just what draws us to the cross.
The very inadequacy of our own reason and imagination is perhaps just where God is to be found.
A God found in the very self-giving folly of the cross.
If God indeed were to be found in the confines of human construction the shape we chose would never be cruciform.
Yet it is at the foot of the cross that our groping ends.
Here we find this God of whom Paul speaks.
This God who is so with us and for us that God enters into this messy life, pisses off all those who seek to exercise power over, and dies a scandalous, innocent death.
How does Paul account for the hope that is within him? In the resurrection. That outrageous punchline at the end of the greatest joke in history.
It’s the utimate plot turn at the end of the story which makes you rethink all the events that led up to it, only for you this resurrection doesn’t happen at the end of the story but at the beginning in your baptism, because as our epistle today tells us, we are an Easter people baptised through Christ’s resurrection.
In our baptism God calls to us - the gropers.
Even in our stoic efforts to transcend attachment and our epicurean impulse toward self-obsession we cannot contain the one who calls for us through the wild and unbidden gospel.
Here we find the stark lushness of a God who pours out God’s self.
A self-emptying God who shows up in cruciform ways we ourselves would never choose, or imagine, or create.
It is this God and not the ones we create who has given us life and claims us and names us in our baptism.
And it is this new life granted daily by the One in whom you live and move and have your being in which you CAN account for the hope that is within you. A hope more real than even the sparkly-ist of cows could ever offer.