John 17:20-26 Acts 17:22-31
St Barbara’s 2.6.19
7th Sunday after Easter
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Sharing the Christian faith can be tricky at times. The word evangelism can conjure up for some of us unhelpful images in our minds: of people standing on street corners shouting through loud hailers or waving big heavy bibles in the air.
A few months ago in Birmingham we were walking through the city centre and could not avoid the loud blaring of a PA system, with a Christian preacher urging us all to turn to God. Even inside the shops we could not avoid it. He undoubtedly thought he was doing the right thing, but even for sympathisers like myself, it was a turn-off. I felt I was being spoken at, not spoken to, and certainly not listened to. It saddened me to think how those who had not experienced the love and welcome of church may interpret such an act, and how it may reflect upon Christ.
It leaves a question of how are we to speak about Christ to others. The account of Paul’s visit to Athens gives us a really helpful guide.
Paul had arrived in Athens, the capital of Greece, having been forced to flee first from Philippi (last week’s destination) because of riots and imprisonment, and then from Thessalonica and Berea before rumours of stonings could become reality. He reached Athens hoping to find a more tolerant city, a place where he could talk about his faith with others without risking a lynching.
Athens seemed to offer such a place. It was the very heart of the intellectual world of the first century. Rome was the political and military colossus of the world, but it was Athens that continued to dominate the culture and thought of the civilised world. Its influence on art, language, literature, architecture could be seen everywhere, and its influence on the world of ideas was immense. Rome may have conquered the world; Athens had conquered the heart and the mind.
It was a city of philosophers and thinkers. Indeed, Luke rather disparagingly remarks: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” It was also a city of huge religious diversity. There were temples everywhere, and to every kind of God. People were immediately interested to hear about the new religion Paul is preaching about. From the synagogue and the market-place he is summoned before the Areopagus, the official assembly for testing out new ideas.
Paul’s response before the assembly is instructive to us all as we seek to witness to Christ.
He starts by affirming those he is speaking to. He recognises that the people of the city are very religious. He does not seek to denigrate or deny the seriousness with which they hold their beliefs. Indeed, he has even taken time to walk around the city getting to know their beliefs. He has been into their temples, carefully looking at their objects of worship.
He has taken the time to listen, to understand the beliefs of others, and now he is responding to their questions of him. It is the same approach of the apostle Peter. He wrote to the Christians living in Turkey encouraging them to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And do this with gentleness and respect.” No loud hailer in sight. Be ready to share your faith, and do so with gentleness and respect.
Secondly, Paul shares in a way that is relevant to those listening. He does not start talking about the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies like he would do in a Jewish synagogue, where such things would really matter. Instead, he takes one of the Athenians’ own altar inscriptions as his starting point. In a classic case of hedging one’s bets, the Athenians had an altar to “an unknown God”, so that they wouldn’t anger a god they had in their ignorance failed to worship. Paul takes that, and tells them that he can reveal who that unknown God is.
There are many, many people in this country who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, in other words who believe there is a spiritual element to life, but who struggle to define it. In mainstream health and education, spirituality is recognised alongside physical, mental and emotional needs as an important aspect of human well-being. For many there is a belief that there is more to life than just what we can see and feel, a belief in ultimate purpose and belonging, something that transcends the day to day.
But often that remains a very vague idea, something undefined and illusory, a bit like the altar to the unknown god. But like Paul, we can help to point those who hold such a belief to the source of those feelings and beliefs, to Christ. We can offer a place where such spirituality can be expressed. The Prayer Week is one good example: the opportunity to come into church and in the stillness and peace to encounter Christ. Our worship on Sunday mornings is another. And our daily lives should be rooted in prayer and service in such a way that actually people make the connection between spirituality and faith in Christ. For many in our community, particularly those of a younger generation, it just would not occur to them that spirituality and church go together.
Thirdly, having taken the time to understand his listeners, having started with where they are at, Paul then does not hesitate to speak unapologetically of the greatness of God. He describes him as the one who made the world and everything in it; the Lord of heaven and earth. He is the source of life for all humankind. He is the one who has a purpose for the world and for our lives. He is the reason we live. He has made us in his image. He wants to be known. In a world that is often full of uncertainty and doubt, we can point to Christ as the image of God, as the one who shows us what God is like.
Paul’s enthusiasm and love for God is an encouragement to us too – to share what God means to us. To share answers to prayer, to speak of the strength or peace or comfort we have found in Christ in difficult times, or to acknowledge him as creator when appreciating the beauty of the created world. If we genuinely listen to others and meet them where they are at, we gain the right to share about what God means to us, and we can do so with enthusiasm and honesty.
Finally, Paul is willing to challenge. To challenge with love and respect, but to challenge nonetheless. The Areopagus allowed any idea to be discussed except one – the idea of resurrection, the possibility that death was not the end. And Paul simply rides a horse and coaches through that convention. There is one, he declares, who has risen from the dead, one who is resurrected, and, in case you were in any doubt, his resurrected life changes everything.
We sometimes talk in life about a “paradigm shift”, about a monumental change in how we think about things. Its not that the goal posts have been changed; its that now we are playing a totally different ball-game. Well, here on the Areopagus, at the very heart of the intellectual centre of the known world, Paul declares that the world has changed forever. There is no longer a reason to be ignorant, to have an altar to an unknown God, to say that there may be a god, but he can’t be known. There is no longer a credible place for agnosticism. Everything has changed because Jesus has risen from the dead. In Jesus, we can know God.
That is a message that is worth sharing. So let us like Paul, take time to listen to and understand the beliefs of others, to start from where they are at, and point them to the God who in Christ changes the world.