Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: Listening to culture

Sermon for the combined service at Riddells Creek

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 29th of May 2011

Acts 17:22-31

            Today we see Paul the Evangelist at his best. In today’s reading from the first letter of Peter, Peter advises Christians who are under attack for their faith: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.’[1] And in today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles we see Paul doing exactly that; giving an account of his faith to the pagan Athenians with gentleness and reverence.

Paul is waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to join him. They’ve all had to leave Thessalonica and Beroa, because Paul’s preaching has led to riots. Paul does what anyone else with time on their hands does in a new city – he has a look around. Luke tells us, ‘he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols’. Paul also does what he does everywhere, he goes to synagogue to preach and argue, and he proclaims his message in the market-place. Since Athens is full of people who are always up for a good argument, Paul is also able to debate the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some people describe him as a babbler; others think that he’s proclaiming some new foreign god that he wants the Athenians to add to their pantheon. So they bring him to the Areopagus to ask him about his new teaching. Luke tells us, ‘Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,’ and Paul definitely has something new to say.

At this point today’s reading starts. The Areopagus, where Paul’s been taken to speak, was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens and it was also the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens. From the fifth or sixth century before Christ the Areopagus was made up of nine archons, or chief magistrates, who ruled the city-state during its transition from monarchy to democracy. The Areopagus was a group with an immense history and prestige. Over time its role changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. Paul may have been taken to the Areopagus to give the equivalent of a university guest lecture, or he may have been on trial. Either way, at the Areopagus he has the chance to explain to some of the most intelligent and well-educated pagans in the empire what it is he’s proclaiming. In a wonderful model of mission, Paul does this by meeting the Athenians exactly where they are.

Speaking to this entirely pagan audience, Paul doesn’t quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. The words of Scripture would have had no meaning for them. Instead, Paul begins by complimenting the Athenians as very religious and praising them for their willingness to worship a god unknown to them. Remember, Luke has said earlier that Paul was actually deeply distressed to see the city full of idols. But he didn’t smash them. Nor, when he now makes his argument to the Athenians, does he condemn them. Instead, he takes the most respectful view possible of idol worship, as a sign that people are seeking the divine, and draws on it: ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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 therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’

Paul then makes an argument from natural theology, from the world around the Athenians, from what everyone can see. Paul claims kinship with the Athenians: ‘from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth’. Finally, Paul quotes from the Athenian’s own poets and philosophers: ‘For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”’. Paul doesn’t condemn the Athenians or their philosophy or their poets. Instead he meets them where they are, drawing what’s best out of their culture, and showing that God is not far from any of them.

It’s only after taking the Athenians down this path that Paul turns to revelation and talks about the resurrection of the dead. No smashing of idols; no condemnation of paganism – Paul affirms human culture, even the making of idols of unknown gods, as a way in which people can seek for the truth. Natural religion isn’t sufficient in itself; in the end revelation is needed, but it’s equally not to be sneered at.

Once Paul starts talking about the resurrection of the dead he loses some of his audience. Some scoff; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ I can imagine that many of the philosophers listening to Paul’s teaching would have found it fascinating, and gone away talking about it, but wouldn’t have allowed it to change them in any way. For them it would have remained purely academic. Maybe this is why in Athens, alone among the places where Paul preached, there was neither a riot nor large numbers of people converted. But some people do join Paul, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Paul’s intelligent, respectful, gentle and reverent preaching doesn’t win large crowds. But it does win a few.

Saint Augustine wrote in his confessions: ‘God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ Human beings, made by the God in whom we live and move and have our being, are always searching for God, seeking the transcendent, the divine. Sometimes we seek it in the wrong places, in idols of gold and silver and stone, in idols of wealth and prestige and success. These idols do need to be repudiated. But the things of the world can also be good gifts of the God who made the world and everything in it, pointing us to the God who is revealed in Jesus.

Our role, as those called to proclaim that God, is to listen carefully to even the most pagan of cultures, and to approach it with thoughtfulness and respect. Good evangelism is not smashing idols or standing on street corners yelling at people to repent. Good evangelism isn’t about imposing our own culture on others. The best missionaries, here in Australia and around the world, have always been those who enter deeply into a culture and make links between where people already are and Jesus. The worst are those who demand that the people to whom they’re preaching give up every aspect of their own culture in order to become Christian. The Christians in Bali, as I saw a few years ago, are now creating the Mango Tree Church, after centuries of thinking they had to be Dutch in order to be Christian. The churches look very different, and are much more appropriate to the climate! Good evangelism is listening, engaging, and sharing hope with gentleness and reverence.

Our challenge is to be open enough, and sure enough in our own faith, to be able to enter the worlds of other people and meet them where they are. Listening to other cultures and engaging with them can be frightening if our own faith is shaky. But if we know who we are, and even more importantly, whose we are, we can meet other people and listen to them with interest and curiosity, and talk with them with gentleness and reverence. And since God made all the nations, and every person is God’s offspring, we can be certain that when we meet with anyone, God will be there too. Amen.


[1] 1 Peter 3:15-6.

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June 5, 2011 - Posted by | Life, etc., Ministry | , ,

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