May 14th, 2023 “Paul’s Stand up Routine in Athens"
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
As we join the story this morning Paul has been traveling - he has taken his show on the road and it has not been going very smoothly! He has already been run out of town in a couple of places. People were angry that he challenged their idols. Paul spoke the truth that unmasks the lies. So when he arrives in Athens he changes his material a little bit. Actually this is one of Paul’s real strengths when he preaches - he adapts to where he is and who his audience is or as my friend would say he can read the room!
Paul’s approach to the Athenians is closer to one of their celebrated philosophers. We are told that Paul took a close look around the city and was dismayed to see how many idols there were. When he begins his speech he does not lambast the Athenians for the number of idols instead he compliments his audience. I can see that you are a very religious people - you have so many idols. In fact you even have one to an unknown God! Was this because the Athenians were so superstitious that they were terrified of missing a God?
Paul uses this as his entry into his teaching about Jesus. He tells the Anthenians that he knows this unknown God. This is the creator of all. This is the “one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Paul takes these words from the Greeks and adapts it. The result is that this phrase has become treasured and integrated into the Christian story. The phrase has been adapted into how we express our understanding of God.
This God, unknown to the Athenians, is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. This is the God that Paul has come to teach about.
Paul knew that the Athenians were curious. They were fascinated by new ideas and concepts. They spent enormous amounts of time listening to speeches and arguments and debates. They loved learning. Paul did not dismantle the religion of the Athenians - he affirmed their quest for the ground of being. They were ready for Paul and he was ready for them.
Paul’s challenge was to proclaim the Gospel -the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who knew nothing of either Jewish or Christian traditions. His speech was framed to convince polytheists, stoics, epicureans and admirers of classical poetry about the truth of Christ & his resurrection. And what was the response? Some mocked, some put him off and others believed. In Athens today there is a plaque recognizing the traditional location of Paul’s sermon.
Paul addresses everyone and tells them that he recognizes their deep need for meaning. Paul wants the Athenians to know that their “unknown God” is the God who gives life.
Paul stirred their curiosity.
Paul introduced exclusivity when he introduced Jesus and told them he knew - without hesitation, who the “unknown God” in their midst was. Paul preached with sensitivity to his audience - he wanted to be heard and understood. Paul was not afraid to challenge the Athenian philosophers or pagan practices. He used their openness to other religions while at the same time challenging that openness with his faith in the one true God. This might be Paul at his best.
Paul’s witness was respectful of the views of others. He demonstrated insight into and understanding of other faiths while at the same time insisting on sharing the truth as he had come to know it through his own experiences. Paul took the Athenian religious practices and used it to point to the way, the truth and the life as HE understood it.
This is what we call witness. This is what we call evangelism. This is what Paul was called to do.
Paul’s speech to the Athenians might be a model for believers today. After all we too live in a pluralistic society that is rife with idols of tremendous variety. It is a model for witnessing to non Christians and a model for witnessing to those of no religious persuasion.
What is the challenge? To say to those around us - we see your spiritual hunger. And then to say maybe we have something - maybe we know something that can feed that hunger.
The challenge is to find imagery and language that allows us to enter another’s world in order to speak our truth honestly, respectfully and effectively.
What does it mean to us to be fully rooted and grounded in God, so centred in our experiences of the stories of Jesus and in our Christian traditions, that we can’t keep from sharing it.
This is witness. This is evangelism. This is what we are called to do.