A sermon preached while wearing a PPE mask, on
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020 11:00 am
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. Acts 17.22
And we’re back!
Good morning, everybody. So, here we are – seven of us in the Tabernacle, all wearing surgical masks (and there is room for two more, you know) and eight of us scattered around outside. Five of you are in the porch there, like good Anglicans sitting in the back row, and three of you on the side, on the other side of the wall. And we have our beautiful reredos of the garden behind us, and a view of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains of Crete) in the distance. Plus, after a couple of weeks online we have people watching via Zoom – some in England, one off by Rethymno, and another all the way down the hill in Almyrida. Thank you all for joining us here today, after two months of suspending worship.
We are still working out what we need to do. We are starting with a strict interpretation of the rules from both the Greek government and the Diocese in Europe. On Tuesday in our Church Council meeting we’ll debrief on this experience. I must confess, this mask is a great distraction – it keeps falling off my nose. Maybe my head is too big, I don’t know.
Paul Visits the Areopagus
It is kinda neat to read and listen about Paul in the Areopagus. That’s the big rock you can see to the northwest of the Acropolis, on the other side of the ticket booth there. We are told that Paul stood before the Areopagus, not on it, perhaps on the north side, towards the ancient Agora. We are told by that source of all things, Wikipedia, that the name means “Hill of Ares” (Ancient Greek: Ἄρειος Πάγος). In classical times, it functioned as the court for trying deliberate homicide, wounding and religious matters, as well as cases involving arson or olive trees (Greeks take olive trees seriously, as you know). If you have seen the ancient classical trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as the Oresteia (458 BCE) you will know that Orestes was tried there for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra . . . and her lover . . . after they murdered his father, Agamemnon (those ancient Greeks really knew how to do a tragedy).
So in that reading from Acts Paul comes to the heart of Athens, the centre of ancient civilization.
The passage is a lively one, as well. The author seems to know Athens: lots of idols; philosophers, including Epicureans and Stoics; the comment: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”
He preaches the gospel to them. What can we learn?
Paul Among The Athenians
It is amazing that the Christian faith quickly jumped from being a sect within Judaism to being a religion that non-Jews could join. This was not normal for Jewish religious groups. We hear that some Jews, among them, the Pharisees, did proselytize, but the requirements to assimilate to Judaism was a great barrier to large-scale success; the dietary restrictions were strange to Greek and Roman cultures – “What do you mean, “No pork”” – and I suspect many pagan males would have found circumcision off-putting. John the Baptist’s disciples were Jews, and the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls did not seek converts outside of Judaism. For the Zealots the Gentiles were the enemy oppressors, and the sooner they were thrown out of Israel the better.
But along comes Paul, telling non-Jews that they could receive the grace of God and avoid the wrath to come. Now, this was, is not, a succession thing. Paul was not saying that he had a new religion derived from Judaism, that somehow replaced the faith of the Jews. Indeed, Paul believed that he was born and would die a Jew. Rather, in Jesus Christ he found the fulfillment of the hopes of the prophets and the promises made by God in the Torah. Paul is absolutely clear in his Letter to the Romans that God would be faithful to the people of Israel. But in his words to the Athenians he was telling them that Gentiles were being grafted onto the tree of Israel, not replacing them. Their inclusion was an exceptional act of grace by the God of Abraham, and was the result of the faithfulness of Jesus.
Lessons from Paul
So how did he proclaim the good news to them?
- First, Paul recognised that the content of the good news could be translated into the vernacular. It was not preached in Aramaic or Hebrew, but Hellenistic Greek.
This may sound normal to us, but there were and are those who disagreed with such a principle. In Islam one must learn Arabic to pray and to read the Qu’ran. During the Middle Ages Western Christianity held onto Latin until well into the 16th century, until Protestants like Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer said it was to be done in German, French, and English. The Roman Catholics made the change in 1969, and now celebrates the mass in hundreds of languages. As we know here in Greece, Greek Orthodox don’t use modern Greek, but the same version of Greek that the New Testament is written in – which modern Greeks cannot understand except with great difficulty. And lest we be too proud about our Anglican tradition, there were many evangelists in the 19th and 20th centuries who believed that indigenous languages in North America and Australia were incapable of conveying the good news.
But time and again the good news is translated, and is welcomed with joy across languages. So the first thing, perhaps, is to share one’s faith in a language understood by one’s listeners.
- Second, Paul starts with where the Athenians are. He talks about their statues. He talks about their piety. He recognises them as rational individuals.
And so we must start with where people are today. For example, if people think they are spiritual but not religious, we must ask them about what spirituality means for them; we should not start off by being defensive of our institutions and buildings. Again, If people think they are secular, we must invite them to tell us why they think they can do without religion and faith.
The point about this is that sharing our faith is about making oneself vulnerable. We share our faith because we actually love people, not because we want them to become like us just to reinforce our beliefs. If we are judgmental, they’ll catch the whiff of it in a heartbeat. Can we listen to them?
- Third, the results are incremental. Paul only gets a handful – Dionysius, Damaris, and a few others. Sometimes we believe that evangelism looks like the events described in the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, where thousands join in a day. But this is the exception, not the norm.
In my experience the most effective sharing of faith takes place over a cup of coffee, in a kitchen, or perhaps a small group. It may be incremental, but like compound interest, it is growth that can become phenomenal over time.
- Finally, Paul’s witness at the Areopagus ends up with Jesus. And that is what we are about.
Regardless of what people might think of the Church or Christians, there is always interest in Jesus. It is not an accident that Mahatma Gandhi developed his non-violent civil disobedience after reading the Sermon on the Mount.
An Election Platform
Back in 2013 I was a candidate in the episcopal election for the Diocese of British Columbia. A friend of mine asked me, “What is your vision for the diocese?” Now, when people ask that kind of question I think they are asking a number of things:
- “How will you do things differently from the last guy?”
- “How will you inspire people? Will you inspire me?”
- “Are you going to be another managerial bureaucrat, or some other kind of church leader?”
- “Are you going to change things the way I think they should be changed?”
- “How will you fix everything in the Diocese?”
I replied that I really did not have a vision as such – no ten point program, nor even a clear idea about how to build such a vision. I was all too aware of the complexity of the church and its members. All I knew was that I wanted to be part of a church in which the ordinary people
- knew their Bibles better,
- were comfortable about praying to God, and
- knew how to share their faith in a transparent, non-threatening, and attractive way.
My friend said that that was actually a pretty good vision for the Diocese. And, in retrospect, it is. It is about empowering lay people with the Spirit, and it is my hope for you.
So, take these lessons from Paul. I do not suggest that you necessarily walk down to the Agora in Chania, or to the crossroads in Almyrida, and begin street preaching, as Paul did. That was an exceptional situation. But my hope and prayer is that as we regain our footing after this strange season of Coronatide that we can meet people where they are, speak their” language” and listen to them, and be patient with them and ourselves as we witness to the power of the resurrection of Jesus in our lives.