In Common

by | May 14, 2023

Acts 17;22-31

PRAYER: O God our spiritual Mother, remind us today of all that we have to share with our community, that when we see an unknown God that others worship, we have an opportunity to see and share Christ in new and unique ways… perhaps even ways that we had never imagined, in ways that we could not have imagined without your love.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Today we pick up our reading in Acts 17 and we hear a powerful sermon from Paul to the Greeks at a place called Mars Hill – this is in or near Athens in Greece. We encountered Paul last week briefly at the stoning of Stephen. In that story, Paul – or Saul as he was known then – stood by in approval of the martyring of Stephen. We ‘ve certainly come a long way since then. In the subsequent chapters, Saul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and experienced this dramatic conversion to Christianity, afterwards he began a journey of traveling all around sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who would listen.

Paul traveled quite extensively preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. He had some success in some areas and some challenges in others. You may remember last October, we read from Paul ‘s second letter to the Thessalonians. Paul and his traveling companions faced some great opposition there and had to flee to safety. The 17th chapter of Acts, which describes Paul ‘s journey into Greece is where they fled to after leaving Thessalonica. Their original intent was that they were going there just to regroup and plan their next trip.

The Greeks were considered the center of the intellectual universe. There ‘s this great line in chapter 17 just prior to where our reading begins. In verse 21, it says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” This line coming from Luke, the author of Acts is a bit snarky. He ‘s opining on the philosophical community and how they really didn ‘t do much other than just sit around and think. In today ‘s language, we might call that naval-gazing.

There were two major schools of thought in the philosophical community of first century Greece. There were the Epicureans who believed that happiness is the primary aim of life. This occurs through the two-fold path of pleasures in moderation and the avoidance of pain. And then there were the Stoics who believe in the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions in order to develop clear judgment and inner calm and the ultimate goal of freedom from suffering. The philosophical community sat around day after day entertaining themselves with these debates.

Paul came into this environment and it seems that all he wanted to do at this particular moment was wait for Silas and Timothy while things cool off in Thessalonica and Beroea. He was looking to remain in the background, not intending to be drawing attention to himself, let alone sharing the Gospel. But the people in the intelligencia heard about this Christian who had been making a name for himself and they wanted to know more. They saw this as an opportunity to “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” so they had Paul brought into their center to share his faith.

The story goes that before Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland, the people there – known as the Celts – practiced a pagan religion. The Celts are known to historians dating back to around 550 BC. They occupied a bit of Western Europe. They were in the foothills of the Alps, in parts of France, but they ‘re most closely associated with England and Ireland.

Like many cultures, they used any number of symbols to represent their belief system. The oak tree symbolized the interconnectedness of all things, the heavens represented by the canopy overhead, the earth seen in the trunk, and the underworld represented by the interconnected system of roots underneath.

Perhaps the most well-known pagan symbols of the ancient Celts were the sun and the moon. The Celts worshipped some variation of the sun god Invictus, which was learned from the ancient Romans. The sun and the moon were symbolized with circles – a larger one representing the sun and a smaller one representing the moon.

When St. Patrick and the Christians came to Ireland, they chose rather than ignore the pagan symbols, they incorporated them into Christianity. The people of Ireland were won over to Christianity by adopting pagan beliefs and traditions to the new faith. Pagan springs became holy wells and pagan festivals became patterns in the Christian calendar. Even Celtic heroes evolved into Saints in the church. Saint Brigid was a goddess of Pre-Christian Ireland, associated with the spring season, fertility, healing and poetry. But today, she is a venerated saint of the Catholic church.

The ultimate representation of the evolution of Celtic symbolism, however, is the Celtic cross. The circular pattern of the pagan sun god is combined with the cross of Jesus Christ to represent God ‘s light and life. The pagan symbolism is reused or reimagined to represent Christianity.

I think this is notable because the Christians that came into Ireland could have simply taken all of the pagan symbols and thrown them in the trash. (or they could have tried, at least!) They could have tried to convince the Celts that they have to abandon everything they know. Instead, they incorporated the Celts ‘ already existing beliefs into Christianity.

That is very much what Paul did as he spoke with the Greeks of Mars Hill. The altar to an unknown God could have represented absolutely anything, and Paul made use of that. Everything Paul said was carefully crafted to illustrate what they have in common rather than what separates them.

This sermon in front of the Greeks at Mars Hill emphasizes the importance of establishing a foundation of common ground. Notice that Paul did not quote the Hebrew Scriptures, and he didn ‘t reference anything about the history of Israel. If you ‘ll forgive the pun, all of that would have been… not Greek to them. He brought the gospel to these people through their own poetry, their unique theology, and their own human experience.

Through the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, we see a robust image of all that Jesus did and taught. We see a lot of different cultures and worldviews that Jesus meets within their respective contexts. Galilee, Judea, Lystra, and so many more… Jesus taught people within the context of their cultures, and he taught his disciples to do the same.

When soldiers or other Roman officials came to him, he didn ‘t quote Torah, instead he met people where they were and demonstrated love. But it goes much deeper than simple cultural differences, doesn ‘t it? Think about the times in the gospels in which Jesus fed multitudes of people. Can there be a more significant way of meeting people where they are than feeding them when they ‘re hungry?

That ‘s why Paul ‘s message about the unknown God is a reminder of how we need to be likewise grace-filled. Paul doesn ‘t deny the wisdom of the Athenian people; he doesn ‘t compel anyone to abandon long-held beliefs. Instead, he acknowledges those elements of our faith that we have in common, that God made every human, every collection of humans that inhabit the face of the earth, and that each group – no matter how different or isolated they may be – has its own knowledge and search for God, the God in whom we all live, move, and exist. This God who is known by us all, and yet paradoxically unknown to some degree to all of us… and yet, this God is the creator of all and close to us all.

There are obviously a lot of differences between the church of the first century and the church of today… probably too many to mention. But there ‘s one major difference that, I think, we probably should be more mindful of. That is that the church of the first century faced a great deal of persecution. People of the first century who proclaimed Christ were living under an almost constant threat of being arrested and potentially executed. That ‘s why so much of the New Testament that Paul wrote was written from a prison cell.

Today, there are small groups of Christians who want to pretend that the church is being persecuted because they think they ‘re not allowed to say certain phrases around holidays, but that notion is more imagined than real, borne out of watching too much anger-inducing TV news programs and extremist evangelicals who want to paint the world as us vs. them. I mean, just the idea of insisting on language that recognizes the Christian holiday over all others is, in and of itself, counter to what Paul is demonstrating in today ‘s reading. The truth is that 99.999% of our culture is based on Judeo-Christian teachings and the people who proclaim Christ in our culture are anything but persecuted!

So why then, are churches all over so empty on Sunday mornings?

The world around us is vastly different than it was five years ago, let alone ten, twenty, or fifty years ago. The church can no longer be looking at the world around us expecting people to conform to our sense of normalcy. In fact, the truth is that the church should never have looked at the world that way in the first place. That type of mindset is one of us vs. them and is runs counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ that Paul is demonstrating today.

Back in September, a few of us started working with a group in the Conference on a program called Bridges. Bridges is part of the Journey of Hope plan and is intended to equip congregations with tools engage the diversity of their surrounding communities. Without those tools to engage, a lack of community engagement turns to fear, then insularity – an us vs. them mindset, irrelevance, and then eventually and unfortunately, closure. We want to avoid that. Congregations who have done the hard work of cultivating relationships of difference demonstrate a resilient joy. The Bridges Program is a 12-month process that makes this kind of joy possible.

It begins with recognizing that building community delight takes time. The Bridges Program is taken in three phases. The first phase is called “Noticing”, which is shorthand for simply recognizing who is our community. All too often, we take for granted who our neighbors are, but just as Paul wandered around the Athenian city noticing the many shrines – some of which to an unknown God, so too should we be taking note of who our neighbors are and what their needs are.

The second phase of Bridges is called Mission. When we know our neighbors and their needs, we can better identify what our mission in the community needs to be. And as we learn to identify that mission, we engage in the third phase, which is simply putting our mission into practice.

When Paul took note of the shrine to an unknown God, he did something so simple, so basic and it is something that we should all put into practice. He saw the Christ in others even though on the surface, he had precious little in common with these people who sat around being entertained by the newest ideas. When we put into practice seeing Christ in others, we begin to create an invitational church that is not so much locked into doctrine as it is engaged with building community. And I want to invite you into a ministry of building bridges into our community and creating a church that sees the Christ in others first and foremost.

This is the church that Jesus empowered his disciples to build, and it is the church that we too can build here and now. The unknown God that our neighbors look toward is nothing we need to be afraid of. Instead, it is empowering for us, enabling us to see Christ in others that they may see Christ in us.

To God be the glory.