Divine Validation

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Link to text: Acts 17:22-31

[TW: Discussion of suicide and self-harm.]

Many years ago, I was going through a particularly rough time, psychologically speaking. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, I felt trapped in a situation that I couldn’t see my way out of, and I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if I spoke up about how miserable I was. Eventually, my mental health deteriorated to the point where I was regularly contemplating suicide.

[Since you can see that I’m still here, I obviously didn’t act in any final way on those self-destructive impulses, and I’m very glad today that I didn’t. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, I strongly urge you to reach out to someone you can trust: friends, family, clergy, or therapist. If you can’t think of anyone you know, call 988 on your phone. This is the number for the new Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched last year by the federal government. This Lifeline, the biggest project of its kind, exists to help people get immediate help in a mental health crisis.]

At the height of my own struggle, I finally spoke up during a prayer meeting at my church. I didn’t go into much detail, but simply said I was “going through a hard time.” Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what I was asking for, but thought it might be nice to hear someone say a prayer for me. The pastor leading the service surprised me by telling the group that I am “a very unselfish person.” His brief compliment, in that moment, took my breath away. I didn’t think of myself in that way (frankly, I still don’t), but those kind words gave me something I didn’t realize I needed: Validation.

Validation, in the sense that I’m using the word here, is about the basic human need to know that we matter and we belong. People go about trying to meet this need in all kinds of ways. Some seek validation in their professional or academic accomplishments; others seek it in their money or possessions; some seek it in their family roles or relationship status. The options are nearly limitless.

One place where I see this human need for validation in our world today is in the online world of social media. With every narcissistic selfie, every envious like, every enraged tweet, and every hormonal swipe-right, we are building a digital temple of idols to our ongoing search for validation. We desperately need to know that we matter and we belong, so we look for that assurance in the never-ending data stream of the internet. Like Athens in Paul’s day, social media is a marketplace of ideas. In some ways, the internet has united human beings with the ability to share information faster than anyone else in recorded history. In other ways, its carefully cultivated algorithms have made us more misinformed, divided, depressed, and angry than ever. We come to these platforms seeking the validation of our human dignity, but settle for the cold reassurance that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Each click fills our brains with a momentary rush of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical in our brains) but leaves our hearts starved for the validation that comes from genuine relationships.

St. Paul the Apostle, in today’s first reading from the book of Acts, seems to recognize this universal human need for validation. The story opens with Paul teaching on Mars Hill in the famous city of Athens. Athens had been home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other well-known Greek philosophers. It was the intellectual capital of ancient Europe, much like Harvard or MIT might be today.

By speaking his message in Athens, St. Paul was very intentionally bringing Christian faith into the marketplace of ideas in his time. One of the things I love most about this story is the way that Paul engages in dialogue, as a Christian, with intelligence, respect, and compassion. Paul doesn’t try to defeat his opponents with forceful rhetoric; instead, he offers them validation by affirming their deepest concerns and aspirations.

He says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” From there, he goes on to describe his experience of visiting their city and equates their “altar to an unknown god” with his own faith in the one God of Jewish and Christian tradition. Later on, he even quotes two Greek philosophers directly: Epimenides, who said, “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being,” and Aratus, who said, “we too are [God’s] offspring.” Both Epimenides and Aratus wrote these lines about the Greek deity Zeus, but Paul applies them to his God.

By doing this, Paul demonstrated that he could understand and appreciate the thought of pagan philosophers, even though they didn’t share his beliefs. It would have been so easy for Paul to berate the Athenians with insults about how ignorant and superstitious they were, but he offers them validation instead. He looked deep into their hearts, past their surface-level disagreements, and said to them, in effect, “I see who you are and what you’re trying to do here. You are searching for God, and the God you are searching for is not far away. In fact, God is right here, within us and all around us, just as your own philosopher Epimenides has said: ‘In God we live, and move, and have our being.’”

St. Paul’s method of respectfully and intelligently validating the Athenians is very much in keeping with the core message of the Christian Gospel. As Christians, we believe that Jesus, the Living Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelt among us.” In Christ, God validates humanity by becoming one of us and meeting us right where we are. Jesus came into this world offering validation to lonely, hurting, and sinful people who are, for all their brokenness, still beloved children of God.

This affirmation is not limited to human beings, either. In Christ, God validates the entire universe by incorporating elementary particles from the Big Bang and DNA molecules from life’s evolution into the incarnate flesh of the Divine Son. As that most well-known Bible verse says, “God so loved the cosmos (Greek for “world”) that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The Christian Gospel is all about God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

Kindred, this message of validation has the power to change our lives. If we believe that God truly validates the dignity of who we are, in our deepest selves, then we can find, in that faith, the strength to give that same validation to ourselves. We can stop abusing ourselves with words like, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Instead, we can practice radical self-validation by asking ourselves questions like, “Why do I feel this way?”

The difference between those two statements is subtle, but important. First of all, that second statement is a question, which means we are cultivating curiosity about ourselves, instead of passing judgment. The question assumes there is an important message in whatever feelings we feel.

If we’re feeling depressed or anxious, our body may be trying to tell us that we are overwhelmed and need to rest or ask for help. If we’re feeling angry, it might be because our dignity is being attacked, so we need to set up healthy boundaries to protect our sense of self-respect. These are just examples. You’ll have to search your own feelings in a given situation to discern the message those feelings are trying to send you. The point is that, by asking a question instead of passing judgment, we are practicing radical self-acceptance and thereby coming into agreement with God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

The second step of coming into agreement with Divine validation is to extend our radical self-acceptance toward radical acceptance of others. This is exactly what St. Paul does in his validation of the Athenians. Christians today can find, in Paul’s message, a helpful strategy for engaging in intelligent and respectful dialogue with science, philosophy, and other religions. These things are not enemies of faith, but products of the human mind in its God-given quest for truth and meaning.

As Christians, we might not agree with everything said by our neighbors of other faiths, but if we look deep enough, we might find significant points where we do agree, and those points of agreement might lend new insight to our own faith, as well as cultivate goodwill in our relationships with our neighbors. Let us remain open to these new insights, as they come.

In my own aforementioned experience of validation, from all those years ago, I discovered new strength for living. Across the year that followed my interaction with the pastor at that prayer meeting, I started making some necessary changes in my life, with the help of my family. I switched schools to a smaller environment where I felt less overwhelmed, I got myself into counseling and on medication that stabilized my mental health, and I started exploring my spirituality in a deeper way than ever before. Validation gave me the strength to change for the better in ways that self-criticism never could. May the same be true for you as you practice radical acceptance with yourself and with everyone you meet in the validating and unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Image: Ruins of the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, Greece. Photo by Daniel Nouri.

All Truth Is God’s Truth

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

My text is Acts 17:22-31.

Legend has it that, sometime around the year 600 BCE, there was a plague that struck the ancient city of Athens, Greece.  At a loss over what to do, they called in the philosopher Epimenides, who came promptly.  The plague, so they thought, was due to one of the gods being angry with the city.  In order for the plague to be lifted, that deity would have to be appeased by a sacrifice.  But the ancient Greeks had so many gods, how were they to know which one was upset?

Epimenides proposed a solution.  He took a group of sheep to the Areopagus (a.k.a. “Mars Hill”) and released them to go out in every direction.  He ordered attendants to follow the sheep and, wherever one laid down to rest, there they built an altar and made an offering to whatever god or goddess was associated with that place.  In this way, thought Epimenides, they would cover all their bases and increase their chances for beating the plague.

But there was still one problem: what if the sheep lay down in a place that had no affiliation with any deity?  “Well,” he said, “build an altar anyway!”  Maybe there was another god or goddess who was not in their pantheon.  In that way, they would really really cover all their bases.  So, according to this legend, that’s how it came to pass that Athens had altars that were dedicated “to an Unknown God”.  After the plague had passed, the Athenians maintained the altars in remembrance of what had happened there.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul happened across one of these altars during his visit to Athens.  And Paul, ever the conscientious preacher, decided to use it as a sermon illustration.  The leading citizens of Athens invited Paul to speak in the Areopagus, the exact same place from which Epimenides had originally sent out the sheep, and they listened to what he had to say.

While the sight of so many altars to so many different gods and goddesses made Paul extremely uncomfortable, he was nevertheless very affirming of the Athenians’ religious practice.  “Athenians,” he said, “I see how religious you are in every way.”  He then went on to describe how he had come across Epimenides’ “altar to an Unknown God” during a stroll through town.  Paul also praises their philosophical insight, quoting directly from Epimenides himself, “In [God] we live and move and have our being”.

Isn’t this odd?  A Christian missionary preaches a sermon where he praises the polytheistic religious practices of the Greeks, doesn’t mention Jesus (except indirectly), and fails to reference even a single verse of the Bible.  In fact, he takes as his text a poem written by Epimenides, a pagan philosopher!  I don’t know about you, but I can imagine pastors getting fired from their churches for less than that!  Yet, this is the great apostle Paul, the Church’s preeminent theologian, a New Testament author, and the preacher who supposedly set the standard by which all others would be judged.  What in the world was he trying to do here?

First and foremost, I think Paul was making a statement about God by the way in which he paid respect to the philosophies and the religious practices of the Athenians.  Paul was saying that the Christian God honors wisdom and devotion wherever it is found, even when it is found in those who are not Christians.

“All truth is God’s truth.”  This is a scandalous statement.  It has serious implications for us all, especially those of us who live in an era of history that has seen so much division and conflict along religious lines.  If the God we worship as Christians is the same God who Paul preached about to the Athenians, then we too are called to honor and celebrate truth wherever we find it, even when it comes from non-Christian sources.  While this does not mean that God is calling us to give up what is unique and special about our Christian faith, it does mean that God is calling us to look for the best (not the worst) in our neighbors of other faiths.  It means that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists are not our enemies.  It means that God is calling us all to learn from each other and grow together.

Augustine of Hippo, a famous theologian from the fifth century, said it this way, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to [God], wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”  (On Christian Teaching II.75)

“All truth is God’s truth.”  This statement also has implications for our lives outside the specifically “religious” sphere.  It means that the discovery of truth in fields like science, medicine, art, government, and commerce has a divine quality to it.  In our society, which tries to keep the sacred apart from the secular, there is an assumed conflict between “faith and science” or “faith and politics”.  But if we take Paul’s implications seriously, then the line between sacred and secular is blurred.  Suddenly, the fight to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS becomes a holy quest.  Likewise, those who work to further the common good in both private and public sectors are engaged in a spiritual vocation.

In the sixteenth century, the reformer John Calvin wrote, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.”  Calvin goes on to describe disciplines such as politics, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and math.  He finishes, “No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?”  (Institutes 2.2.15)

While Paul proclaimed his deep admiration for the Athenians’ wisdom and devotion, it’s important to note that he also challenged them toward growth.  He invited them to “repent”, that is, metanoia, which is Greek for “change the way you think” or “think differently”.  Paul’s particular challenge to the Athenians had to do with their relationship to their objects of worship.  He said, “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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”  Quoting the philosopher Aratus, Paul continues, “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.”  Paul invited his Athenian listeners to open their minds and think beyond the level of surface appearances to the deeper spiritual reality in which we all dwell.  He said, “26From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”.

In the same way, we as Christians have something to say to world around us.  The word “evangelism” has become kind of a bad word in our society.  It conjures up mental images of TV preachers asking for money.  For others, it makes them think of religious groups who use guilt and fear in in order to convert and manipulate others.  Well, evangelism doesn’t have to mean any of those things.  In fact, the word itself literally means “gospel” or “good news”, which is the exact opposite of guilt, fear, and manipulation.

Don’t we have good news to deliver to the world around us?  Don’t you?  What kind of difference has God made in your life?  What does your faith mean to you?  Maybe it gives you a sense of continuity with the past or hope for the future.  Maybe your faith in God helps you find strength and comfort for today.  You should feel free to share that experience with others as you participate in respectful conversation that celebrates their own wisdom and devotion.  Who knows?  You might find that someone is quite touched by what you have to say.  They might even start to feel more interested in or attracted to Christianity.  If so, that might be a good time for you to invite that person to attend church with you.  I know it sounds cliché, but it’s a big and lonely world out there.  Some folks feel lost in it.  They’re looking for something to believe in or somewhere to belong.  If one of your friends is searching in that way, why not invite them to explore that feeling together with us?

Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.  In fact, it doesn’t have to be a word at all.  Some of the most powerful sermons are the ones we preach with our actions.  After all, a single act of compassion says more about God than all the books in a theology library.  As you have often heard me say, “Preach the gospel always.  Use words when necessary.”