My dad was born in 1901. One hundred fourteen years ago. He was a preacher and he used to have a sermon called “Changes”. He didn’t know that David Bowie also had a song by that title. Honestly, he didn’t know who David Bowie was. But my dad’s sermon basically listed off all the changes that he’d seen in his lifetime. For instance, when he was born, the main mode of personal transportation was still the horse. It’s actually a funny sermon, but ironically, wildly outdated today because so much has changed in the 20 or more years since he last taught it. What made that sermon really special was how he ended it. He went through all the things that haven’t changed, like how love is still sweet and grace is still amazing. There are still commonalities in the human experience that don’t change, that are sewn from generation to generation and culture to culture.
We live in a world of vast changes that are happening so rapidly that it can be disorienting. I believe this represents a challenge for the Church. We can spend our energies trying to resist change and re-establish societal norms that provided a more comfortable space for Christianity, or we can learn a new language with which we can engage a new world with the unchanging gospel.
If we choose the latter we have a wonderful example in the Apostle Paul as he engaged Athenian culture in Acts 17:16-34, which is the passage we’ll be reading this Sunday.
Paul starts off in the Synagogue, but Luke doesn’t seem interested in that. The action moves to the marketplace, a place where philosophies and religions were exchanged as much as commodities. There Paul encounters and converses with Epicureans and Stoics.
This results in him being invited…or possibly subpoenaed to present his beliefs before the counsel of the Areopagus. He was being called a “babbler” and in a veiled threat, was suspected of trying to introduce foreign deities. It probably wasn’t as friendly as we might tend t think. In what ways has our culture become suspicious of Christianity? What are the charges leveled at us? How can that help us understand our present culture?
There Paul provides a brilliant, cross-cultural presentation of a narrative gospel. He is aware, familiar and sensitive to Athenian culture. He doesn’t out-rightly condemn, but rather, in a very complimentary way, overlays a new narrative on their existing one.
He starts by appealing to a sign-post to the true God that was already present in Athens – the altar to the “unknown god”. He uses that as his platform to present an alternate vision of reality. What kinds of altars to unknown gods does our culture have? When we think about our culture’s recent agony over race relations or hopeful enthusiasm over the LGBT marriage equality laws, how could we see those questions and longings as bridges of commonality on which we could introduce the message of Jesus?
The Epicureans believed that if the gods existed at all, they were far removed from our world. What part of Paul’s message would they have agreed with, and what would have challenged their worldview?
If you were to paraphrase what Paul presents as the Good News – what would it say?
We live in a vastly new world. If we follow Paul’s example, we won’t be filled with fear or respond in anger towards the present culture. We will learn a new language and engage a new world with the timeless hope of God’s good rule through Jesus the Messiah.