Sermon reflection: David M.’s sermon on Acts 17:22-31

By Joel D.

In his homily on Paul’s sermon at Athens, David spoke – borrowing a phrase from Rowan Williams – about our “communicative task” as Christians. This task, as David elsewhere explores in his book on poetry and theology, is to commit one’s self to the work of proclamation.

To proclaim is not only to commend the Word of God but to do so clearly and persuasively, so as to convert the “accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) – as Peter says elsewhere in this week’s lectionary – into a mode of hearing, not just speaking. The communicative legacy of Paul at the Areopagus is in this sense a legacy of “boundary crossings,” the chief apostolic work, David reminds us, of the Church collectively and in New Haven.     

Recently, my own reflections have tended toward the largely uncommunicative task of trying to speak and be heard in the midst of this pandemic. As a teacher of literature, my most communicative moments often occur, as Paul urges his hearers, in the space of the negative inscription – not to unknown gods, but to the untold meanings, paradoxes, and ideas students encounter in the lines and words of a resistant text. Try as I might, I have learned that I simply cannot communicate these difficult truths over Zoom (or Microsoft Teams, or phone, or email, etc.). The communicative task feels muffled in a quilt – a digital quilt made of 1s and 0s, talking avatars and muted mics, words spoken or unspoken, and little in between.

I am tempted to say that the unique witness of the Church at this moment should be its capacity for a more embodied proclamation – if only only I knew what that meant. In Acts 17, Paul had just come from the agora, where the idols of the marketplace are words and banter, and had arrived at the Areopagus, a solid, chunky, three-dimensional place. Paul tells us he played the tourist before speaking (“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship”), and it’s hard not to imagine him looking at the three-dimensional bodies of the idols, the backs of their heads, and the physical limitations of what is made and served by human hands, and which yearns for something more. Online, we see the backs of no one’s heads, and our communication, limited to words, is defined entirely by yearning. Surely the sacramental life of the Church offers a more incarnational witness.    

But David reminds us that, in the absence of that embodied presence, there is another physical analogy for the incarnation of that witness: the capacity of the word wisely proclaimed to shine like “stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). David’s sermon invites us to ask ourselves seriously: What would it mean to make our words shine? What would it mean to speak the gospel like stars? This is hard to ponder in the age of COVID19. David spoke of the stars in Dante. As Paul speaks of the hope of resurrection, I also find myself thinking of things that sparkle in the weird, wonderful lines of Shakespeare, who imagines – far from Zoom or the Areopagus, muffled at the bottom of the sea – the conversion of our decayed flesh into something brighter: 

Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange (Tempest 1.2.476-9)

Like pearl divers, perhaps we can use these fading moments to explore, in prayer, the depths of our habits of communication and to ask God for a sea-change: to help us rediscover in our words, our speech, and our writing a clearer and brighter proclamation of the hope that is within us. 

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