Sermon for June 19th, 2016
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also 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.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From 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, 27so 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. 28For ‘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.’ 29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.” 32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.”33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
First Church: To An Unknown God
There's an old story about evangelism that goes something like this: A man once had the habit of praying to God every morning, “Lord, if you want me to share my faith with someone today, please give me a sign to show me who it is.”
One day he found himself riding to work on the bus when a big, burly man sat down right next to him. The bus was almost completely empty but this guy sat down right next to our praying friend.
The timid Christian anxiously waited for his stop so he could exit the bus. But before that happened, the large man burst into tears and began to weep. He then cried out with a loud voice, “I want to know Jesus. I’m a lost sinner and I need the Lord. Won’t somebody tell me about God's love?” He turned to the Christian and pleaded, “What about you? Can you tell me about Jesus?” The believer immediately bowed his head and prayed, “Lord, if this is the sign I've been praying for, would you please let me know somehow?”
Today's sermon is the last one in our series about the First Church in the Book of Acts. It's not the last story in Acts--there are many more and I hope you'll take the time on your own to finish the book. But it's a fitting place for us to end, because it's a story about Evangelism. In many ways, the entire book of Acts is about Evangelism. How do you keep the First Church from being the Last Church? How do you go from one small church in one city to hundreds of thousands of churches across the world? Simple. Evangelism.
And yet, evangelism isn't so simple, is it? It's a scary word that, these days, conjures up images of slick, teary-eyed televangelists asking for money (or begging for forgiveness), or men in suits going door to door with pamphlets, or people standing on street corners with signs proclaiming the end of the world. In Presbyterian circles, Evangelism is almost a taboo subject. Almost.
And yet the word Evangelism comes from the Greek word εὐάγγελος: εὐ (good) + άγγελος (message).
This is our human nature: When something good happens in our lives, when a young couple becomes engaged, when a new baby is born, when you finally land that dream job, or that dream house—What's the first thing we do? We pick up the phone and call (or text) someone we love. We post it to Facebook. Some people take out an ad in the New York times!
Good news wants to be shared. So if there is nothing about our faith that we feel driven, compelled, excited to share with other people...then why is that? I think there are two possibilities:
First, if the news really isn't very good, if our faith doesn't really touch our lives in some meaningful way, if it's based on things like guilt and duty or social status, or worse, judgment and legalism—if that's the case, we're probably wise not to share it with others. That kind of faith is not good news.
But I think more often than not, we don't share our faith with others—our meaningful, joyful experience of faith—because we're afraid of rejection. Imagine if you shared your good news with someone only to hear, "What an ugly baby!" Or "I can't believe you're going to marry that loser!" Or "That new car you just bought? I had one like that...total piece of junk!" Too much of that and you'd probably think twice before letting people pour cold water all over your joy.
And yet, that is the culture we live in, especially with regards to religious belief. Today there are thousands of belief systems out there, and people are pretty passionate about their choices. To avoid arguments or hurting anyone's feelings, we have developed an unspoken rule that you just don't share things like that. Any one belief system is just as good as any other system, so either they all deserve equal praise, equal sharing, or else none at all.
As fair as that may sound, I'm afraid it doesn't pass the test of basic common sense. There are some pretty messed up belief systems out there that have caused great harm and suffering in the world (including, I'm afraid to say, some pretty warped and distorted versions of Christianity).
In a free society, all belief systems (including our own) can and should be judged by the kinds of people and societies they produce, and their underlying ideas should be fair game, open to public scrutiny, discourse and debate.
This of course, is precisely the circumstance in which the Apostle Paul finds himself in today's scripture reading from Acts.
He has been sharing his good news—the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the one called Jesus Christ—the man from Galilee. Galilee. A minor, backwoods province of Rome, a place where illiterate superstitious crowds would flock to see anyone claiming to work miracles, including this Jesus, this son of a carpenter. From Galilee.
But now Paul is in Athens. Athens is without a doubt the most sophisticated and intellectual city of the world in Paul's time. Athens is the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, mathematics, and all of Western Civilization. Athens is far from Galilee in every sense. In short, Athens is likely to be a tough crowd.
Kind of like the United States of America today. Like us, Athens was a place of many religious belief systems, and a strong belief that all were equal, all were good.
There was even a place for what today we would call atheistic or agnostic belief. The altar to an "unknown god" that Paul points out is labeled, in Greek Ἀγνώστῳ θεῷ. This is the same root we get the word "Agnostic" from.
Agnostics in our culture today are those who believe that the existence of God is essentially "unknown" or "unknowable." And the Athenians were comfortable slapping an altar on that belief system and putting it right alongside all of the others. Which is kind of ironic, actually. Don't believe in God? Ok, your church is right over there, worship is Sunday mornings at 10, fellowship afterward.
The situation Paul finds himself in is perhaps a little more dangerous than we realize. He has been sharing his good news in various places throughout the city, when we read in verses 19-20, "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."
These are highly civilized people. They are polite. But there is a dangerous undercurrent. "They took him and brought him" implies, by force. They brought him to the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the religious court of appeal in Athens.
400 years before the time of Paul, a man named Socrates was "brought" to the Areopagus to answer the same polite questions about his teachings (which incidentally involved a belief in one supreme God above all others). Socrates was condemned to death for his religious intolerance, which was intolerable to the Athenians (I'm sure Socrates of all people appreciated the irony).
So Paul is "invited" to share his good news—a great opportunity, but not without great risk. His approach is absolutely masterful, and I think it forms a basis for how we can best share our good news in a hyper-sensitive, don't-ask-don't-tell culture that is completely intolerant of intolerance.
First, he engages.
When he encounters other belief systems, he doesn't run screaming from them with his fingers stuck in his ears. He also doesn't build around himself a bubble of Christian community where he will never have to encounter other ideas that might lead him astray.
He doesn't wait inside the doors of his synagogue hoping that someone from another faith will come inside to hear him, but instead he goes out into their world, their haunts and hangouts.
Second, he is actually sensitive to others.
He doesn't begin by condemning, demeaning, or dismantling the beliefs of his diverse audience. Instead he affirms what is good and true in their belief: "I see how extremely religious you are in every way," he tells them.
It is obvious from his words that he has spent a fair amount of time observing with his eyes and listening with his ears before he finally begins to speak.
Third, he proves that his faith is adaptable.
I know that idea makes some people uncomfortable. Adaptability doesn't mean changing at the core, it means changing on the margins. God himself proved that he was adaptable when he took on human flesh in order to communicate to us his unchanging love in the person of Jesus. Paul does not quote a single verse of scripture to them in his speech (though he knew his scriptures well). Instead, he quotes to them from their own great philosophers about the "one in whom we live and move and have our being" and he quotes from their own literature and poetry that "we too are his offspring."
Christianity at its best has never hesitated to incorporate the symbols, truths and teachings in other cultures that are consistent with our own. That's how we wound up with the Christmas Tree, the Easter Egg, the Four Leaf Clover, and the Pipe Organ (or praise band) as tools for evangelism.
Speak to people in their own language, their own images and traditions, and they might actually understand your good news (which is pretty important if you expect them to embrace it!).
Fourth, despite his sensitivity and adaptability, and despite the great risk to his own life, Paul does not hide the fact that his faith is also exclusive.
His God is not just one more alongside the others. His God is the one that reigns above all things. That's hard for some of us to hear, because we are intellectuals, we want to be tolerant, we are Athenians, too.
I believe that tolerance is a good thing, to a point. But there also comes a point where we must commit ourselves to the path we believe is the best, the one we believe is true and right.
It's funny to me that exclusivity in religion is seen as a negative, but in so many other things we value it as an unquestionable positive. We want our spouse to love us, and us alone, exclusively for the rest of our lives.
We want our banks to be pretty exclusive about who has access to our account. When our children are accepted into a highly "exclusive" program or school, we rejoice for them.
If your faith is just one more thing lined up with and equal to all the others, something to check off the "I'm a good person" list, along with soccer practice, Rotary club, PTA, and not cheating on your income taxes...
Well, in that case, welcome to Athens. We have many gods for you to worship here. They're all the same, but none of them will offer you much fulfillment in the end.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be humble about our belief. At the end of the day, belief is a matter not of certainty, but rather of faith, hope and love. Are we unquestionably right about our belief in God? Our belief in scripture? Our interpretation of scripture? Well...we "believe" we are. We have faith we are. We hope we are. We live and we love like we are.
Exclusivity simply means that for whatever reasons (hopefully after careful study and thought) we have chosen to follow this Jesus, to walk this path, and we believe that it is the best one—not just for ourselves, but with humility and love, we believe it is also the best hope for all the world.
Fifth and finally, Paul showed that he had a thick skin.
We read that in the end, "some scoffed" (that's rejection), some said "we'll hear you again" (that's non-commitment), and some of them—just a few—heard the good news and decided to follow.
To put this in larger context, before coming to Athens, Paul had also been rejected at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea. This is strike four...or three-and-a-half if you count the two or three people who choose to follow.
But consider those few: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, whom according to tradition was his wife, together planted a seed in Athens. They built a church there that continues to the present time, where today over 95% of Athenians identify with the Christian faith. Dionysius the Areopagite (or more likely, one of his students writing in his name) went on to author several works of theology that I happened to study in seminary, and which were highly influential in my own development and thought.
Amidst all those failures, Paul influenced one or two, who influenced a few others, who ultimately influenced me, and through me, hopefully you as well. I'm glad Paul had a thick skin.
Here's what I believe: I believe with all my heart that we have something worthwhile to offer the community of El Paso, not just as Christians, but as Presbyterians, and not just as Presbyterians but as First Presbyterian Church of El Paso.
We have something to give, a unique way of understanding the scriptures and demonstrating the love of Christ in our lives, of being a family of God, a compassionate community—that if we disappeared tomorrow, if we closed our doors, would be missed, not just by those who came through these doors, but by all those who would never have the chance to do so in the years to come. That's what I believe.
But the more important question is this: Do you believe it? Do you believe it enough to share that good news with someone you know? Someone for whom God is still unknown, Someone for whom Jesus is just one of many choices, none of them much better than any other, none of them truly fulfilling?
Look, I'm not Paul. I'm not nearly as sophisticated or eloquent. None of us is.
But I can engage with the people around me, rather than isolating myself within these comfortable walls.
I can be sensitive to the people and the culture around me, listening to their dreams, their hopes, and their fears with respect and compassion.
I can be adaptable, speaking their language and using familiar images to make the connection between their world and the one who created the world.
I can even be exclusive, without being arrogant or condescending, but still confident that what I have to offer is good and true.
And I can be thick-skinned, knowing that rejection doesn't diminish for a second the joy and the beauty and the love that I have found in my faith; in Jesus, the carpenter and teacher from Galilee.
I'm not Paul, but I can do those things. I can share what I have found. And I believe that you can, too.