Becoming Church Together: Aeropagas

Minneapolis Livestream · Wednesday, May 27, 2020 7:00 pm

Sermon Pastor

Matt Johnson

Sermon Series

Becoming Church Together
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Biblical Book


Acts 17:16-34

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘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.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘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.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he 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.”

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


Dear Ones, grace and peace to you from God who mothers each of us into being and becoming and from the risen Jesus, who is the Christ.

A lot has changed in the nearly two months since I last stood in this pulpit. In the midst of this strange pandemic time, we are experiencing grief, stress and anxiety of all kinds as we continue to live into our uncertainty. We journeyed through the end of Lent and shared the joy of Easter, all at a distance. Now, as we live into the season of resurrection, sometimes it feels to me like we’re right back on our Lenten journey, as uncertain of what lies on the other side of Good Friday as ever.

Whatever you are experiencing – grief, sadness, confusion, stress, anger, restlessness, frustration, anxiety – it’s real. All of it. All of your big feelings are real. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even in the Easter season, it’s OK not to be OK!

I like to imagine that someone shared similar words with the widows who gathered to mourn the death of their beloved friend, Tabitha. She was at the center of their world. She provided for them and for countless others. She clothed them with the work of her hands and the love of God that permeated every fiber of her being. She showed them what it meant to be kind and to live into the age-old invitation to love their neighbors. She ministered to them by providing for their physical needs and inviting them into a loving, supportive community.

In her death, the community of widows she nurtured gathers around her to take comfort in the familiar ritual of lovingly washing her body, preparing her for burial. Gathered together, they comfort one another, offering words of support, the tender comfort of a hug, the gift of stories shared, the acknowledgment of their deep loss.

Tabitha’s community was able to come together to practice the rituals that gave them comfort, to simply be together in one another’s physical presence as they prepared for life without her. We’ve lost that ability to be physically present with many of our dear ones. The ability to go about our familiar daily routines has been disrupted. When we need to venture out into public spaces, we must take extra precautions for our own safety and the safety of others. This isn’t the way resurrection life is supposed to look and feel.

What we’re experiencing is a big, messy thing called ambiguous loss. In simple terms, it’s loss that happens without a clear understanding of exactly what it is we’ve lost. It’s a concept often applied to the experiences of people who have loved ones on a dementia journey. Little pieces of what we consider “normal” slip away from day to day or even from moment to moment. We don’t have familiar rituals for this kind of loss. It can be easy to just get stuck in it.

This ambiguous loss we’re going through is hard! It’s OK not to be OK.

That’s where Peter, Tabitha and the widows of our story meet us tonight. In the midst of our own messy, ambiguous loss, which is every bit as real as their more concrete loss. An odd thing happens in their story – an odd, hopeful thing. The widows, the faithful disciples gathered around Tabitha, have heard that Peter is in nearby Lydda. Some glimmer of hope wells up within them, and they send for him.

When Peter arrives, the widows surround him with stories of all the ways Tabitha has served the community, the way she devoted herself to good works and acts of charity. Their faces bathed with tears, they show Peter some of the clothing she has made for them, and they witness to the way she is already being remembered and kept alive in the community by all of the others who wear her handiwork. They tell him how important she is to their life together, to their growing faith, to their shared work of loving neighbors.

Perhaps overwhelmed by it all, Peter clears the room and gets down on his knees to pray to the “author of life,” as he calls Jesus earlier in the story. Then he turns to Tabitha’s lifeless body and says, “Tabitha, get up.” As she sits up, life restored, Peter helps her to her feet and returns her to the fabric of her community. The moment is flooded with a tapestry of affirmations. Jesus, the author of life, says a resounding YOU MATTER!

To the widows, who may have found themselves utterly alone without Tabitha, he says, your stories, your lives, your work, your faith, your community all matter. YOU MATTER! To Tabitha he says, your ministry of compassion, your faithful service, your discipleship, your leadership, your life all matter. YOU MATTER!

Friends, our resurrection story during this pandemic isn’t so clear. We’re still stuck in the midst of it. Numbers of infections and deaths continue to rise. At the same time, a news report may suggest things are getting a little better. The landscape is constantly shifting. Living in this liminal state is hard work! Our ambiguous loss is going to continue, and we don’t know what life on the other side will look like.

Still, there are signs of resurrection life all around us. Jesus, the author of life, is at work all over the place. Nature is putting on her dazzling springtime display of new life, reminding us that resurrection is real. Many people are surviving the virus and returning to health. People are making phone calls and video calls and sending notes to assure others that they are loved. People are staying home as much as possible and wearing masks to protect their neighbors when out in public. We are learning how to do things at a physical distance from one another.

YOU are doing these things. YOU MATTER!

Those signs of resurrection life happening all around us are an extremely important part of God’s work of drawing us forward into new life. At the same time, we can run the risk of pointing to those signs and glossing over the places of grief, stress, and anxiety in our lives. To deny those difficult experiences and our ambiguous loss is to deny the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is to deny the full experience of what it means to be human. Just as Jesus, the author of life says you matter, he also says your difficult, messy, anxious, stressful feelings and emotions matter. Your mental health matters!

Right now, part of living into the resurrection promise means tending to those things that are weighing us down. It’s OK not to be OK, and it’s even more OK to say it! Jesus, the author of life, is right there in the midst of it with you, inviting you to tend to your whole self. As part of the vibrant tapestry we call the body of Christ, the Bethlehem community is right there with you, too.

As always, you are invited to reach out to the Care Ministries team or one of your pastors; we are here for you. If you are wondering whether you might benefit from mental health care, or if you need help figuring out where to start, I invite you to reach out to Mental Health Connect. This coming Monday, June 11th, please join us for the Monday Night Mental Health speaker series at 6:30 pm; Dr. Read Sulik will be talking about how we can “Move from Being Anxious to Being Smart, Safe, and Strong Together during COVID-19.” Information is included in our weekly Tuesday email and on our website.

Friends, as we continue to navigate these uncertain times together, know that you matter! Your whole self matters! It’s OK not to be OK, AND Jesus, the author of life, is risen. He walks with you each step of this uncertain journey, feeling your big feelings with you, always inviting you into resurrection life… Always reaching out his hand, looking you in the eye and saying, “dear one, I love you. You matter!”

Alleluia! Christ IS risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.