July 31, 2016

Pentecost 11 July 31, 2016    Acts 17

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In Thessalonica first, then in Berea – again we see the familiar pattern of the book of Acts – as Paul and his companions come into town – and go first, always, to the local synagogue, where they teach Jesus, the Messiah, risen from the dead. Some are  convinced and believe. Some take issue. Often confused responses to the gospel leads to attacks on disciples, sometimes even riots, wherever the disciples go. This is the  pattern we see at work throughout the book of Acts. But…

What catches my notice most in all our readings today is – how the disciples keep functioning, pretty smoothly, through it all.. In our first reading they’re accused of claiming Jesus is king, not Caesar. The same crime Jesus is accused of in the gospels (Luke 23, John 19). (We know what happened to him.) Now his disciples are accused also…But that doesn’t seem to faze them. They know this pattern of mixed response to their message. They’ve learned by now to keep calm and pray on, preach on, teach on, move on…. And…

What grabs my attention in our second reading is how, in Berea, the new believers are testing everything the disciples teach them – by reading the scriptures, every day. “As a result” (we’re told) “many of them believed…” There’s a sermon series here… We should of course do likewise. Test everything we hear with scripture. As I’ve heard even some of our radio preachers say: “Don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe the gospel just because I say so. Open your bibles – see for yourself…” (If you don’t agree with the gospel don’t blame me… Take it up with Jesus… Who has told us all along… )

Part of the gospel is that not everyone’s going to agree with the gospel. Some would rather “Do it my way.” (Me and Mr Sinatra.)  Not everyone is going to welcome the good news of Jesus Christ being king over all. This Way of Jesus we’re talking about is threatening to the power, privilege, and preferences of those who would rather do it our own way…Rather than taking the harder but much happier way of Jesus…

And just as Jesus taught us, of course – we still need to love those who reject Jesus, and pray for them anyway… But we don’t have to – and ought not to – let other people’s disbelieving keep us awake at night… Because people rejecting God is also part of the story of God… From the beginning…(Know this reality. But don’t take it as the last word… This is the gospel balance….)

And – knowing all this – when people are running amok in Berea – and knowing Paul is a bit of a lightning rod – his friends take Paul over to Athens to get some breathing room for him and for the church in Berea – time to chill and let things cool down…

But Paul has a commission from Jesus to preach the gospel. And Athens is the intellectual and philosophical capital of the world… A wonderful challenge for an evangelist… So after a visit to the local synagogue Paul is soon  hanging out in the public marketplace, talking about Jesus, resurrected… Where, again he meets with mixed reactions. Some say this guy is babbling. Others think he’s talking about foreign gods, plural. People really aren’t getting it much yet, but…

Nonetheless people are intrigued by what they hear, enough so that they invite Paul to come, say more about what you’re trying to say, over in the grand philosophers-performance-art-arena, the Areopagus – meaning Hill of Ares, or in Latin, Mars Hill. (Ares in Greek, Mars in Latin was the god of war. Apparently the religion of philosophy was combat sport in Athens.)

And now in the Areopagus we hear the second of Paul’s three recorded sermons in Acts. Two weeks ago in Pisidian Antioch we heard Paul’s sermon in a Jewish synagogue. There all the sermon illustrations were drawn from the legacy of Moses, Abraham, and King David… The law, prophets, and psalms of Israel…

In Athens, now, by contrast, we’re not hearing a word about Moses, Abraham or David, nor the law, prophets, or psalms. We don’t even hear the name of Jesus. (Paul still speaks about Jesus and resurrection but now without using the name.) Now at the Areopagus, the Harvard Yard chapel of ancient Athens, Paul’s sermon’s in a different key, different tempo, different mode of speaking, as he appeals now to creation – reason – and culture –  as he quotes Greek poets…

Which is all the more remarkable, as we remember, in the first verse of this last reading, we’ve been told that Paul is “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul’s dismayed as he walks the city streets, seeing monument after monument to all sorts of idols – small g gods of every kind…

But even though he’s distressed and dismayed by all the idolatry, Paul says nothing about this as he speaks to the Athenians. In fact, he starts by congratulating them (just a little ironically) on their devout religiosity. “I see how religious you are,” he says… Then, just like in the synagogue, he starts by going for common ground. ‘As I’ve walked your city,’ he says, ‘I noticed an altar inscribed “To an unknown god.” That’s the one God – I’m here to tell you about – who made the world and everything in it… All people of every tribe and race…’

Appealing to their own culture, Paul seeks to bring the people of Athens to the same place we get to reading the first chapter of the bible – where the first word is all about God, Creator of all that is. While we’re there, the apostle also hints at the biblical concept of people made in the image of God. All without mentioning the bible. (That will come later.)

Then, still working on establishing common ground, Paul quotes a pair of pagan poets well known to the Athenians, saying, “in him we live and move and have our being” (a quote from Epimenedes, a mystic, a priest of Zeus, a poet with a legendary reputation… )… Continuing –  “as some your own poets have said” – quoting now from Aratus (another well-known pagan poet), whose poem was actually about Zeus, of whom he says,  “we are his offspring…” (As if Paul’s baptizing pagan poetry retroactively into Christ… Since now these words are part of our scriptures…)

Paul is creative and doesn’t mind taking some rhetorical risks on behalf of the gospel. And not knowing enough about the specifics of Athenian culture it’s hard to make precise analogies… This could be a pretty non-controversial quote, like quoting Robert Frost anywhere in New England fifty years ago – (Whose woods these are, I think I know… his home is in the village though…) Or a little edgy, like quoting now-almost-ancient-poet-of-several-decades-ago Elvis Costello – (What’s so funny about peace, love, understanding…) Either of which might be appropriate – depending on which coffee shop, pub, or other public place in whatever city or town we’re in… And…

The common thread between Paul’s two very different sermons – one in the synagogue and one in the philosophers forum – is that both start with seeking common ground… Before venturing into the less familiar, and for some, totally unknown territory of Jesus – especially Jesus risen from the dead…A difficult concept then and now for many… Though the heart of the gospel, then and now, as Paul will unpack in more detail over in his letter to the Corinthians… Meanwhile –

Notice again how here in Athens, where Jesus is probably nearly unknown up to now – Paul doesn’t even directly name Jesus. Though he has spoken the name back in the marketplace, previously – and for anyone intrigued enough to come listen to him say more (tomorrow or next week) that will surely be what he’ll be talking most about.

But in this initial getting-a-foot-in-the-door-introductory-sermon, Paul would rather say just a little… than say too much too soon and risk ending the conversation prematurely…

Yet at the same time he also knows – this may be the only chance he has to tell the good news in this place… So he does talk about the one whom God has raised up from the dead – and – about this man as the standard by which God will judge the world and all people… Paul seeks to strike a dynamic balance between saying too much and not saying enough – the same balance all who preach and teach the word of God should of course always be striving for. A balance that’s nonetheless usually pretty hard for me to get right…

Someone who actually does get the balance right, often, is Pope Francis. This week, visiting Auschwitz in Poland, he toured the Nazi death camps for several hours in complete silence. When the tour was complete, he listened as a rabbi, at his request, recited Psalm 130 in both Hebrew and Polish…. (Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice!…)

This long silence…experienced by all the reporters who accompanied him… Preached the gospel more powerfully and effectively than many words could do… (Last week Dottie Cotter quoted the pope’s namesake, the original St Francis, who said “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” Pope Francis obviously knows that saying…)

Yet Francis also knows how to use words effectively. A day or two earlier, also in Poland, speaking to half a million pilgrims gathered for outdoor worship, the Pope was sounding like St Paul in Athens, saying, “God is not “powerful and aloof” but “loves to come down to our everyday affairs, to walk with us.” And… “The Lord does not keep his distance, but is near and real…”

And much like St Paul – wherever he goes, Francis has always studied in advance the culture of where he’s going to be visiting. He finds words that connect with something in the heritage or current situation of wherever it is he’s visiting…

I want to be better able to speak the good news of Jesus like this, convincingly, wherever I am… But often I have to lament…I haven’t prepared long enough, prayerfully enough… And it’s only after opportunity’s come and gone… that words I should have said… come to mind… I need more time in the quiet center of God’s presence…

Yet God gives more grace. And I’ve also been reminded this week – we often don’t have to say much to be effective. Sometimes all it takes is to hear a word of grace – or someone singing: If you can’t preach like Peter – if you can’t pray like Paul – just tell the love of Jesus – and say he died for all

Most of us will never be invited to speak on the hills of Athens…. or preach to huge crowds anywhere…

But we all still live in a world full of idols that distress the heart of God… We all live in a world full of gods of steel and plastic – gods of philosophy and ideology – gods of power and privilege, preference and prejudice – gods of human creation – all of which leave those who serve them longing… for authentic words of God, spoken and lived in love…  And…

We know God is never far from any of us. We know in him we live and move and have our being… We know we are his offspring. Children of God…

So though we may not preach like Peter, Paul, or Francis… Though we may not always even know that we know… Still, we know the love of God… So we can tell the story of the one who rose from the dead for all.

We too can tell the story… All because of God’s love poured out for us and for all… in Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and True Friend.

Thanks be to God. Amen.