Text: Acts 17:22-34
We often read the Bible in snippets – a few verses here, a few verses there. This morning we have heard two readings forming together a bit longer passage in the book of Acts, but we still didn’t hear the whole back story that sets the stage for this episode in the life of Paul.
So, here is a bit more background: Paul and Silas are on a missionary journey, a journey filled with all kinds of adventures. They had been to Thessalonica and spoke in the synagogue. Some had become believers and they found Gentiles and women of means to be especially receptive, but the Jewish authorities were furious.
To be fair, you really can’t blame them for being furious. Imagine if a couple of guys showed up here on a Sunday morning, started preaching a bunch of what sounded like bizarre ideas, and as a result some of our congregation left to join some new religion. We would be more than a little upset.
What do you do when you are upset? The time-honored answer is, “You start a riot.” It was the answer then and is apparently still the answer now. So - and this was completely without the help of social media – they formed a mob and took to the streets. As things started to get out of hand, some of the new believers help Paul and Silas get out of town, but a guy named Jason along with others were roughed up by the mob and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges before being released on bail.
Paul and Silas headed for Berea, where the synagogue was both more receptive to their message and a lot more civil toward Paul and Silas. Some Jews in Berea become believers, along with a number of Greeks, including some leading citizen-types. But the Jewish authorities in Thessalonica heard about it, and perhaps miffed that Paul had managed to get out of town before they could get to him, they send a group to Berea to stir up trouble and incite the crowds there, as Luke reports it. Apparently, the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica really hated Paul. So the decision is made to get Paul out of the city. Silas remains along with Timothy, their younger colleague, but Paul is sent to the city of Athens to wait up there until Silas and Timothy come and join him. Paul seemed to be a real lightning rod, and sending him to Athens comes across as something like getting the gasoline away from the fire.
This is the back story; this is what precedes Paul’s arrival in Athens. Oh yeah, one more thing: right before going to Thessalonica, Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown in jail in Philippi. Like I said, it was a trip filled with all kinds of adventures. If they could do it without making it too cheesy or overly pious, it would make a great TV miniseries.
So, after all of this, Paul finds himself in Athens. Try and put yourself in Paul’s shoes for a minute. You are on an extended journey, away from home for months at a time. Life is hard. Travel is exhausting. If you think air travel in the 21st century can be a pain, try to imagine travel by boat and by foot in the first century. In the previous days and weeks, Paul has been beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and threatened by mobs, besides enduring difficult travel. He is in Athens to avoid danger in Berea. One would think that he would be both physically and emotionally exhausted.
If it were me, I’d take some time off. I would relax. I’d read a book. I’d hang out by the pool. I’d watch a ballgame. I’d maybe do a little sightseeing, do a little shopping. I’d catch up on laundry. I’d take it easy.
Paul is not in town to start a church or assist a fledgling congregation; he is just waiting for Silas and Timothy to meet up with him. He is just there so he can keep out of trouble.
But if Paul’s supporters thought that he would keep a low profile in Athens, they didn’t know Paul very well. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Athens, of course, is the center of culture. People are there from all over the world. Athens was a place where thinking and reasoning and knowledge were highly valued – it was a place committed to learning, committed to education. Many philosophies and beliefs were present. It was a very pluralistic society.
All of which makes Athens a lot like Ames. Athens is a lot like a college town. In fact, there are a number of college towns named Athens.
Here, knowledge is valued, thinking and reasoning are important. Here, we have folks from all over the world. And a university community can be a marketplace of ideas, including religious ideas.
Thirty different student religious organizations are listed on the ISU web page, ranging from the Dizang-Qi Buddhism Club to the Salt Company to Hillel to the Atheist and Agnostic Society. This is not to mention those religious groups that did not register with the Student Activities Office as well as all of the different places of worship in town. There are 45 groups listed on the website under multicultural organizations, around 80 special interest organizations, various student political groups, and a few hundred academic and departmental organizations, each with their own slant and approach to learning and living. That sort of diversity of thought and belief and commitment is also found in the wider Ames community.
Paul finds himself in a place with great diversity of belief. He arrives in Athens and almost immediately he notices temples to this god and that god. His ministry has largely been about right belief, but here he finds all kinds of beliefs that are just all over the map. And what’s more, there are folks who seem to be open to swapping beliefs the way that kids used to trade baseball cards. It is all so opposed to Paul’s understanding that you expect Paul to encounter all of this and just blow a gasket.
But he doesn’t. He shares his message, he tells the story of Jesus, there is give and take as he debates with others, starting in the synagogue, as was his custom, but also in the marketplace.
And Paul’s ideas were so different, so out there, what with this story of Jesus’ resurrection, that people were intrigued. They loved hearing about new ideas; Luke reports for us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” These people were addicted to Facebook and Twitter 2000 years before they were even invented.
So, Paul is asked to come to the Areopagus, known to the Romans as Mars Hill, to explain what he has been babbling on about.
What Paul says is pretty astonishing, when you think about his history and background and his theological commitments. Not to mention his track record. Paul is absolutely a monotheist. He has had the best rabbinical training. The notion of acknowledging, let alone worshipping multiple gods is pretty much anathema to him.
Here is Paul’s chance to rebuke this city for their pagan ways, for their worship of multiple deities, for their propensity for making matters of the spirit into a kind of intellectual game. He could have started off with fire and brimstone, he could have gone with “Repent, sinners; turn or burn.”
But amazingly, Paul is able to put things in perspective. He is able to appreciate Athenian culture – not all of it, to be sure, but he looks for what is good and appreciates what he can. And the key to his speech at the Areopagus is that he seeks first to find common ground with his listeners.
“Athenians, I see how religious you are in every way,” he says. He affirms what is good. He finds points of commonality. He tells them that among the temples and shrines he has encountered, he found a shrine to “an unknown god.” And he uses that as an opportunity to speak of the God he knows and to tell about Jesus.
In his sermon, he quotes some of the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers. They had some good stuff. They had truth. Paul didn’t buy all of it, but he chooses to focus on what they share, what they have in common.
If we shift gears now back to our day, back to the marketplace of ideas and commitments and spiritualities that is all around us, maybe Paul gives us a good model – both for how to bear witness to our faith and how to get along in a pluralistic world.
I was in Minneapolis this past Tuesday for the Festival of Homiletics. It is a preaching conference that draws people from all over the country and in fact from several countries. It is a weeklong event but I only attended the one day. On Tuesday afternoon I heard Eric Elnes. He is now in Omaha but a few years ago, Elnes was pastor of the Scottsdale UCC church in Arizona. A church member told him, “I am tired of being Christian, but…” What? She clarified: “I’m tired of meeting new people and when it comes out that I’m a Christian, I might as well have told then I’m radioactive. I’m tired of always feeling like I have to qualify who I am by saying, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t think gays are evil,” or “I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men,” or “I’m a Christian, but I care about the earth,” or I’m a Christian, but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for all eternity.”
Elnes and others who were concerned about the way Christian faith is often presented in the media and who wanted to share the news of a more compassionate and inclusive way of following Jesus put together something called the Phoenix Affirmations, statements of a more progressive vision of Christian faith. And then they organized a walk across the country, called CrossWalk America, to dramatize and bring attention to this more open way of following Jesus, but also to engage and listen to people they met along the way. Elnes wrote about this in his book Asphalt Jesus.
Anyway, early on in the walk, they found themselves in a small town in northeast Arizona on a Sunday in which none of the group of walkers would be speaking in a church. They saw a billboard for a church that looked like the most conservative church going, Jesus First Baptist Church. Elnes wanted to go to there for Sunday morning worship. Nobody else really wanted to, and they were afraid of provoking a fight. Elnes said he didn’t want a fight; he just wanted to share about what they were doing and see how people reacted. Finally, a young woman in their group of 8 walkers agreed to go along. And a camera guy who was part of a documentary film about the walk asked if it would be OK if he came too. The camera guy called the pastor to explain what they were doing and ask if it would be OK if they came to worship. He was surprised when the pastor enthusiastically welcomed him and also invited them to the Bible class before worship.
So, the three of them showed up and were warmly greeted. They sat in on the Sunday School class where a guy was teaching about Revelation. Meanwhile, the pastor was in his study reading up on CrossWalk America.
Elnes said he was looking for common ground, looking for something he could affirm, but there was nothing. He literally disagreed with everything the guy had to say about the book of Revelation and how it was to be interpreted. But Elnes said that what surprised him was that he found himself really liking this guy. He came across as a kind, honest, sincere person of faith. He wasn’t angry or malicious. Elnes could imagine being a friend of this guy.
In worship, the pastor introduced Elnes and asked him to tell about the walk. He said they were walking with the message that you can love Jesus and love gay people, you can love Jesus and love science, you can love Jesus and love the earth, you can love Jesus and be in conversation with people of different faiths, and so on. As Elnes told about why they were walking, the congregation’s body language became very negative. But when he said that on their walk they wanted to meet people who believed differently than they did and to do as much listening as talking, their body language loosened up and smiles returned.
When it came time to sing one of the songs, the song leader said, “I think this is a CrossWalk America song.” He asked Eric and the other walker to come to the front. The congregation made a circle and joined hands and sang “Shine, Jesus, Shine” for CrossWalk America. Elnes was just flabbergasted. In the sermon, the pastor mentioned Crosswalk America three or four times, always positively. He didn’t mention the beliefs of the group that he disagreed with, but he talked about their commitment to faith, putting their faith in action, and joyously following Jesus. And then at the end, he said, “I feel the Holy Spirit leading us to take up an offering for CrossWalk America.” And so this super-fundamentalist church took up a love offering to support a walk across America to call attention to a more progressive kind of Christian faith.
After the service, Elnes gave the pastor a copy of his book, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity. He said, “Sir, I’m sure you will find things you disagree with in this book, but I’m also sure you’ll find we share a lot of common ground.” And the pastor said, “Son, at the foot of the cross it’s all common ground. God bless your journey.”
I loved that story. Both Eric Elnes and the pastor and people of Jesus First Baptist Church were honest about who they were and what they believed, but they focused on what they shared. When we look for what we share, for what we hold in common, we may be surprised by what can happen.
There is great diversity in our community. We’re not all alike. Shoot, we’re not all alike even here in our church. Bearing witness to our faith is not always easy. But like the apostle Paul, maybe we can begin by looking for common ground. Amen.