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.
Watch here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKYbarhBXaI
“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.