A New Language for a New World

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 It’s actually a funny sermon, but ironically, wildly outdated today because so much has changed in the 20 or more years since he last taught it.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.

2 responses to “A New Language for a New World”

  1. I like how you said “a more comfortable space for Christianity” because that may be the real reason many people oppose many of the “changes” we see in our culture today. Things were just a lot easier when homosexuals were just caricatures from movies and TV that stayed far out of reach. They were not real people to most of us. In the past, especially in a community like ours, most people would never have even truly known an LGBT person. Now the headlines are filled on a near-daily basis with LGBT rights issues. I think that if we are honest, many of us would like things to go back to the “old days” just so we would not have to deal with this topic. It was far more comfortable to pretend like they did not exist, at least not in the real world. But they are real people and are just as much “God’s offspring” as I am.

    Paul’s approach was not to go into Athens and start by blasting them for how they had it all wrong. He met them where they were. His starting point was their own philosophy. In a few simple, elegant phrases he led them by the hand like a child from what would seem to us the absurd position of worshipping an unknown god to the One Creator God and then on to Jesus and his resurrection. This type of approach does not typify the church’s approach to the LGBT community. We meet them at the door and say, “You may enter into this conversation but before you enter you must first stop believing everything you have come to believe about who you are. Then we can talk.” I can’t say I know exactly how to have this conversation or that I would feel the least bit comfortable having it, but I know it can’t start like that.

    I also think its very important to note how the Athenians who even gave Paul the time of day responded. They say, “We will hear you again about this.” The great apostle Paul was not able to have them at the altar by the end of this one conversation praying the sinner’s prayer and signing up for discipleship classes. His reward for his eloquent speech was apparently to be able to give it all over again. This was just the beginning of a longer conversation. This was going to take time, maybe so much time that Paul would never see the results himself and someone else would pick up the conversation where he left off.

  2. I think Paul approached the Athenians as Jesus would have wanted him to. Paul recognized they cared about their religion and told them he saw that. His manner seemed calm and kind and he got their attention. He didn’t bark at them that they had it all wrong. Who would want to listen to that and then be told that we have a loving savior. It contradicts the message of the good news and pushes people away. Instead, he respected their intelligence and appealed to them about the “unknown” God and then told them about who that God was, the resurrected One! Paul was a good teacher as well leaving them to “think” about all he had said (Jesus’ spoken words, as teacher, left people with so much to think about). He always said so much with few words. Paul was available and ready to talk, planting a seed with the people and then moved on. He didn’t browbeat them into believing. In our culture today, too many Christians, in my opinion, judge people harshly, via social media, then act pious and expect people to follow Christ. It’s contradictory. It’s not Christ-like. Paul serves as a great example of how spreading the good news can be done with love and, therefore, so powerful. Funny how kind and gentle equals powerful. So like Jesus to do it that way!:)

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