I have a lot of sympathy for St Paul in our Acts reading, as he speaks to the university senate in Athens. It brings back some scary memories! When I was a third year curate I was invited to preach at my old college in Oxford. ‘Briefly’ said the chaplain. Not just that, it would be patronal festival, one of the highlights of the year when chapel would be full of dons and even the famously atheist Master would be present. To make it worse, the college’s patron saint was St Jude so I would be preaching from his notoriously obscure Biblical letter.
And the chaplain said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t go on too long – if you do I’ll have to miss out a verse of the final hymn’. I have few memories of that day. Of denting the car on a low wall as I arrived at college. Of praying with the chaplain before the service – his last words to me were ‘Please, don’t speak for too long.’ Of glancing down while preaching and seeing that my hands were shaking, and hiding them behind the lectern. Finally I came to the end and sat down. There was a long pause. The chaplain was fumbling for his papers, looking for what came next. ‘We shall sing hymn 374, all the verses.’ I had been too brief.
When Paul arrives in Athens, he has come to the intellectual centre of Roman and Greek culture. If Rome was like London, the grand capital, then Athens was like Oxbridge. It was a place of lively intellectual debate and also great religious variety – the verses before our reading describe St Paul being distressed by the number of idols. So he preaches at the Jewish synagogue and debates in the market place with philosophers. Word gets around that a new idea is in town, so Paul is invited to speak at the Areopagus, like a university governing body.
What an intimidating but wonderful opportunity! They want to hear him. Paul engages with it wholeheartedly. Today I am sometimes still surprised by how interested people actually are in Jesus. Of course, there are those who hold the old English view that religion is personal and shouldn’t be discussed. And there’s certainly a fair amount of apathy. Yet many people are genuinely interested in talking about faith.
They won’t necessarily agree, but they’re interested, even open-minded. They may not have learnt much at school. Quite a few of them have never before met an active believing Christian who’s prepared to talk about and defend their faith. And if you can surprise them with grace, love and humour, there’s a remarkable amount of interest.
We may not have St Paul’s abilities, but we do have, as it says in the reading from John’s gospel, the presence of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. God has promised he will give us wisdom, so we can step out in confidence. He calls us to share our faith, so he will equip us.
It is wise to be prepared. As our reading from 1 Peter 3:15 says: ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that you have in you’. In other words have you ever thought about what you’d say if someone asked you ‘Why are you a Christian’? If not, do so! It can be a logical, reasoned explanation but many people find a story or testimony more helpful. It doesn’t need to be a big deal but spending a few minutes thinking about it without pressure will help when the question comes out of the blue. The style is important too: Peter writes ‘do it with gentleness and reverence.’
I think we can see this gentleness as St Paul speaks. Of course, the record we have in the book of Acts is not Paul’s complete speech – it takes barely 90 seconds to deliver and would have been incomprehensible without more explanation. What we have here is Luke’s précis, an account of the main themes.
Paul starts respectfully: ‘Athenians, I can see how religious you are’. As we look at other religious beliefs, we can often affirm the integrity and genuineness of those who follow them. For instance good Muslims pray 5 times a day, and I find that discipline a challenging example, even though I don’t agree with Islam’s conception of God. It’s important that Christians share our faith humbly and respectfully – a huge contrast to the slanging matches you often see on internet sites.
When talking with others it often helps to find a point of connection. Something you can relate to in the other person’s practices. A belief you can affirm and build on. And to do this we may have to listen before speaking, observe, really understand what others are saying. Do some background reading. Ask questions. Like St Paul who mentions an altar he has seen dedicated ‘to an unknown God’. Maybe the Athenians wanted to cover all bases and make sure they didn’t offend any deities by missing them out? Maybe they had a sense that there was more to the divine than they had really understood? Paul builds on it ‘What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’.
And there are other points of connection – Paul can find bits of truth in their religion, even if other parts are mistaken. He quotes from poets ‘In him we move and have our being’; ‘we are all God’s offspring’.
He builds a case. In v.24 there is one supreme God, who is the creator of everything. If he made the world, how can he live in human shrines? If he gives life to all creatures, how can he need sacrifices from us? God created humans in all their diversity so they might look for him and try to find him. Paul says all other religions are seeking God, knowingly or not they are searching for the one God, but their worship of him is human made. Limited, even misguided.
In v.29: ‘Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the imagination and art of mortals’. In other words: How can an idol do justice to God?
So far Paul has not said anything very radical. A good Greek philosopher may well have agreed with him on these points. For the members of the Areopagus probably did not believe their idols were gods. They might have thought of the idols as harmless traditional religion, aids to worship, representing something greater. They did not appreciate that the idols were unworthy, misleading and that people often confused them with divinity.
I also think Paul is going deeper than a critique of physical images – for he says ‘the deity is not an image formed by the imagination and art of mortals’. That might include an image of the mind. The true God is not a human creation but the Creator; the worship of the true God is not a human construct but something God has revealed. That’s a trap any of us can fall into when we get fixed on a particular way of imagining God –we inadvertently limit him to our picture. From time to time it is good to say ‘Lord, I know that you are bigger than I can ever imagine. I lay to one side those images in my mind- be present to me as you are’
In verse 30 ‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent’. This is where Paul deals with the unique difference that Christianity brings – but frustratingly it’s also where St Luke’s précis in Acts is most concise. In one verse he deals with Jesus, judgement and the resurrection of the dead. Surely Paul must have said so much more here!
As our readings last week described, Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ In speaking with others about faith we will find much to admire in their actions, some beliefs that we can affirm, but there will also be points of difference. Often those differences will be over the most important things, like God becoming man, the cross, and forgiveness. To truly describe Christianity we must be faithful on the differences too.
What were the results? In v 32, some scoffed, some wanted to talk again, others believed. In time Greece became a Christian country. Its Classical beauty and art were a wonderful legacy. Some Athenian thoughts were taken up by Christians and Greek philosophy used discerningly to illuminate Christian faith. Paul’s willingness to engage in conversation with love, humility and truth led eventually to Greece becoming the mother of a great Eastern church.
We too are called to share our faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is a great task, and to explore it our churches will be following a sermon series every Sunday in June – each will be posted on our blog. May we all grow in our faith and our ability to speak of what Christ has done and means to us.