Delighted to be Invited: Acts 17, part III
In my first post meditating on Acts 17, I attempted to illustrate how difficult it is to fit Paul’s theology into our modern matrix of liberal-moderate-conservative. To be more direct, it is not difficult, it is impossible, at least to do so honestly. Then Elaine, in her recent post, stressed how Paul saw God’s love as so much broader and deeper than we often recognize. Now, in this third look at Acts 17, let’s think about how Paul recounted the “good news” even when he was speaking with pagan intellectuals.
Here again is the Acts 17 text of the event:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols….22Then 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. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’
29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a human whom God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
I used to be bored by the fact that all of the sermons in Acts seemed to just repeat the same thing, and I wondered why, with so little scroll space and so many details being omitted, Luke would repeat the same thing over and over. Recently while reading Robert Alter’s book on the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and Scot McKnight’s article noting that all of the sermons in Acts shared the same summary of the “good news,” it struck me: Alter is right, these very literate authors repeated things in order to show both the continuity and discontinuity in the repetitions. Scot McKnight is right, too—the “good news” was and is always the same: We are all invited to join God’s great master story of humanity and Israel which God has now carried forward in Jesus.
The discontinuity between Acts 17 and the other sermons which mostly focus on Jewish believers or God-fearers is fairly obvious. Paul uses an idol and a pagan philosopher-poet as his starting point and speaks of the “unknown god” who is the God who wishes to be known. But, it is the continuity that is overwhelming. No matter who the hearer is, the “good news” is the same. We are invited by the God of the universe, the God who created humans to be God’s children, transformed toward the image of God to join this great story. We are invited by the God who has, since the beginning, been preparing to include all nations in God’s great Abraham and Sarah story (Genesis 12:1-3).
And the invitation is to join the story by receiving the grace unleashed in us by God, as God has moved God’s great master story forward through a human named Jesus (cf. Acts 17:31 above). Jesus’ faithful life, execution, resurrection, and exaltation is God’s next step in God’s great story. And, the rest of the “good news” is that no matter who we are or where we live or what background we come from, God invites us to join God’s great story. The story presses on, and we can not only be included, but we too can be the story.
Sure some still think it foolishness. Some think it interesting. Some think it worth checking out further. But, wow! What an invitation! You should be delighted, because you are invited to be a part of the greatest story ever told.