My wife and I had an opportunity to go to Greece to enjoy a vacation with my daughter, Paige, who lives in Eastern Europe. I’m also a Presbyterian minister who didn’t fully appreciate the fact I would be visiting ancient biblical sites. A vacation turned into continuing education.
One site we visited was the Acropolis in Athens. As many readers know, the Acropolis is a complex of temples sitting on top of the highest hill in Athens. The most impressive temple is the Parthenon, once housing a huge statue of the goddess Diana. Symbolizing power, vision, artistry, accomplishment and beauty, the Acropolis was a place people would go to great trouble to see. Much money over the years had been spent to build it, but money was to be made.
This came home to me in a particular way when visiting the Acropolis Museum. That museum is a wonder; built on top of an active archeological dig. Through glass floors outside and inside the museum, you can look down below to see the excavated evidence of a crowded neighborhood with shops, houses, streets and wells.
In the museum, I saw several plates on display, each depicting a wedding. The inscription below the plates said that they were among 20 found at the site of one of the temples where it was popular for weddings to take place. Twenty in one place? I thought, “Gift Shop!” Could these plates have been for sale as keepsakes for those who came to the Acropolis to be married?
Gift Shop or not, it certainly was true that the Acropolis was a place people would visit to gain something. They would come to the Theater of Donysious, where the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed offering insight into the comedic and tragic dimensions of life; to be entertained by the music offered at the Odeom of Herodes Atticus (and still used for performances today); to learn from philosophers who opened minds to practical truths of mathematics and logic, aesthetic truths of form and function, and hopeful truths of a more pure world beyond this imperfect one of decay and mistake; to visit the temples of the gods hoping to win some kind of notice and favor; to see the statues to gods, especially the one honoring the god of their own land. There was even a statue to the “unknown god,” just in case theirs was not represented.
Still, there was money to be made from those seeking inspiration, including those seeking contact with the divine. Some of what Paul saw when he toured the Acropolis was a religious industry. He saw that in the minds of many, spiritual significance was sought in the grandeur of buildings and the promise of ascending a hill to visit the temples and statues to which the gods might descend.
Paul began to speak out about the God he believed could be known as intimately on a remote island like Patmos as on a hill in Athens. Philosophical debate was the thing to do in Greece and some Epicurians (not religious) and Stoics (more religious), were intrigued by Paul’s arguments and invited him to speak to them on a favorite spot on Mars Hill that had a good view of the temples of the Acropolis.
On my visit, we went up Mars Hill, and I had my wife take a picture of me doing what any red-blooded minister would do; imitate Paul by pointing to the Acropolis in making a point. The point Paul made is one he would make again in Corinth and Ephesus, the same point Martin Luther would make centuries later when he posted his 95 Theses which led to a dramatic drop in the sale of indulgences: the sale of “God’s blessings.” It is the same point that will always need to be made as long as there is a human longing to know God and an impatient desire to satisfy that longing with what can be bought or built by human hands.
“The God who made all that is,” Paul said, “the Lord of Heaven and earth, cannot be contained in shrines and or anything made or sold by human hands. The living God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Quoting Greek philosophers in making his point, Paul did encourage the building of something that brings life to death (he did have the resurrection of Jesus as his text). I’ll call it a magnificent cathedral. God wants us to build this cathedral with the materials of the human spirit. The Cathedral of the Spirit is one that has a foundation of grace and the walls of reconciled relationships, and provides ample room for justice and compassion.
As much as I enjoyed my trip, you don’t have to go to Greece, Israel, or India; the Crystal Cathedral or the Mormon Temple to discover spiritual magnificence. The glorious magnificence of the Cathedral of the Spirit can be found within and among those who learn to forgive, love truly, and serve selflessly.
George Anderson is the senior pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke. Visit them on the web at spres.org.