25 May 2014
Readings: Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
Rev’d Paul White
Heavenly Father, as we bring ourselves before your written Word this morning help us to encounter something of your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I was in my first year at secondary school, so I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go on a school cruise in the Mediterranean. But before you run away with the idea of school children basking in the sunshine in luxury I should say that the cruise took place in February and it was on board the SS Uganda which was soon after converted into a hospital ship for the Falklands War and then decommissioned. It was actually like a floating run down school but, of course, to us children it was a huge adventure.
Our cruise started in Athens and before we set off we were taken to see the sights of the city. I remember distinctly climbing up the hill to the Parthenon and, at first, being highly impressed with the antiquity of the place but before long I did become a little bored – when you are 11 or 12 it is true to say that toppled columns and piles of rubble do tire after a while, especially when you are not allowed to climb on them. And if ancient Athens did not manage to hold my attention for too long I have to say that modern Athens, at least those bits of it we saw, seemed like a dreadful place – it was really dusty even in February, really noisy and even quite smelly. It had the feel of a place whose glory days were all behind it – and with the current economic crisis going on in Greece that will probably continue to be true for some time.
And the amazing thing is that the glory days of Athens had to some extent already passed even by the time that St Paul visited there just under 2000 years ago. Athens is the home of Western Philosophy, as a city state it gave us both the concept of and even the very word “democracy” and it was the home of great thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle whose ideas continue to resonate down to us today. But those giants had died between 400 – 450 years before St Paul visited the city and Athens was no longer an independent state but was merely another part of the Roman Empire.
But although the great thinkers of the past were long dead it is obvious that the Athenians still loved nothing better than to hear about and discuss all the latest ideas and, as a port in the middle of the Mediterranean, they must have had a lot of people passing through, including St Paul.
St Paul was on the second of his missionary journeys around the known world at this time, it was around the year 50 AD, and before travelling to Athens he had been in Thessolonica and Berea in Northern Greece. Whilst in those cities Paul had followed his normal method of preaching the good news about Jesus which was to find the local synagogues and there to reason with the Jews and God-fearing gentiles, using the old testament scriptures as his starting point – don’t forget that Paul himself was a learned Jew who had been converted and so it would have been very natural and comfortable for him to use his background and knowledge as a starting point to explain how the scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus and how the concept of God’s chosen people was now expanded from the Jews to include all those who accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah.
But in Athens it seems that something quite different happened – and it is something from which we can learn today both in the way in which we relate to the world as a church and the way in which we face the future.
Well, first, it seems that Athens distressed Paul. In verse 16 of chapter 17 (which comes a few verses before todays reading starts) it says that “Paul was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Not only was Athens full of Philosophical discourse, which we will see again in a moment, but the full pantheon of the Greek and probably the Roman gods were also worshipped there – don’t forget that the Parthenon itself was then a working temple to the goddess Athena – sometimes known as the goddess of poster shops – and there were probably hundreds of other temples and gods being worshipped. In fact Paul was so horrified by this spectacle that he did not just find the local synagogue to preach in but he went out “into the market place” to speak to whoever was there about his faith.
The more philosophically minded Athenians – in this case the Epicurians and the Stoics – began to argue with him in the market place and on the streets and they then invited Paul to come and speak at the Areopagus, which was a little bit like the Jewish Sanhedrin in the sense that it was a council who were allowed by the Romans to make decisions on religious matters.
And so Paul stands up to address the gathered meeting. What does he do? Although he was distressed by the sight of so much idol worship going on does he simply denounce the Athenians as being heathens and pagans with no more right to be on God’s clean earth than a weevil?
No he doesn’t – Paul starts out by commending them for being so religious:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
Paul is capable of seeing that within the proliferation of idols and temples the fact that at least these people are thinking seriously about godly things, and he uses that as a starting point:
“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 you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul is saying that, yes indeed, they are right – there is a God that they don’t know – but that this God is very different from the gods they do know because:
“The 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…”
And Paul then talks about God as creator and sustainer of life, telling some of the story of God’s relationship to his world and his people that we know from Jewish scripture, but he then does something even more interesting which is to quote Greek poets at the Athenians:
“…as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”
And he uses this to say that if we are God’s offspring then how can God be made of gold or silver or stone – and then Paul moves on to say that the Greeks do need to repent of their ways because God is doing something new as shown by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
So what does this episode mean to us as a church in 2014?
Let me offer three brief thoughts:
Firstly I think that Paul demonstrates that we should not seek to simply hide within our comfort zones. Yes, Paul was distressed by what he saw going on in Athens but rather than stay put in the synagogues teaching those with whom he felt comfortable he went out into the market place – and by doing that he engaged with a whole new section of society and that engagement led to invitations to address the leading thinkers of society. That did not lead to the mass conversion of Athens but it lead to the conversion of some and so the kingdom of God was grown.
We should never let the church or our faith become a ghetto from which we hide from the rest of society
Secondly, although Paul was distressed by what he saw in Athens he still took the time to look closely at what was going on and to use the language and culture of that society as a starting point from which to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ resurrected. We should not seek to ignore, throw out or simply condemn everything in modern society and culture that distresses us – rather we should look closely at what is going on and start there – our language about God may be so far from the language of our society that we need to find a way of bridging the gap otherwise we will not be heard let alone be understood.
Finally as a pilgrim people in a changing world we look always towards an unknown future and that may be disturbing and perhaps even distressing to us. And yet Paul teaches us that no matter how different the future may be from the present, no matter how alien Athens must have seemed from Jerusalem, nevertheless we know that God will be there ahead of us, working his will in ways which we may struggle at first to discern, but nonetheless there.
Our job, by which I mean the job of everyone here to carry away from today, is to remember and to trust that God is not only the God of the past but is also the God of the future, that God is present not only in our churches but also in the market place and in the wider culture. We must resist with all our will the temptation to become a churchgoing ghetto that speaks an unintelligible language and we must embrace with all our strength the call to go out and become living, breathing and walking icons of the one in whose image we are made, that is + God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.