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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Where do we go from Here?

George Floyd riots are the price of liberalism: Devine

The Way Forward, 6-2-2020
            Many years ago I was discipling someone.  I gave her a Bible and told her about Jesus.  When I saw her several weeks later, she was excited.  Proudly, she told me she put that Bible under her pillow every night.  She had not read a page.  But she was growing in Christ because she slept on it each night.
            If all we do is sleep with the Bible, it is useless (and probably makes the pillow lumpy).  The Bible is also useless as photo op, useless as a truth-totem in court.  A teller of boldfaced lies, will tell those lies after swearing on a Bible.  The Bible is not a totem, a prop, or an accessory. 
The Bible is God’s living word, God’s message to the world conveyed through law, prophecy, creation narratives, chronicles of kings, Gospels, poetry, and letters. 
In America, we’ve exceeded 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths.  We’ve watched in horror as defenseless African Americans have been killed by law enforcement officers.  Know their names: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.  Expressing outrage at the evil of structural injustice, advocates for justice have protested, peacefully. 
Opportunists have hijacked peaceful protests turning them into lawless outbursts nationwide.     Our president has not by addressed the systemic injustice that leads to unarmed, surrendered suspects being strangled.  Instead, he has threatened deadly force and has insulted governors across the country. 
What’s the way forward from here?  For Christians it is to take the Bible out from under the pillow and out of the photo ops.  To recognize the force of God’s word, the Bible must be opened, must be read.  Three passages stand out to me. 
First, Acts 16:1-3, Paul’s recruitment of young Timothy to his missionary team.  Timothy is one of many biracial people in the Bible, with a Jewish Christian mom and Pagan Greek dad.  The Jerusalem Council determined Gentile believers need not be circumcised (Acts 15).  However, Paul recognizes that in order to gain a hearing with Jewish audiences, Jews on his team should be circumcised.  So, he circumcised Timothy. 
That’s not a small thing without the availability of anesthesia.  But Timothy accepted extreme discomfort to become a more effective witness.  He thought it was worth it to sacrifice in an unpleasant way.  He wanted Jews would listen when he preached and consider Jesus.  He did it for the good of others.
How much are we doing for the good of others?  If you’re white, how much thought have you given to the way black people have been humiliated in our country’s history.  The video image of Derek Chauvin holding George Floyd’s down is dehumanizing.  Black people have put up with that kind of treatment for 500-600 years.  Derek Chauvin’s commitment is to protect and serve.  Maybe he felt he needed to subdue Mr. Floyd.  He went murderously beyond that.  White Christians, we have to empathize with the pain our black brothers and sisters have experienced.  We have to think, speak, and act for the good of others.  Paul and Timothy set the tone for this self-giving attitude with Timothy’s circumcision.
Next, we then turn to 1 Corinthians 9:21-23, where Paul says,
21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Identity politics is a conversation stopper.  If I think you are assailing my identity as a white man or as someone who cares about justice, I’ll rush to defend myself as I forget common sense. I’ll ignore the teachings of Jesus.  In defense of my preciously held identity, I might even denigrate you, without thought for the consequences.  Of course, you’re as human as I am, so you’ll take the same tack.  Defending myself, I’ll put you down; you, in turn, will defend yourself and your preciously held identity, and put me down. 
How did Paul defend his identity?  He didn’t.  Wait, what?  Don’t you trot Philippians 3:4-6 out to me, claiming Paul was as much committed to identity politics as anyone else.  What does he say in verse 7?  “Whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ?”  Who is saying that today?  Who is saying, whatever I have accomplished is rubbish (Phil. 3:8) because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord? Are our leaders saying anything like this?  I don’t hear it.  When see elected officials, I see posturing, self-promotion, defensiveness, and photo ops.  Paul calls that kind of behavior trash.  He will be whatever he has to be to help you know Jesus.  His concern is your soul, not his identity. 
Christians, our calling is to love our neighbors.  My fellow white Christians, if our black and brown neighbors feel distressed by economic disadvantage, disproportionate suffering, and distrust of public institutions, we need to stand with them in empathetic solidarity.  If they feel we are indifferent to their pain, why would they care what we have to say about Jesus? Like Paul we count our own identities as “loss” for the sake of knowing Christ and helping others know him. 
How is a white Christian standing with a black brother in the face of prejudice something I actually do for God?  How is a rejection of white supremacist conditions is an act of love for Jesus? Consider his words in Matthew 25:40.   He says to the righteous whom he has invited to inherit the kingdom (25:34) that they are blessed in this way because they cared for the least in his kingdom (v.40); and, in caring for the least, we care for Jesus.
I am not saying black and brown persons are “less than” white Christians any more than I would say the hungry or the stranger are “less than” anyone else.  The way our society is structured, some people are inherently advantaged.  Others have to struggle.  When the advantaged give up privilege and help their struggling neighbors, it is as if they are doing it for Jesus.  God notices.
God also notices when the advantaged ignore those who struggle.  When we turn a blind eye on the pain around us, Jesus says, “Depart from me” (25:41).  Why?  We ignored Jesus in his time of need.  “When did we do that,” the privileged ask.  Jesus answers, “Whenever you failed to care for the least of these. 
Don’t stand, posing for pictures holding your Bible.  Sit down, open it, and read it.  Don’t self-righteously decry violent protests.  Empathize with people who are in such pain, the only way they know to express it is through loud, over-the-top activism.  They’re trying to get the attention of a country they feel is ignoring them.  Did you hear me advocate burning buildings or smashing windows or attacking anyone?  No, you did not.  I did not say any of that is ok. 
But, I read the Bible and I see where God’s sympathy lies.  He’s with everyone who is broken.  When someone starts a fire as a part of a protest, it’s because they’re in pain.  Jesus cares about their pain.  We, his people, show our care for him by the way we care for people in pain and the way we work for justice and harmony. 
If you would like to respond to anything you’ve read here, I heartily invite you to share stories of how you’ve reacted to people in pain, and stories of what you’ve done to make the world a safer, more just place as you stand with those Jesus is standing with. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

“Moses and the Holy Spirit” (Number 11:24-30)

Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Pentecost, Sunday, May 31, 2020
(COVID-19, steaming worship)

SOLEMNITY OF PENTECOST Sunday, June 9,... - NBCC | The National ...

            Shavuot is the commemoration of Moses receiving the Torah, the law, on Mount Sinai.  Some Christians will say they don’t like the law.  Some Christians ignore Jesus’ statement “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus adored God’s law and knew it better than anyone.  He read the law, memorized the law, and meditated on the law. 
What is this law?  Read the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   Creation.  Establishment of Israel as God’s people.  Slavery in Egypt and Exodus.  And law.  Much of this law, we Christians don’t observe because we believe the sacrificial worship system was fulfilled by Jesus.  Still, the law is in the Bible we claim to revere.  We have to read it, respect it, and understand it.
Shavuot; Jewish people remember Moses receiving the law. 
In Acts 2, the followers of Jesus were where we left them last week in Acts 1, in Jerusalem, waiting to see what God would do next.  The day of Shavuot came, or in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the day of Pentecost.  God’s next move was to rain down fire – the Holy Spirit, filling the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers, empowering them to spread God’s love as they bore witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter tied the coming of the Spirit to the vision of the prophet Joel.  “In the last days, … God declares, … I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28).  Christians today rightly associate Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t pay enough attention to the activity of the Spirit throughout God’s word.  We circle this as the moment God empowered his followers.  It’s not the first time God acted as Spirit.  This event at Shavuot, the Pentecost that came immediately after the resurrection, falls in line with a tradition of God’s Spirit filling His people so they could achieve his purposes. 
Of the 100’s of Old Testament stories in which we see the Spirit, consider Numbers 11.  Moses has led Israel out of Egypt.  The nation camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses received the law.  Then, the people moved across the Sinai Peninsula toward Canaan – the Promised Land.  In Numbers 11, on the move, the people complained.
Griping, groaning, grousing: it’s one of the original human activities.  In Exodus chapter 2, enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites groan.  Verse 24 says “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, and God looked upon the Israelites, and God noticed them.”  Heard. Remembered.  Looked.  Noticed.  Through Moses, God led his people through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, completely dependent upon him.  By the time we arrive at Numbers 11, the people have complained a lot.  Now they are pining to go back to Egypt. 
They have forgotten how unbearable life was under the taskmaster’s whip.  “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6).  In the face of wilderness challenges, they whine and complain and God isn’t having it. 
This part of the story should be very familiar for us, especially in today’s outrage culture.  Facebook and Twitter exist for us to, unchecked, spew forth our self-righteousness. We are easily offended.  From the busybody on the neighborhood list serve to the school friend you haven’t seen in a decade to the past-his-prime comedian to the White House; everyone can go on these platforms and try to shame those they don’t like.  Outrage culture is polarizing our country.  It is dangerous and immediate.  We are better and quicker at complaining than we have ever been. 
Moses heard the people complaining.  Because of his special relationship with God, he knew their complaints angered God.  I am certain God is none-to-happy with the way we, in our culture talk about about one another.  God was furious, the people wept, and Moses was in the middle of it. So, he complained.  He barks at God, “Why have you treated [me] so badly?  Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people on me?  Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?  Where am I to get meat to give all these people?  For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ I am not able to carry all these people alone, for they are too heavy for me.  If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once” (Numbers 11:11-15).
Oh, Moses really tells God off.  As your pastor, I suggest you don’t talk to God the way Moses did.  If you do, don’t expect God to react the same way to you that he did to Moses.  Look at Eve, Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Ruth, Samson, Job, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Esther, and Daniel, just to name a few.  Each one has a dynamic relationship with God as Spirit, but each is unique, different from the others.  If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, you will develop your relationship with God the Spirit and maybe you’ll find a moment where you want to complain as Moses did.  God relates to each individual individually.  What we see with Moses is not a formula or a pattern; it’s story.  Your part in the story will be unique to your relationship with God. 
Moses unloaded, gave God a piece of his mind.  It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last.  In this instance, God says, OK.  Gather seventy elders and I’ll give them Spirit so it’s not all on you.  He gives exactly what Moses requested.  Then he tells Moses he’s going to give exactly what the people requested.
They don’t like the Manna God had fed them.  He’ll give meat – quail meat.  He’ll give so much they’ll have quail coming out of their noses (Numbers 11:20). What does Moses say?  “I have 600,000 people with me” (11:21).  He can’t believe God can do this.  Moses has already seen a burning bush, the 10 plagues that devastated Egypt, God traveling before him in a fiery cloud, the parting of the Red Sea, water pour forth from rocks, the Earth open up and swallow some of the people in an another instance of complaining, and he has received the law, written by God on stone tablets.  Will there ever come a moment when he doesn’t question God?  God has had enough!  He responds, “Is the Lord’s power limited?  You shall whether [God’s] word will come true” (11:23).
At this point both God and Moses sound riled up.  Does God get riled up?  The Holy Spirit is God available to us, speaking to our hearts, opening our eyes, and empowering us to work for God’s good in the world.  After this back-and-forth, Moses gathers 70 elders to the tent of meeting and the Spirit of the Lord comes on them, as it did in on Jesus’ followers at Pentecost in Acts 2. 
With the Spirit of the Lord on them, they prophesy.  This means they spoke God’s truth with clarity and conviction.  For some reason, two of the appointed elders, Eldad and Medad miss the meeting.  Can you imagine missing the one elder’s meeting where the Holy Spirit pours out on all the elders in a Pentecost-kind of way?  But God’s spirit wasn’t confined to the tent.  If they couldn’t make it, the Spirit would come to them!  They prophesied too.  They went around the camp speaking God’s truth.
“Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!” cries Joshua.  At this point, he’s Moses’ number 1 assistant.  “Stop these clowns” he tells Moses.  Eldad and Medad prophesying outside the tent didn’t fit Joshua’s paradigm.  Throughout the narrative in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the book of Joshua, he very rarely runs afoul of God’s will.  But here, it is too much for him.  As we often do, Joshua wants God to act, but not beyond what he can understand or control. Moses hits Joshua with a truth bomb Christians today badly need!  “Are you jealous for me, Joshua” (11:29)?  You think I want to be God’s only prophet?  “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit on all of them!”
At Pentecost, we don’t all become prophets, but we do all have the opportunity, in Christ, to know God the Spirit.  We can commit to speaking God’s truth.  We may not all be prophets, but we can speak prophetically.  Because God works with, in, and through anyone.  He worked through constantly complaining cowardly Moses.  He called out an imperfect people who fell short often, and through them settled the Promised Land.  When he came to earth in human flesh, Jesus, it was in a peasant family in a backwater town of an occupied nation.
In spite of the shortcomings we have as a people, hypersensitive complainers in an instant, outrage culture, God will work though us, His church.  God shook up the Roman empire working through the ragtag band of disciples whose leader had been crucified, and the world was changed.  Now there are followers of Jesus in every nation.
The spread of the Gospel happened because God the Spirit worked through people and nothing is impossible for God.  Moses saw God feed 600,000 people more meat than they could stomach.  With five pieces of pita bread and two trout, Jesus fed 5000 people until they were buffet-full.  There were 12 baskets of leftovers. 
No limits apply to God.  His Spirit pours out in the tent and outside it.  Will the Coronavirus break us?  Maybe, but if we, as God’s church, work in concert with the Holy Spirit, we’ll see the wonders God will do, even in a time such as this.  Will political divisiveness tear us apart?  To a degree, yes, but even in the midst of social turmoil, with the Spirit at work in us, we will see the wonders God works, working through His church.  
It is Pentecost.  Read the story: Numbers 11; Joel 2; Acts 2.  Look at the world around you, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The Holy Spirit working in the church and through the lives of Jesus’ followers will continue drawing people to faith in Him.  Watch and see.  Is there anything God cannot do?

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

“The Story We’re In” (Acts 1:1-11)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

(Worshiping by streaming due to “stay-at-home” order/COVD-19)

The ascension jesus Royalty Free Vector Image - VectorStock

            Jesus died on the cross, was buried in the tomb, and rose from the grave.  No one witnessed the resurrection.  Very early on the Sunday morning after Passover, some of his female followers made there way to the tomb to discover it empty.  An earthquake occurred as an angel rolled aside the great stone sealing the tomb.  Ignoring the trembling Roman soldiers, he reassured these women that Jesus had been resurrected (Matthew 28:2-5). 

            Spectacular as this encounter was, the women did not actually see the resurrection.  No one did.  They arrived, and the tomb was already empty.  Before the women came, the guards had no idea anything might have changed.  But it had. 

            The gospels each offer their own vantagepoint on the resurrection.  Only one of the gospel writers offers a sequel.  Luke, who wrote the third Gospel is the author of Acts.  Both the gospel and Acts are written as a remembrance sent to a friend named Theophilus. 

            Acts begins, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles” (Acts 1:1-2).  With these opening remarks, Luke signals that a new chapter is beginning in the story of God’s salvation of the earth and all people from sin, death, and destruction.  The most celebrated holidays of contemporary Christianity are Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and Easter, the resurrection.  Neither is mentioned in these two verses opening Acts. 

            Luke will not overlook these seminal events, and, in fact, Luke’s gospel is the primary scripture source for most of our Christmas hymns.  But, when he summarizes the story in just a few line and signals where the story is headed, he refers back to Jesus’ teachings, describes the ascension, and anticipates Pentecost. 

            To prevent any confusion, Jesus appeared to the disciples, numbering about 120 (Acts 1:5), including the women, the 12, and his own brothers who became his followers after he was raised.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul reports that the resurrected Jesus appeared before a gathering of 500 believers (15:6).  In these numerous appearances, called ‘proofs’ by Luke, Jesus taught about life in His kingdom.  Jesus’ resurrection was fully embodied; when he was with his disciples, he ate and, at times, invited them to touch him (Acts 1:3). 

When we are raised, we don’t know if we will need to eat or not; but we know Jesus most definitely did take in food, and do other things that indicate his raised body was indeed flesh, but flesh of a different nature than before the resurrection.  We believe, our resurrected bodies will be like his. 

He told the disciples they were to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father.  He wasn’t specific about this promise and they really didn’t understand what he meant, as their follow-up question shows.  He was talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, but they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6)?

Why is that the wrong question?  First, in asking it, they forget that he has already said they would not know the times, so they needed to be ready all the time.  Second, the question reveals a serious distance between what God cares about and what was on the minds of these followers of Jesus.  God is God of the entire world.  Everyone everywhere is mercilessly enslaved to sin, powerless to break free.  The disciples asked about Israel when God had laid out before them the world.  Jesus had not come to make Israel the leading military power in the ancient near east.  He came to save the world.

This dissonance leads to a third indication of misunderstanding.  For Israel to be restored in the sense the disciples asked about, it would mean Rome had to be thrown out of the nation, probably by force, and the Herod dynasty would need to be deposed and replaced by a descendant of David.  The disciples assumed Jesus’ next move was to assume the throne.  Not only did they lack his global vision, they also failed to understand the thoroughly different nature of his kingdom. 

What happened next would set the course for the age of the church – the age in which we now live.  Noting that their question revealed how distant the disciples’ mindset was from Jesus’ agenda, it is worth a moment’s pause for us to examine our own perspective.  Are we, like they, asking the wrong questions?

As followers of Jesus, are we concerned about the salvation of the world and the expansion of God’s kingdom?  Or do we give our attention to more parochial concerns?  If we are driven by our desire for greatness of Hillside church, our priorities are in the wrong place.  If nationalism or patriotism are what motivates us, we are way off track.  Nationalism and patriotism are stumbling blocks that make it hard for us to see the Kingdom of God because we get locked in our heads the untruth that America is in some way God’s chosen nation.  It’s not!  The movement in Acts, as we will shortly see is outward, with a heavenly pull.  No nation – not Israel, not Rome, not America – serves God’s purposes.  So, if nationalistic fervor is what propels us in life, we’re headed in the wrong direction. 

To be the people of God, we must guard against seeking the grandeur of our church; rather as a church, we seek to expand the kingdom.  We guard against tying our hopes to any nation; instead, we hear God calling us to spread the Gospel in America because like every individual and every people, America needs the salvation only Jesus offers.   Is now the time?  Is now our time?  These were the wrong questions for the disciples.  We don’t want to get stuck on the wrong questions.

Jesus repeated what he had told them in his sermon on the Mount of Olives before he was crucified.  “It is not for you to know the times the Father has set” (1:7).  Then Jesus anticipates Pentecost and gives the Great Commission.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” and empowered in that way, fueled by enduring love, endless mercy, compassion, and deep wellsprings of grace, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).  There’s no room to worry about God’s long-term plans for Israel.  They will be Spirit-filled.  Spirit-filled they will then head out, East, West, South, and North.  They will keep moving, talking to whomever they meet about the love of God revealed in Jesus.  They will baptize whoever is willing.  And they won’t stop.

I’ve mentioned several ideas that might seem hard to grasp if thought of as theological doctrines: resurrection, Great Commission, Pentecost. However, we can make sense of this by seeing these as moments in a story – a story we’re in.  The resurrected Jesus assures that when we die, we will, like him, will be resurrected.  Our raised bodies are heavenly bodies destined to live in love and joy with God forever. 

Before that time comes, we, like the disciples in Acts 1, are sent out in the Great Commission.  No matter who you are or who I am, once we give our lives to Jesus, we have a life mission.  We are to love others in his name, with grace, and we are to tell others about the salvation he gives.  Pentecost, which we’ll look at next week, is the story of the Holy Spirit filling believers, encouraging us, and enabling us to know God, and empowering us to share our testimony. 

We know the story is in a new phase in verse 9.  “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  This is the Ascension.  Jesus’ physical, touchable body rose.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking he rose up into the atmosphere and is out there in space somewhere beyond the reaches of our solar system.  It says he was taken on a cloud out of sight because that’s the language Luke had to describe the indescribable.  Jesus didn’t rise into the sky the way a plan does.  He traveled to another realm, outside the confines of our physical universe.  Heaven is a physical place.  It is a place, but one that operates by different physical laws – a world we really don’t have words to depict.  Luke did the best he could.

Also, this departure did not produce what we might think it would in the disciples.  They weren’t sad and did not grieve Jesus’ departure.  In Luke 24:52, it says they had “great joy.”  Somehow, they understood that for the mission to go forward, Jesus had to depart.  His ascension sets up one more point of doctrine that again, we treat as a key story point: The Second Coming. 

To review, the ascension shows, that resurrection is embodied and heaven is a physical place, even if very different than here.  The ascension signals that the age of the church has begun and we have an outward, inviting mission.  The ascension marks our lives with anticipation.  We long for the departed Jesus to return even as we celebrate our relationship with God in the present Holy Spirit. 

The rest of Acts amplifies the commission to Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and then to the end of the earth.  Peter will enter the home of a Gentile in order to baptize him into Christ.  The disciples will broker peace between Hebrew and Hellenist Jewish widows.  Philip will baptize an Ethiopian Jewish proselyte who will in turn carry the Gospel to Africa.  Paul will take numerous journeys to Greek and Latin speaking cities in order to preach Jesus and lead people to him.  Through prayerful discernment, the original disciples, themselves all Jews, will conclude that gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. 

What questions are we asking God?  Are we asking about our church, our town, or our individual lives?  Or, are we asking him to help us grow in faith and expand our witness to the Gospel of Jesus?

In what ways are we removing obstacles to faith so that people who don’t currently know Jesus can become his followers?  How are we embodying his love?  To whom are we reaching out.  The story of Jesus is the story of the salvation of the world.  This is the story we are in, each and every one of us.


Monday, May 18, 2020

"Sharing the Gospel in our Town" (Acts 17:22-31)

Acts 17:22-31 homily - YouTube

Sunday, May 17, 2020
*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            “Can the Gospel hold its own in the sophisticated, intellectual environment of a university town?”[i]  Our church is planted in Chapel Hill, home of the flagship school in North Carolina’s system of public institutions of higher learning.  Our home, Hillside Church’s home, is the home of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.  By faith, we believe we have inherited the commission the resurrected Jesus gave his disciples whom he told, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 
Chapel Hill, North Carolina is quite far from Jerusalem.  Our home is one of the far ends of the earth.  God has planted us here to speak our testimony that Jesus is Lord, that in him the Kingdom of God has come near, and that all people can receive forgiveness of sins and have life in his name.  Does this message, this good news, hold up especially in a center of erudite learning like Chapel Hill?
Paul preached the Gospel first to Jews and then to Greeks in Thessalonica.  Some heard him and believed in Jesus.  Many others violently opposed his message.  Before harm came to him, the Thessalonian believers hurried him out of town and escorted him to Beroea.  He preached Jesus there and it started well; however, the Thessalonians who were angry with Paul followed him.  They stirred up trouble in Beroea.  The believers again had to hurry Paul out of town. 
He was ushered to Athens, where once again, he preached Jesus and the resurrection.  Athens was a very different city.  By the first century AD, Athens, once the crown jewel of Greece was well past its prime.[ii]  Still, philosophy reigned in the public thought of the citizenry as the city proudly stood on its fading glory.  The Athenians didn’t beat Paul up like his opponents in Thessalonica and Beroea.  They questioned him.  
When Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers became confused.  They thought Jesus was one god and resurrection the name of another.  They did not know the one, Jesus, and they rejected the god ‘Resurrection.’  They called Paul a ‘babbler.’  But, these particular Athenians, like gadflies buzzing around campus, found themselves addicted to hearing new ideas that they might adopt the new or topple it.  Thus, the opening question.  Could the Gospel hold up in this intellectual environment?
At UNC this question about the Gospel’s staying power has been answered in different ways.  For several generations, there has been a street preacher who daily takes up his post in the “pit,” an area on campus surrounded by restaurants and the bookstore.  It’s where students hang out.  The Pit Preacher at UNC scorches passersby with damning threats of hellfire if they don’t repent of their sins and turn to Jesus.  With invectives laced with scripture references and ominous warnings, he uses confrontation as his strategy for leading people to Jesus.
It rarely works.  He’s considered a caricature.  Tar Heels going back many generations joke about the “Pit Preacher.”  One exception is Lon Solomon, founder of McClean Bible church in Northern Virginia, just outside of DC.  At one time, that congregation was one of the largest in America.  Solomon described himself as pot-smoking child of the 70’s who attended UNC, heard the Pit Preacher and accepted Jesus.  He gave up drugs, became a pastor, and was one of America’s most renowned church leaders in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  That example aside, the aggressive rantings of the Pit Preacher usually inspire eye rolls and mockery more than faith. 
Contrast that approach with Paul’s witness in Athens.  Instead of diving in with condemnations, Paul takes in his surroundings.  Fresh off witnessing efforts in Thessalonica and Beroea that nearly brought him bodily harm, Paul approaches the Athenians with a much softer hand.  It’s not that he fears for his own safety.  Paul frequently faced violence with little regard for his own wellbeing.  It’s just that in Athens, he took a different tack because he thought the more ecumenical, intellectual strategy would be effective. 
The bottom line is helping people give their lives over to Jesus.  When you or I bear witness to the Gospel, we have to keep in mind our own personality and style.  We have to be mindful of the needs and temperament of our audience.  And, we have to know our context.  Paul was an intellectual talking to intellectuals in an environment where the exchange of ideas was expected and encouraged. 
In Thessalonica and Beroea, Paul was a Jew among Jews in a Jewish place of worship.  In those cities, with the Jewish audience, he talked about the way Jesus fulfilled the messianic scriptures (17:2, 11-12).  With that approach, some in those cities became Christians after hearing Paul preach.  Other wanted to kill him.
In Athens, the results were similar; some become believers, while others remain scoffers.  Consider his approach.  He begins, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (v.22).  Ultimately, he’s going to tear their religion down, but before doing so, he acknowledges their faithful commitment to what they believe.  There’s something respectable about devotion, even misguided devotion and he shows them that he can see and respect that.
Next, he finds a point of connection.  When the Pit Preacher angrily names the sins of people stopping to gawk at him, they aren’t usually convicted by the Holy Spirit.  They are amused or annoyed.  Paul notices one of the statues, one of the idols on display at the Areopagus, the altar dedicated to the “Unknown God.”
Paul tells them he knows this ‘unknown god.’  It is the very God he proclaimed earlier, made manifest in Jesus.  But he doesn’t get to that yet.  Here, he appeals to their reason by discussing natural theology.   The unknown God is the creator of the world and everything in it, every man, woman, and child.  The Athenians can reject Paul’s premise.  But they understand it.  He has made his case on their terms.  Having done so, he expands his argument. 
This unknown god, creator of all that is, cannot possibly be contained by idols or shrines, or anything made by human hands.  On the contrary, this god Paul claims to represent is the one who gives breath and life.  From this claim, Paul moves to the unity among human beings that is grounded in our shared nature.  We are, each one of us, created beings, created by this god Paul knows but is unknown to the Athenians. 
Furthermore, this god has created the world in such a way that all people, of all cultures, will search for him.  We all have a built-in yearning for god.  This “Unknown God” statue is the Athenians’ attempt to find this god of which Paul speaks.  Every person on earth seeks this god.  It is our human nature to seek God, and, says Paul, God can be found.  How?
With a stroke of rhetorical genius, Paul quotes two Greek poets.  Normally Paul would quote Old Testament prophets, but normally Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience.  These Athenian Greeks would stare with blank-faced ignorance if Paul appealed to the Psalms or Isaiah or Deuteronomy.  So, he doesn’t.  He combines lines from Epimenides and Aratus.  “In him we live and move and have our being.  We too are his offspring.” Paul understands these Greek poets differently than his listeners do, but they will, at the very least, appreciate that he has taken time to learn their culture and speak to them in ideas familiar to them.
Thus, Paul stands among a people who build statues of gods, undercuts the practice of using statues to represent gods, and does so in the language and the logic of those who erected the statues in the first place.  Then he calls for a decision.  “God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, [but] now he calls all people everywhere to repent” because judgment is at hand” (17:30-31a).
The time to blindly grope for God through idol worship and philosophical prattle is over.  God has set the day of judgment and commissioned the man who will be the judge.  Remember, he’s already spoken about Jesus.  Greeks believed the soul is immortal but the body dies.  In Jesus, Paul shows the Athenians, that in fact, God has come among us in bodily form, and was killed and rose from the grave. 
Paul’s final point is the one he intends to be remembered.  The resurrection is not the name of a god.  The resurrection is an event that happened after God in human flesh was crucified.  He rose.  The resurrection is the sign that God has defeated both sin and death.  To share in God’s victory and be assured of our own resurrection, we human beings have to repent of our sins and turn in faith to Jesus.  It took a bit of maneuvering to get there, but finally, Paul calls the Athenians to repent of idol worship and idle philosophizing and to instead put their faith in Jesus. 
We are, each one of us, called to stop putting our confidence in things, in systems of thought, in standards of success, in money, and in other worldly expressions of value and power.  We are to turn away from these things and to turn away from our own sins. We are to turn to Jesus, receive forgiveness from him, and live our lives under his lordship.
After we take this step of faith, we next share the Gospel.  In whatever context we find ourselves, we are to love people in Jesus’ name and remove obstacles that block their pathway to faith.  Thinking creatively in the everyday places of our lives, we are to persuasively share Jesus with others. 
Some Athenians came to faith after listening to Paul.  Several more rejected the message and scoffed at Paul and all he had to say.  We are not responsible for how people respond to Jesus.  We are called by God to represent Jesus well and present the good news of salvation in Jesus coherently and patiently.  As it says in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
The Gospel most definitely holds up in a university town and wherever we find ourselves.  Trust in Jesus and, with love and grace, warmly share all that you know about him and the salvation he gives, and do it in a way that is gentle, genuine, and inviting.

[i] Willimon, William H. (1988), Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts, John Knox Press (Atlanta), p.142.
[ii] Williams, David J.(1990), New International Bible Commentary: Acts, Paternoster Press (Peabody, MA), p.302.