In the spring of 1979, while the pain of the Vietnam War was still fresh in the minds and hearts of Americans, a penniless veteran named Jan Scruggs helped to form a non-profit corporation. Its purpose was to fund and build a memorial to the men and women who served their country in Vietnam. Within a few years, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund had successfully petitioned Congress to designate a location for the memorial in Washington DC, in view of both the Washington and Lincoln Monuments, and raised $8.4 million in private donations. Then they then held a contest to determine the design.
A 21-year-old architectural student from Ohio named Maya Lin submitted the winning design. Her vision was simple and striking. The memorial is made of two stone walls, each 246 feet and 8 inches long. They are joined at a 125 degree angle and sunk into the earth, so that where the walls join they are about 10 feet tall, and at the outer ends, they are about 8 inches tall. On the wall, in chronological order from East to West, are inscribed the names of every service man or woman who died or went missing in action throughout the more than 20-year conflict. Visitors to the memorial see their own reflections in the dark and polished stone at the same time they see the etched names, bringing past and present together. When the design was first announced, it caused almost immediate outrage—perhaps the greatest controversy over a hand-made shrine in our lifetimes. Early on someone dmismissed it as a “black gash of shame,” and people at the highest levels of government got involved to insist on a statue of three servicemen being placed nearby.
As soon as the wall was dedicated, though, and people began to visit, the power of the shrine became clear. To go there and look at the names, to pray, to cry, to make a rubbing of the name of your loved one—countless people have done so over the past 29 years, and described it as a deeply spiritual and even healing experience. This puzzling shrine that initially sparked so much anger ended up unifying its supporters and critics; it has even, to an extent, unified supporters and critics of the war itself. It has visualized in stark and beautiful terms the enormity of the sacrifice made by those who fought and those who died and those whose fate remains unknown.
In today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is preaching the gospel by responding with eloquent and persuasive language to hand-made shrines he sees throughout the city of Athens. But in the passage just before our passage, when Paul first lays eyes on those shrines, he is not nearly so genteel. Paul is outraged.
I’ll just come out and say it. Paul has been having a bad week. Paul comes slinking into Athens alone after having been kicked out unceremoniously from Thessalonica, and then from Berea, where he has been traveling with Silas and Timothy. When Paul first arrives, he is deeply distressed to see the many, many idols throughout the city. He is apoplectic. So, his first move is to argue. He finds some philosopher types, some Stoics and Epicureans, and he has at it. They are confused, to say the least. They wonder, “What is this babbler saying?” They think Paul has come to preach two foreign gods named “Jesus” and “Resurrection.” Finally, they take him to the Areopagus, which is Greek for Mars Hill. The Areopagus was both the name of a hill and the name of a council that met on the hill. There they question Paul, firmly but politely. And at this point in the story, the narrator decides to give us a crucial piece of information: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Athens is THE place for philosophers and thinkers. It’s the home of Socrates! And that should ring at least one little bell of caution, as Socrates was put to death for “corrupting Athens with strange new gods”—which is just what the Athenians think Paul is doing.[i]
This is where we come in on the story. Paul begins to speak. But instead of decrying the Athenians for their many, many shrines to many, many gods, Paul focuses on just one—an altar that bears an inscription, “to an unknown god.” We know that Paul is actually quite upset at the many varieties of religious expression he finds in Athens. But now Paul realizes what his priority is: his priority is to share the gospel in a way that allows people to open their hearts to it. He comes to understand that, in order to open hearts and minds to the good news of Jesus, he needs to control his impulse to criticize, fight and focus on differences.
How do we respond to those whose faith is different from ours? At a certain point in my life I had lunch every day in a cafeteria with a young woman who told me that my church worshipped idols, and so it wasn’t the true church. I didn’t find her persuasive. I was never moved to visit her church or to find out anything about it at all. On the other hand, I was invited, once upon a time, to talk about my faith with an acquaintance who was a Presbyterian minister. She asked me a lot of questions about what I believed. As I answered her, I started to look at my own faith, and hers, with new eyes. A few years later I found myself standing in front of her congregation as I became a member.
Critics of the initial Vietnam Memorial design had to encounter the Memorial in order to have a change of heart about it. They had to visit it, to go there, and experience it. And when they did, their hearts were opened. They had a transformative experience.
I wonder if that is what has to happen to us in order to be able to connect to people of other faiths? Paul, in the end, was able to look at the shrine to an unknown god and say this: “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, 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” [Acts 17:24-25]. Paul was able to conclude that, for whatever reason that shrine was built, he could, in good conscience, see it as a shrine to the God of Jesus Christ. In our conversations, my friend the minister was able to open up a space where I could see her faith and she could see mine, and we could recognize where they met. Part of that recognition had to do with understanding what is the human-made part of that faith expression, and what is the eternal part.
About 11 years ago the Rev. Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian minister, addressed the PC(USA) annual Peacemaking Conference with a speech about religious diversity and pluralism. In his speech he included an image that became the Presbyterians’ own big controversy of that decade. This is what he said:
Imagine a holy place ringed with windows, and light is shining from outside this holy place through stained-glass windows into the holy place. Do you have that image in your mind? Well in this analogy, the light is the truth, the windows are religions, and the holy place is the world. Light shines from outside through the windows into the holy place in the same way religions are a vehicle by which truth comes into the world. If you take anything of what I say today, take this next thing. The window is not the light. The window is not the light. And religions need to be distinguished from the truth that they let into the world.[ii]
Every church, every religion, every expression of the truth, whether it be molecular biology or the air-speed velocity of the unladen swallow, is connected in some way to God—the God of Jesus Christ. If God is truth, then all truth is derivative of God in some way. And at the same time, every church, religion and expression of the truth is mediated by people, fallible human beings, describing their own experiences. The truth of God is more enormous, more overpowering, more glorious than any human vessel can hold, be that a church or a lab experiment. Rev. Ficca did not deny that Jesus was the way or the truth or the life; he merely said, as Paul said, that God cannot be confined to shrines made by human hands, that we should not confuse the human-mediated expression of religion with the eternal truth it reveals. And, of course, Rev. Ficca and Pastor Paul came to their tasks with different objectives: Ficca’s goal was to promote peace between diverse cultures. Paul’s was to share with one culture, the culture of Athens, a gospel he knew they had not yet heard before.
In the end, Paul was persuasive, and he lived to preach another day. By opening himself to the truth he recognized in a pagan shrine Paul was able to preach the gospel in all its particularity and power. And at the same time he was able to recognize that perhaps it was the God of Jesus Christ who had moved the Athenians to create that shrine in the first place.
Each one of us, every person who wants to follow Jesus, is a minister of the gospel. We are called to give witness to our faith, to point up at the particular stained glass window through which God has shown us the truth. And one way to share our faith is to recognize that, truly, in God, we all “live and move and have our being”—a line we all recognize as scripture, which came to us through Paul from an anonymous non-Christian poet.
At the same time, every person who wants to follow Jesus is called to remember that he called peacemakers “blessed.” We are called to be people of healing and peace, within ourselves, and within our communities, and throughout God’s beautiful and broken world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] C. Clifton Black, “Commentary on First Reading: Acts 17:22-31,” Working Preacher, April 27, 2008 [http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/27/2008&tab=1].
[ii] Rev. Dirk Ficca, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World,” 2000 Peacemaking Conference, Orange, CA [http://www.witherspoonsociety.org/ficca_address.htm#diversity%20as%20conflict].