The New Areopagus

Easter 6 – 14 May 23 St. Andrew’s Indooroopilly 7.30am

Readings:  Acts 17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 7-19; 1 Peter 3: 8-22; John 14: 15-21.

©The Rev’d Bill Crossman

The great 50 days of Easter are drawing to their close – and two of our readings this morning lead us look ahead.  Next Thursday is Ascension Day, so Peter reminds his readers that Jesus Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him.”[1]   In two weeks’ time we’ll celebrate  Pentecost, so our Gospel this morning is part of the build-up – creating an anticipation within us.  And that’s all I’m going to say about the second reading and gospel this morning.

Instead I want to concentrate on Paul’s encounter with the citizens of Athens at the Areopagus.  True confession time – I think I have a complex relationship with St. Paul.  I wouldn’t call it love/hate, just complex.  I can admire his courage and perseverance, and compassion. I can admire his indefatigable missionary journeys, I can give thanks to God for his life-changing experience on the Road to Damascus – a phrase that’s entered our common usage, although I wonder how many people now know its spiritual origin these days. I can see his love for the people in the communities of faith he encourages.   But I find myself much less taken by his sheer argumentativeness at times; for example I don’t think the barney he had with St. Peter has a lot to recommend it.   I find him very harsh sometimes.  I worry about his misogyny – I know this is disputed, but certainly writings of his, or attributed to him have been used to disenfranchise women in the church.  He is a complex character and maybe it’s good that we pick up all of that complexity as we meet him in Scripture.   To my mind this encounter in Athens is one of his finest moments.   The context is that Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens.  As he waits you can imagine him touring the city sights – but he’s disturbed by all of the idols he sees.  He begins conversations about this, first in the synagogue, but then in the marketplace with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  In the course of these dialogues, he begins to speak about Jesus and the resurrection.  Some of the Athenians label him a babbler, while others say, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”[2]  Now this second charge doesn’t seem too serious to us nowadays.  We live in a society where we take freedom of speech and religion for granted – sometimes too much so. However, the Athens of Paul’s time was a different place.  Nearly five hundred years prior to Paul’s visit the philosopher Socrates was accused of “proclaiming foreign divinities.”  He was brought to trial at the Areopagus.  The Areopagus was and is a rocky outcrop close to the Acropolis. It was the location of a court that tried religious matters, as well as cases involving arson or homicide.  Socrates lost his case and paid with his life.  Paul faces the same charge in the same place. The stakes are high.  Paul isn’t just engaged in scholarly interfaith debate; he isn’t just involved in verbal jousting with the locals.  Paul is risking his life before a deadly serious crowd to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to people suspicious of new teachings.  Against the odds, Paul accomplishes something quite remarkable – he leaves the Areopagus alive and some of the Athenians say, “We will hear you again about this.” [3]

The key to this is how Paul begins his address:   “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  He then relates how he walked the city and looked carefully at the objects of their worship. He is beginning a dialogue with them.   His praise of the Athenians seems genuine. He seems to admire their pursuit of knowledge; he realises a quest for a real relationship with truth.   Perhaps by recognizing the value of their spiritual practices, respecting their culture and understanding their context, Paul is able to find a way to get the Athenians to receive a message about the faith he holds.  If his reputation had preceded him, I wonder if the Athenians were surprised by the open and respectful engagement they encountered.  Had they expected to lock horns with an ideologue?  Might they have expected irony and bitter polemics?  Paul, after all, can be capable of such things.

So I think it’s worth our while to reflect upon what Paul accomplished at the Areopagus – how he engaged the Athenians.  Christendom is no longer a prominent voice; what we understand as Christian cultural values are no longer the undisputed norm.  Many want to silence the voice of our faith and others in the public sphere.  The fastest growing religious affiliation is “none.”  Can we deny that we need to develop new ways of speaking to a sceptical world?  I don’t think it’s hard to imagine we’re in Paul’s place – that we’re visitors in a new city and that we must learn how to proclaim Christ before a new Areopagus.

Our present circumstances have led us to face our own Areopagus moment.  The ways in which we communicate and relate and our notions of community, are being revised almost daily.  We’ve had to face up to the fact that much of our society has developed and inhabited the new world of media including social media in all its forms and is engaging in its own conversations about truth and meaning, about God and faith.  Some difficult questions confront us:  Do we continue with our old ways of being, talking, relating–our ways of being church?  Or dare we risk trying something new?  Can we develop new ways of thinking the faith, living the faith, communicating the faith, yet not reducing it to platitudes, or the quick 140 characters of a tweet (or is it more now?), not emptying it of beauty, holiness, compassion, love.  We still offer the Gospel of Christ, not the gospel according to emoji.

Firstly, it’s important to spend time trying to understand the new world of media and communications.   There’s no going back.  If we hadn’t begun the discussion prior to COVID, I think we have now.  But we can’t embark on this engagement with the aim of finding the first clever technological trick to recruit the residents of the new reality to our cause.  Too often, we tend to think of getting people in.  Christ was always sending people out. We can be too quick to see others only as warm bodies to bolster our declining memberships, pledging units to be tapped, targets for our message, as one commentator writes.  When it comes to media, many people are savvier than we are and if we want to stand a chance in conversation with them, we need to genuinely live into their world and engage them for the sake of truly understanding how they live and what matters to them. We need to be able to know the language and the lives of people outside the church well enough to be able to say, much as Paul did to the Athenians, “We see that you are extremely thoughtful and genuinely sincere in your spiritual search.  We honour that and we have looked carefully enough to know those things about which you care most deeply.”  Paul communicated the truth about Jesus in a way that resonated with the Athenians’ own search for divine truth.  Can we do the same?

Can we think deeply about real engagement with a world increasingly filled with people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”?  There are many people out there who are compassionate, intelligent, committed, ethical, wanting to engage in genuine conversation.   How do we engage with them to affirm them and help them see that really none of them are very far from the Kingdom of God[4] and that there is another much broader spiritual dimension to human life.  Can we approach the context of those around us with real understanding, respect and humility. Can we take the risk of entering into dialogue with them?    By and large, the church has been pretty good at talking to itself.  How do we engage nowadays with others about the great themes of love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, sin, death, redemption, life itself?  They’re tough questions, I know, and I don’t have lots of answers.  But to our surprise, I think, and delight, the way of engaging as we are now has touched many people in unexpected ways.  There are moments of grace.  Next door at Christ Church St. Lucia at the height of COVID lockdown, we had a message from Canada – from someone who said he wouldn’t describe himself as a churchgoer or formal Christian, but described how he was drawn into the atmosphere of the service and how it relaxed and refreshed him. I suspect we’re not alone in receiving such responses.

It’s an exciting world out there. Many of us may feel, like Paul, that we’re in a strange land, but we’re also presented with all sorts of opportunities.  Sure, there is risk, sure we might be uncertain, but if we can move toward the outwardly focussed, genuinely engaged approach of Paul in Athens, maybe we’ll experience new revelations of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us.  It’s critical for us to find genuine engagement with a world that is being daily refashioned in all sorts of ways we wouldn’t have imagined a few ago.  It’s been refashioned socially, politically, economically and for millions personally as lives have been shattered by loss of employment, and by loneliness, worry, isolation, grief and by geo-political tension and war.  How do we find opportunities to develop new communities of conversation and discover new ways of engaging so that people may see that there is indeed a new way in Christ to “live and move and have our being.”[5]

If we can do so with the same sincerity and conviction of Paul in Athens, we may find ourselves surprised.  Is it possible for us to have the will, the courage, the openness to find a new way to proclaim Christ in this modern day Areopagus and to hope that we will move people to say, “We will hear you again about this.” 

[1] 1 Peter 3:22

[2] Acts 17: 16-18

[3] Acts 17:32

[4] Mark 12: 28-34

[5] Acts 17:28 Paul quotes here a Greek philosopher-poet, possibly Epimenides from the 6th century BCE.  Another way of engaging.