Voting. However cynical we are about politics, our culture is saturated with
it. We are a democracy, and we vote for our leaders. Local elections are
looming in many parts of our country. Opinion polls attempt to predict who will
win a General Election, and politicians pay close attention to them.
Voting is present in the epidemic of reality shows on the
TV. We decide the fate of a wannabe singer on The
X Factor. We judge the aspirations of someone who wants to be famous for
being famous on Big Brother.
We choose between desperate has-beens, trying to resuscitate their careers on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
Now, if I asked you to take a vote on the Book of Acts, as
to which passage had led to the most discussion, I doubt you would choose today’s
reading. Perhaps you would choose chapter 2, with its account of the first Christian
Pentecost. Maybe you would go for chapter 9, dramatically recounting the
conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road. Both those stories are popular and
controversial. But among the scholars, Paul in Athens wins the vote:
‘In fact, it has attracted more scholarly attention than any
other passage in Acts.’
Apart from the question of how Paul’s speech here relates to
his teaching in his epistles (which I won’t bore you with in a sermon),
‘Luke has presented us here with the fullest example of Paul’s
missionary preaching to a certain kind of Gentile audience (namely, an educated
and rather philosophical pagan one without contacts with the synagogue)’.
In that respect, this story commends itself to us, if we are
to have a missionary engagement with our world. It is to some extent a pagan
one, and has little contacts not with the synagogue but with the church. For several
years, I have referred to this passage in that respect. Indeed, I chose to preach
on it only a month after starting here, when I did a series of sermons about
our missionary relationship with a changing world. Today, the Lectionary brings
me back to these verses,
and the chance to reflect again on how we exercise our missionary calling
today. What does missionary commitment require of each one of us?
Paul is waiting for some friends. Rather than idle his time away, the first
thing Luke tells us is that
‘While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply
distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ (Verse 16)
‘Deeply distressed.’ The Greek is the word from which we get
our word ‘paroxysm’. It’s a word for strong negative emotions. The city was
full – no, weighed down – with idols. That it would be upsetting for someone
Jewish like Paul is obvious on one level: the Ten Commandments prohibit graven
images of God, so idols are out. But it was worse in Athens. Jews often alleged
that there was a link between idolatry and immorality. The content of some
Athenian idols would have backed up that claim.
As it’s Sunday morning, I’ll spare you the tawdry details.
We too face a culture that is ignorant of the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many reasons for this, some of them our
fault as the Church, but the desire (need?) for worship persists, and so we
have idolatry today, some of which is connected to immorality.
We can list today’s idolatries easily: sex, shopping, money,
possessions, and so on. But there are bigger questions for us: does seeing
people worship in this way arouse passion in us as Christ-followers or not? And
if it arouses passion, is it a godly passion?
There are several reactions we can have to contemporary idolatry.
One would be apathy. We see false and unhealthy worship, but can’t be bothered
to make a stand. Either that, or we’re more worried about people’s reactions if
we say something, so fear keeps us quiet.
Another is that we can react passionately, thinking we are
doing so for God, but being quite ugly. Passion turns to judgmentalism.
Or we can be passionate for the wrong reasons. We look at
the numbers flocking to sporting events or the shops on a Sunday, and bewail
our own small numbers. If we’re not careful, our real reason is not a desire to
honour Jesus Christ, but the fear that our little religious club might close. ‘Can
we fill all the vacant jobs here?’ is a poor reason for evangelism.
The passion Paul had was a passion for the glory of Jesus.
If the worship due to his name were being directed elsewhere, even if out of
ignorance rather than deliberate choice, that moved him. He challenges us to
leave behind apathy, anger and selfishness as reactions to idolatry, and
instead react out of a heart full of love for Jesus. I believe Paul could only
have reacted as he did in Athens if he regularly remembered how much God in
Christ had done for him who once had been a sworn enemy of the church.
We don’t have to have had dramatic ‘Damascus Road’
conversions like him, but a sense of how wonderful God is, how much he has done
for us, how gracious and loving he is in contrast to us will do more for
mission than a thousand training programmes. It’s a passion that comes from God’s
grace, and which is nurtured in worship, prayer, fellowship, Bible meditation
and getting on with the life of a disciple. In other words, God has acted in
extravagant love towards us, and we receive and respond. Then we have a passion
for Jesus and a passion for those who do not love him.
If you have a passion for Jesus and for those who don’t know him, then the
last thing you can do is sit around and moan. Nor can you bury your head in the
sand and say, ‘It’s all hopeless.’ Passion will drive you to engage the love of
Jesus with those yet to know him.
And that passion drives people out into the world to engage
with the idol worshippers and others. It doesn’t say, ‘We’ve got an interesting
event on here, why not come and join us?’ Those happily worshipping idols see
no reason to do so, and nor did the Athenians. Paul went to them to engage them
with the Gospel; he didn’t set up camp and invite them onto his territory. So –
he went to the synagogue (not that he considered his fellow Jews idolaters, but
he believed Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes), where he didn’t get
up and give an altar call: he ‘argued’ (debated) with the Jews and the Gentile
God-fearers (verse 17). That is, he was in conversation with them. He didn’t
solely use set-piece speeches.
He did the same in the mainstream Athenian culture, because
he also went to the market place to debate with whoever was there each day. Here,
we need to understand that the market place wasn’t simply where you went to buy
your strawberries and potatoes: it was the centre of civic and cultural life in
Athens. If you wanted to make an impact upon the life of the city, you went to
the agora, the market place and
started networking with people there. Therefore, we have our priorities out of
kilter when we are happy that someone answers a call to preach or offers for
the ministry, but we are less impressed when somebody becomes a bank manager, a
teacher, an artist, a musician or a secretary.
Yesterday, I read the
words of a Canadian businessman
who had been reflecting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he
tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth. Here is just one of his
‘Salt NEVER serves its purpose staying in the shaker.
The purpose of the Christian life is found when “shaken out” to flavour the
world. Too often the highest vision of ministry given to Christians is to be on
the church platform, rather than changing the flavour of the world.’
If disciples are the salt of the earth, then, the church is
the saltshaker. Our purpose is not to create an alternative social life and
entertainment menu for Christians: it is to shake the salt out into the world,
where it will do its work of engagement. Yes, we are here to heal, comfort and
encourage, but never by keeping the grains in the saltshaker.
3. Contact and
Paul causes a stir in Athens. Some find him intriguing, others are disparaging.
Still others are confused: he is advocating a god called Jesus, and a goddess
called Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’, which is a feminine noun). The
Areopagus, the city council that decided which gods were acceptable to be
worshipped, decides almost to put him on trial – or at least put his views
under their microscope.
How does Paul respond? Much of his speech follows the
conventions of ancient rhetoric. He speaks in their style. Unlike when he is in
a synagogue, he doesn’t quote the Scriptures – but his content is scriptural. His
only direct quotes come from Greek cultural sources such as poets – but he uses
them to support his argument and bring the challenge of the Gospel to his
And his point is this: the Athenian approach to God is plain
wrong. God the Creator doesn’t need idols, nor is he dependent upon what human
beings do. You’re muddling around in the dark, he tells his listeners. God
excused that in the past, but not any longer: he will judge the world. His
promise that he will do so is that he has raised Jesus from the dead. This isn’t
comfortable stuff. Paul is under suspicion. In response, he criticises Athenian
beliefs, and ends by proclaiming the Resurrection, and Athenians didn’t believe
anyone would be raised from the dead.
Paul, then, knows the Gospel, and has taken the trouble to
know the society to which he is proclaiming that Good News. The Gospel is his
foundation, but how he shares it depends on the people with whom he is
It’s this knowing the Gospel and knowing our world that is
important for us. Some of us know one far better than the other. There are
those Christians who spend so much time in Bible study, but they wouldn’t have
a clue how to relate to non-Christians. But there are others who wrap
themselves up in the world and are ignorant of the faith. The world easily squeezes
them into its mould. They
are barely distinguishable from their non-Christian friends.
Let me pose this as a challenge, then: do I fall into one of
these extremes? Am I so caught up in Bible study and Christian books that I can’t
connect with people who need the Gospel? If so, will I take the time to listen
and understand our world? We can do this by nurturing conversations with
friends, reading newspaper leader columns and paying attention to popular
culture, such as music and television. While we do this, we look for the
underlying assumptions and subject them to Gospel scrutiny.
Or am I so absorbed by the world that I am losing my
Christian distinctiveness? If that is me, then I have a different challenge. I may
need the discipline of daily Bible reading. Good quality Christian books may
help me. (Ask me if you want recommendations about books or Bible study notes.)
I may well find it helpful to join a fellowship group where we spur one another
on in our discipleship.
Sometimes in a world that seems increasingly ignorant of the Gospel, if not
hostile to it, the task of Christian witness seems daunting, if not hopeless.
But when we read of Paul taking the Good News to pagan Athens, we realise that
nothing is impossible with God. No, he didn’t see masses of converts, but he
did make some headway.
The change requires a degree of recalibration for us as
Christians from what we have been used to. We can’t rely on commonly accepted
beliefs or the idea of a ‘Christian country’: we need a passion for Jesus and
for people not yet in the community of faith. Nor can we expect to do things on
our terms and our territory: we need to move out in engagement. Finally, we
need to bring the Gospel and the world together, not only in our actions but
also in our thinking, so that we can shape our missionary task appropriately.
Are we up for the challenge?
Although it only includes Paul’s speech from verses 22 to 31. I think you need
the whole story for the context.
Witherington, p 512f.
Witherington, p 532.
See J B Phillips’ translation of Romans 12:1-2.