I. Establish the text
A. Select the Pericope: Acts 17:16-31
C. Other texts for Year A for 6th Sunday in Easter
D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?
17 How would Paul be received today? Imagine a representative of a foreign religion arguing in our town square, debating professors and ministers.
22 How are we very religious? Or perhaps how are we overtly irreligious?
23 If Paul were to wander through our community, what would he see as drawing our attention away from the one true God and the resurrection of the dead.
24 Do our church buildings reflect the idea that God does not live in shrines? Considering how they lie empty for six days so they can be partly filled for a few hours a week.
25 What is our image of God? The master programmer or perhaps the master program/equation? What heresies/limitations are involved in such images? Computers make only logical deterministic decisions. God offers us participation in the divine transrational future.
28-29 Where to we image God being? Far away/above us in heaven? How would our religious behavior change if we imaged ourselves as living and moving in God, and all people being God’s offspring?
30-31 Our age denies ignorance and tends toward intellectual arrogance, with the philosophers of our age asserting human knowledge surpasses a need for God.
E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?
- Paul and Silas were traveling in Greece arguing in synagogues that Jesus is the Messiah and that Jesus’ suffering and resurrection were necessary.
- Paul’s delivery provoked Jewish leaders in Thessalonica, who formed a mob that searched for Paul. This mob brought several believers before the authorities alleging they were disturbing the peace and proclaiming a king other than the emperor. Paul left Thessalonica during the night and found Beroea more receptive to the message, until the Thessalonians found him.
- This passage begins with Paul biding his time in Athens until his friends can join him.
- The lectionary skips over Paul’s observations and initial arguments that led to his opportunity to argue at the Areopagus.
- After leaving Athens, Paul traveled to Corinth where his arguments again provoked established Jews.
II. Literary Study.
C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms
Paul is called a “babbler” (v. 18), literally “seed-picker” (Gk. spermologos), marking Paul as a wandering philosopher/preacher who, like a bird picking up seeds, collects philosophical terms here and there and uses them in his street diatribes with little or no grasp of their meaning (Mays, James Luther, Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary).
III. Question the text.
B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?
Paul uses the statues to various gods distributed throughout Athens as a touch point to connect with the people.
C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?
- This passage provides an example of Paul’s preaching style which used items familiar to his audience and Old Testament topics to proclaim the necessity of Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
- The various idols enrage Paul, perhaps provoking asserting retributive justice against those with false faith.
D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.
- Paul attracted conflict to his own detriment. The conflict aroused quick interest, yielding short lived fascination with his message and motivation for Paul to travel from town to town, spreading the Message.
E. Is there anything you wish the author had included in the passage? Why do you think this was not a part of Scripture?
- Paul’s sermon ends abruptly, perhaps due to the light response he received for asserting the resurrection.
- I would have liked to have seen a summary of his subsequent conversations with those who joined him and became believers.
F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?
- An interesting account of an overly zealous preacher and part of his sermon. But how is it the word of God for us, in this time and this place?
IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?
Robert W. Wall (The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Acts of the Apostles,” 2002) connects the cultural and intellectual reputation of the city of Athens’ to the importance of this speech. He alludes that even in Paul’s day, the “idols” in Athens would have been deemed works of art rather than objects of worship. He also notes that the Epicureans were materialists who considered idolatry illogical.
V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?
Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond
A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?
God is bigger than we suspect and merits our complete obedience.
B. Focus Statement: Central, controlling, unifying theme.
Paul presents God the Creator, who will judge all people through Christ.
C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?
Consider the limitations we place on who God is and what God is possible of doing.