Sermon: In which Avril confesses to proclaiming a ‘nice’ God

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21st of May 2017

Acts 17:22-31

One of the things that I do not feel I do well, either as a Christian or as a minister, is evangelism – sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that other people want to explore Christianity and make their own response in faith and love. I say, only half-jokingly, that my particular gift isn’t to encourage people to see Christianity as true; it’s to encourage people to see Christians as ‘nice’. I’ve had people I’ve met when speaking outside the church say that to me: ‘You make the church sound nice’; ‘If I did believe in God, I’d believe in your God’. My brother tells me that I fail as an evangelist because of that ‘niceness’. When he’s teasing me, he suggests that I should instead preach hellfire and damnation, and tell people that if they don’t become Christian they’ll spend an afterlife in eternal torment. It’s a genre of preaching known as ‘dangling them over the pit’. The trouble is, I can’t reconcile that with my experience of a God of limitless love. I can’t preach eternal damnation with any integrity. Nor would I do any better with my brother’s other suggestion for marketing the church, which is to preach the Prosperity Gospel and tell people that becoming Christian will make them rich.

So, I find today’s readings from the book of Acts and the first letter of Peter reassuring. They are both about evangelism, and they’re about the sort of evangelism I can do. Peter advises Christians who are under attack for their faith: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.’[1] And then in today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles we see Paul doing exactly that; giving an account of his faith to the pagan Athenians with gentleness and reverence.

St-Peter-Paul

Paul is waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to join him. They’ve all had to leave Thessalonica and Beroa, because Paul’s preaching has led to riots. Paul does what anyone else with time on their hands does in a new city – he has a look around. Luke tells us, ‘he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols’. Paul also does what he does everywhere, he goes to the synagogue to preach and argue, and he proclaims his message in the market-place. Since Athens is full of people who are always up for a good argument, Paul is able to debate the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some people describe him as a babbler; others think that he’s proclaiming some new foreign god that he wants the Athenians to add to their pantheon. So they bring him to the Areopagus to ask him about his new teaching. Luke tells us, ‘Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,’ and Paul definitely has something new to say.

At this point today’s reading starts. The Areopagus, where Paul’s been taken to speak, was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens and it was also the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens. From the fifth or sixth century before Christ the Areopagus was made up of nine archons, or chief magistrates, who ruled the city-state during its transition from monarchy to democracy. The Areopagus was a group with an immense history and prestige. Over time its role changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. Paul may have been taken to the Areopagus to give the equivalent of a university guest lecture, or he may have been on trial. Either way, at the Areopagus he has the chance to explain to some of the most intelligent and well-educated pagans in the empire what it is he’s proclaiming.

Speaking to this entirely pagan audience, Paul doesn’t quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. The words of Scripture would have had no meaning for them. Instead, Paul begins by complimenting the Athenians as very religious and praising them for their willingness to worship a god unknown to them. Luke has said earlier that Paul was actually deeply distressed to see the city full of idols. But he didn’t smash them. Nor, when he now makes his argument to the Athenians, does he condemn them. Instead, he takes the most respectful view possible of idol worship, as a sign that people are seeking the divine, and draws on it: ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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.’

Paul then makes an argument from natural theology, from the world around the Athenians, from what everyone can see. Paul claims kinship with the Athenians: ‘from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth’. Finally, Paul quotes from the Athenian’s own poets and philosophers: ‘For “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.”’. Paul doesn’t condemn the Athenians or their philosophy or their poets. Instead he meets them where they are, drawing what’s best out of their culture, and showing that God is not far from any of them.

It’s only after taking the Athenians down this path that Paul turns to revelation and talks about the resurrection of the dead. No smashing of idols; no condemnation of paganism – Paul affirms human culture, even the making of idols of unknown gods, as a way in which people can seek for the truth. Natural religion isn’t sufficient in itself; in the end revelation is needed, but it’s equally not to be sneered at.

Once Paul starts talking about the resurrection of the dead he loses some of his audience. Some scoff; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ I can imagine that many of the philosophers listening to Paul’s teaching would have found it fascinating, and gone away talking about it, but wouldn’t have allowed it to change them in any way. For them it would have remained purely academic. Maybe this is why in Athens, alone among the places where Paul preached, there was neither a riot nor large numbers of people converted. But some people do join Paul, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Paul’s intelligent, respectful, gentle and reverent preaching doesn’t win large crowds. But it does win a few.

Saint Augustine wrote in his confessions: ‘God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ Human beings, made by the God in whom we live and move and have our being, are always searching for the transcendent, the divine, for the One we Christians know as the Father of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we seek in the wrong places, in idols of gold and silver and stone, in idols of wealth and prestige and success. Those idols do need to be repudiated. But the things of the world can also be good gifts of the God who made the world and everything in it, pointing us to the God who is revealed in Jesus.

I am coming to terms with the fact that I’m a pastor and teacher, rather than an evangelist. But I will continue sharing the hope that is in me in my own way, by speaking with my fellow geeks about the ways in which the stories of the Doctor and Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings explore the same questions of meaning that religious faith does. I’ll continue to do that with ‘gentleness and reverence’ – even if that does mean I am accused of making God and Christianity and the church ‘nice’. I encourage you to share the hope that is in you in your own ways, too, in the communities to which you belong. And always to do it with ‘with gentleness and reverence’. It shouldn’t really be a surprise to people that Christians and the church aren’t nasty, but apparently in today’s world it can be. Let’s do our bit to change that. Amen.

[1] 1 Peter 3:15-6.

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