urban landscape – the face of longing

The Apostle Paul has arrived in the city of Athens. Athens – the intellectual capital of the ancient world; a city in which ideas are born. Athens, the city of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. In Paul’s day, of course, the three great philosophers are long dead, but Athens is still defined by a rigorous intellectual culture – philosophical debate is part of the fabric of the place.

Our passage from Acts this morning captures something of what happens when Paul, theologian of the resurrection – follower of the risen Jesus – goes head to head with the philosophers of Athens. It is at the Areopagus that Paul makes his extended presentation, which is summarized in our NT lesson.

We should know, perhaps, that the Areopagus is an elevated, open-air site just across from the famous Acropolis. In Paul’s day Senate meetings or public debates were held there. It was where the great and most recent ideas were debated – there was a council of philosophers who refereed scholarly debates at the Areopagus.

And when Paul stands up to speak, his opening words are highly instructive for us. He says: “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’.”

We will get to the content of Paul’s speech in the Areopagus, but the first thing we notice is Paul’s attentiveness to the city itself. We notice that the first thing Paul did when he got to Athens was to go for a walk in the city. And as he was walking around he paid attention to what he saw. What he saw was this: a multitude of shrines – a veritable forest of Gods. As one scholar says of ancient Athens: “There were gods everywhere; their shrines were scattered throughout the city and the suburbs. The marketplace was full of shrines.”

Paul wants to connect with the people of Athens. Paul wants to share the news of what God has done and will do through Jesus. But in order to do that, in order to share the message with them, Paul realizes that he has to know something about who they are. He has to understand what matters to them and defines their lives. And to find that out, Paul goes for a walk. In the city he sees the multitude of gods to which the Athenians offer devotion and to whom they make offerings. To Paul it is evident that the people of Athens seek security and prosperity and meaning through the worship of these gods. Their lives and culture are defined by this framework of multiple gods.

As I thought about how Paul introduced himself to the city of Athens – how he looked at the city for evidence of what mattered to the Athenians, I began to think about our city. If you come to the city of Montreal, and you go for a walk in this city, what do you see? What can we read off the surface of the city – what do the things we see tell us about the longings, the values, the priorities, and the fears of those who live here?

This past week I decided to be more than theoretical about it. So on Thursday, I went for a walk in our city – and I took pictures of some of the things I saw. Of course each person’s attention will be drawn to different things – we all look with our own biases and interests. But let me show you a few of the things I saw.

First of all, I saw Banks. They seem to be on every corner. Everywhere you turn in our city there are banks – little corner branches and towering office buildings. The prominence of banks in our city suggests that money matters a great deal to us – borrowing money, saving money, investing money, earning money – socking it away and growing it. With so many banks it’s obvious that money matters to us – even preoccupies us.

Closely related to banks – there are insurance companies. They sell life insurance – car insurance – house insurance – health insurance. Not only Standard Life offices but also Manulife and Sun Life and many others. Based on the presence of these insurance companies it seems that personal and financial security is important to us – a defining feature of our culture is the attempt to protect ourselves against many of the possible threats to our financial and personal health.

On a very different note, it seems from what I saw that entertainment matters a good deal to us. There is the uber-popular Apple store with the ipod – the ipad – the iphone – the imac. There is Future Shop with all manner of TVs and video games and computer games.  Of course there is the Bell centre – home of the habs. From what I saw it seems that being entertained matters to us – time to play, time to be distracted, time to enjoy ourselves with our toys. Time dedicated to our pleasure and enjoyment.

In our city there is also, it seems, an endless number of shops where clothes are sold.  Cheap urban wear – high end shops like Holt Renfrew – middle of the road places like the Bay or MEXX. Fashion matters to us – how we look, how others see us – whether we are with it in terms of fashion or perhaps falling behind the times. From the number of clothing shops in this city, and the number of fashion billboards I saw, it seems that fashion, how we look, matters a good deal to us.

It’s interesting that when Paul walked through the city of Athens, he saw religion everywhere he turned. But when it comes to modern Montreal, the presence of formal religion seems negligible.

As I walked, I did come across churches.

I came across this church – some of you will recognize it as First Presbyterian Church – but of course it has been converted into condominiums. There were too few to fill the pews, as we know.


As I continued on my walk I came across another church – you will recognize it as Erskine and American Church. But of course this church is in the process of being converted into part of the Musée des beaux arts. From what I saw the role of formal religion within our city is in obvious decline.

Where you do find churches, they seem dwarfed by the city around them. Insignificant it seems – as is little People’s Church, dwarfed by the office towers that surround it.

This is our urban landscape – it reflects something of who we are. Of course we live in a world that is vastly different than that in which the Apostle Paul lived some two thousand years ago. His world is not our world. Athens of 2000 years ago is not the Montreal of today.

Yet if we wanted to draw these diverse worlds together, we could perhaps do so by recognizing that in each of them there is a longing, a striving for a life of security and meaning and prosperity. This is not to say, simplistically, that money and fashion and entertainment and insurance are the gods of our day. I don’t intend to smear all of these things as so much modern paganism.

But at the same time, is there any doubt that as people navigate their way though this urban landscape – as people walk from the Apple Store to Future Shop – as they do their online banking and submit insurance claims – as they put another bag from Mexx or from the Bay over their arm – as they pick up another movie rental; Is there any doubt that in all of this there is an attempt to construct a life of meaning and substance. Is there any doubt that these key parts of our modern life represent an attempt to find real happiness, security and meaning – if they were taken from us, to some extent we would be left grasping for something else.

Now, Paul has some pretty negative things to say about the religiosity he observes. Seeing all their gods he reminds the Athenians: “God does not live in a shrine made by human hands. Rather, the God who showed his face to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one God who has created all things – Lord of heaven and earth.” Paul also sounds a note of warning for the Athenians – God might have overlooked ignorance in the past, but ignorance will not be overlooked any longer – the risen Jesus will come as judge and when he does this forest of gods will be revealed as so much kindling. Paul offers a hard word.

But what I really want to focus on is not this hard word but the longing for meaning and purpose that Paul sees in the Athenians.

Paul says to them: “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”

When Paul sees this abundance of shrines and gods – when he sees this diversity of religious practice – when he sees the offerings and the sacrifices – he sees the deeper longing of women and men and children to know and be known by God. Paul’s wish for the Athenians seems to be this: “If only you could see, if only you could recognize, that God is not so far from each one of us. If only you could see that in God we live and move and have our being.”

Is there any doubt that as women and men navigate life in our city – as they protect their financial resources, as they are entertained, as they shop for clothes, and as they insure themselves against various threats – is there any doubt that in all of this, and more, the women and men of our city are trying to give sense to life. Is there any doubt that all of this gives expression to that deepest of longings – the longing to know God and be known by God?

Actually, we should be careful how we express this. We should be careful not to speak only of their longing – for very often it is our longing also. We could rephrase what we’ve said as follows: Is there any doubt that as we navigate the city – as we walk from the Apple Store to Future Shop – as we do our online banking and submit insurance claims – as we put another bag from Mexx or the Bay over our shoulder – as we pick up another movie rental; is there any doubt that in this we also give expression to that deepest of longings – the longing for meaning and joy and satisfaction – which is ultimately nothing more than the longing to know God and be known by God. The God who is closer than we usually realize. Whose presence we often overlook or miss.

William Willimon, in a delightful turn of phrase, summarizes what Paul does as he stands and speaks to the Athenians. According to Willimon, Paul ministers to their searching. He ministers to their searching. Paul understands their desire for abundant life; he is a witness to their groping after God – and he ministers to their searching. He tries to lead them to the answer to their longing – the answer that encountered him on the road to Damascus. The one who is closer than they realize.

This morning, of course, the Apostle Paul is long dead. And the Athens he encountered 2000 years ago is long gone. Yet what remains very much alive is the human longing for abundant life…

But not only is that longing still alive in women and men. In this season of Easter, in a special way, we remember that the one who answers that longing is also alive. Christ is risen.

The note on which the Apostle concludes his message to the Athenians – is precisely the note of resurrection. Jesus is risen – in him is the triumph of God.

Needless to say, the response to Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was mixed. We read that some scoffed at him, thinking it was all nonsense. A few were sufficiently interested that the wanted to hear more. However, we also read: “But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

Today the apostle Paul ministers to our searching – he ministers to us in our longing for a life that is full and free – he ministers to us by pointing to the risen Jesus. The response he longs for, the response he hopes for, is the response of Dionysius the Areopagite and the woman named Damaris. That we would find the fullness of life in the risen Christ, and nowhere else.  Thanks be to God. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s