Acts 17:22-31 John 14:15-21
Live and in living color! That’s how Paul did it. Right there! Among the non-believers! One day…he encountered the resurrected living Christ on the road to Damascus. From that day forward Paul would share the good news with everyone he encountered…even those in the Areopagus. Paul’s witnessing is an example for us…Christ’s disciples today.
Paul wasn’t speaking to what could be described as a friendly crowd…nor was it a crowd of antagonists…people ready to hurt him. The Areopagus was the main administrative body and the chief court of Athens. It was a body of intelligent people…but people who had not yet learned the good news of Jesus Christ…people like you and I meet every day. The way Paul presented the story to them…the way he witnessed…is a model for you and me.
You see…just as Paul witnessed…just as Wesley and the Methodists throughout history have witnessed…today we need people who will witness to Jews…Muslims…believers or nonbelievers…as well as those who are Christian in name only.
He didn’t do it by writing laws enforced by a government. There are some who would have us do that today.
He didn’t do it with violence or threats of violence. You’ve probably seen that tactic, also.
He didn’t do it by avoiding them. There are those who effectively do that today by interacting only with people known to be of the same belief…or by hiding in monasteries, convents or their own homes.
He didn’t do it with ridicule and anonymous comments…comments that were negative innuendo or bordered on lies.
Paul confronted them with love…just as the early Christians did wherever they went. The common gathering place in those days was known as the agora…the marketplace. John R. W. Stott…a British leader of the evangelical movement in the last century…said this….”The equivalent of the agora will vary in different parts of the world. It may be a park…city square or street corner…a shopping mall or market place…a ’pub’… neighborhood bar…café…discotheque or student cafeteria…wherever people meet when they are at leisure.”
As we think of Paul’s model…allow me to ask you…”Where is your agora?” Is it Hardee’s or another stop for coffee? Is it one of the shopping areas? Could it be the car or shoe repair shop? Could it be along your routine daily walk? Could it be among those with whom you walk? Paul’s model will work in any of those places…and many more.
Many of us put on a uniform years ago and swore to defend the right of the street corner preacher to do what street corner preachers do. In our democracy we still support their right to do so. But…their screaming hellfire and damnation to those walking by them is not effective. Paul knew that.
Paul was made angry by the sight of so many idols in Athens. There are estimates that at the time there were as many as 30-thousand idols in Athens…a city of only about ten-thousand residents. Despite his anger Paul was restrained. You see…the Gentiles to whom Paul was speaking had not yet been influenced by God’s special revelation. They had to be presented God’s message. Anger…or some other negative response…would have ruined the opportunity. Toward the end he did call the people to repent…but he did it without thundering accusations or hate and judgment.
Paul also knew enough about their beliefs that he could recognize those things with which he could agree. If we are to be successful in reaching people of other faiths we must study their religions…along with the study of Christianity. That’s best done by reading their own writers…observing their practices…and talking with those who practice those religions. Did you notice that in his presentation Paul quoted a Greek writer whose work was popular at the time. He used it as a point of contact. He didn’t say he agreed with the man’s writing. Additionally we might want to learn from those who are called Christian apologists. They are not people who say “I’m sorry about Christianity.” They are people who use some great logic to explain Christianity. One of the best known is C. S. Lewis. His works are readily available at the library or any bookstore. There are many others.
Paul did a good job of what is called contextualization. That’s a really big word meaning he put his thoughts and ideas in the words and phrases of the people to whom he was speaking. He quoted from their own writers and philosophers. Paul explained this tactic in First Corinthians (9:19-23)…”I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” The Christian who goes where the sinners… idolaters…and non-believers are…is a Christian following in Jesus’…Paul’s…and Wesley’s footsteps. Sometimes Paul’s message was misunderstood. But…he continued to meet the people where they were and talk with them in their language…just as Jesus did. What is most important is to faithfully proclaim the gospel. We should look hard for points of contact but remember that the gospel is primary.
The message of the gospel that Paul shared in the Areopagus is one that we can share if we follow Paul’s model. It’s this. God is not made or controlled by humans. He cannot be worshiped by anything made by the hands of humans…no idols. God has guided history…and He continues to guide. God has made humans in such a way that they instinctively long for God and search for God especially in their darkness. The days of looking for God are truly gone. The day of judgment is coming. The proof that Christ is Lord is in his resurrection.
That’s the simple message…to put in the setting and language of those with whom we speak…wherever we encounter them…just as Jesus did…just as Paul did…just as Wesley did.
Paul did not begin by beating them over the head with scripture or condemnation. He began by building the case for the one true God using examples and words the men of the Areopagus knew and understood. Then he established common ground by establishing what they agreed on about God. Finally…Paul moved his message to the person of Jesus Christ…and centered on his resurrection.
Two Christian leaders living today have given us simple…yet universal messages to remind us of the substance of the message of Christ…as we share Him with others.
The title of the latest book from Pope Francis says it all. “The Name of God is Mercy.” In the first few pages the pope wrote, The church…”does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she takes care of them, she makes them feel loved.”
And…the archbishop of Philadelphia…Rev. Charles J. Chaput…in his book entitled…”Strangers in a Strange Land”…reminds us with these words…”What the world needs from believers is a witness of love and truth, not approval. And that requires from all of us—clergy and laypersons alike—a much greater confidence in the Word of God, the power of grace, and the ability of people to actually model and take joy in what the Church believes.”
I recommend the reading of these two books to anyone who wants to know their role as a Christian in today’s challenging world. These books are readily available at the library or your favorite book store.
Pope Francis and Archbishop Chaput gave us pointed reminders.
Jesus…Paul…and Wesley gave us the model.
The Holy Spirit gives us everything else we might need.
We don’t have to speak to large assemblies…as Paul did at the Areopagus…though we have all we need should the opportunity arise.
Just like Jesus…Paul…and Wesley…all we need to do is witness in mercy…truth and love.
We have in hand…at our beck and call…all the resources we need. Those who need mercy…truth and love…are just outside the door. We don’t have to drag or entice them into this building with embarrassment…guilt…music…food or some other inducement…though those tools are useful and effective in some cases.
Instead…as Christ did…as Paul did…as Wesley did…let’s meet them live…where they are…reach out and embrace them with Christian mercy…truth and love….
The believers of other faiths.
As Jesus commanded…as Paul and Wesley demonstrated…as the pope and archbishop remind us…worshiping and studying…showing up each time the church door is opened…and writing a check…are not enough…in this challenging and constantly changing world how are we challenging ourselves…individually and collectively to change and to use the resources God has entrusted to us to steward…not horde…to reach out in mercy…truth and love?
That’s the task of this church.
That’s the task of each of us who call ourselves Christians.