Updated: May 28
I don’t usually think of the Apostle Paul as a smooth talker. In the letters that he writes – the ones we have in Scripture – Paul can be quite... intense. Remember, this is a guy who has experienced a radical transformation. Just two weeks ago, we read a Scripture where he was cheering on a mob as they stoned to death an early follower of Christ. But the Paul we meet in this morning’s text has now himself experienced the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, and he is changed. He is all in – now, himself a zealous follower of Christ. In the South, we might say he’s “on fire for the Lord.”
And so in his letters (Galatians, Corinthians), Paul is intense – often angry – or at least testy – sometimes distraught. We usually find him in the midst of controversy; he is arguing with all he’s got against real enemies or with beloved friends who, in his view, have lost the way – forgotten who they are. And so he doesn’t mince words because the Good News he has experienced in the Risen Christ is, for him and for the world, a matter of life and death. It is everything. It is urgent. The Apostle Paul is passionate. And he is revolutionary – the whole world must change. For good. Now.
And even in Acts, where Luke tells the story of Paul, as Paul travels from town to town, the rhythm of his life goes like this: He arrives in a new city; he goes to the synagogue and to the marketplace; and he preaches... until he is inevitably run out of town. Almost every time. Not a smooth talker.
But here Paul is – in Athens – the city of philosophers and learning – the place where Plato and Socrates had taught some 400 years before. The city is still a place of inquiry and debate. Just before this Scripture, we hear that the Athenians and the foreigners who live there “spend their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” So Paul goes to the marketplace and joins the conversation, like any other travelling philosopher. He gets noticed, because how could you not? And they bring him to the Areopagus – a place for debate – maybe a court – that sits downhill from the Acropolis – just under the Parthenon, and they say: “Tell us this new teaching you are bringing, for you are bringing some strange ideas, and we want to know what they mean.”
And Paul stands before them to teach, and he begins: Men of Athens – I’ve just arrived in town, and as I’ve been walking around, I’ve noticed how very religious you are. (In their rhetorical patterns, speeches would usually start with a bit of praise for the audience.) How very religious you are. You have a god and a temple for everything. A god for this, and a god for that. You’re so thorough – I wandered into one temple and found an inscription “to an unknown god” – you even have a temple for an unknown god. Paul has observed their practices; he enters into their conversation, following their rhetorical patterns; and then he says this:
What you worship as something unknown, I’m going to proclaim to you. You’ve got this temple to an unknown God; well, let me fill in the blanks. Can we all agree that God is sovereign over heaven and earth? Well, if that’s so, you’re looking in the wrong place. God can’t be found in shrines made by human hands, or in statues sculpted in stone. No, God is everywhere – God is the source of all things – God gives every being life and breath. We don’t set the bounds for God, God does that for us. God creates us – everyone and everything – we are all created from one ancestor – from one blood – all of us children of God.
And then – lest they think he’s just too far out there – he says, “Why, it’s like your own poets say: ‘In God, we live and move and have our being,’ and ‘We too are God’s offspring.’” Just like your own poets say.
And if all this is so, we need to change – repent – we need to live like this – live as if we live and move and have our being in God – live as if we are the children of God – this is who we are – and God has told us so through the one God has raised from the dead.
Ah, and there it is. Pretty smooth. Logical. It follows what their own poets say. And it builds to ... Resurrection. Since you worship an unknown God, let me fill in the blanks – let me tell you about Jesus, whom God raised from the dead that we all might have life – that we all might be free.
Let’s not miss what the Apostle has just done. He has turned their world on its head. Remember, they live and move and have their being in a world ordered by empire. And not the Greek Empire – the Roman Empire. Athens and Greece, at this point in history, are really yesterday’s empire. Rome is in charge now. And the world is ordered top-down – by power over – with that order enforced by violence and force.
But if what the Apostle Paul has just said – so smoothly – is true – then none of that can hold:
· If God is ultimately sovereign, then Rome is not.
· If God is the ultimate source of everything – the One to whom we owe our lives – then the Powers of this world are not.
· If we are all really descended from one ancestor – if we are of one blood – then no class or race or nation of people has any claim of power over another – we are all one family – equally one family.
· And, if we truly live and move and have our being in God – if God is present with and in every bit of creation, then no bit of creation can subjugate any other bit of creation – the earth is not anyone’s to subjugate and abuse – not Rome’s, not yours, not mine.
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has set all creation free; we are God’s own offspring. Christ’s resurrection life is present in every bit of creation, which means that every bit of creation gets to be free.
Now, I don’t think we can overestimate the liberative power of what Paul is saying here. It certainly has not been lost on marginalized communities. Did you know that this Scripture was a cornerstone of the abolition movement, and for the African-American liberation movement to this day? Particularly verse 26 – better known in the King James – “From one blood God made all nations to inhabit the earth.” As early as 1800, Benjamin Banneker was writing to Thomas Jefferson quoting this Scripture. While the entrenched powers of slavery were misusing other parts of scripture to justify the enslavement of human beings, Banneker and others who followed called on Christians to look to this text, saying: If from one blood God created all humanity, then we all stand in the same relationship to God, “meeting together in a [shared] plain of absolute freedom and equality.”
The liberative power of this text has been claimed by LatinX Liberation theologians – who are particularly centered on the liberation that Christ brings to the poor. Justo González notes that if we truly believe that we are made from one blood to inhabit the earth – an earth that God in Christ inhabits with us, then “to inhabit cannot mean only to occupy, but also to care for it in such a way that it continues to be habitable.” What would it mean to our relationship to a planet we have pushed to the threshold of collapse to see creation... like that?
And for queer folks like me, if God created us all from one blood, if in God we all live and move and have our being, if God is equally present in every bit of creation, if we are all children of God – then God is just as present in queer bodies, in trans bodies, in bodies of every gender expression – just as present in us – as God is in everyone else. Just as filled with Resurrection life. Just as free.
This Easter we have set out looking for glimpses of Resurrection life. We’ve seen it in the first stories of how our ancestors encountered the Risen Christ at Easter. We’ve seen it in the early community that came to life, sharing everything as anyone had need. We’ve seen it in the stoning of Stephen – in the midst of the world’s violence – in the redeeming power of forgiveness and God’s abounding grace. What would it mean if we went looking for Resurrection life in every bit of creation – and saw it there – and lived like that?
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with some amazing friends. At the start of the month, I traveled with Janie Spahr for a few days up to Portland. You all know Janie – she’s stood courageously on behalf of LGBTQIA+ -- confronting the Powers – including the Church. We went to Portland, and we talked with folks there about inclusion. But we also went there to visit a friend of ours who is living with ALS and her wife. They are dear to us. We’ve been together in the struggle for justice for years – Janie with them longer than I have been. This couple stood with Jeff and me at our wedding, and we with them at theirs.
On the Tuesday of our visit, we drove up into Washington, and visited a garden that’s open for a month every year during lilac season. We strolled the paths, smelled every variety of lilac we could, and then we sat under a big shade tree and talked. Now, when I travel, I’m one who is usually ready to get onto the next thing. There are sights to see. But that day, we just sat and talked in that garden, the scent of lilacs in the air, as if time stood still, or didn’t much matter. There we were each distinct in our own embodiment, embodied together, rooted together in love. On the plane ride home, after three days full of life and love and conversation, Janie said this: “You know, Scott, when we look back on these days we’ve just shared – I think what we’ll remember most is lingering there together, in that garden, surrounded by those lilacs.”
The God who made heaven and earth, gives life and breath to all mortals and all creation. In God, we live and move and have our being. We are God’s offspring, each and all.
I’ve spent this past week with Yolanda Norton and Luísa Dantier, who preached and sang with us last weekend. Among Professor Norton’s many callings – Old Testament scholar, creator of the Beyonce Mass, profound preacher – Professor Norton is a womanist theologian.
Womanism is a movement that has its roots in the work of Alice Walker. It centers the lived experiences of Black women and girls and proclaims liberation from there. But it doesn’t stop there. It finds liberation there and then proclaims that liberation for everyone – for Black women and girls – and also for all who oppressed – on the basis of race, or gender, or gender identity, or class – as Wil Gafney explains, “Womanism makes room at the table of discourse for the least privileged of the community.”
And it challenges the privileged to engage liberation as well. To the extent that we are complicit in any oppression, we can be freed from our oppressing ways. We can stop. We can dismantle the systems that have benefitted us for far too long at the expense of others. We can and must listen and relinquish our oppression, so that everyone gets to be free. Everyone fully human. Everyone fully a child of God. Everyone free to live and move and claim our being. As Alice Walker says, in a garden where every flower blooms. From the lived experience of Black women and girls, womanist theologians proclaim and insist on a world where everyone gets to be free. We glimpsed that invitation – powerfully – last Sunday.
As we come to this morning’s Scripture, looking for glimpses of life, looking for Resurrection, we find it... everywhere. We come upon the Athenians looking for this life, day by day, searching every new idea, with a temple even for an unknown God. The Apostle names the longing pulsing down through the centuries, “we are created from one blood to inhabit the earth, so that we will search for God, grope for God, and perhaps find God.”
And here’s the thing. God is near. Not in statues and shrines of stone. But in us. As one writer says, “Divinity doesn’t look like gold, silver, or stone. It looks like people.” All people. Every bit of creation. Overflowing with life.
And when we see that, the world can never be the same. The Apostle says, to the Athenians and to us, we must change – repent this old world, with its imperial order that views God and humanity as something to be put away in a temple, owned, and controlled. No, we live and move and have our being in a world chock full of the liberating love and presence of God – we inhabit a world empowered and made alive in Resurrection. In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has set all creation free; we are God’s own offspring – everywhere you look. Christ’s resurrection life is present in every bit of creation, which means that every bit of creation gets to be free.
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text, see Demetrius K. Williams, “The Acts of the Apostles” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008); Justo L. González, Acts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Linda M. Malone and Ivoni Richter Reimer, Acts of the Apostles: Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022); Margaret Aymer, Commentaries on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-1722-31-4 ; Jeremy L. Williams, Commentaries on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-1722-31-6  See Aymer, supra.  See Williams, supra.  See González, p.201 (“Greece was one of the most impoverished zones in the Roman Empire.”)  See Malone and Reimer, pp.465-75  See Demetrius K. Williams, pp.236-38.  See id. (quoting Benjamin Banneker, Bishop Ransom, and Florence Spearing Randolph).  See Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), describing her womanist interpretive framework pp. 3-9, quoting Alice Walker.  Id. p.7.
 See Williams, supra.
Photo credit: Josh Stewart, used with permission via Unsplash