David A. Davis
May 14, 2023
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Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens. While he had a few hours, a few days, he wandered around the city getting more and more distressed. Paul found the city “so full of idols”. Distressed. “Deeply distressed,” the bible says. Other translations describe Paul’s spirit being provoked. His soul being revolted. The city was so full of idols was poking at the bear of the classically educated, rhetorically gifted evangelist, apostle, and follower of Jesus. The more time he spent, the more Paul went looking for an argument. He argued in the synagogue with the Jewish leaders and the kind of devout people who hung out there; “what about all these idols?” Out in the marketplace, he stopped people to argue. Every day Paul went out there to argue with “those who happened to be there.” He debated the philosophers and some who just thought he was a babbler and others who just assumed he was proclaiming some sort of other foreign gods. With his argument, Paul was “telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” In the city full of idols, people assumed he was pitching another one. A city so full of idols where the flow of words never stopped and argument was entertainment. Where world views clashed for sport and all babblers were welcome, Paul was stoked for the argument.
So, some hustled Paul away. “They took him and brought him to the Areopagus”. Scholars disagree about the nature of this change of venue. The move from the marketplace to the Areopagus. Was Paul being seized, bound, and hauled into a trial at the Areopagus? Or was Paul being invited to a place away from the chaos, just beyond the marketplace, far away from the synagogue? A place where he could offer his argument. The answer is yes; both. The Areopagus. A place referred to in other translations as Mars Hill. The Areopagus is both a particular place (Mars Hill) and a reference to the council of leaders that met to hear cases, do public business and talk about more serious things in a less carnival more meaningful atmosphere. “All the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul, stood before an adversarial and threatening world that, at the same time, craved telling and hearing something new. A world where arguments ruled the day.
You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. A place where knowledge and experience of God are challenged by the height and depth of culture. A place that both craves and demands the most basic understandings of the Christian faith be translated afresh. Where you communicate and so live your faith in an ever-changing, increasingly complex, exponentially more diverse world. A place where conversations about God’s love and grace and promise come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matter. Just beyond the chaos. On the other side of the marketplace. Far away from church. Where our lives are asked to speak. You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus all the time.
Paul rises in the scared space of secular thought poised for an argument. One can actually diagram, and analyze Paul’s speech at Mars Hill with all of the tools of classical rhetorical criticism. One can dissect his sermon and evaluate it like something from a debate competition. But by Book of Acts standards, where time after time, thousands upon thousands would join the community of faith, the followers of Christ, where multitudes would offer their lives in response to the spoken word and the work of the Holy Spirit, the response from those listening to Paul at the Areopagus was much less robust, far less miraculous, maybe, in comparison to those other accounts of gospel proclamation, even a bit tepid. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point, Paul left them. But some of them join him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Doesn’t quite sound like Paul won the argument. Paul hardly carried the day there at Mars Hill.
But then again, the gospel never was intended to be about winning, was it? The gospel never was going to be about being first. The life, the teaching, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus was always going to be foolishness, folly in the face of the wisdom of this world. Or as Paul writes in I Corinthians, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe.” Paul must have known it was never about winning the argument. It wasn’t about an argument. It was about pointing to a Living God, a God not far from each one of us. A creator God, the one who made the world and everything in it. A God who cannot be shaped by human hands or reduced to this shrine or that idol. As if God needed anything from human hands, or that God depends on our human ability to define or defend or declare. This Living God gives to every mortal, to everyone, God gives life and breath. God gives all things and God is not far from each one of us. It is not an argument. It’s the affirmation of life in God’s hands; a life where maybe the best we can do is search for, reach for, fumble after in the yearning to find God, the Living God. Remembering, that in our fumbling, by grace alone, God has already found us. God already holds us. In the words of the psalmist: “O Lord you have searched me and known me… You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” Our fumbling, feeble selves and the steadfast, unconditional love of our searching God. It’s not about winning the argument, it is about pointing to the Living God made known to us in Jesus Christ with the broken witness of our lives.
I was with 25 of my Presbyterian pastor colleagues this week in Indianapolis. Our guest lecturer shared the statistic that more than 70% of congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have 150 members or less. More than a third of those have under 50 members. That was prior to the pandemic so the number is higher now. Congregations the size of Nassau Church and those bigger make up 1.5% of the total congregations in the PCUSA. It is sort of a staggering statistic. The speaker also referenced the Pew Study from several years ago that said that those who express no religious preference in this country now exceed the number of those who identify as Roman Catholics or Evangelicals and far exceed Presbyterians or Methodists or Lutherans. Interestingly, 61% of those “nones” respond that they believe in God and 31% say they pray at least once a week. An interesting twist on the interpretation is the use of the data. One can wring hands and bemoan such metrics, searching for the reasons, the places, and the people to blame. One can call for better preaching, better arguments, better strategy, and better answers from the church and its leaders. The trend began before almost all of us were born. And the gospel never was about winning or being first. When you put these statistics together, it’s pretty clear that long before any of the “religiously unaffiliated” hear from me they will talking to you.
You and I can ponder that day and affirm again that we find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. A place where knowledge and experience of God are challenged by the height and depth of culture. A place that both craves and demands the most basic understandings of the Christian faith be translated afresh. Where you communicate and so live your faith in an ever-changing, increasingly complex, exponentially more diverse world. A place where conversations about God’s love and grace and promise come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matter. Just beyond the chaos. On the other side of the marketplace. Far away from church. Where our lives are asked to speak.
The followers of Jesus are called to point to the Living God for in God we live and move and have our being. Those who take the name of Jesus are called to live in response to and point to the beauty of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s promise with the everydayness of our lives. Always knowing and never forgetting that in our fumbling, bumbling witness, that beauty of God goes before us and comes behind us and has long ago, taken hold of us.
One afternoon last week our group went to a museum in Indianapolis called “The Newfields.” They currently have an incredible immersive exhibit of the Impressionist Monet and friends and late 19th century Paris. After I experienced the exhibit, I came upon a room with portraits on the wall that at first blush look like works of Monet. I stood at one of the computer kiosks, took a selfie, hit submit, and within a minute or two my portrait was up on the wall in a beautiful frame. You won’t be surprised that my selfie skills are pretty fumbling even on a computer with directions that made it impossible to mess up. The technology transforms those selfies with colors and brush strokes to make them radiant with the beauty of Impressionist art. My head shot up there on the wall almost looked like something Monet would paint. My fumbling, bumbling selfie was surrounded, touched by a timeless beauty.
You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. When our lives speak, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, they speak with the color and the brush stroke of the very beauty of God. Because in our fumbling, bumbling yearning to find God and point to God in this blasted world in which we live, God has already found us and holds us tight. And out there where conversations about God’s and God’s longing for peace, righteousness, justice, and wholeness to forever change the world, out there where the conversations come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matters, out there all we have to do, what we get to do, is point to the beauty of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s promise with the everydayness of our lives.