Paul in Athens

I should have something good about mothers. But instead I’ll just pass along what they’d want me to say.  God says give your mother a call.  Honest, it is in the Bible somewhere. Ok, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Talk to your mother today. Tell her you love her.

Our first reading for this Sunday from Acts 17 has had its share of acclaim recently.  There was a boomlet of taking Paul in Athens as the model for evangelism in the modern world.  In some ways it was rehashing part of Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture.  That mid-20th-century work, when the culture at large would still listen to a theologian, examined various ways the church could interact with society.  Christ against Culture (the culture war crusaders), Christ of Culture (Christendom) and three versions of Christ above culture (those who opt out like the Amish, two kingdoms overlapping, or a transformation.)  As Lutherans, we tend to find a sweet spot in that two kingdoms approach.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is Gods. The call of the Kingdom of God is above the culture without denying that culture has its place.  And its role can be good or bad.   The Paul in Athens boomlet was very much transformational.  Find the best in the culture, claim it for Christ, and demonstrate how it points to the fulfillment of Jesus.

The Athens of Paul’s time was long past its glory days, although they would regale you with plenty of boring stories. That was the main vocation of the Aeropagas. Imagining themselves as the heirs of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus and debating the ideas of the day. Rich people would send their kids to Athens for a year or two like we would send our bright young things to Boston.  Various Philosophers would compete for the tuition dollars and think deep thoughts. Those heirs stumble across Paul reasoning in the Synagogue and preaching in the marketplace and bring him to the Aeropagus to understand what he is teaching. Now that description I’ve given is a little rough, but I think it captures Luke’s feeling when he summarizes, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Paul’s approach is classic Christ Transforms Culture. He ID’s something he finds good.  “Men of Athens I see that in every way you are very religious, you even worship an unknown god.” He claims this good for Christ.  “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”  Along the way he claims a couple of their poets. “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring.” If you really want to find the fulfillment of what those poets spoke of you need to understand Christ.

This is the method of every evangelical youth pastor.  But saying that you can see how easy it is to mock. Instead of claiming the good, the true and the beautiful, we claim the latest Pixar film.  “See Nemo/Elsa/Anna/Riley really is a Christ figure.” (And yes, I can point you to every one of those essays.  And they aren’t all completely dumb.) Take something your audience already knows and ask them to see something more. It becomes a rhetorical trick.  Not something of real transformational value.

Not transformational like the preaching of the resurrection. Paul’s entire rhetorical strategy is a wind up to “an of this he has given assurance to all by raising Jesus from the dead.” Of course our lectionary cuts it out there, because Paul the great Apostle walks off triumphant converting the entire Aeropagus, right?  Not right.  Continuing past the lectionary end, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, some said we will hear of this again, but some men joined and believed, Dionysisus and woman named Damaris.” A far cry from the 3000 that were converted at Peter’s simple proclamation on Pentecost.

After Athens, Paul goes to Corinth.  And it is at Corinth that Paul tells us “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:2,4 ESV).”  A complete change of even rhetorical strategy.

The church for decades I think has been trying to be winsome for evangelism.  And I’m not saying it is time to be a jerk for Christ. But when we talk about evangelism, I’d turn less to Paul in Athens, and more to Paul in Corinth.  We preach Christ crucified.  To some this will be a stumbling block.  To some foolishness.  But the lambs who hear, the power of God. The world is the world.  Evangelism is calling the lambs of the sheepfold out of the world to follow the good shepherd who has given his life for the sheep.  They will hear his voice.

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