The text for this sermon is Acts 17:16-33.
I want to spend some time this morning in the story we read in the book of Acts. Let’s start by looking at it carefully. If you could pull out the scripture insert and follow along with me.
Paul happens to be in Athens because he had caused such a ruckus in Thessalonica that the Thessalonians chased him not just out of town, but even followed him to the next town and chased him out of there, too. When Paul got to Athens he figured he had lost them and decided to rest and wait for his partners Timothy and Silas. Paul didn’t come to Athens to start a church, but to hide from some really mad parishioners.
Unlike me, Paul didn’t handle down time well. Verse 16 says he was deeply irritated at how messed up the religious scene was in Athens and he couldn’t help himself. Paul being Paul started preaching, first in the synagogue and then in the market square to anyone who would listen.
Athens was the center of learning in Paul’s world. It was where all the pointy headed intellectuals hung out, like Harvard, Yale or Oxford today. He caught the ear of two popular philosophical schools of thought in Athens, Stoics and Epicureans. Like Paul, these philosophers looked down on the folk religions of the common people with their temples, priests and statues. However, they heard Paul and figured he was just as backward and ignorant as all of the other religious folk that they didn’t like much.
In verse 18, none to impressed with Paul’s preaching, these philosophers called him a babbler. Trust me this is not a nickname a preacher wants. Possibly because they were intellectually curious, but probably to have some sport with this preacher from Hicksville, they brought him to the town council, called the Areopagus to preach. Verse 21 is an editor’s note, indicating the intellectuals of Athens weren’t really interested in finding truth but just the latest fad. Like today, there is sometimes an icy relationship between academia and the church.
In verse 22, the never shy Paul starts to preach to these skeptical, smart guys. As any preacher worth his salt knows, you begin by complimenting your audience. Did I say how good all of you look today, especially you Marge, beautiful outfit. He mentions one of the altars he saw in the town, a memorial to the unknown god. I suppose this was the place Athenians went if their prayers weren’t answered at the other temples, to hedge your bets.
Starting at verse 24, Paul begins to tell them all about this unknown god. He is not a god that lives in temples or made out of stone, metals or jewels or that even needs anything from us. This is the god that made everything, even us, by first making a people, and those people populating the world. This god controls everything in the creation, even the life span of the people he created.
In verse 27 he reveals the purpose for all of the people this god created, to search, grope for god and find him. This part of the sermon would have flattered the Athenians, because they saw their great learning as a search for truth. He really impressed them when he quoted sixth and third century BCE poets in verse 28. Kind of like how impressed you are when I quote a Simpsons episode in my sermon.
Up to this point he has them eating out of his hand and he didn’t even have to put on tight shorts and shirt like I did on Easter morning to get your attention. Paul’s got some chops. Then he drives the train off of the rails. He brings up Jesus. Not by name, because the name would have not meant any more to them than quoting scripture, which he also didn’t do.
In verse 29, with a conspiratorial look, he says, only ignorant people believe in these crazy statues and temples. God has put up with ignorant people for thousands of years, but the game is over. Paul knows what they teach you in preaching 101, people love it when you tell them they are smarter than their neighbor, which is why I bring up our poor Methodist brothers and sisters all the time.
They like this, but they get anxious as he continues. God wants to be truly known, now, and so revealed himself in a man. Repent. Stop your reliance on other gods, your misplaced trust in other ways that will save you. Repent. This one man who died has been resurrected and will return as judge over all who have heard the truth, as you all just did. He loses them when it is clear Paul wants them stop living in ignorance and embrace the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of this one man. Paul is calling them ignorant, not their neighbor.
It was a tough ending. I probably would have quit after the great quotes from the dead poets. Not Paul. He had to bring up Jesus, judgment and repentance. Some outright made fun of him. A few promised to come and listen to him preach again, probably because the beginning of his sermon was so good. A whopping two, converted. Not great by standards of the book of Acts, where sometimes hundreds are moved to baptism after a good sermon.
Paul lost them with the whole repentance thing. People don’t like change. Repentance is a tough sell because these Athenian intellectuals, your neighbor across the street, me or you, really think their life needs radical change. Most of us admit we have a few rough edges, bad habits let’s call them, but the guy who really needs some serious repentance is that freak I read about in the paper. While we all believe there are really messed up people in this world, few of us think we are one of them.
The Church is very familiar with this sermon. We talk about it in our seminary. We have taken away one very good lesson from it. To engage people in the gospel we need to present it in their context. Paul in Athens speaks their language and engages the Athenians. He doesn’t quote scripture or give arcane theological theory. If we are going to reach out in our communities, we must do so in ways that engages the culture. If we can use a Lady GaGa song to make the point that in baptism each of us is unique, special and celebrated than we should. Like Paul, we are called to creatively invite and share the gospel to our neighbor. Whether this means drums, guitars and screens or bagpipes and choirs, it only matters if it works.
The Church, or at least her pastors has learned something else from Paul’s sermon. People don’t like to be challenged. Sometimes we are so worried about getting new members or just making sure people like us, that we don’t want to share anything about the cost of following Jesus. Our churches are like those acne cream ads we see late at night, that promise for only $35, we can receive life changing medicine for our skin. When we call and give them our credit card number, we discover that the $35 is charged every month until we contact them to stop. And, oh yeah, could luck trying to get them to stop. Like Paul, no matter how entertaining we might figure out how to be, we can’t shy from telling the whole truth to people groping for God. Committing our life to Christ will mean change and a radical reordering of our priorities.
When we do new member classes, I give the first of the five talks. Right at the beginning I want people to hear what they are promising when they join our ministry at Messiah. Our expectation is that they share their life, their talents, passions and wealth with the church. Our churches need all hands on deck to help people discover God’s purpose for them. Repentance begins by members reordering their lives so that living and sharing their faith becomes important.
Paul did his best. He packaged the gospel story in a way that would reach his audience. Yet, he could not faithfully share his faith without demanding commitment and change. He got two to convert, a couple of more to think about it and only a few to laugh him out of the pulpit. I got to be honest with you, I would call that a good day. Amen