“An Ancient TED Talk”
“An Ancient TED Talk”
Psalm 66:8-16 ; Acts 17:22-31
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
May 14, 2023
Before we get into the specifics of our passage, some important background information.
In 307 BCE, the philosopher Epicurus bought a house with a private garden located outside the city of Athens. It was a simple, beautiful space where those affiliated with his philosophy spent their time together, nourishing these rich friendships. And the garden there became a symbol of this philosophy that was quite popular throughout ancient Greece.
Epicureanism was called a school of philosophy that did not really believe in god, or if there is one, that god is quite distant and uninvolved.
What they did believe was that happiness is attained through pleasurable experiences.
They believed in eating well, drinking well, having nice things, having good friends – but also always in moderation. Not hedonists, that was frowned upon.
Oppositely, they would do anything to avoid things that bring them pain or suffering. They were always pursuing a state of “tranquility.”
The garden setting, removed from the city life was a great place for this.
Thomas Jefferson was a self-proclaimed Epicurean and when he wrote that among are rights as human being is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – “Happiness” did not mean anything you really like or enjoy to whatever extent you want but he meant it in the pleasurable moderation sense of Epicureanism.
A people of the private garden.
In the Hellenistic world. the chief philosophical rival to the Epicurean approach to life was Stoicism, and on the whole it was the more widely shared philosophy of the two.
The school was founded in Athens by Zeno of Cyprus in 308 BCE. It got the name because Zeno would teach his philosophy from his porch. “Stoa” in Greek means “porch.”
And it really was a perfect name because whereas Epicureanism drew people away from public life and to the private garden, Stoicism called for a life that was set up right in the middle of the public life and public affairs.
The Stoics believed…
- there are rational principles that do govern this world,
- in a more distant, providential sense of the divine
- and if we live according to the rational, virtuous principles ordained by the divine…we will be happy.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength,” Marcus Aurelius, one of the most well-known Stoics, once wrote.
The ideal human is not bound by their emotions, rational, self-sufficient person who can face whatever trials and pains with a consistent dignity and virtue.
And most nobly such trails and pains are done on the ‘porch’ of public life – seeking to lead rightly and wisely and not persuaded by the masses or the whims of emotion.
People of the Garden… People of the Porch.
Friendship in the garden… duty within the fray.
Pleasurable experiences… rational thinking.
Trust your gut, your feelings…trust your mind, the data.
Athens was the epicenter of these leading philosophies in ancient Greek, and eventually the Apostle Paul arrives there, and he proves quite the debater. The Epicurean and Stoic leaders, in particular, they notice. They inquire, as we hear in the book of Acts:
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
So, they invite him to speak at the Areopagus, a platform that served much as a modern-day TED talk might work.
Leading thinkers and philosophers offering their unique insight and thought for public consumption, public debate.
So, Paul, what’s your angle? Your unique idea? The thing on which you stand? Come to the stage.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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.’
“As I have taken time to observe and study your city, I see your hunger for something more, something bigger than yourselves.”
Paul shows a real awareness of the city, and what the people care about – and he does not lead in with scathing remarks about worshipping empty things. Oppositely, he praises their religious impulse.
He then continues this pattern of finding common ground with his hearers.
In fact, each one of the affirmations in verse 24-29 that Paul makes about the living God is somehow or another approximated in ancient pagan writings.
• God made all things and has given all creatures life and breath (17:24) – Stoics
• God does not dwell in temples made with hands (17:24) – Epicureans and Stoics
• God made all nations, and appointed times and boundaries for them (17:26) – Stoics agree with that orderly sense of providence
• In God “we live and move and have our being,…we are his offspring” – Here Paul quotes an Athenian poet as if to say “what I believe is really as you all have so beautifully put it already in your poetry…”
A good 90% of Paul’s speech involves naming commonalities, bridge-building, shared assumptions – especially with the Stoics, which are a bit easier since they more obviously believe in a god.
To be sure, the Stoics would have understood some of the phrases used by Paul somewhat differently and Paul probably knew that…at the same time, as one commentator puts it…it’s clear Paul wants to “maximize the impression of agreement with his audience”
Why? When you stand for things that matter in life, when you stand against things that are false, wrong, dangerous…what rationale is there for even suggesting a kinship with that which is wrong?
One of my favorite reflections from Abraham Lincoln comes from a speech he gave in 1842 to the Washington Temperance Society. It’s a longer quote but one I want to read in whole because it feels like its written for 2023 ears as well:
“It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. (and people)
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest,”
If you want another person to see your side, to follow your lead, to be open to something important to you, a view, a vote, a faith… if you want your child to listen and be persuaded, if you want any measure of real, lasting, good influence in any arena of life…it is like trying to penetrate the hard shell of a turtle with rye straw if you simply dictate, control, command, insist….
And here’s the real catch: even if you’re 100% right. It Does. Not. Matter.
A drop of honey catches the heart…
“Athenians I see you are so very religious…”
I do not take Paul’s tone as that of a stereotypical salesperson whose really just trying to say anything to sell something…. simply because of the genuine, honest nature of his tone in the writings we have from him. I think he really does spend 90% of his speech giving some honest commendation where he can name common ground.
This is Paul being, in his own words, “all things to all people.”
This is Paul recognizing that no matter who we encounter or what they believe…they are made in the image of God and so have something of God coming in and through their lives, their beliefs.
To be sure… this is easy for him.
Verse 16 (before today’s reading) makes it clear that when Paul arrives in Athens he is grieved by what he sees. Or other translates have “angered,” “provoked, “stirred to a deep discontent.”
When Paul looks around at what these people are up to and the things to which their money and attention go…it burdens him.
“How can you not see the truth? How can you not see this is so false?!”
To be sure, sometimes the only response to utter evil and falsehood is you turn the tables in the Temple. The anger is expressed in prophetic gesture. Jesus did that amid the hypocrisy unfolding in the Temple.
But ‘turning the tables’ is a pronounced and prophetic moment. Used all the time, and you may as well poke straw against a turtle.
And so Paul, the one who famously wrote, “love is patient, love is kind” looks upon these people gripped by and gripping some false and bad gods… “Athenians, I see you are religious in every way…”
And yet…at the same time…what makes Paul’s speech so remarkable is not only the great lengths he goes to build bridges and commonality and show forth patience with those who believe in so much that grieves him… it is also that Paul knows the central thing about which he simply cannot compromise.
The central thing that is different whether the Athenians can go for it or not.
I wonder if at this moment he doesn’t step straight to the center of the TED talk stage, plant his feet firmly, and declare verse 31:
“(God) has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man (Jesus) whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him (Jesus) from the dead.”
90% of the speech is bridge-building, finding common ground, showing that he really does know about the Athenians… but also there is this most basic thing about being a follower of this man named Jesus:
Jesus is the one who will one day judge the world in righteousness. Jesus is the standard for all of live.
Jesus, not pleasure,
Jesus, not reason,
Jesus, not parties.
Jesus has the final say about what matters, who matters, and how things go.
And why is Jesus the final say, the final judge according to Paul?
“Because,” Paul says, “because Jesus rose from the dead. His is stronger than death. He is alive.”
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus confirms and validates everything Jesus taught and did. Because Jesus is raised from death, his way and teachings and judgements carry a power no other person or philosophy has.
“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed…” we read.
“A crucified Jewish man alive again…and in charge of everything?!”
No one said this TED talk would sit well with everyone. They are scandalized.
Perhaps they are scandalized, too, because they’d heard some of Jesus’s judgements:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Those judgements are anathema to Epicureans who prize the avoidance of pain.
2. Or again…
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Stoics who so deeply value logic and order would be scandalized. “How unfair, how illogical, how upside these judgments!”
3. Or perhaps they recall this judgement of Jesus…
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
This is not a priority that gains much traction among garden people just trying to enjoy the few years on earth we all have. This is an uncomfortable judgement about what and who matters.
4. Or maybe in his debating in Athens, Paul explained Jesus’ most fundamental verdict upon humanity that he would eventually write down in the letter to the letter of Romans: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The judge’s ultimate verdict is to name the sin of every person…and take their sin with him upon the cross and forgive every measure of it. “Final verdict on the full mess: It’s nailed there. Forgiveness.”
The TED talk ends with some scoffing. Some, we read, wanted to hear Paul talk again. And some…believed. Some liked the idea of such judge to be in charge.
When we first started coming back to in-person worship in 2021, I shared with our officers a story that a pastor friend of mine in Atlanta shared with me. She said she had a neighbor there who said, a few months into the pandemic, “I really need community. I think I’m going to either join a book club or a church.”
She went with a book club. Kind an epicurean “people of the quiet garden” option – and no condemnation. I myself love a good book club and think there’s plenty of room for both/and with book clubs and churches, as a number of you know first-hand.
Now, my pastor friend did not know precisely why the neighbor did that, and I am sure we can all make guesses. But, I shared this story with our leadership to raise this question:
Why church? What are we doing here? What do we tell others and ourselves about why this matters, why this is good, why this is different even from a book club or non-profit or civic engagement opportunities?
Like our officers that year, we could have a lot of good discussions around this, but I think, minimally, we reminded ourselves of this one fundamental truth:
Yes, we have affinities and overlaps with the people of the garden and the people of the porch. But the singular thing on which the church stands and in which the church lives and moves and has its being – its Jesus.
It’s the belief that we have been found by him, and he really is in charge. That he really is stronger than the worst that we or this world might ever do…and that we find in his life and teaching the true way of life.
In fact, I read an article just this past week by the Ministry Collaborative where they made a few observations about what vital churches in our day have in common:
“Vital churches are putting Jesus front and center. This actually needs to be said out loud right now. The church in its ministry is called to focus on many concerns in life and society … and they all flow from and into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Otherwise, we’re trying to be just one more cultural institution.”
Perhaps today there is not one super practical takeaway, but instead a reminder of who we are. Whose we are. Which may be even more important.
We are not fundamentally young or old.
This generation or that.
Republican or Democrat.
Citizen of the US, Citizen of another country.
This title or that title.
Most fundamentally, most foundationally, we are people of Jesus. We live in him. By his teaching. For his glory.
And he’s in charge. Thanks be to God.