Talking to the Greeks

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on May 25, 2014, by Christopher L. Webber

Whoever decides what the readings are each week –  and it’s an international, ecumenical committee – left off three critical verses today in the first reading. We were reading a portion of the Book of Acts  and the chapter ends with verse 34,  but the reading we had stopped at verse 31, and I know why they left off those last three verses.  I don’t think they should have.

We heard in the reading what Paul said about Christian faith  and about resurrection but we didn’t hear the response and I think we should have. Let me read you what they left out:

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.  Acts 17:32

Now the point is this:  We heard a story about Paul’s first visit to Athens. We’re talking about the cultural capital of the Roman world and this was Paul’s first visit. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul,  like any other tourist, wandered around the city admiring the same tourist attractions people go to look at today. He undoubtedly went up the Acropolis – the high point in the city – and admired the Parthenon with its marvelous sculptures. Maybe some of you have been there, done that.  And here and there around the city he noticed, of course, a lot of statues and altars for the various Greek gods and goddesses. And that upset him a lot.

Paul found it hard to imagine  a civilized and cultivated people  worshiping a lot of carved images and he got into some debates about it  in the market place  the way, I suppose, you might get to talking  with someone you run into at the Safeway about the weather or the Bay to Breakers run  or the latest craziness in Washington. But Paul had a serious agenda  and finally some people said,  “Look, let’s go to the areopagus  and have some serious discussions.” acropolis

Now the areopagus is not the acropolis.  It’s another hill in the middle of Athens and the place where the ancient law courts had been. It was used in Paul’s time  for public discussion of issues so the idea was to give Paul  a serious chance to present his story and Paul took it very seriously. He proceeded to preach a sermon  about the nature of God and the purpose of human life.

What the Bible gives us, of course  is nowhere near the full story. We have less than 300 words – not even 20%  of what I would consider a reasonable sermon by today’s standards and probably not even 10%.  It’s a Readers Digest version  of what Paul actually said. But Paul did something in that sermon  he may never have done before or afterward. He tried to reach out to his audience  by quoting, not the Bible, but their authorities, their philosophers, their poetry.  It’s as if he went to UC Berkeley today and quoted – well, who would you quote  to get attention at Berkeley? Maybe there aren’t any authorities today!  But Paul quoted recognized poets and philosophers to talk to a cultivated, intelligent audience.

What’s most interesting in this reaching out is a clever reference Paul made to an inscription he had seen. Somewhere as he wandered around the city  he found an altar dedicated “to the unknown god.” It’s not quite clear what it was for.  Maybe it was a way of hedging their bets.  Maybe the Athenians were saying, “Hey, we have all these statues and altars for all the gods you ever heard of but here’s one more in case we left anyone out.”

Some historians think the inscription actually refers to an incident years earlier when a plague was devastating Athens  and nothing worked. They made offerings to every god they had ever heard of  but nothing worked. So they thought maybe there was another god  unknown to them and they made offerings to that god — and it worked:  the plague came to an end.  So the Athenians put up an altar  to that unknown God: “Whoever you are: Thank you.”

But Paul took that inscription to refer to the God of Israel,  the true God, unknown to them, and he said he was there to tell them about that true but unknown God. That may have been effective.  It may have gotten attention. We can’t tell from the Bible record.  What we can tell is that Paul apparently segued too fast  into talking about the resurrection.

The reading this morning stops at that point. Paul says, in effect, “Up until now you were ignorant  and God was OK with that but the time has come to repent  because judgment is coming and we know we will have to face judgment after death  because Jesus was raised from the dead.”

Well, yes, but it was too much too fast  and in the assigned reading we didn’t hear what happened next.  And that’s why I read it to you just now. Here’s what happened:  They laughed at him and said, “See you later.”  The people who chose the readings, that international, ecumenical committee,  didn’t want us to hear the part where Paul gets laughed at. But Luke, who wrote the story,  gives us an honest report:  he admits it didn’t go very well,  but he puts a positive spin on it anyway by telling us that Paul  got two converts out of it that he can remember  and maybe a few more whose names he forgets.

Now you can look at that as pretty discouraging:  here is Paul, the great evangelist and missionary, going into the center of the ancient world  and using all his erudition and learning to try to reach out  to a pagan audience and being laughed at and coming way with only two converts. If Paul himself can’t do any better than that,  what chance do we have?

But look at it the other way round: not the glass is half empty  but the glass is half full. If we don’t make much of an impact,  it might be helpful to remember that neither did St. Paul himself. If you get laughed at when you try to get someone  to come to church with you, so did St. Paul.  So, Point One: don’t be discouraged.  It was never easy.

But Point Two:  Paul used all the information he had, any approach that might work.  He studied the culture. He saw that even pagans had contact points, ideas in common with the Biblical God. And he tried to make contact on their ground, not on his.  In other words,  he didn’t just quote scripture to them, but he looked to see what books they were reading,  what sort of things appealed to them, “where they were coming from,” and he started there: on their turf, not his.

And surely we need to do that  and are doing it. Why do we have a healing center here  except for that reason: to try to make contact with people  who don’t know much about Christianity but are very interested in “spirituality.” So here we have a place  where people can make contact with their concern for physical health  and spiritual wholeness  and maybe one thing will lead to another –  and maybe not. Maybe they will be interested in the next step:  not just some vague “spirituality”  that reflects an inner emptiness and need  but a living relationship with a living God that will not just assuage that emptiness but fill it. If so, that’s wonderful.  But maybe it won’t go that far. Maybe it will simply give them something more than they had and they never will come all the way. Paul only came away with two converts  but he probably gave the rest  something to think about and maybe it gave them a new depth of understanding  when they went back to their heathen shrines. As Paul said, “God is never far from any of us:”  not far from the Buddhist or the Muslim or even the atheist,  maybe closer to some of them than to some of us.

There was a day, you know,  when evangelists liked to threaten their hearers with being lost for ever – eternal punishment and all that. Well, maybe.  Maybe they have a point  and we ought to worry more than we do.  Better safe than sorry. But there’s an old hymn that says,  “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea . . .” So it’s not our job to judge;  it’s our job to offer, not threaten.  It’s our job to open doors, not close them. It’s our job to provide whatever help and guidance we can to others on their own road  which may be different from ours.

Let me suggest also another way of looking at it.  Paul was trying to make contact between a Hebrew God,  who had been, we might say,  recently widened, “repurposed,”  to embrace the Gentiles,  and Paul was trying to make contact somehow  between that God  and an utterly different pagan culture. And he found contact points:  something here that a philosopher once said, a line of poetry there that might be familiar. It didn’t get him very far on that first try,  but it was a first try and others who came after would expand that opening and widen it more and more  until the pagan empire became  in name at least  a Christian dominion and they put the pagan shrines and altars  in museums for tourists to gaze at.

So our job, too, is to proclaim the gospel to a heathen culture but maybe one harder to reach  than Paul’s audience in Athens because it’s one which has all the words and phrases  of Christianity and likes to think of itself still  as part of a Christian country but is barely recognizable as such  to many of us.

Is this a Christian country?  It’s one that kills more people with guns than any other country on earth,  that still uses the death penalty, that can’t provide health care for its poorest citizens.  That doesn’t sound like a Christian country to me. So how do we preach the gospel  to a country like this? What would Paul have done? What would he have done  if he looked to see where our values are, what unknown gods we worship?  How much tax payer money goes into  not temples to worship carved idols  but the building of football and baseball stadiums to follow idols who are all too human? Would Paul have commented on that?  What would he have made of the way  we dig ourselves deep into debt to get the best education available for our children  and yet find half the population rejecting what our colleges teach? How do you address a population that claims to be Christian but rejects what our best minds tell us  about the world God made?

I admit I’m baffled by this culture.  I want to say, Look at the marvels of creation that science is showing us  and sing another chorus of “How great thou art.”  But I read in the news – I actually haven’t met any of these people myself – about people who believe in a God so much  smaller, so much less believable,  that I don’t know how to talk to them. And maybe I don’t have to because  maybe they don’t live around here anyway. But they certainly make our job harder  with the people who do live around here  and know almost nothing about the Christian church  except what they read in the papers or watch on television. It’s people here who weren’t brought up as Christians who read or watch stories that identify Christians  as people who deny evolution and question climate change and vote down spending for health care.

How do we get word out  that Christianity as we understand it respects and encourages science  and cares about those in need? How do we get word out  that Christianity is not narrow-minded and self-centered  but open to the best in our culture, open to the best in others, responsive to human need?  The problem is that that doesn’t grab headlines the way ignorance does, the way denial does. Sometimes I want to change the name of my faith  so as to make it clear that if that’s Christianity I don’t believe that either. What I want to be able to do in San Francisco  is exactly what Paul did in Athens: to wander around the city and be able to say as he did,  “I see you are very religious: I see your governor taking new initiatives  to save the environment, to be good stewards of creation.  I see you working to enhance your God-given bodies  in a Bay to Breakers race. I see your botanical gardens  and art museums and concert halls and amazing schools of every kind  and I give thanks for the way you respond to the amazing diversity of this  God-given world and God-created life and I would want you to have a way to give thanks  for all these gifts by coming to know its Source and Savior.”

Now maybe that’s a step too far for many  whose upbringing or natural inclination  left them too far away to come so far but let’s try as St Paul did  to find those contact points and reach out and try to come together as a society in which we respect each other and learn from each other  and find whatever common language we can to praise the God who has done such great things  and make known the God who has given us so much.

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