Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 14th of May 2023
In these last few weeks following Easter the Book of Acts has drawn our attention to a series of sermons. Two weeks ago, we were shown the aftermath of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost; three thousand people were converted, and then baptised, after which they shared all things in common. (Acts 2:42-47) In case that made us feel inadequate, last week we saw that Stephen’s sermon preached to the Jewish Council ended with him being dragged out and stoned. You might remember that those doing the stoning ‘laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. (Acts 7:58) This week we have a third, and hugely different, sermon by the preacher who had once been that ‘young man named Saul’: the Apostle Paul. Paul has a reputation as something of a theological hard-liner, but here we see him speaking to the Athenians ‘with gentleness and reverence’. (1 Peter 3:16)
Paul is waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to join him after they have all had to leave Thessalonica and Beroa because Paul’s preaching has led to riots. While he waits 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, as well as proclaiming his message in the marketplace. Since Athens is full of people who are always up for a good argument, Paul debates the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some people describe him as a babbler; others think that he is proclaiming a new foreign god that he wants the Athenians to add to their pantheon. So they bring him to the Areopagus to ask 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.
Now today’s reading starts. The Areopagus, where Paul has 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 that city. 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 is proclaiming.
Speaking to this entirely pagan audience, Paul does not quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, Paul begins by complimenting the Athenians as deeply religious and praising them for their willingness to worship a god unknown to them. Luke said earlier that Paul was deeply distressed to see the city full of idols. But he did not 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 is best in their culture and showing them that God is not far from any of them.
It is 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 the truth. According to Paul natural religion is not sufficient, 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 would not 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 does not win large crowds. There are no mass conversions, or baptisms, or communities sharing all they have. On the other hand, Paul is not stoned. So I personally would chalk it up as a win.
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 self and wealth and prestige and success. Those idols do need to be repudiated. But the things of this world can also be the good gifts of the God who made the world and everything in it, pointing us to the God who is revealed in Jesus.
Today we live in a society that is very much like that of first-century Athens. In some ways, the culture that surrounds us is closer to the first-century 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. 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 three thousand 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.
One of my current roles is as Convener of the Presbytery’s Ministry Formation Committee, so I am spending a significant amount of time with those who are candidating for ordained ministry, or applying to be candidates. I sometimes think that it is an absolute miracle that people are still putting themselves forward to become ministers of Word and Sacrament, or of the Diaconate, in Australia, with all the talk of religious decline in this country, and the aging of the churches. Candidating was already seen as slightly weird when I did it twenty years ago; it is much stranger today. I find it heartening that I am part of a committee whose entire work is to discern whether people have been called by God into ordained ministry, and to support them while they study if they have. I have also found it incredibly heartening to hear why these people believe that they have been called into ministry in the Uniting Church. Most often, they talk of the inclusivity of the Uniting Church, of our diversity, of the way in which we respect each other’s differences and do not demand that everyone follow our way of being Christian. We are an entire Church that shares our faith ‘with gentleness and reverence’; that seeks to find common ground between us and those who believe differently.
It is not just ordained ministers, of course, who are called to share our faith with others. In the Basis of Union every member of the Uniting Church is commissioned ‘to confess the faith of Christ crucified’. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus models how we can do that in our very similar cultural situation. When we share our faith it is important that we begin with respect, learning from others, entering their lives and practices, rather than demanding that they listen to us. It usually is not our role to condemn them (unless they are using their faith to harm others); instead, we can make links between their beliefs and our own. Last week we saw Stephen attack and berate the Jewish Council, and even if his sermon had not ended with his stoning we would have known that his was not a style to follow. Sharing news of the God who is Love must always be done with love. After all, as Paul reminded the Athenians, we are all the children of God, and siblings one of another. Let us treat each other with the respect and kindness those relationships demand. Amen.
Stephen was engaging in in-house scriptural exposition and debate—in good rabbinic style, pushing back with argumentation. Paul was reaching to engage others, connecting, appreciating, explaining. Two different styles for two different situations.