Common English Bible (CEB)
16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else.26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.
The church, over time, has become an insular organization, and has maintained what I like to call the “bulwark mentality.” What’s a bulwark? It’s a gigantic, thick, stone wall that protects things, like a city, or a castle. Now, having a solid defense is by no means a bad thing if you’re trying to protect something that cannot protect itself, something vulnerable, but the entire idea of the bulwark mentality is a bit peculiar to me when we consider the God that we believe in. I always found it funny that, if this God we believe in is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-encompassing, and all loving, why do we feel the need to defend God, at least with the ferocity that much of the Christian world has come to do so in recent years? Not only is this a somewhat pointless endeavor, it’s un-biblical. That’s right. I went there.
If ever there was a situation close to the one Paul faced on Mars Hill, it would have to be the US in the 21st century. In the ancient world, Mars Hill stood apart from all other places in that there were a variety of views taught, philosophies debated, and religions compared. No other place could hold a candle to the spiritual and intellectual dialogue held at Mars Hill. Nowadays, Mars Hill has expanded to every corner of the [western] world, thanks to the vast availability of information and the diversity of viewpoints we are presented with and are able to have today. However, that being said, we need to understand one crucial difference:
We. Are not. The minority.
We simply aren’t. Christianity is the most widely spread and most populous religion in the world today, rivaled by Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and to a much lesser extent, Judaism. (Philosophically, Judaism is important, but population wise, that’s a much different story, for which I may need to make another sermon.) In the marketplace of ideas, we are Coca-Cola, rivaled by many and equaled by none. I say because that is a crucial distinction to make when talking about the situation on Mars Hill. When Paul came before the council in Athens, he was speaking from a non-privileged standpoint. When we speak today, we have even more historical/cultural clout than the people Paul was arguing against as an outsider. What I’m trying to say is that, when we talk about Mars Hill, we have to understand that while it may be similar, it’s not a one-to-one perfect analogy. However, Paul’s approach to the notion of interreligious dialogue is the best one we can aspire to, because what he did was rely on the Holy Spirit for insight.
We are now 5 weeks into the Easter season, and by now we’re getting used to some of these aftershocks of the empty tomb. We’ve wrestled with doubt, we’ve been caught by surprise, we’ve experienced generosity, and we’ve faced persecution. From this point on, we are facing the downward slope towards Pentecost. What does this mean? It means the Holy Spirit is going to do some funny, strange, scary and powerful things, for me and for you, for all who claim to be followers of Christ. The Holy Spirit will provide us with Insight, as long as we are willing to listen.
Now, that’s a dangerous thing. Listening to the Holy Spirit is the quickest way to land yourself in trouble, let me tell you. It landed Paul in trouble more than a few times. But in this case, he came out of his encounter in Athens relatively unscathed, and even gained a few followers in the process. All in all, he came out well… but why? What did he do in Athens that gave him success? What can we learn from his insights at the top of Mars Hill?
The first thing we can learn is to see the landscape before us. By this, I mean look at the culture, the demographics, the inherent uniqueness of a situation and actually learn from those who are different. One thing that I find remarkable is the pride we sometimes have when entering a different situation, assuming that everyone around us will understand us. When a missionary goes off to a foreign land, the first thing they do is get an interpreter, and the second thing they do (if they are to remain there for a long time) is try to learn the language that surrounds them. The missionaries that burn out the fastest and see the least progress in their ministries are the ones who take no time to learn about the cultures before them and seek instead to insist that their way is the ONLY way to do things. Ones who find success take the time to learn what is before them before introducing their own beliefs.
Paul was a brilliant man, and highly educated. He was educated among the Greek philosophers, and so he knew stoicism, epicureanism, and all the rest. He was an avid student of culture beyond his own, that of Palestinian Judaism and the new Jesus movement. While the text states that he was deeply distressed to find the city filled with idols, note that it is not surprise at their existence, but rather the enormity of the task ahead of him. He did what he was called to do, to preach the Gospel, but did so with the full knowledge of the difficult task ahead. He had done his research. He knew how Greeks thought, argued, and reasoned with one another, and with this knowledge, he was able to make his appeal to their philosophy in identifying the Unknown God as the One God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The key thing that I believe is important for us is that he engaged in discussion. That’s such a difficult thing for us to do today. More often than not, we aren’t willing discuss things with one another, but rather throw our opinion out there and get upset when anyone challenges it. Worse, we rarely listen but rather simply wait for an opportunity to talk. If we are willing to engage in discussion with those around us, be it someone from the same culture but with a different opinion, or someone from a completely different culture and worldview, we may just yet be able to follow the Holy Spirit and find insight in the discussion.
Secondly, in the process of listening and engaging with other cultures, we must be able to keep in clear view our own strongly held beliefs, the core of our faith. Above and beyond all, Jesus is the focal point of our beliefs, and the resurrection and redemption is the goal of our belief. With that in mind, we may always be willing to listen and learn from others.
One of the things that I experienced and it was echoed in my conversations with others, is that when you take a course on comparative religion where you study Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, and all other religions in the world, you wind up really figuring out what you believe. What I mean is that the more you know about others, the more you wind up learning about yourself, where you stand, and how you find ultimate meaning. That being said, it is best to have a strong core and foundation of belief before you engage in discussion so that you always have a reference point to start from. Not a bulwark, mind you; walls get you nowhere. What you need is a good floor.
We must be willing to seek wisdom from our own tradition, be they from those in the mainstream or those on the margins. We must look earnestly for the work of the Holy Spirit within the lives of those who have gone before us, and in the lives of those around us. We need to talk to each other about our faith, and with that basis, we may be more open to listening to the beliefs of others who do not share our faith.
Finally, we need to be patient. Paul didn’t have a 100% success rate. Some listened, some walked away, and some followed after Paul was done. Some even ridiculed him for his beliefs. Such is the risk we take when we enter into dialogue with those around us, believers and nonbelievers alike. There will be mockers, and they will be loudest. There will be some who respectfully disagree, but want to learn more. There will even be people who convert. What is most important though is patience. Dialogue takes patience, and insight takes peace of mind in order to take root. God works his mysteries in ways we can’t see, but what is visible is how we act in the face of diversity.
We need to be in the world. We need to listen to what’s around us, to remain faithful to our own foundations of belief, and be patient for the work of the spirit. Our faith speaks much louder when we show respect and understanding to those who do not share our beliefs. We are representatives of Christ, in that we re-present Christ to others. That presentation must be rooted in love, redemption, and resurrection.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.