We Christians Are Just Heathens Now

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/14/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Acts 17:22-31 & 1 Peter 3:13-22. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I’ve been wondering lately if maybe I’m a heathen. In fact, I’ve been wondering if all of us here at Berkeley Friends Church are heathens. The word heathen comes from the germanic word heath, which is an open, uncultivated area of land. The countryside, basically. So the word heathen originally meant somebody from the country; it’s the germanic word for hillbilly.

Why would the countryside and people living in the country be associated with paganism?

Christianity arose as an urban movement – mostly in the major cities of the ancient world – so it was primarily urban in outlook. As time went on and Christianity gained supremacy in Rome, the old, pagan faith of the ancient world became associated with the poorer, less-educated, more rural areas of the empire. In a city like Antioch or Alexandria, one would expect to find Christians in charge. But in the hinterland, traditional, pagan religions might still be prominent. In medieval Europe, the religion of the peasants in the countryside was always suspect. Heathenism lurked behind every rock and tree.

We have a similar city/country divide in the United States today. The educated, wealthy, high-status people live mostly in the great metropolises, like our San Francisco Bay Area. And for some time now, the more educated, wealthier, higher-status people have been abandoning traditional Christianity for a pluralistic, post-Christian faith. For many of the best and brightest in the urban cores, the truth claims of Christianity have come to seem backwards, unsophisticated, even ridiculous. These are things that the poor, the uneducated, the foolish believe – not sophisticated, well-read, middle-class people. Christianity has become the religion of heathens.

This puts us, as orthodox Quakers, in an interesting position. We are not like the early church, which was coming more or less out of nowhere. The first Christians were received generally as a New Religious Movement or a “cult” by people in the ancient world. But cults, when successful, grow into established religions. And the Christian church was a very successful cult indeed. Two thousand years after the resurrection, we are not a new thing, we are the old thing.

We are much more like the practitioners of Greco-Roman paganism in the christianized, late Roman Empire. Our faith is rooted in the past, and we find ourselves challenged by the new orthodoxy that is ascendent in our great cities and among our most respected citizens. We find that we have become heathens – weak, foolish, ridiculous.

This is perhaps especially challenging for those of us heathens who live in the urban core. Who dwell among the wise and respectable of this world. We who, perhaps, like to think of ourselves as reasonable, literate people. It’s tough to be part of a backward faith like Christianity, as post-Christian values – in both liberal and conservative flavors – come to dominate our culture. Our civilization’s new, post-Christian – some might say, post-human – faith is growing, while our community shrinks. They are the new, we are the old. They are the wise, we are the fools. They are the strong, we are the weak. They are the plausible, we are the ridiculous.

What does it mean for us to be old among the new? What does it mean to be heathen – ridiculous theological hillbillies – in the city of the wise? What does it look like to preach the gospel in a forum where our faith – far from being a curiosity worthy of exploration – is assumed to be known, and dismissed? How do we share the good news of the resurrection in the face of a general lack of interest?

It gives me hope that, when Paul preached Jesus among the Athenians, he too was dismissed. Most of the wise men of Athens who heard Paul thought he was a fool, an outsider, a weirdo. And yet, there were some who were convinced. It says that, “When [the people gathered listening to Paul] heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” Eventually some of these hearers became believers, and became important leaders in the Christian community.

Though Paul was mocked and accounted as a nobody, there were those who heard, believed, and chose to follow Jesus. Paul was an irrelevant country bumpkin – a heathen! – to the wise men of the Areopagus; but for those who had ears to hear his message, the gospel became the power of God in their lives.

The example of the apostle Paul is still relevant to us today, positioned as we are in the city of the wise, armed with the foolishness of Christ. So are the words of Peter, when he writes to us, saying: We must not fear what the wise people fear – that is, to look like fools. We must not be intimidated. We must be willing to suffer, even as Christ suffered, so that Christ’s ministry may be made complete in our lives.

When we think of Christ’s suffering, it is easy to fixate on the physical – the torture, the nails in hands and feet, the thirsty death on the cross. But Christ’s great atoning sacrifice was not merely physical, it was also psychological and spiritual. Jesus was humbled completely, stripped down completely, broken so completely that he cried out to God and found only silence.

It is good to remember this, when we are tempted to be intimidated by the judgment of others. When we worry about what our friends or family or or coworkers might think about our Christian faith – what is that, compared to the humiliation that Jesus experienced? Can we bear a little embarrassment for the sake of Christ, who bore all things for us?

Peter lays out the posture that we are to have when we are sharing our faith with others. He encourages us to let go of our fear. He also reminds us to let go of our ego. Some of us are too anxious in sharing the gospel, but some of us can also be too arrogant. So Peter gives us a two-part command as we share our faith. First: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” and second: “Yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

Be ready. Don’t be intimidated. Hold fast to the hope that is in you. But also, approach all people and situations with gentleness and respect. Given that we have now all become heathens, this is perhaps more important than ever. We are not in a position to dictate anything to anyone. We are not the wise and mighty of this age. We are not authorities and professors. We are fools – and we should expect to be regarded as such! 

Nevertheless, woe to us if we do not preach the gospel. Woe to us if we hide our faith and refuse to speak and live the truth. We must be ready, but always with gentleness and respect. Like our Lord Jesus, we came not to be served but to serve.

It’s a challenge. I don’t want to be a heathen. I don’t want to be a fool. I want to be considered a serious person, worthy of respect. I suspect you feel the same. But it may be time for us to consider that, perhaps that is no longer an option for us. Maybe we are heathens, because our faith is heathen. Maybe we do come from the margins, because our Lord is from the margins. What does it feel like to stand with him, among the fools, confessing the old faith among the shiny and new?

Despite all the differences between our time and his, I wonder what it would look like for us to adopt the posture of the apostle Paul – who though he was ridiculed by many, also met people who were ready to hear the message. Even among the wise, there were those who had the courage to become fools.

What does it look like for us to stand firm in our faith, always ready to make a defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope that is in us – yet always with gentleness and respect?