Let me tell you the story of 2 Areopagus-es. First, the Areopagus translates into the hill of Ares or Mars if you’re a Roman and speak Latin instead of Greek. It was a rock on a hill that stood opposite the acropolis. Hence our little picture today, otherwise all we’d have is a picture of a large rock. Now, it was shortly after college when I 1st discovered podcasts and my life was changed forever. there weren’t many to choose from but there were a couple of churches that posted their sermon. Anyway, one of those churches with sermons online was out of Grand Rapids, Michigan called Mars Hill, named for this story with Paul. It was founded by Rob Bell who is also the author of Velvet Elvis and Love Wins.
I listened to his sermons. I like to approach. It was academic and personal and well researched, they were also like 45 minutes long so, I only try to take his example so far. Here’s what I think worked about Mars Hill in Michigan: It felt very Midwest although it was Michigan specific. The preaching took seriously the world around it and engaged the world around it from science and education, from modern culture and Personal experiences.
There stood for a while another Mars Hill, This one in Seattle that I also first discovered through a podcast, and I thought maybe the two churches were related, they weren’t. When I listened to Mars Hill Seattle wasn’t a preacher engaging the community around him. It wasn’t a preacher who engaged in the culture, that took seriously science and education and the experiences of the people. Instead, the preacher stood and screamed out against the culture.
I think there are a lot of ways that church folks, Christians, have gone about interacting with a culture when it comes to Trying to teach trying, to share, trying to convince even, others in the ways of Jesus with goals of increasing numbers, or saving souls. And there are probably good ways and negative ways to do the same thing. You can take seriously and engage in a culture or when you can take it so seriously that you end up like these folks on this Instagram account called: preachers and sneakers. Some started taking pictures the preacher posted and then pricing out their outfits. To be fair, some things are expensive. But the person who runs this account is suggesting that maybe getting so entrenched in the culture that you think you need $800 Prada tennies has gone too far. And I don’t want to bash other churches, but funny is funny, and channeling Merle Streep that it’s the devil who wears Prada is funny. Or you can be so countercultural that you just find yourself standing on your soap Box screaming into the wind.
So what if Paul had been their example and they had taken Paul and his conversation, his teachings on Mars Hill seriously when they took that name?
Athens was a truly metropolis city far from His normal path. While they were chosen Diaspora just about everywhere this was not a city that was influenced by the Jewish community that lived within it. I have to imagine that the Jewish community was probably Pretty small. Athens was the cultural and Philosophical center of the known Western world at the time Athens was filled with great thinkers and great philosophers. Our story today says that the people of Athens just wanted to hear whatever the newest thing was. And it makes it sound like that is the worst thing ever. Like they couldn’t settle on one thing and we’re always searching for the next thing.
Paul would have found that Jewish community. He said. He spent some time there he would have told them about Jesus. They would have dined together and been in community with them. But Paul was unusual: He was a trained Pharisee, he was educated in the law and the prophets. He would have been fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic. But Paul was also a Roman citizen. He would have been educated in the ways of Rome. He would have spoken Greek and Latin and he would have at least a basic understanding of Greek poets and philosophers.
So when Paul was walking around Athens, he was walking around as one who would have had some understanding of this world. Says he was distressed by the idols that he saw everywhere. This is a little confusing because non-followers of the God Israel we’re not required to follow the 10 commandments that start with you shall have no other God before me. So it makes me wonder if that’s not the reason why Paul was distressed.
As Paul walked around in what our scripture calls the marketplace, but was probably a forum that held shops, temples, restaurants, and places for conversation. It was the meeting place or the town center. As Paul walked around he paid close attention to everything. He looked at the altars and the temples. He listened to conversations among the people And the philosophers and the thinkers.
Maybe he started asking questions. Maybe he started talking about the things he liked to teach about: The God of the Israelites. Jesus, the risen one.
Some of the folks there started calling him a babbler another translation says a seed picker, A seed picker, Which makes me wonder if that’s the same kind of thing as a hayseed, Someone who is uneducated, one who doesn’t really understand, when it just says things and battles on.
I imagine days went on before they gathered up Paul and decided they were going to take him to the place where they have conversations, where they discern these things, and where they judge the value of ideas. And they do that on the hill of Ares or Mars Hill.
At this point, Paul had a choice. He could stand there and teach the way he had all the way he had always taught to people who knew the stories of the Hebrew scripture. The God who had set the people free from their slavery but in the temple and I had covenant get them. But that would have been standing on a soap Box and screaming into a void because those were not their stories.
Instead in those days where Paul had been walking in the Forum, and the days Paul had been interacting With the people Learning how they lived and moved in the world, comma seeing what was important to them, What brought them life and joy and meaning. During that time Paul was fully inclined in that community. Fully invested in that fact experience with them. Just like God came fully incarnate in Jesus. For Jesus to teach about the God he knew and he was to a particular group of people in time and place in a way that they would understand. With metaphors that make sense to the world around them. Revealing the good already and in them and their blessed, child of god-ness already.
When Paul began, He first celebrated who they were. The good things he saw in who they were, Their piousness, their spirituality, their seeking truth.
*Then he began to speak of their altar to the unknown God. They had temples to the gods that they knew and worshiped for different reasons. But what if they missed one? What if there was one more powerful? What if… I think of their Unknown God altar as their “Just-in-Case” altar.
Paul says, “look, I know that God you call unknown. let me tell you
about that God.”
*Paul tells them that this God that he knows made all things: the heavens and the Earth.. And that this God that he knows Doesn’t live in temples or shrines And cannot be contained. This God who he knows doesn’t need human help because it is in this God and * through this God But all things live and move and have their very being. That this God establishes the nations, calls everyone into community, and that we are all God’s children.
And for the most part, they were following. And then Paul started talking about everyone being judged in Justice and righteousness by the man appointed by God who was raised bodily from the dead. This is about the time that Paul lost about 2/3 of his audience. The last couple verses of this chapter tell us that just a couple of people came along with him to learn more and to hear more and be part of this community The followers of the way that Paul is establishing. This was not 1000s being baptized. This was not about numbers.
In some ways what it’s about is simple: use the language of the culture to explain your experiences, so that others can understand, and don’t worry about the “outcomes.” But it’s not simple. And it’s not easy. There are reasons why there are Christian denominations that have isolated themselves from the larger culture. Whether they have done it strategically for years creating it. Or if they have started their own record labels and publishing companies creating a subculture within a culture so that the story of Jesus might never be blemished.
And it’s easier. We can tell the old old story and never have to learn new words. We could stand firm in what we learned or agreed to when we were young and not have to learn anything new. We never have to take the risk of incarnating ourselves into a community so different than our own.
I was listening the other day to this man, Tyler Burns, being interviewed about his work. But he told the story of this flight he was on recently, and as the flight ended and everyone was getting ready to leave, the white man sitting next to him slid one of those handy how-to-be-saved tracks to him. *This is Tyler Burns. For all kinds of reasons appearance and racial reasons, this man decided Tyler Burns didn’t know Jesus. Turns out Tyler Burns is a pastor, leads justice work, and knows Jesus. He didn’t ask Tyler a single question, didn’t get to know him, and didn’t follow Paul’s example.
We have this example in Paul. This is what Mars Hill is all about: Being confident enough in our own faith that we can celebrate the traditions of others, investing and incarnating in the community around us, and sharing the good news we have learned in a way that connects to others. Not to manipulate them, not to coerce them, not even to convince them to join us, but because there is something about your experience with Jesus, your experience in community, your experience that is good enough to invite someone into. It is meeting somebody where they are and inviting them to come along.
And some or all of this works in our world and our lives.
It might be that as you sit around a dinner table with the family you can’t always agree. Maybe you’re able to say, “I see you are passionate about this. Can we find the places of common ground?”
And maybe it’s when we meet somebody of a different faith tradition or a different faith tradition within Christianity we are able to say like Paul “I see you are very spiritual and pious. I celebrate the importance of prayer in your tradition or the importance of feeding the hungry in your tradition and that’s important in mine too.”
I think we see it and how Family Promise and other social service agencies, in general, can engage the homeless population. Often homelessness comes in some connection with mental health And addiction. But you can’t help somebody with addiction if they’re hungry, and it’s hard to get food resources if you don’t have an address, and it’s hard to do any of that if you’re worried about where you will sleep tonight. It’s why the work of family promise is vital and housing first programs are an important way of supporting individuals. When they don’t have to worry about where they will sleep tonight, then maybe they’ll be able to start thinking about other ways to care for themselves. We meet people where they are.
The United Church of Christ we’re not very good at evangelism we’ve seen too many people on soapboxes, we’ve seen too many people slide tracks across a table and assume they have done everything they need to do. Or, we have seen too many people shame or manipulate folks into following their way of Jesus.
But what if we see it like this, like Paul, Invested time and energy into Someone or a group of someone’s, So that we might understand them. Not to manipulate them into following Jesus or joining our club but to celebrate them, to affirm them, to love them, to share with them the experience that we have had with the risen Christ and the diverse community of learners and growers who already belong just as they are and how it might be meaningful for them, too. And if it’s not, that’s OK. The time incarnating in that community, the investment isn’t wasted if it shares more love in the world.
So pay attention, look for God, search the metaphors, and share the love.