Just as Paul did for the early church, the church today (particulary post-pandemic) is also called to engage people where they are.
June 12, 2022
“We Are The Church . . . Let’s Act Like It”
Act With Perseverance
Acts 17: 16-31
Rev. Dr. Heather W. McColl
Acts 17: 16-31
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this pretentious babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
So they took him and brought him to the Are-e-op-pa-gus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Are-e-op-pa-gus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor[b] he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God[c] and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Act With Perseverance Acts 17: 16-31
It’s funny how a text written two thousand years ago still has a relevant and needed message for the Church today. One would assume that certain things lose their value or importance over time due to changes in society and culture but the ironic thing is-the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I say this because the early church who first heard this story was experiencing a very similar cultural context to what we as postmodern believers are experiencing in our world today. Multicultural, multi-lingual; multi-belief; multi-religion, multi-racial; multi-ethnic; all rolled up into a human community, trying to live together the best way they knew how.
The world context the early church moved and existed in really isn’t that much different from our own world context. Sure, technology may be a bit more advanced and our basic way of being may be a little different but just like the early church, we as postmodern believers are still asking the same questions, questions like: “How do we make the Gospel relevant today? How do we help translate the Gospel message so that it becomes meaningful across cultures and across language Barriers?
And once again, we turn to Paul, the great evangelist of the early church to answer these questions. I want to share a little background about our text today to help us understand Paul’s sermon a little better: The thing we need to realize is that Paul never intended to go to Athens in the first place. It is not like he sat down and planned out his evangelism journey and said, “Well, I can’t pass up Athens. It is too much of a hotbed of believers. It would be a great place to start a church.”
In reality, Paul finds himself in Athens by accident. Now, this is where I’m going to shatter everyone’s illusions. Most people tend to think preachers know what we are doing most of the time, that there is usually a method to our madness.
Well, here is the honest truth: More often than not, some of the best ministry moments are stumbled upon by us church folk by accident. Usually, the most opportune moments for ministry come about when we had no intention of actually doing ministry in that moment in the first place.
And this holds true for Paul in our story today as well. You see, Paul is only in Athens because he was literally run out of town on his last evangelism attempt. He stirred up the powers that be, and Silas and Timothy barely get him out of town in time. And if that wasn’t enough, the other men who helped Paul escape get him as far as Athens and then leave him there. Paul finds himself, stranded, bags and all in a place where he knows no one, in a place where he has no idea what his next steps will be.
In this moment, at one of his lowest points in ministry, while Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy to put out the fires in the last stop, while Paul is waiting to move on to something else, Paul rediscovers the good news about the Gospel.
Because while Paul is waiting, he does some wandering around the city. He discovers that he is in a fairly spiritual town. Paul discovers that Athens is covered with shrines and idols to all sorts of Gods. He even found one that was dedicated to an unknown god. And in that moment, Paul realizes that what he thought of, that what Paul saw originally as a misfortune was really an opportunity for mission.
Now here is what I love about this text: We all assume that because Paul was Paul, you know great evangelist of the church, that people would listen when he talked. But more often than not, that was the farthest thing from the truth. Usually when Paul shared his faith or talked about Jesus Christ, people either laughed at him, jailed him, or ran him out of town.
Even in our text for today, which shares one of Paul’s more concise and complete sermons which he gave during his evangelism ministry, does nothing to really stir the masses to believe, does nothing to bring a large number of people to Jesus.
As postmodern believers, as we look at this text some two thousand years later, we would say that in that moment, Paul failed. We would say that Paul wasn’t a very good preacher. We might even go as far as saying that Paul threw away his shot. But we would all be wrong in our statements and assumptions.
Because, you see, for Paul, sharing the Gospel isn’t all flash and glimmer and it certainly isn’t rocket science. For Paul, sharing the Gospel is about finding common ground and trusting God to do the rest.
The thing that Paul remembers is that it is not our job to bring people to Christ through arm-twisting or berating them or dragging them along as we go. Paul understands that our job, our calling as disciples of Christ is to build the bridges so that Jesus can walk across.
Paul realizes that the Gospel message will always always translate. It will always always cross cultural and language barriers. The Gospel will always always bring people together because that is simply its nature. The Gospel message is powerful enough in itself. The Gospel message really at its core is simply about God working in this world to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth for the people of God.
The Gospel message at its very basic level is simply about letting all of God’s children know that they are loved more than they could ever imagine. And, believe me, that does not get lost in translation, no matter what culture, language or belief.
As people of faith, we don’t need a special invitation to speak to large crowds. We don’t need flashy words or gimmicks to get the message across. As disciples of Christ, we simply need to be authentic. We need to be real in our relationship with God and with others. We simply need to live out the love and grace that God first showed to us in our lives. We simply need to be the disciples of Christ that Jesus showed us and taught us to be.
Now, I know this is the time in the sermon that would be great for a really good illustration to explain just exactly how we should do this but in my search this week, I came up with nothing…
Not because there aren’t stories out there about how people did this but simply because I was overwhelmed by the many ways people do sow the seeds of God’s Kingdom, even creating a church in the video game Minecraft where people from all over can hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
As Paul discovers in our text, as Paul demonstrated in our text this morning there is not only one way to share our faith, to share the Gospel message. God is going to use whatever means necessary to get the message across, sometimes even using us to do so.
Because as Paul learns, as we are reminded of again, this morning as we continue to become the people God calls us to be, the Gospel message will always translate. It will always remain relevant. As ones who are called to proclaim the good news, we don’t need to make it harder or complicate it. We simply need to create opportunities for people to hear it, for people to experience it themselves. We need to simply remember that sometimes the best evangelism is telling people that we are Christians and then not being complete jerks. May it be so.
See Theology Tuesday for Sunday, June 12, 2022 – Act With Perseverance Acts 17: 16-31.
This sermon is also available as a podcast.