Not every churchgoer has circled today on the calendar because it is the Sixth Sunday of Easter in the liturgical year. What’s likely highlighted on the family calendar hanging on the pantry door is all the graduations you are scheduled to attend this month. Since today’s scripture includes the Apostle Paul’s call for repentance of human ignorance, perhaps this is one of those times when our liturgical calendar accidently lines up with our personal ones.
I am a pastor in the Baptist tradition and, sadly, some of my tribe hold up ignorance as an ideal. In fact, my alma mater, Mercer University, started as a school to educate for the ministry because there was so much ignorance in the Baptist pulpit of the South. Jesse Mercer famously said, “Lord, save us from an uneducated clergy.”
Still, there is a strain of anti-intellectualism alive and well in Baptist life and beyond. Some Christians think science is the enemy of faith and that learning takes us farther from trust. Before I was a pastor, I worked in theological education. I encountered more than one student who was warned about seminary by their home pastor. Usually, the pastor’s advice sounded something like this: If you go to the seminary, they will confuse you with all kinds of questions and they will require you to read liberal books and, before you know it, you will start to lose your faith. All you need in ministry is the Word of God.
I do not doubt the sincerity of these pastors – they are products of a different tradition; I just do not agree with them. I trust the Bible too, but every calling is high enough, important enough to demand our best intellectual preparation. Regardless of her piety, I would not trust a Christian surgeon to take out my spleen if she had not been to med school.
Any vocational path demands our best efforts and our most rigorous preparation. Of course, college is not for everybody – a call to be a plumber might mean a rigorous apprenticeship program. “Every year, General Motors, AT&T, and IBM each spend more on education and training of their employees than the combined educational budget of all eight Ivy League universities.” [Executive Speechwriter Newsletter, Vol. 10 No. 4 as found in Raymond McHenry, McHenry’s Stories for the Soul (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001) 77.] I’m just trying to make the case that one of the ways we honor what it means to be made in the image of God is that we push ourselves to offer our very best gifts to bless the world. So, I applaud all of you who are heading off this month to celebrate somebody’s educational accomplishment; clap loudly when the tassel is turned.
Jesus admonishes us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” [Mark 12:30] Loving God with our minds suggests that God is not all that crazy about ignorance. As I said, in our text of Paul’s sermon, he calls for the listeners to repent against ignorance. But, as we will see, there is more than one kind of ignorance.
In our scripture for today, Paul is in Athens… Greece – not Georgia, but still, it is something of a university town. He had been preaching in northern Greece but ran into some trouble there, so he has retreated to Athens awaiting the arrival of his friends Silas and Timothy. And while he waits, Paul does some preaching and sightseeing. He goes to the synagogue and the marketplace almost daily and preaches the resurrection. He tours the city of Athens, the cultural and intellectual center of the day. He sees all the signs of the Greek’s love of culture and learning and the arts and intellectual pursuits. He notes their special interest in religion. Paul is both impressed and distressed to see how much lavish attention is given to the worship of the Greek gods.
There are 12 major gods of the Greek pantheon. I won’t do all 12 but you will recognize some if you go to the movies: Zeus, the king of the gods, ruling from Mt. Olympias. Poseidon is the god of the sea. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and passion. Hermes, the messenger god of travel and commerce and expensive scarves (I made up the last part). But you see, this vibrant religious tradition created a god to worship and appease for every area of life – commerce and love and war and travel and all the rest.
On Paul’s sightseeing tour, the apostle studies every shrine, each idol, each opulent object of worship and notices that one of the gods is named, Agnostos Theos – “unknown god.” “The god of just in case,” just in case we might have missed something, some god we have not yet honored… there is an altar to an “unknown god.”
As I said, Paul has been hanging out in the market preaching the resurrected Christ, and in this culture of ideas and learning listeners are intrigued enough with Paul’s ideas to invite him to the Areopagus – this rock outcropping just out from town – where court was held, and speeches given, and debates sponsored. Paul starts his sermon, today’s passage, with either flattery or an acknowledgment of how universal the human hunger for worship – “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He goes on to say that there is no need to worship an unknown god. And Paul presents the good news of the God “who made the world and everything in it, he who is the Lord of heaven and earth.” He affirms their natural hunger, their search for God, and goes so far to say they are “groping” for the Divine. Paul assures them that the God they are yearning for is not far away.
Then, after the set up – after affirming their hunger for the Divine, Paul pivots and tells them they have been ignorant. Keep in mind, Athens is the center of academic achievement, this is Harvard Square – and Paul says, “God has so far overlooked your ignorance but now it is time to repent.” He speaks of Christ and then quotes one of their own famous poets… “For in him we live and move and have our being.” “Your yearning is satisfied in relationship to the one true God – it is not found in gold or silver or stone.” Paul is preaching about another kind of ignorance.
One kind of ignorance is the belief that education is threatening – that knowledge and higher learning is a threat to faith. But there is another kind of ignorance. The folks gathered in Athens are plenty educated, but still ignorant. Paul preaches that you can spend your life worshipping gold, silver, or stone and live in the ignorance of God’s claim and God’s love in Christ.
Most of the time, when my heart aches for the people I love, it is because they have ignored Paul’s sermon in Athens – all the ways I see people worship gods that will not satisfy. My daily commute takes me past so many signs, advertisements, and businesses that are all trying to appeal to our groping for connection, fulfillment, meaning.
Some people’s groping takes them to ideas and intellectual pursuits, philosophies of meaning. As high as I am on education, it will not fill the hollow place. Still more people try to fill the void by pursuing gold, silver, or stone. Or they buy stone, upgrade to silver, and trade up for gold – thinking somehow the satisfaction is to be found in just one more acquisition – one more accomplishment.
There is a different ignorance in believing that you can be smart enough, achieve enough, or acquire enough to satisfy. Paul is preaching to the university crowd, the arts community, the Rotary Club, the accomplished, and telling them that it is time to repent of their ignorance. Knowledge is good, but wisdom is better. Wisdom is the recognition that the groping is over only when we trust in the resurrected One. Wisdom is found in relationship with the risen Christ, not in the gods you are worshipping now.
So, I’ve got my graduations to attend this month too. I usually leave these events half satisfied. We rightly celebrate that the crowd wearing tassels has learned enough to be more well-rounded and more employable, but seldom does anyone point out that smarts and finances are not the stuff of fulfillment and abundance. Education is not the final pursuit. Degrees are not the final goal. Paul called on one highly educated crowd to repent of their ignorance.
Would you join me in prayer?
Oh God, forgive us for all the ways we have pursued things that we thought would satisfy, for all the unknown gods we have chased, and return us to your love, where we find our rest, and our hope, and our wisdom in you. We pray in the name of Christ our Lord, Amen.