Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.1 Peter 3:15
Always be ready to defend the hope within us, Peter writes in our second reading (1 Peter 3:15). So, I feel led to ask today: Are you ready? Am I? Are we ready to defend our hope? As Christians, we should be full of hope, always, regardless of our circumstances. And we should always be ready to share our hope with others, and to defend it. Hope, along with faith and love, describes how we as believers approach life – with faith, with love, and with hope. Since you have probably heard more sermons on faith and love than on hope, and since hope seems like something that we all need right now, I thought I would focus today on hope.
And let me start with a definition, because hope can mean different things to different people. A good definition of the hope I am talking about is: “wanting something to happen or to be true, and having a good reason to think that it will.” Often in our world, we use the word ‘hope’ to express a mere wish, regardless of whether we think that it will happen. I hope it will rain today, for example. Or I hope it won’t rain. Or, I hope to remember to call my mother. Or, I hope that my team wins the big game. These are examples of things that we might hope for – that might happen, and might not.
In Scripture, hope means something different. It means wanting something to happen, and having a good reason to think that it will. So, in Scripture, we hear about a sure and certain hope, a confident hope. It is a hope based on our faith and trust in God. It is a hope that we know and believe will not disappoint. It is a hope that gives us a deep sense of joy and confidence, because it is a hope that is based on God’s promise to us.
This is the hope that I believe the world needs and longs for, whether it knows it or not. This is the hope that we are called to share, and asked to defend. And that is exactly what we find in today’s first reading (Acts 17:22-31). We find Paul, in Athens, defending his hope. It is a famous example of a great Christian defending their hope. And we can learn a lot from Paul in this masterful sermon. So that will be my focus today, Paul’s sermon in Athens, found in Acts 17.
Searching for Hope in Athens
When Paul first arrived in Athens (as recorded in Acts 17:16-21), we learn that he was greatly distressed. He found a city full of idols, a city searching for hope in all the wrong places. They had built altars and shrines to every god imaginable – even one to an unknown god, just to cover all their bases. They were eager to please the gods. They were “extremely religious.” But they didn’t know where to turn to find true, abiding, everlasting hope. So, where were they turning? There were three places that they are looking for hope that are mentioned in Acts 17.
First, Paul meets with the Jews in Athens, as was his custom. This was the first group that Paul sought out when he entered a new city, because they were just like him before he experienced his conversion. He was a Jew, a Pharisee, and was looking for hope in God’s teaching, the Torah. By living in accordance with the Torah, the Pharisees believed they could become righteous before God. That was their hope. Paul reminded them that becoming righteous before God is impossible, on our own. We are all sinners. It is by God’s grace alone, through the gift of God’s own Son, that we are made righteous. That is where our hope is to be found.
But in this passage in Acts, Paul is in the city of Athens, a city famous for its Greek temples and for its intellectual life, and especially for its philosophers. And these are the next two groups that Paul meets with. And they both represent tried-and-true ways of looking for hope. They are as common now as they were then.
First, there are the Epicureans, followers of the philosopher Epicurus. This is a philosophy that doesn’t deny the existence of God, but doesn’t believe that God intervenes in our world. And so, they don’t pursue God, but instead pursue pleasure. To this day, we call someone who takes pleasure in eating and drinking “epicurean.” And there is nothing wrong with that! There is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in eating and drinking and the pleasures of this world. Unless we expect to find in them our ultimate hope.
The other group that Paul is meeting with, along with the Jews and the Epicurean philosophers, are the Stoic philosophers. This is a branch of philosophy that began in Athens and was quite popular at the time of Paul’s visit there. Stoics basically believe that our life is determined by fate, and the best response to it is to detach ourselves from caring about pleasure or wealth or success. Instead, we should focus on being content with our circumstances and living a good life. To oversimplify it, you could say that Stoics dealt with hope by giving up on it. If we don’t hope, we can’t get hurt. And I think there are many people like that today, even if they don’t call themselves “Stoic.” They don’t put much stock in hope, so they don’t end up disappointed. They care about making this world a better place. But they don’t see God helping them to do it. So, where do they find their hope? That is Paul’s question to them.
What Would Paul Find Today?
In his sermon, Paul defends his Christian hope to all three of these groups. And he starts by getting to know them. Paul shares in his sermon that he went through their city, and looked carefully at the objects of their worship. If Paul were to do that today, I wonder what he might conclude would be the objects of our worship?
As he walked through our cities, he would certainly notice our skyscrapers and stadiums, for example. There was a time when the most impressive building in any town was its church. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Our skyscrapers and stadiums dominate the skyline, and point to what we might call false hopes. After all, wealth and success cannot save us. Nor do we find salvation in sports. Diversion, yes. Pleasure, when they win. But salvation? Hope? No.
As Paul continued spending time in our cities, perhaps being driven around by a friend, he would certainly see all of the billboards and advertisements. And he might wonder if physical appearance has become a false hope of ours. All those beautiful, air-brushed people advertising so many different things. All suggesting that we could be like those beautiful people if we purchased those products. I wonder – what else might Paul find in our world today? What other altars and shrines would he find, tempting us to place our hope in things that will only disappoint?
There are many false hopes, then and now. But for Paul, they all have a purpose. They all drive us to search for the one, true hope, the hope that never disappoints. They drive us to search for the one who died for us and was raised from the dead.
Paul points out in this sermon that God has “allotted the times of our existence.” God has made it so that we know that we are going to die. So that, according to Paul, we would “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God.” You see? It is the knowledge that our time on earth is limited that drives us all to search for a hope that lasts, a true hope. We search and grope and finally realize that every place we turn to try and find hope cannot survive the grave. They will all perish. Our skyscrapers, our stadiums, our governments, our bodies, all of it. It will all perish, and what will be remaining? Only the God who created it all. Who offers us hope through the love of his son. But to find this hope, Paul reminds us, we must repent. We must turn from those false hopes, and turn to our ultimate source of hope: God’s son, who died for us, who was raised from the dead, and who promises to come again.
Paul’s Life Testifies to His Hope
That is how Paul ends his sermon. But the end of his sermon is not the end of his testimony. Far from it. Paul’s life is every bit as important to his testimony as his words. Paul has found such hope in Jesus that he has devoted his life to it. He rejoices in the Lord, even when he finds himself in prison. He is content with what he has, even when he has next to nothing, because he has everything he needs in Jesus. He has come to regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. And so, he presses on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing else matters to Paul. All his hope is found in Jesus. To live is Christ, he says; to die is gain. And his life shows that he believes this. He no longer lives, but Christ lives in him. That is all that matters to him. And everyone who encounters Paul knows this. His life testifies to his hope and defends his hope more than his words.
We don’t have to be eloquent to defend our hope. We don’t have to find the right words to bear witness to our faith. We just have to live as though we believe it. And when we truly believe it, there is nothing more important. It becomes obvious. We know it, and so does everyone around us. Our very life testifies to faith and defends our hope, even more than our words. As the old saying attributed to St. Francis puts it, “Preach the gospel every day. If necessary, use words.”
Always be ready to defend the hope within us, Peter writes in our second reading. And Paul shows us how to do this. Through his words, but also through his life. Without writing or speaking a word, people who knew Paul could see his joy and his hope. And what better way to defend our hope than that?
May we all learn from Paul. May we learn from him where to find our true hope. And may we learn from him how to defend our hope. Through our words, but even more, through our life. To the glory of God. Amen.
2 thoughts on “Defending Our Hope: My Sermon on Acts 17:22-31”
“We don’t have to be eloquent to defend our hope. We don’t have to find the right words to bear witness to our faith…” Thank you, very much for this