New Testament Reading: Acts 17. 16-34, NRSV
This past week I heard from five San Diego friends that I have not heard from in years; perhaps you have reconnected with people too. A peculiar consequence of the Rona is this reconnection with people from our past, or people we know now but in new and different ways. “So you’re a radical Baptist Christian, what is that about? Are you one of the crazy ones?” [Answer: “Well, yes, but not in the way you think.”] So I wanted for us to consider today’s lectionary passage, Acts 17, Paul before Mars Hill, which might seem odd in these times of social distancing and staying at home. Yet, in my not-so-humble opinion, Acts 17 is an extremely crucial NT text for many reasons, one of which it gives a snapshot of Paul’s preaching to gentiles, non-Jews, to first century pagans. If, in the history of Christian missions, we had used Acts 17 as template, much grief, misunderstanding, and bloodshed might have been avoided. In this brief sermon, Paul knows Athenian culture and authors; he assumes that they are already worshiping the Unknown God, and he tells his story of Jesus.
They called him a babbler. It wasn’t a compliment, either: spermalogos, which isn’t quite what it sounds like in English, but almost. Seed picker. Word scrapper. Someone who spouts childish, raggedy nonsense and, worse, profits from it. A gossip columnist, say, or the blogger who posts nothing but recycled chatter, or perhaps the inane president of a large Western country. The person you delete from your facebook or Twitter account when you’ve had enough boneheadedness. Spermalogos!
“What does this babbler want to say?!” the Athenians muttered about Paul, and Paul must have known he was in trouble. This audience was not going to be like the others he’d encountered on his journeys. This one was going to take some thought. How do you proclaim good news in a city filled with students, a city obsessed with all things new? How do you tell the good news in Athens?
Before his arrival in Athens, Paul’s track record as a preacher wasn’t bad. He’d always made an impression, thrilling the faithful, disturbing the authorities, and getting arrested, beaten, and thrown out of town. Paul was a preacher who turned heads, and his preaching usually first led to the founding of a small band of believers, and secondly, the disgruntlement of everyone else.
His general practice, when entering a new city, was to make his way to the synagogue, set up camp, and immediately argue over the scriptures with anyone who happened to be there. He argued in Corinth; he argued in Ephesus. And he was good at it—quite good. Paul was a lawyer; he could argue for three weeks without stopping, if necessary, and sometimes he did. It was a rhetorical tactic that worked for him, that came naturally.
And if sometimes the citizens of a place tired of it, as happened in Thessalonica around the time our story begins, if they decided that his arguments were offensive and his presence no longer welcome—well, Paul was used to that, too. He knew how to leave town in a hurry if he had to. He knew how to shake the dust from his feet and move on to the next place.
Originally, that was all Athens was supposed to be: the next place. Paul’s visit to Thessalonica had ended abruptly when a group of angry citizens began hunting for him throughout the countryside; obviously, it was time to go, exit stage right. Escorts led Paul to the coast and took him as far as Athens, where angry Thessalonians might not think to look, and where a loquacious Christian could blend into the lively atmosphere of teachers and philosophers. In Athens, Paul could wait for Timothy and Silas, his colleagues, to catch up with him. In Athens he could get his bearings and figure out what was next.
But Athens was different. Athens struck Paul in a way no city ever had before. It was all the idols; he walked around, and his spirit was deeply disturbed to see that the Athenians had so many of them. There were idols, statues, to gods of beauty & youth, gods of wisdom & intellect, gods of wine & war, gods of light & hearth, sea and fire. Every human need and craving and desire and skill was manifest in a physical representation that Paul could see only as idolatrous. It provoked him to his core. It sent him stomping to the synagogue and the marketplace to argue with the Athenians about it.
And as anyone but Paul might have predicted, his arguments fell flat. You cannot witness to people whom you have just met when you are already furious with them. You cannot offer good news and a scathing lifestyle critique at the same time, particularly if you have just arrived in a place. It makes your words sound like ranting and raving or, as the Athenians helpfully suggested, like babbling nonsense. Like a spermologos, babblers are easily dismissed.
Athens was different. It was ancient and hip and artsy and fascinated by what’s next, and it was the first city to offer Paul a real homiletical challenge. Even he could see that if he didn’t change tactics, he was going to miss the narrow window of attention the Athenians always offered the new person or idea in town. Arguing wouldn’t do it in Athens; the Athenians practically invented arguing. It wasn’t anything new to them, and they would want to hear something new. So what to do with his sliver of time, when it came?
The first thing Paul did was to stop talking. He literally shut up, which is a useful thing for a Christian to do from time to time: be quiet and take stock of your surroundings. As a white, hetero, cis-gendered older North American able-bodied male, I’ve learned it’s helpful to shut up and listen sometimes, maybe even often. (Geez, America might be a much better place if everyone in my particular lane would shut-up and listen more.) I should not assume I know about another’s lived reality. And do not assume that just because you know Jesus, everyone wants to hear about it. Wait for an invitation. Know that this invitation might or might not be conventional: there are many forums for speaking your truth, and these vary from context to context. Perhaps you will be invited into a space that looks familiarly sacred with which you can easily identify. On the other hand, perhaps you won’t, and if you cannot be watchful and creative about the space you are dealt, you are going to miss out. First, however, and most crucial, is the invitation. Do not speak until you are invited.
Paul had to think hard about this. It was not in his nature to hold back or to refrain from offering vocal opinions and explanations in any and all circumstances. Paul was charismatic to his very DNA: he loved telling about Jesus. But in Athens, he learned to wait, which was not a verb to which he gravitated, but one God kept sending him, all the same. Wait, Paul. Wait for Silas and Timothy. Wait for the Athenians. Let them extend the invitation to speak to them in their own time and on their own turf.
When the invitation finally came, it was not for Paul to deliver the message at a local Greek temple on interfaith night. Instead, he was asked to appear at the Areopagus, the rocky hillside that had once functioned as an Athenian high court of law and where even the god Ares was said to have been tried. The Areopagus was not a temple but a popular spot for Athenians to hear and debate one another. It was outdoors, where they could practice social distancing. It was also where they gathered to tell and hear something new: in this case, to hear Paul talk about his strangely fascinating foreign divinities. Paul was astute enough to realize that this was his moment and he had better seize it. He could be offended by the fact that he was merely the latest curiosity, or he could take his 15 minutes of fame when it was offered. He could hold out for an idol-free environment, or he could set aside his own aversions and figure out how to speak in the presence of statues that made his skin crawl. The invitation, when it comes, is often a thing that requires patience and adaptation as well as a healthy dose of restraint.
The second thing Paul did was to take a closer look at the Athenians themselves. First impressions are instructive but not always accurate; perhaps there is more to see than you originally thought. Perhaps your initial assessment of the Athenians as a polytheistic, rudderless set of trend-sucking, ego-driven early-adopting pagans was a bit premature. Look again. Look slowly. Listen to different people talk about what it means to be them. Ask about what they’re working on, what they’re thinking about. Ask for their recommendations about what you should see and do and read and hear. Follow through on their suggestions. Expect to be surprised. Suspend judgment about this. Let wonder and delight speak; hold shock in check. Keep looking. When you begin to appreciate what you see, you will know you are paying attention at last. Take a deep breath and look again.
Paul was a keen observer, but an opinionated one. He had a hard time suspending judgment about what he saw, especially if it triggered in him some deeply held belief. In Athens, he was confronted by the most blatant violation of the second commandment that he had ever encountered: the sight of so many idols, so many graven images. It was practically blinding. He could hardly think straight, let alone see straight. And zooming in for a closer look? Who would want to?
Memory, however, is another sort of trigger, and every bit as powerful. One verb recalls another or sets in motion an experience that flickers just below the surface, and even the most opinionated moment is up for revision. Paul knew about mistaken first impressions. He knew about belief so ferocious that it required a divine intervention of blindness. His new life with Jesus started on the Damascus Road. And maybe it was this that gave him a special sensitivity to knee-jerk reactions whenever they appeared. Maybe it was this that allowed him to push past his inclination to smash those idols and instead to take another look at them.
What he saw was a kind of empty canvas: the statue to the unknown god, jammed in between the grander statues to gods of love and sex and power and more. It was a small ache of the soul, a tiny openness to what might yet be out there, as if the Athenians were saying, Even this glory cannot speak to every human need. We are still searching for something not yet revealed.
If Paul hadn’t been paying close attention, he would have sailed right past it; if he hadn’t been examining the idols with interest, he would have missed its significance. He would have gotten all caught up in the flashiness of machinery and technology, which are not, in the end, what display our humanity. If you want to know the pulse of a place, look at how it marks its own borders. Big fancy expensive walls that keep no one out. Look for what it is yearning and searching for beyond those borders. Find its idols, and then find the one that is missing.
Don’t just take a second look; look deeply at the very things that make you want to look away. Take a second look at the idols: the ones that repulse you most, the ones you love to hate, the ones that go against everything you stand for. Examine them closely, because in them you may find an opening. In them you may find the entry point to dialogue and conversation about our common human ache. And just so you know: those idols, the ones you scrutinize so carefully, will actually put your own into sharp relief. Another culture’s statue to the unknown god will probably show you that you had one idol, too, all along.
The third thing Paul did was to put all this into words. It is one thing to have a stunning insight; it is quite another to summon the courage to say it aloud, in words that others will understand. Paul did both in his speech. It is one of the few complete spoken texts of his that we have, and it is powerful to read. We can only imagine what it must have been like to hear.
Several things stand out. One is Paul’s starting point: he begins not with himself, but with what he has seen—not in Jerusalem or Damascus, but what he has seen in Athens, as a guest. He begins with insights about the Athenians themselves. He describes a moment, while walking their streets and marketplaces and temples and meeting grounds, when he saw something intriguing: a statue to an unknown god. It lets the Athenians know that he has taken the time to see them. It lets them know he has come with interest and appreciation rather than criticism. And it lets them know that he is a careful observer, and so can be trusted. A good Christian is a good conversation partner. Paul establishes himself as an observer first, one who is other-centered.
He also establishes himself as a student of the Athenians’ culture. He knows their literature; he quotes their poets. He can do it without stumbling over the words, which tells us that he has not only read the work but absorbed it, understood it, and even appreciated it. He sticks with material that is appropriate to illustrate his point rather than material that crosses the line into extremely awkward territory. And most important: he seems to know that nothing is worse than Christians who try to pass for cooler or younger or more Athenian than they actually are. Nothing is worse than Christians who pretend that they are residents of a culture to which they are rightfully only witnesses. Paul gets it: you have to be authentic. You can observe, but you don’t get to live there. So observe well. Don’t be an embarrassment to yourself or the Athenians by trying to be someone you aren’t. There is a reason for all this observation and citation, however, and that is to find the moments of intersection between gospel and culture. Paul does this with the image of the unknown god. He does it carefully and respectfully. “I see you are very religious,” he tells the Athenians. “I see it in your places of worship and I see it in this remarkable placeholder: the statue to an unknown god. So now I want to tell you where you and I meet, and it is in this very image! What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you!”
This is the moment when Paul lets it rip. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t save anything for later. He tells the Athenians, as joyfully and simply as he can, that the god they have been searching for is the One who has come to us in Jesus Christ. He tells the story. He tells it as a witness who has seen and believed. And he lets God be the active noun that predominates: God is the One who has sent. God is the One who has raised from the dead. God is the One who has redeemed. It is all there, in plain sight, even in Athens. Paul makes it sound as if Christ himself is present and walking through the Areopagus with them—which, of course, Christ was.
The Athenians listen. Some of them are intrigued. Some of them scoff. Some want to hear more, later. Paul knows: this is as it should be. The gospel is scandalous to the ear and eye, and if everyone liked everything I said, ministers like me might forget exactly how scandalous the gospel really is. Ministers can begin to think that we ourselves are the subject of our sermons, which we are not. God is the subject. Even in Athens, God is the subject. And telling the story is more significant than smashing idols.
How do we share good news to people who are on the margins of church, or who have left it or are waiting for the next thing? How do we proclaim good news in our Athens, in Greensboro, which has 7 colleges in Guilford county and a law school? We make a beginning. We find the empty pedestal and that small placeholder of a statue. We wait and we listen and we observe first. We put away our aversions and our arguments and uncork some joy, which always bubbles up when we tell the story.
And we have a good story to tell! So tell it. Tell it as a joyful witness. During this homebound time when you write, phone, email, facetime, text, and zoom friends and family, think about Paul in Athens. You can be like him: listening and waiting to speak, looking carefully and respectfully at others’ beliefs, and sharing some of your own experiences with the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being, and take it from there.
[This sermon is based on Anne Carter Florence’s chapter Paul’s sermon prep, in Questions Preachers Ask: Essays in Honor of Thomas G. Long.]