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Neither Epicurean Nor Stoic But Christian


Acts 17:16-34.


I: — What irks you? What upsets you? For a long time I have thought that the thing which irks us most (like the thing which delights us most) tells the world what is really on our heart, what we really live for, how profound (or shallow) we really are. If we are most upset when we can’t find a parking spot, or when the weather isn’t what we’d like or when the laundry tub overflows, then we are shallow. If, however, we are most upset when spouse or child or friend is misrepresented or victimized in any way, we are deeper. If we are most upset when God’s honour is besmirched, God’s truth ridiculed, God’s glory trifled with, God’s patience presumed upon and God’s mercy disdained, we are deeper still. What irks us tells the world what we truly cherish, what we pursue, what possesses us; in a word, what irks us indicates how godly we are.

On one of his missionary journeys Paul stopped over in Athens . He spoke with the people of the city. He commended the gospel to them. They slighted him; called him a “babbler”. “Babbler” is a very sanitized English translation of a Greek word which means “seedpicker” or “gutter sparrow”. Gutter sparrows pecked around on the streets looking for second hand seeds; seeds which had spilled out of a horse’s feedbag, even seeds which had passed through the horse and had to be pecked more diligently. When Paul announced the gospel in Athens the Athenians regarded him as a rummage clerk who peddled cast-off intellectual scraps. “Gutter sparrow”, “babbler”. Unlike you and me, however, Paul didn’t have a fragile ego and therefore he wasn’t upset at this. The Athenians could call him whatever they wanted to. He wasn’t irked.

What did irk him, however, was the proliferation of idols throughout the city. As a Jewish person who had the first and second commandments in his bloodstream he was most upset when he saw the uniqueness of God denied and the glory of God slighted by the city’s flaunted idolatry. Luke tells us that Paul’s “spirit was provoked” when he saw this. To say Paul’s spirit was provoked is to say that he was both angry and repelled at the spectacle. The fact that he was upset at this, and not upset when he was abused himself, tells us that the apostle was oceans deep. You and I should soberly take note of what we have inadvertently yet truthfully told the world is really important to us, inasmuch as the world has already taken note of it.


II: — In Athens Paul found two principal groups of hearers: Stoics and Epicureans.

(i) Stoics aimed at living in harmony with nature. Their concern with nature led them to espouse a world-state, national boundaries being as obsolete as a caveman’s club. The Stoics were morally earnest; in fact moral earnestness, especially with respect to their concern for nature, was what distinguished them. They were possessed of the highest sense of duty. And concerning all of this they were as proud as peacocks.

Think today of Greenpeace, for instance. Greenpeace aims at living in harmony with nature. Moral earnestness. Highest sense of duty — so high, in fact, that it courts personal danger. (How many of us would drive our rubber dinghy under the bow of an oceangoing vessel in order to save a whale?) Don’t get me wrong. I’m not belittling Greenpeace at all; nor any other environmental group. I am not so stupid as to think that I can allow the whales and fish and animals to perish and yet survive myself. They don’t need me to survive; but I need them. Vegetation doesn’t need me; but I need it. And therefore the moral earnestness of those bent on living in harmony with nature, as well as their sense of duty; it is all commendable and is not to be belittled in any way.

But is there also a chilling pride which goes with this? Is there a sense of superiority? Do morally earnest people regard themselves superior to those who are morally indifferent? We shall come back to this.

(ii) — Epicureans confronted Paul in Athens as well. The Epicureans believed that pleasure is the chief end of life. Now when you hear this don’t assume the most profligate debauchery. The Epicureans were smarter than this. They knew that unrestrained indulgence doesn’t magnify pleasure, ultimately; unrestrained indulgence only increases suffering. The Epicureans wanted a life free from suffering, free from pain, free from disturbing passions. They wanted tranquillity. In addition, they were agnostics. Whether there were deities or not made no difference to them, since the deities (if deities there were) took no interest in people anyway.

Today Epicureanism is the ruling ideology of many suburbanites (like me); it’s the ruling ideology of all yuppies (by definition).   Unthinking oafs may go on binges and “blowouts,” only to suffer for days afterwards. Unthoughtful people may fritter their entire paycheque at once with nothing left for a year-end RSP. But the true Epicurean is never this shortsighted. He knows what kind of pleasure is ultimately most pleasurable. He knows that unthoughtful appetitive indulgence isn’t ultimately pleasurable. And so he calculates and estimates and gradually becomes ever so shrewd in adding up what gives greatest pleasure over the greatest period of time.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Epicureanism (including its modern version) always appears decent and honourable when in fact it is the most coldly calculating self-indulgence. It appears virtuous inasmuch as it isn’t vulgar, gross or lurid. But in fact it is maximal self-indulgence disguised with a cloak of refinement.

Stoics and Epicureans are still with us. Present-day Stoics — morally earnest, dutiful people who recognize genuine threats to the world — present-day Stoics pursue worthy goals. Nonetheless, while they are zealous in pursuing much that is good, they are blind to the good, the kingdom of God . Blind to humankind’s need of salvation in Jesus Christ, they invest their own pursuit and their own agenda with a salvific force and ultimacy which renders it idolatrous.

Present-day Epicureans, on the other hand, despite a veneer of sophistication and refinement, are simply self-serving. They don’t understand, can’t understand, that the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, whether in its crude form or its refined form, is unworthy of a creature of God, is finally dehumanizing, and is self-defeating in any case. As for avoiding passion as much as possible inasmuch as passions disturb, no Christian would want to live impassively. Is lukewarm anaemia our idea of living? More profoundly still, cosy impassivity is sinful when God himself is exceedingly impassioned. Myself, I love the biblical passages which speak of God’s passion. The Hebrew prophets speak of God snorting through his nostrils in exasperation; God’s speech is strong enough to break rocks; God’s anger is a consuming fire. At the same time, so tender is God that he aches to have his flippant people attuned to him; God longs to nourish his children as surely as a nursing mother wants her babe to thrive. God is so infuriated by a disobedient, ungrateful Israel that he wants to thrust it away, get clear of the people, and get his own gut disentangled. (Haven’t you ever felt this way about someone?)   Then, Hosea tells us, God says to Israel , “How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Haven’t you ever felt this way about the same person thirty minutes later?) The unimpassioned life isn’t worth living. Unimpassioned people are concerned only with gentle, self-stroking self-gratification. God, meanwhile, is bleeding to death for the sake of the world. Present-day Epicureanism (typified by so many suburbanites and yuppies) is self-serving shallowness. It is dehumanizing.

Paul had engaged both the morally earnest who are blind and the morally non-earnest who are shallow before you and I were ever exposed to them. Politely he told them what he thought: they were idolatrous. In one case (Stoics) a good had been confused with the good; in the other case (Epicureans) good wasn’t even pursued. Yet finally both were idolatrous alike. Rudely they told him what they thought of him: he was a babbler, a gutter-sparrow who picked over intellectual droppings.

Still, there were serious people among the Athenians. They told him they wanted to hear more about this “new teaching which you present”. They wanted to go from elementary theology to intermediate. And so Paul began his sermon.


III: — POINT ONE: The God whom they admit they don’t know (after all, they had written “To an unknown god” on the altar of their deity); the God whom they admit they don’t know is knowable. Not only is God knowable, God is known, right now, by multitudes without number. These people, Christian believers, know God as surely as they know their own name. They have come to know that this God doesn’t inhabit humanly-made shrines or buildings or cult-objects. The God who genuinely is God gloriously transcends all human attempts at containing him. Furthermore, this God needs nothing from us (he may want something from us — namely us ourselves — but needs nothing from us.) God is God.

POINT TWO: God has made us all “from one”. The Athenians were proud that of all the different ethnic groups which made up the Greek people, only Athenians were non-immigrants to Greece . Surely those who have never been the tired, poor, huddled immigrant masses yearning to breathe free; surely these people are superior! They certainly think they are superior! The apostle sets them straight: God has made them all “from one”. “From one” means a common ancestry. Humankind consists of commoners. Before God any pretence to superiority is ludicrous because false.

POINT THREE: All humankind, without exception, yearns with a common longing. All humankind has the profoundest disquiet. The German language has the best word for it: Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht can’t be translated by the English word “desire”. “Desire” is too close to the surface, too close to being frivolous wish or too close to being something hormonally driven. Sehnsucht is the nameless longing which God has implanted in the human heart. It is the profound disquiet which humankind cannot deny but also cannot identify. It is the profound disquiet which leaves us knowing that regardless of what we achieve, acquire or aspire after we were made for something better.

Sehnsucht always reminds me, in many respects, of what a homing pigeon has in its head. Take the pigeon anywhere, release it, and the pigeon knows instinctively that wherever it might be at this moment it isn’t home. What God has implanted in us is similar to the pigeon’s homing instinct. THERE IS, HOWEVER, A HUGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US AND THE HOMING PIGEON: THE PIGEON KNOWS HOW TO GET HOME! Its instinct will get it home. Our Sehnsucht, however, won’t get us home. It merely reminds us that we aren’t at home. Pigeons, you see, aren’t corrupted by sin. But we are. Enough of our homing instinct remains operative in the aftermath of sin to let us know that we aren’t home, but not enough remains operative to get us home.

John Calvin used a different metaphor. He said that the situation of profound disquiet which God has sown in the human heart is like the situation of a person who is trying to find her way across unfamiliar terrain in the middle of a storm. Lightning flashes through the sky, lighting up the terrain around her. Before she can take a step towards home, however, the flash has disappeared. Paul tells the Athenians that the human condition is this: homing instinct, inability to get home, unidentified yet undeniable longing; Sehnsucht.


IV: — Then the apostle tells his hearers that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In raising Christ from the dead God has vindicated him as the righteous one. Therefore, says Paul, the Athenians should suspend their unbelief, forswear their pride, rouse themselves from their sophisticated self-indulgence. They should acknowledge that the one to whom their homing instinct couldn’t bring them; this one has mercifully brought himself to them – and therefore they should repent.

Repentance doesn’t mean self-deprecation. (God isn’t honoured by our self-belittlement or self-rejection.) Repentance doesn’t even mean remorse. (Many people are remorseful who never repent, inasmuch as remorse is tear-soaked regret over consequences.) Repentance is an about-face, a U-turn, a change in orientation (outlook) with an attendant change in lifestyle confirming the new orientation.

Paul informs his hearers that because they had been ignorant of the gospel God has not held them accountable for what can only be known and done in the light of the gospel. Now that the gospel has been announced, however, “the times of ignorance” are no longer overlooked. The time to get serious about the gospel is now. The time for a God-altered orientation (outlook), confirmed by a gospel-fashioned lifestyle, is now.

And therefore the present-day Stoic, the person who earnestly espouses the best causes, even necessary causes, must nevertheless repent. After all, even my utter self-giving for the sake of preserving the environment or the city streets or public education; even my utter self-giving here doesn’t reconcile me to God or renew me through God’s Spirit. In the same way the Epicurean, the moderately affluent suburbanite or yuppie preoccupied with stress-free selfism, must also repent. After all, the unimpassioned life isn’t worth living. The unimpassioned life is alien to the God whose passions throb, alien as well to a world whose needs pulsate. To repent is to turn (return) to the God who has already taken the world’s passion to heart.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that preaching which is devoid of passion isn’t gospel-preaching. The announcement of the Good News isn’t like the broadcaster’s recitation of sports scores, amusing for those who are sports fans and insufferably boring for everyone else, when all the while the outcome of a game is only a trifle. The announcement of the Good News means, among other things, that the time of excusability through ignorance is over. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. His resurrection vindicates him as the world’s sole saviour and lord and judge. It’s time to get serious.

V: — What response did Paul meet?

(i) Some people mocked. As soon as they heard him speak of the “resurrection of the dead” they hooted. Did they mock Paul’s message or mock Paul himself? Both. You can’t ridicule what someone says without also ridiculing the speaker who is so naive or silly or stupid as to say it. Some people mocked.

(ii)   Other people procrastinated. “We will hear you again about this.”   They deferred making a decision. We must note one thing, however. We can always postpone making up our minds; but we can never postpone making up our lives. The person who says she can’t make up her mind about getting married is still single. “We will hear you again” means “We haven’t made up our minds.” True. But their lives were made up: they remained set in unbelief and disobedience.

(iii) Some people received the Good News for what it is. They believed. They joined themselves to the apostle and stood with him publicly in that new-found courage which faith both requires and supplies. Among these new believers were Dionysius and Damaris.

Dionysius, a man, belonged to the most learned philosophical circles in Athens , a rarefied intellectual. Damaris was a woman. Women didn’t go to the Areopagus, the site of learned philosophical discussions, for a reason I am sorry to have to tell you: women in ancient Greece weren’t deemed capable of philosophical learning. The only woman at the site of the discussions was the woman who offered herself to brain-weary philosophers in need of a bodily distraction.

It’s the same gospel-message that commends itself to Dionysius and Damaris alike, poles apart as they are socially. In other words, regardless of our intellectual capacity or our formal academic training or our social position, our heart-hunger is for Jesus Christ. Our homing instinct knows this but can’t identify it and therefore can’t deliver us to him. Yet of his own grace and mercy and humility he has delivered himself to us, delivered himself up for us; of his own grace and mercy and persistence he longs to quicken and confirm our faith in him. In the assurance of faith which he imparts we then come to know ourselves home, home at last, home forevermore.


                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

 August 2004