Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is our last week in the book of Acts. Most scholars believe that the author of Luke’s Gospel also wrote this book. This week, we join Paul in Athens. Paul, Timothy, and Silas have been traveling and sharing the story of Jesus’s death and Resurrection at synagogues as they travel, with mixed results. Some people were eager to hear their story of God’s love; others were not. Paul is in Athens, waiting for Timothy and Silas. Paul had not been well received in Thessalonica, and the others had sent him to Athens for his own safety. As he was waiting, he explored the city, and was not happy to see so many idols being worshiped there. Paul went to the synagogue and began preaching to the Jews there.
Then some of the citizens heard what he was saying and brought him to the Areopagus, a hill in Athens where, as Luke writes, “All the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Athens was a place where scholars and philosophers would meet and discuss any new ideas they had heard about. They brought Paul there so they could listen to and discuss whatever he had to say.
Now Paul, as we know, was a powerful and skilled speaker. But this was an audience that knew little about the God of Abraham or the customs and religion of the Jewish people. How could Paul engage these people? Luckily for him, he had noticed, among the various gods and idols he had seen, an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”
By using this “unknown god” as his starting point, Paul was able to engage the people listening, in a way that they could clearly understand. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Paul was able to reach across the differences, between his religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of the Greeks, to find common ground with them. Paul tells the story of what they call the “unknown” God creating the world and all, and the story of Jesus who brought God’s love to all people. Finally, Paul said, “God has given assurance (of God’s love) to all by raising Jesus from the dead.”
The people who usually gathered at the Areopagus loved to have philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. What Paul is doing is meeting them at the level which they usually have these discussions on. But he also draws them away from abstract discussion, into talking about a real one and only God that isn’t aloof or far away, like the Greek gods. God, the One Paul is sharing with them, is intimately concerned with us—so much so that God became flesh and lived among us. Not a God in disguise, but a vulnerable human being. We, too, are called to share the story that Paul told the Greeks—not in the same way as Paul did, but in our own way—finding a way to share God’s love with the people around us. I am not saying we should imitate Paul’s actions, but we can share the love of God in how we treat each other, including the people we don’t have much in common with, even the people we don’t like.
I think I once told you a story that a pastor friend shared with me. I repeat it because I believe it gives such a good example of sharing our faith with others. He was taking a walk with his wife one evening. They came upon several trash cans turned on their sides, when a recent storm kicked up some fierce wind. All the contents were spewed on the sidewalk. They stopped and helped their neighbor pick up the messy trash. The woman, obviously grateful, said a heartfelt, “Thanks.” My friend realized he was at a crossroads. Yes, helping was a neighborly thing to do. But he had been praying about growing in spiritual maturity. He wasn’t simply being a neighbor. He was loving as Jesus loves him. He took a breath and rather than saying “You’re welcome,” he replied, “It’s what Jesus would have me do.” Everyone smiled, and the couple left to continue their walk.
The story continues. My friend received a call a week later. At dinner, the woman shared what the pastor had said to her family, one of whom identified as an atheist. Her son was so intrigued by the interchange that he agreed to attend church with his mom to investigate this faith that changed how people behaved with one another.
We can have no idea how sharing our faith, even in this simple way can affect the people we meet. It’s what Jesus would have us do. Let us go out this week and love our neighbors, all our neighbors, as God calls us and Jesus has taught us. Amen.