Acts 17:16-31 (John 14:6)
May 25, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Our Scripture reading today is a fascinating story of Paul’s encounter with the people in the city of Athens. This is all taking place about 300 years after Alexander the Great brought the Greek Empire into being, but that Empire was supplanted by time our story takes place by the Roman Empire. Still, Athens continues to glow – even if it is an afterglow – as a religious and intellectual center. Some historic descriptions say that the roads in Athens were so populated by idols, monuments, cairns, and the like that someone traveling from point A to point B was constantly negotiating around one religious thing or another. Athens was a place where religions intersected – the narrator of Acts mentions Jews, Epicureans, and Stoics specifically – and where new ideas were welcomed. As such, a story set in Athens is more representative of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that we might associate with modern diversity than some of the stories set in Galilean villages or Jerusalem. So, enter Paul, known as “the Apostle to the Gentiles,” who had received a calling to cross over as a missionary into this area where Paul’s Jewish heritage was just one faith among others, and his Christian message was new.
Many people would assume that Paul’s encounter with this religiously and philosophically diverse people of Athens would be controversial. After all, we associate terms like “evangelism” and “missionary” with this kind of self-righteous one-directional approach that says “I’m right and you’re wrong, so let me help you out.” And, frankly, one of the challenges that I have with this story is that many of the folks who translated this story from its original Greek text to English – and almost all of the commentaries that go on and on about this story – see it exactly that way: A confrontation. And that disposition toward this story has shaped the way that it has been translated for year. For example, when Paul begins his message in v.22, the King James Version has been presenting him for 500 years now as saying, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” Now, if that is the opening salvo, then of course what follows is going to be a confrontation against superstitious belief. But, the word that the KJV translates as “superstitious” is interesting. It appears just this once in the Scriptures and it is a conjunction of two words meaning, “fear or reverence” and “deity.” With this word in the superlative form, it can mean “too superstitious” if you assume that Paul is speaking critically. But, a less presumptuous translation would be that Paul says to them “I can see that in every way you are very religious” – which is how most modern translations interpret it. My point is that we can – with enormous biblical integrity – see this encounter between Paul and the Athenians as an instructive, meaningful encounter between the Christian message and other belief systems. But, to do so, we have to unravel years of wrong impressions that have shaped the way this story has been told. So, let’s do it.
Our reading began with the narration that Paul is spending time in Athens, waiting for two of his friends to come and join him in his missionary journey. The narration – in our Bible – reads that Paul was “deeply distressed” to see that the city was full of idols. That’s quite a statement. It’s also quite a judgment, because the word translated as ‘distressed’ could also mean ‘intrigued.’ Its most neutral meaning would be ‘stirred,’ but there is noting in this text to decide whether it is a distressing stir or an intriguing stir – that judgment is left up to the translator. Let’s say – for the moment – that Paul is not distressed, but intrigued. Then what?
Then, v.17 in our Bible reads: “So [Paul] 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.” Well, it stands to reason that if Paul is distressed by what he sees that he will argue with those who live there. But, that word that is translated “argued” is used often in Acts and is sometimes translated “reasoned” and elsewhere as “preached.” It is the Greek word διαλέγομαι, which literally means to ‘talk through’ and is the word from which we get our English word “dialogue.” So, instead of seeing Paul as “distressed” and, therefore “arguing” in the synagogue and marketplace, this text could be saying that Paul was “intrigued” and “conversed” with people daily in the synagogue and marketplace. They are not necessarily confrontational terms and, in fact, could be quite the opposite. In fact, I want to suggest that it should be translated as something other than a confrontation.
First, Paul maintains the integrity of his faith. He is heard conversing in the synagogue and marketplace proclaiming the good news of the resurrection of Christ. So, some of them take him to a place called “Mars Hill” or “the Areopogite.” (It is translated two different ways because “Ares” was the Greek god of war, who became “Mars” when the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon as their own.) This is the place where, in Greek mythology, Ares was taken to defend himself for killing one of the gods who was trying to violate his daughter. It took on the aura of the place where people offer defense of their thoughts and actions. So, Paul comes to Mars Hill to explain, defend, and proclaim his faith. And he does so frankly. He tells them that as he was studying and contemplating their many religious items, he saw an altar with the inscription, “To the unknown God.” And that is the itch that Paul wanted to scratch. This ‘unknown’ God he proclaims as the creator of heaven and earth, who formed the world and everything in it, in order that we would grope, seek, and find God. So, the way that Paul maintains the integrity of his faith is to affirm the search, the longing that he perceived in them, and to proclaim the gospel as the fulfillment that they seek.
Second, however, is a less-appreciated thing that Paul does. He quotes two of the poets from those other religions – approvingly. In fact, one of those quotes has become many Christians’ favorite quote from the book of Acts: “In God we live and breathe and have our being.” His point is to say that the constructs that we make, reflecting our longing for God, can never be confused with Godself, because God is the source, not the product of that longing. It is a marvelous affirmation and assertion.
I don’t want to gloss over this whole encounter and pretend that they all held hands and sang “Kumbayah” together. There were some who thought Paul was babbling. There were some that listened and wanted some time to think it over and meet again. Surely there were some dilettantes, who were just happy to be doing such a cool, philosophical thing. But, there were others who began a companionship with Paul and followed the gospel, finding the message of Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of what they sought in their philosophy and religion. And they were able to hear that, because initially Paul was willing to hear them. In fact, Paul was willing to learn from them, to allow their religion and philosophy to broaden his own grasp of God and God’s way with us.
I remember a seminary professor of mine, who told me that he was never quite able to embrace the Christian faith, until he spent a year abroad studying Buddhism. It was not that everything he heard he found ridiculous, so he came running back to the Christian faith. In fact, it was the opposite. He learned ways of thinking about life and faith that had never grasped him before, and it gave him a greater appreciation for the Christian message. In some ways, I think Paul’s encounter with the pagan religions on Mars Hill invite us to see faith – not as the adamant refusal to allow any other religious voice to have meaning – but as a trust in God’s faithfulness, even when our opinions are challenged and changed.
You and I are charged every week to leave this place with the intention of sharing the joy and justice of the gospel. May we, to whom God is faithful, have the courage to fulfill that charge by listening first, even to those whose way of knowing God is different. Amen.