Acts 17:22-31; 1Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21
Mission is a central activity to which all Christian believers are called. In his final words in the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus instructs the eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations, to baptise such people in the threefold name, and to help them to follow the teachings of Jesus. Discipleship, baptism and instruction are thus presented as the three core activities of Christian mission – which itself is the central and final task that Jesus left for believers to carry out. And yet mission often has a bad name. Too often mission is associated with a cheap conversionist agenda where people are not respected as people, but are rather seen as a mere tally or notches on the ego of some flashy evangelist. Big tent mission, tele-evangelism, and promises of miracles have engender scepticism in wider society. This is fully understandable. Such activities often seem to suggest that the so-called unsaved are being treated as little more than a commodity, or conversion-fodder to be moved from the debit column of the damned to the credit column of the converted. Yet despite all these negative images we cannot avoid the words of the risen Jesus that we are commanded to make disciples of all nations. But the question remains, how do we as disciples of Jesus carry out that task with integrity and without becoming some parody of the worst kind of miracle-promising tele-evangelist who only required you to send all your money to the address on the screen!
Among the writings of the New Testament, the Book of Acts is one of the most exciting to read. It documents the early and rapid expansion of Christianity, it tells of the activities of several of the apostles presumably carrying out the words of the risen Jesus, and it is written in the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work within the early believing community. Our reading joins the text during what is known as Paul’s second missionary journey. In chapter sixteen Paul had left modern day Turkey and crossed over into northern Greece having been directed to do so in a dream. In chapter seventeen, from which our reading is taken, first Paul visits Thessalonica in northern Greece. He enjoys some success in the city, but is chased away by an angry mob who declare ‘these men who have upset the world have come here also.’ Next he journeys south to Berea, where again there is a positive response to his proclamation of the gospel. However, upon hearing of this, his opponents from Thessalonica travel south to agitate a crowd in that city also. The new believers send Paul away further south by boat, and he arrives in Athens waiting for the rest of his companions who are travelling overland to join him.
I wonder how many of you have visited Athens. I was there a couple of years ago during a wonderfully hot summer, enjoying great coffee and delicious delicacies of filo pastry filled with feta cheese and spinach! However, the food is perhaps not my most enduring memory. Although certainly no longer in its original splendour the Agora, the Acropolis and the monumental remains of the ancient city have to be seen first-hand in order to truly appreciate their scale and their magnificence. It was in this city that Paul arrived around the middle of the first century – some time after the political dominance of Greece had ceased, but with its architectural marvels presumably far closer to their original grandeur than now. We are told, however, that what struck Paul was not the huge architecture, but seeing so many idols. For somebody like Paul, raised as a Torah-observant Jew, this was not only a breach of the second commandment, but it characterised the enslavement of Gentile people to gods of their own making. As could happen in ancient Athens, we are told that Paul encountered some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who took him to the Areopagus – a prominent rocky outcrop northwest of the Acropolis. In classical times the Areopagus functioned as meeting place for court hearings, and it appears that by Paul’s day philosophers met there to debate new ideas. Thus, before the great minds of the intellectual centre of the ancient world, Paul proclaimed the Christian message, that is he engaged in mission.
I am struck by the fact that his message is characterised by meeting his interlocutors on their own ground – literally and intellectually. Rather than berate them for all the idols, he compliments them. He says to this group of philosophers that he observes then to be very religious, and then he mentions an altar he saw that had an inscription ‘to an unknown god.’ Many have thought that such an altar was an example the ultimate future-proofing celestial insurance policy ensure that even an unknown god received due deference. However, for Paul, it signified a deep if ultimately misguided piety. Nonetheless, he makes this altar and the inscription on it his starting point for mission. He sees in the Athenians a very genuine spiritual desire, and for a second time he draws upon their own cultural encyclopaedia referring to the insights of Greek poets who acknowledge that all humans ‘live and move and have their being’ in God, and that all people are ‘children of God.’ Paul’s logic is that if we are like God, then in at least one aspect God must be like humans – a living being, rather than one fashioned from ‘gold or silver or stone.’ Having made this point that God is a living God, he tells the Athenians about the God who welcomes those who repent and makes himself known through Jesus whom he raised from the dead. It is unfortunate that we do not get the last three verses of the chapter. There the narrator continues by teling us of a divided response. He states when the philosophers heard mention of the resurrection some sneered, but others desired to hear from Paul again.
So what are we to make of Paul’s engagement in Christian mission in Athens? It is a story that is markedly different from most of the others recorded in Acts. It is characterised by a notable attempt to engage people within their own culture and religious context. It is perhaps more ‘high-brow’ in its approach then several of the other acts of proclamation recorded in Acts, and unlike the stories of Paul’s activities in Thessalonica and Berea, he is not chased out of the city by an angry mob. However, it is by mentioning that core aspect of Christian belief, the resurrection of Jesus, that the message causes a fundamental division between hearers. Some scoff, while others wish to hear more.
For me this story perhaps raises some of the fundamental issues that partaking in Christian mission entails. How is it to be done with integrity, how can those being addressed be treated with respect, to what degree should the message accommodate the prevailing society, and what are the core aspects of belief that must always be presented for mission to be authentically Christian? This story has also occasioned debate about whether Paul’s decision to accommodate the Athenian culture was a success or a failure. Scholars note that only a few received his message among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite (that is an official of the Areopagus) and a women called Damaris. Yet, unlike Thessalonica the city he had just visited and Corinth the next city on his journey, no letters are known that Paul wrote to a stable and lasting community in Athens. So some consider the lesson of this story to be that accommodation to the cultural context dilutes the Christian message, and hence leads to failure in mission. I am not so sure. After all, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that leads people to believe and we are simply called to be faithful in following the instruction of Jesus to engage in mission.
So what can we learn from this story for our own life of mission in the cathedral. I hope you will not be disappointed if I cannot set out a five point plan for successful mission. If I were that good, then I would get my own tele-evangelism channel and a post office box to which you could send money. However, I believe we can learn from Paul’s approach in Athens. More than anything I see that what characterises his approach is that he is not trying to get something from people, but rather he strives to offer something to people. His mission is one of service. He makes himself available and he travels with the Epicurean and Stoic to the place where they are willing to hear him at the Areopagus. I see this as a model of journeying with and alongside people. Paul utilises the cultural context in which he finds himself drawing on the religious piety and upon shared cultural understandings of his hearers. In this way, Paul is willing to meet these people where they are, and also to genuinely learn from them. Yet for Paul the central elements of Christian faith must be shared for real mission to take place – a merciful God reaches out to people who are willing to repent and he argues that the hope of life and the victory of God over death are announced in the resurrection of Christ. As the people of God, Christians are resurrection people. We are transformed by the power of the resurrection, we have been transferred from death to life, and this is a gift that is to be shared. Mission is not about what we can get from people, it is not about a tally of converts. Rather, the hallmark of authentic mission is sharing and giving. As the people of Jesus, we humbly seek to share with others that risen life that has freely been bestowed on us. We strive to respect the full humanity that is in every person as we give from the very best of ourselves to all people in order that together we may be transformed into the fulness of the image of our maker in whom we live and move and have our being.
Was Paul’s attempt at mission in Athens a success or a failure? That is a question I leave for you to debate. The question I prefer to ask is whether Paul was faithful to his calling, and of course whether we are faithful to our calling. As followers of the risen Christ, we are called to share the wholeness of that resurrection life with others, and to meet people where they are. May we be given the wisdom to be sensitive and faithful in that calling and may all our mission activity be honouring to the one who calls us to proclaim his love, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom belongs all might, majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.
Suggestions and questions for further thought and study.
- Read the book of Acts. It is one of the most exciting writings in the New Testament.
- Was Paul’s approach to mission in Athens effective?
- Did Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Athens involve too much accommodation with the prevailing culture, or should he have gone even further in this direction?
- What can we learn from this narrative that might inform the contemporary mission of the church?
- Are there any practical steps we can take in the cathedral in relation to proclaiming the gospel and serving the wider community that might emerge through considering Paul’s approach in Athens?