Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 17th of May 2020
I seem to have accidentally started a series of ‘reflections on the sermons preached in the Book of Acts’. Two weeks ago we had the aftermath of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost; 3000 converted, baptised, and sharing all things in common. Last week we saw the end of Stephen’s sermon preached to the Jewish Council; Stephen dragged out and stoned. This week we have a third, and very different, sermon, preached by the Apostle Paul in Athens. Paul has a reputation as a hard-liner, but here we see him speaking to the Athenians ‘with gentleness and reverence’ (1 Peter 3:16). Paul’s approach to the Athenians models for us how to share our faith with those around us, living as we do in a very similar world.
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 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’ (Acts 17:16). Paul also follows his usual practice in a new city of going to the synagogue to preach and argue, and proclaiming 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,’ (Acts 17:21) 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; a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens and the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens. 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, he has the chance to explain to some of the most intelligent and well-educated pagans in the Roman Empire what it is he’s proclaiming.
Speaking to this entirely pagan audience, Paul doesn’t quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. 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 immediately 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 meets the Athenians where they are, drawing out what’s best in 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 equally it is not to be sneered at. To put it in our context, those who say that they find God in nature are still finding the same God revealed in Jesus Christ, the ‘God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth’.
Once Paul starts talking about the resurrection of the dead he loses some of his audience. They 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, a member of Areopagus, 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.
Those of us who believe that in Jesus Christ we have encountered the God who made the world have an obligation to share that with other people, and not simply an obligation but a joy. We do that in a society that is very much like that of first-century Athens. In some ways the culture that surrounds us today is much closer to the Roman Empire than the ‘Christendom’ that was European culture from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries. Now, again, Christianity is a small faith within a largely indifferent and sometimes hostile world. Now, again, people have the option of following one or more gods from an almost-unlimited pantheon, which in our world can include things that are good in themselves but not good objects of worship: the family; intellect; individuality; wealth; health; science; the environment. Now, again, we live in a world absolutely obsessed with the new and dismissive of the traditional. Like Paul at the Areopagus, when we speak about our faith the most likely response is not a riot or imprisonment but mockery. We are unlikely to convert 3000 people at a time, like Peter, or be killed for our faith, like Stephen, but possibly, like Paul, we may convince a few people of the value of what we are saying.
In the Basis of Union every member of the Uniting Church is commissioned ‘to confess the faith of Christ crucified’. With our situations similar in so many ways, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus models how to do that. When we share our faith it is important that we start by meeting people where they are, entering into their lives and practices. It usually isn’t our role to condemn them; instead we can make links between their faith and our own. Drawing on their experiences and wisdom when explaining our own faith will help them to make those links, too. And most importantly, we must do all this, as Peter says in this week’s epistle reading, ‘with gentleness and reverence’. Sharing news of the God who is Love must always be done with love.