Text: Acts 17:16-34
Paul winds up in Athens kind of by accident. Maybe you know what that is like. I mean, it’s possible that some of you ended up in church this morning kind of by accident. Well, here is how it happened for Paul: he essentially was run out of Thessalonica. His preaching was upsetting to some at the local synagogue, and now a mob was looking for him and Silas. Since they could not find them, they had the authorities arrest the man in whose home Paul and Silas were staying, a man named Jason, who had to post bail before being released.
Meanwhile some other believers told Paul and Silas they had best get out of town. So they went to Berea, where people were more receptive and a number of people came to Christ. But Paul’s detractors in Thessalonica got wind of it and came to Berea, stirring up trouble. Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea, but for safety’s sake some friends brought Paul all the way to Athens, a long way from Berea and Thessalonica, where Paul was now waiting for Silas and Timothy to meet up with him.
So for Paul, Athens is just a stopping-off point, a layover on a hurried journey. And after facing opposition and danger, Athens was a place where he might catch his breath. He didn’t, as it turns out, but he could have.
While there, he noticed that this city was different. People from all over the world were in Athens. Thinking and reasoning and knowledge and philosophy were highly valued – it was a place committed to learning. Not only did the Athenians have some diverse beliefs and spiritual sensibilities, those who had come from other places brought their beliefs with them. It was a very pluralistic society interested in the marketplace of ideas.
All of which makes Athens about as close to a college town as we get in the Bible. If you had to choose a Biblical city that was most similar to Ames, it might be Athens. There are actually several college towns named Athens – Ohio University is in Athens and the University of Georgia is in Athens.
Here in Ames, knowledge is valued, thinking and reasoning are important. Here, we have folks from all over the world. The university is a marketplace of ideas. And like Athens, Ames is a place where many gods are worshipped.
What are these gods? We can sacrifice mightily for the gods of tenure and promotion, class rank and membership in prestigious social groups, fashionable clothing and sleek new vehicles, homes in desirable neighborhoods and careers that command big salaries. Nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, but such pursuit can consume our time and energy to where there is very little left for God. Like Athens, there are plenty of gods worshiped here.
Living in a university community can be very stimulating and exciting, yet it can be challenging for one who would give witness to the gospel.
Paul models how we might share our faith with integrity. The gist of it is: he connects with the culture. He doesn’t begin by castigating the crowds for all of the various gods he sees; he begins by complementing them, seeing the good around him. “I see that you are very religious people,” he says. He quotes one of the Greek philosophers, who said, “In God we live and move and have our being.” Paul finds common ground, engages the culture, speaks their language, and then he shares what he believes. He doesn’t put down the Athenians’ beliefs, but at the same time, he is unapologetic about what he believes.
This passage provides a model for how we might share our faith, how we might relate to the culture around us. It would be worth exploring that further, but this morning, I want us to look at the last couple of verses: the results of Paul’s preaching.
Here in Athens, it’s not all that impressive. We read earlier in the book of Acts about the church growing by leaps and bounds with new believers. Three thousand were converted in one day after Pentecost. Here, lots of people were interested in hearing Paul talk but many found it all kind of odd. But a few did believe.
We read, “Some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
Who were these people? Why were Dionysius and Damaris mentioned, and not others?
You know, when we read scripture, we often come upon names like this. It’s every worship leader’s worst nightmare: a long list of strange, hard-to-pronounce names. What’s the deal with all these minor characters in the Bible that we seem to know little if anything about?
In this case, we know just a little about them. Dionysius is an “Areopagite,” the Areopagus being not only the place, also known as Mars Hill, but the Areopagus being the ruling council of Athens, a small, aristocratic group. It is clear why Dinoysius is mentioned – he is a very prominent citizen. It was noteworthy that of the few who believed, there was among them one of the most prominent people in town.
And then, there is a woman named Damaris. We know less of her. One commentator conjectured that since women of status would not be in a public place such as the Areopagus at that time, that this had to be a woman of low social standing. Another possibility is that this was a foreign woman, perhaps even a Jewish woman, who may well have been educated and of some means.
Some early manuscripts of Acts have her described as “the esteemed woman Damaris.” We really can’t say a lot about her, but Luke wrote this account some time later, and the fact that she is mentioned at all means that she probably was “esteemed” and that she likely played an important role in the church at Athens. She is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
Likewise, Dionysius was remembered, and according to tradition he was the first bishop of Athens. He was martyred for his faith and like Damaris, Dionysius the Areopagite was recognized by the church as a saint.
What is really crucial here is that Paul is just passing through town. He didn’t even plan to come here, kind of wound up in Athens by accident. While here, he preaches the gospel. While the response was less enthusiastic than in some places, the nucleus of a church in Athens begins to form, with Damaris, Dionysius, and others. Paul doesn’t hang around--he is not there long. If the church in Athens is going to make a go of it, it will be up to people like Damaris and Dionysius to make it work.
We see this over and over in the scriptures – folks who appear to be minor characters, names we know very little about – like Jason, back in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas were run out of town, and it was people like Jason who carried on the work and built the church in that city.
There are so many names that appear to be just footnotes. But there is a story, there is a living person behind every name. And what we might consider to be “minor” characters are not so minor after all.
This is where we come into the story. We may not be a Paul or a Peter or a Mary. There aren’t too many of those around. But we can be a Damaris or a Dionysius or a Jason. And the fact is, the church cannot survive without such people, folks who make crucial contributions but may not get a lot of press.
Remembered or not, there is a story, there is a life, there is a flesh and blood person behind the names in scripture. These people were faithful right where they were. Without Jason, Paul and Silas may not have made it out of Thessalonica alive. Without Damaris and Dionysius, the church isn’t planted in Athens. It is through so many faithful people, people like you and me, that Christ’s work is done.
We are in the season of political conventions, so let me share a story from the world of politics. Some of you will remember Richard Daly, the legendary mayor of Chicago. Mayor Daly ran the well-oiled Chicago political machine and was known as a really tough guy to work for.
One story goes like this. One of Mayor Daly’s speech writers felt he was sorely underpaid and demanded a raise. Daly responded as could be expected. He said, “I’m not going to give you a raise. You are getting paid more than enough already. It should be enough for you that you are working for a great American hero like myself.” And that was the end of it...or so the mayor thought.
Two weeks later Mayor Daly was on his way to give a speech to a convention of veterans. The speech was going to receive nationwide attention. Now, one other thing Daly was famous for was not reading his speeches until he got up to deliver them. So there he stood before a vast crowd of veterans and nationwide press coverage. He began to describe the plight of the veterans. “I’m concerned for you. I have a heart for you. I am deeply convinced that this country needs to take care of its veterans. So, today I am proposing a seventeen point plan that includes the city, state and federal government, to care for the veterans of this country.” Now by this time everyone, including Mayor Daly himself, was on the edge of their seat to hear what the proposal was. He turned the page and saw only these words: “You’re on your own now, you great American hero.”
Well, that may be an apocryphal story, but it makes the point. Everyone’s contributions are valuable. We need the Peters and Pauls, no doubt, but we also need Silas and Timothy and Damaris and Dionysius and Jason. In the church, we are all needed, we are all valuable, and we all have a contribution to make.
In this strange time that we are living through, there are all sorts of ways large and small that we can share the love of Jesus with others. And it is through people like you and me – more like Damaris and Dionysius than we are Paul - that Christ’s church is built. Each one of us has a story, each one of us has a gift to share, and in God’s world we are far more than footnotes.
I didn’t plan the sermon this way, but as we look ahead to our workshop this morning it occurs to me that this is basically the philosophy behind AMOS. We all have a story, we all have a gift to share, our voices all matter, and when we work together, we can make this a better and fairer and more just community. May it be so. Amen.