Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paul at Athens

Yesterday, I preached on the lectionary text from Acts 17. It’s the story of Paul’s visit to Athens. I read the scripture about Paul being led to the Areopagus. But, in my haste to read it I mispronounced it. I don’t know what I said. It sounded like: snuffleupagus. And, in an effort to move on, I didn’t try to correct it. I haven’t listened to the audio of the service yet; I just don’t want to hear how I messed it up. Snuffleupagus is one of the characters/animals on Sesame Street. I do know the difference. But, sometimes, under the pressure of getting it right, or trying to, my mouth gets ahead of my brain, and eyes and well…it happens. So, every time that I said it during the sermon, I had to slow it down and try to get it right: Areopagus. This was the Hill of Ares, Ares, being the god of war. It was a hill indeed. If you google it you’ll see that all there is now is a mass of rock on a hill. There was a building there once. The name Areopagus also refers to the city leaders, kind of a city council, in Athens. The members of the Areopagus made decisions about city affairs. They listened to and decided issues of justice. Here comes the Apostle Paul. He has already been to Thessalonica and Bearea and has been pretty much run out of the synagogues. So, some of Paul’s friends took Paul on to Athens and said: “Stay out of trouble until we get back here.” Paul starts his own tour of Athens, talking to people on the streets, learning about their many gods and their own convictions. Paul starts talking about Jesus and his resurrection and the curious get word to the Areopagus and they invite Paul to speak there- to that group on the Hill of Ares. Paul’s speech is one of the 19 speeches/sermons in the Book of Acts. And, this speech is a good lesson in Rhetoric. First, identify with the audience. He says that he notices that they are very religious, meaning spiritual and a little superstitious. Paul quotes their poets and talks about an idol that is built to honor an “unknown” god. By some counts, there were more than 30,000 statues to gods in Athens. It was enough to make a Jew like Paul go into spasms. But, Paul held his discipline and talked about the things that all human beings have in common. It’s a good thing that the Greeks are seeking after the spiritual. Then Paul brings the clincher: there is only one God and his Son Jesus revealed him to us. Of course, he was revealed first in creation. But, now, God sent Jesus into the world to judge and redeem. We crucified him and on the third day God raised him from the dead. At the heart of all New Testament preaching is the resurrection. But, this is just too much for the Athenians to bear. Paul gives an altar call and very few come. Some did respond positively, but very few. Others responded that they would talk about this more at another time. It’s hard to preach to educated people, not because they are educated necessarily. Education is a good thing. It’s difficult because educated people are likely to think that they are supposed to remain objective in all things. Of course, that is not true. We are all subjective, more so than we want to admit. Everyone, even the Athenians do not come at Christian faith with a blank slate. They have been shaped and formed by their lives, experiences, and education to see the world a certain way. Resurrection comes as something that cannot be explained fully. It is a gift. It means that all who believe in Jesus are set free from dead-end streets. Jesus as Messiah is the bridge to hope. And, so are we. So is the church. Blessings! Dave Nichols

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