In Pursuit of Religion Back to Index

In Pursuit of Religion
April 27, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

ACTS 17:16-31

From the earliest of times, human beings have been in pursuit of religion. As we were all created by one Creator, there is in the hearts of all humankind a longing, a searching, a hungering for God. Many attempts have been made in the pursuit of religion, beginning with hieroglyphics on the walls of caves. 

When the apostle Paul arrived in Athens, Greece, he took a walking tour and quickly got a sense of the community values. Athens was a city of the great philosophers-- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Athens was a city of history, architecture and statues of gods. It was said that there were more statues of gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that in Athens it was easier to bump into a god than a person. Paul was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols, a futile attempt in his thinking, to find religion. He first went to synagogues for dialog with Jews. Acts 17.17 states that he argued with them. Then he went to the market place and began talking about religion. There were Epicurean philosophers there with their motto, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Stoic philosophers were there with their motto, “No pain, no gain!”
They began to debate with Paul.

Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” So they invited him to speak in front of the Areopagus. Areopagus, or Mars Hill, was the special hill where the select court of Athens was held to give oversight to public morals, to hear testimony, and sometimes to adjudicate truth. It was quite an honor to be asked to speak there, and Paul did so with his usual forcefulness, courtesy and clarity. 

There, in front of the highest judicial council, a select group of about 30 of Athens’ brightest and best, Paul said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are.” Paul honored their religious quest, their recognition that there is someone or something out there larger than themselves. Can you see the council sitting up a bit straighter at Paul’s verbal pat on the back, saying to themselves, “Why you are quite right, no one does religion quite as well as we do.”

Paul continued, “As I checked out your monuments I found one inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’” Peter Gomes wrote that this was “a temple in case they missed a god they didn’t know, just in case that unknown god had done something good for them for which they should be thankful, or could do something bad to them of which they should be afraid.” In other words, in the land of a thousand gods, this was a “just in case god”. You could never be too careful when it came to keeping the gods happy. They’d covered every base imaginable—just in case.

Paul did not criticize them for idol worship or mock them for the silliness of a “just in case” god; but proceeded to give them the good news. “The god you worship as unknown I am now going to proclaim to you.”

The Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, has said, “Man is incurably religious.” There is something in all of us that compels us to pursue religion. Humans are in pursuit of religion, but we must admit not all religions are helpful, satisfying or effective.

There is the Just in Case religion, flourishing not only in ancient Athens, but alive today. Followers are not too sure which god to believe in, but they don’t want to take a chance in offending, so just in case, they believe there is a god. They don’t really care enough to explore who and what is the god they believe in. They believe just in case… These followers join a church, not because they are committing their lives or taking the vows seriously, but they join just in case… These are the folks who join a church so there will be a place for their funeral and a place for their daughters to be married. Just in case… These are the folks who believe that cancer, etc. are punishments so they try to be good just in case…

There is the religion of idol worship. Oh, we don’t make little golden bulls for the dashboard or erect statues of gods in Japantown. Our idols are more subtle. Idol worship is the worship of what has been created in place of the one who created it. Modern idols come in all shapes, flavors and sizes—material possessions, money, security, entertainment, recreation, appetites, patriotism. None of these are all bad. But when we give them too much of our heart, when we value things more than the Creator; when they become the focal point and the top priority of our lives, we are practicing idolatry. And idols cannot satisfy the fundamental longing for religion.

There is the religion of fads. The ancient Athenians delighted in finding the latest psychological and religious fads. They loved to flit from one thing to another. Acts 17.21, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Lots of talk, but no action is the practice of a religion with no depth, a religion of shallowness, a religion of flitting from flower to flower, a religion that is not deep enough to satisfy the fundamental longing for God.

There is the religion of legalism. Especially in this day of moral permissiveness, there are those who make morality black and white, become judgmental, and miss both the compassion and the deeper ethical judgment through which true morality comes. How often Jesus spoke against legalism, and denounced those who followed the letter and the outward form of the law, but did not have the spirit of the law in their hearts. Over and over again, legalists try to fit others into their rigid and authoritarian world, and practice spiritual tyranny. Followers of the legalism religion often are vindictive and punitive. In insecure times, some folks try to find religion in laws, especially laws they can apply to others.

Speaking of legalism, what happens when there is a conflict between a religion and the laws of the land? My heart aches for the 400+ children who have been torn from their mothers, uprooted from their homes and forcibly placed into foster homes. Yes, it is morally wrong to force child brides into marriage. Yes, abuse of children takes priority over religion but where is the line? There must be a better way than what Texas is doing.

Paul gave a message of good news to the Athenians who were actively in pursuit of religion. His message of good news is still relevant today to those who stumble around trying to find a religion that satisfies. Is your religion satisfying? Test your religion by using Paul’s message.

  1. We don’t make God, God makes us. God is the maker of the world and everything that is in it.
  2. God is not in idols. When we make what is not God god, our possessions own us, our drive for power damages our relationships, our appetites create addictions, our work consumes, the latest craze and fad only leaves our spirits empty and wondering if there is something more. God is not in idols.
  3. Humans were made with the capacity to be in relationship with God, not with things.
  4. In the final analysis, we will be held accountable for our religion. We’ve been given the good news, the ball is in your court. It is your decision, a decision with eternal consequences. 

Let’s listen again to Paul’s sermon. Listen with fresh ears. I will read from The Message, Acts 17.24-31:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. God makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make God. Starting from scratch, God made the entire human race, and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. God doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. God’s not remote; God is near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and God is calling for a radical life-change. God has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And God has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”

We know the judge is Jesus, who loves us deeply, died for us, and leads us to a religion that satisfies and glorifies God.

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris