“I Perceive That You Are Not Very Religious” (Acts 17:16-31)

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2023

“I Perceive That You Are Not Very Religious” (Acts 17:16-31)

In our reading from the Book of Acts, Paul is in Athens, at the Areopagus, and he begins his address there by saying, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Now I wonder how Paul might begin a speech here, if he came to America in our day. He might just say, “I Perceive That You Are Not Very Religious.”

Not very religious: Let me explain. If you track the views and activity of Americans over recent decades, you would have to say that we as a country are becoming less religious, and increasingly so. Oh, we’re still more religious than Western Europe, which has become almost totally secularized. But compared to how America was, say, sixty years ago, or even thirty years ago, we are definitely less religious than we used to be. It started in the mid-1960s, the decline of church membership in our country. And now in the 21st century, what was a stream has become an absolute torrent. Church membership has drastically, dramatically, plummeted. Some call it “The Great Dechurching” of America. It’s the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history. 40 million Americans have left the church over the last 30 years.

Which leads us to the group known as the “Nones.” Now I’m not talking about little old ladies in black habits. Those would be “nuns,” n-u-n-s. No, I’m talking about mostly young adults who are not into church habits. These are the Nones, N-o-n-e-s. If asked on a survey to list their religious preference, they would mark “None.” They are the religiously unaffiliated; they don’t go to church, they don’t know the Bible, they don’t hold to any particular set of religious beliefs or practices. If you ask them, they’ll say, “Oh, I’m spiritual! But I’m not religious. I don’t believe in organized religion.”

You see, to the Nones, “organized religion” is the big bugaboo. What, so you prefer “disorganized religion”? Or should I say, “individualized, privatized religion”? Because that’s what it’s more like. Each person does that which is right in his own eyes. “My truth is my truth,” even if it doesn’t make any sense. These are the Nones. And they are growing. Rapidly.

So if Paul were here today, he might say, “Nones of America, I perceive that in every way you are not very religious.” And they would nod their heads and say, “Yeah, you’re right, Paul. We are not very religious. And we like it that way.”

But that doesn’t mean the Nones don’t have their gods. They do. Athens was full of idols. So is America. An idol is whatever false god you worship. In the Large Catechism, under the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” Luther writes: “What does it mean to have a god? . . . Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.” And Luther goes on to list some of the more common idols that people have: Money and possessions. Happiness and pleasure. Whatever you look to as your highest good, that is your god.

So it is today. People may say they’re not religious, but they still have their gods, their idols. I’ve often said that wherever people spend their Sunday mornings, that is where their god is. If it’s sleeping in on Sunday morning, their god is the pillow. If it’s going out for brunch, their god is their belly. If it’s taking their kids to their soccer games, their god is their children. And so on. Now there’s nothing wrong per se with a good night’s sleep or going out for brunch or taking your kids to their games. But anytime you choose to spend your time on something other than giving your attention to the one true God–the God who created you, the God who forgives your sins, the God before whom you will stand on the day of judgment–whenever you choose something else over the one true God, you are making a wrong choice.

Now let’s be clear: It’s not just the “Nones” or the “dechurched” who do this sort of thing. We all do. Even us respectable, church-going folk. Oh, we may put a better gloss or veneer on how we look, but we still have that old, idol-worshiping sinner within us. When it comes down to it, each one of us wants to be our own god and do whatever gives us the most pleasure. It’s been that way ever since the fall into sin. We all sin, and we all die.

So thank God, he has given us the realization that we all are idolaters! Thank God that he has given us the gift of repentance to know our sin and the eternal death and judgment that would await us! Thank God, he’s given us the gift of faith to know our Savior, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who creates faith in our hearts through the gospel and keeps us strong in this faith and love through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament.

This is what all people need to know. Through the ministry of the church, through the preaching of God’s Word of Law and Gospel, God would have all nations come to the knowledge of the truth.

Friends, this is what the apostle Paul was doing in Athens, preaching at the Areopagus. He was meeting the people where they were and then leading them toward repentance and the forgiveness of sins. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

People by nature do not know who the one true God is. So they grope around in the dark and create gods in their own image. The people of Athens would have idols devoted to all the various gods that people come up with, and then, just to make sure they were covering all their bases, they even had an idol devoted to “The Unknown God.” Paul picks up on this and says, in effect, “OK, you admit you don’t know who God is. So now I’m going to tell you about him.”

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth,” Paul goes on, and he describes how there is only one God, who made everything that exists. And yet, even though all people should seek for this God, they don’t know him as they ought. That is due to man’s ignorance. But now God has revealed himself to us, so that we can know him. And that means it’s time to give up on our idols, who cannot save us, and turn in repentance to the one true God who can and will save us.

Paul says: “But now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” You see, Paul is preaching Jesus and the resurrection. This is what all people everywhere need to know. There is a judgment day coming. How will you stand on that day? Will your idols save you on that day? No, they will not. No Athenian idol can help you on that day. And no American idol, either.

God will judge the world in righteousness. There will be no slipping by. There will be no secrets that you can hide from God. The Law is the Law: Love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Anything short of that, and you get the guilty verdict.

But thank God that in his mercy he has sent his own Son, who has taken the guilty verdict from you and served the death sentence in your place! This is Jesus, the God-man Savior. He is your only hope on the day of judgment. Trust in him, not in yourself, not in your idols. This same Jesus, having accomplished the mission for which his Father sent him–this same Jesus rose from the dead and now lives forever. You wouldn’t know this, other than God sending his messenger to tell you this good news. So, listen up and take this to heart.

That’s where Paul is going with his sermon at the Areopagus. And that’s where every faithful preacher goes to this day. This is what you need to know! You are a sinner. You have a Savior. His name is Jesus. And I’m here to tell you about him.

Friends, it doesn’t matter whether you are a “None” or a “dechurched” or a heavy-duty, every-Sunday, “churched” kind of person. There is no distinction. God is not a respecter of persons. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All have the same Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose to give you the gift of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation. Take hold of Christ, by faith, and you will never need anything or anyone else to save you.

Published in: on May 12, 2023 at 9:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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