(Preached on July 15, 2012 at the Traditional Services at FUMC Birmingham)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicureans and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” 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. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 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 joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
The weight of his own soul dragged behind him as he made his way through the city. It was now impossible to avoid the insults that were being relentlessly flung toward him: “What does this babbler want to say?” he heard them whispering behind his back, “He must be one of those who proclaims the foreign gods!”
He had spent the better part of the week waiting for his friends, and had had his soul crushed by the prevalence of idols strung haphazardly throughout the area. So, as was his custom, he made his way to the local synagogue to argue with the leading men. Beyond the walls of the synagogue he continued to debate with the elders of the city, many learned and important men, and he preached that which he knew to be true; as a result the city began to gossip of his proclamations: “What does this babbler want to say?”
He continued to wind his way through the curving corridors of Athens with his favorite story bouncing around his mind: Remembering every detail as it had been passed onto him – the way the water reflected the sun the day the heavens opened up, the stunned faces of family and friends after he had brought sight back to Bartimaeus, the feeling of cool water on their feet went he bent down to wash them… the same story that had gotten him in trouble again. After some time his fame spread around Athens in such a way that he was taken to the Areopagus to explain the new teaching he had been proclaiming.
“O people of Athens,” he shouted without trepidation, “it is clear to me how very religious you are in every way. I have spent much time exploring the detailed objects of your worship, and I was pleased to discover an altar dedicated to an unknown god!” The men of the Aeropagus smiled smugly with the approval of this young foreigner. But before they could truly congratulate themselves the man interrupted their musings – “What you choose to 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, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, he who has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead!” Immediately when the men of the Aeropagus heard of the resurrection of the dead some began to ignore him; but others said, “we will hear you again about this.” From his proclamations in the Areopagus some people from Athens began to join Paul and his quest to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
What is it that makes a good story? Is it the abundance of detail, allowing the hearers to fully immerse themselves within the narrative? Is it live-action, or incredible irony, or beautiful love, or merciful forgiveness? Is it that little something that can resonate within every human being? Is it the way you tell it, or the simple facts of what happened? What is it that makes a good story?
One of my favorite things to do when I meet people for the first time is to ask them to tell me a story – a particular story, the story about how they met their spouse. Immediately upon entering Birmingham I put my favorite question into practice and quickly learned a lot about a lot of you. I have had the privilege to hear about a man, who working in a busy firm, called the cutest secretary, the one with the nicest legs as he put it, to go out on a date with him and she replied, “sure, but which one are you again?” Or there was the story about the girl who was shy in college and sitting with all her girlfriends at lunch watched transfixed as the most popular guy at school walked across the cafeteria to ask her out to dinner. The couple that had been friends for so long, in fact they rather enjoyed going on double dates with other people, until they eventually realized they had been in love the whole time. Or the man who was looking to worship at a Presbyterian church and accidentally walked into this church and met his wife that first morning when she poured him coffee in Fellowship Hall. Or the man and woman who after high school, met at a high school basketball game because there was nothing better to do in their town. Or the couple that met in a spousal grief group here at the church after having both lost their first partners.
I love to ask people to tell me this story, because they always tell it so well. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe the most vivid detail about that lovely first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. I have greatly enjoyed witnessing people laugh, cry, argue, and agree on these stories.
But sometimes I think about the Gospel story and I wonder how that connects to us. I freely admit that when I ask how you met your husband or wife I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit or Jesus or the Areopagus. But the Gospel story should be one that we know just as well. Many of you have been coming to church for your entire lives, and even those of you who have only recently begun to attend church, we gather together every week to retell the gospel story. Every Advent and every Easter we gather in such a way as to retell the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cannot escape the story because it is our own.
I ask people about how they met, because it teaches me about whom they are. It helps to reveal parts and aspects of personality that would otherwise remain hidden, it sheds light on what brings people joy and how they connect to everything around them. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnections as the story about how we meet our spouses.
When Paul was called before the Areopagus in Athens, he was charged to tell the elites about “this new teaching.” This was nothing new for Paul. Acts tells us that after his conversion on the road to Damascus he stayed with the disciples and immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God.” He went from a Christian-oppressor, to Christ-proclaimer. He was confronted by Jesus on the road and traded in his weapons of death, for the instruments of faith. The change in vocation from persecutor to apostle resulted in Paul dedicating the rest of his life to serving Christ. Just as with the Disciples, Jesus turned his world upside down. Paul quickly immersed himself into the life of Jesus and spread the story with vigor and passion. He later traveled to Jerusalem to learn from the apostles and continued to speak boldly about the Son of Man. The Holy Spirit then called Paul to Cyprus, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Athens, Corinth, and Rome all while he continued to spread the good news. It eventually became impossible for him to go anywhere without living out the story of Jesus Christ through his interactions and proclamations.
We should know the story of Jesus Christ in the same way Paul proclaimed it in Athens. I wonder if instead of asking how each of you met, I asked you to tell me the story of Jesus. Now I appreciate the loaded quality of that question because I am a seminarian and I’m supposed to know the scriptures. But if we take seriously our calling as Christians shouldn’t we be ready to stand before our own Aeropagus ready to proclaim Jesus? When Paul stood before that council he told them his favorite story – the same story we tell here every week:
That Jesus Christ was brought into the world as God incarnate; Born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem; reared in Nazareth; Baptized by John in the River Jordan; Called his disciples to drop everything and follow him; performed miracles by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, casting out the demons, clothing the naked; Told parables and stories about the kingdom of God; Turned the world upside down; Preached in Galilee; Prayed in Gethsemane; Suffered on Cavalry; and raised triumphantly; The good news of Jesus Christ.
You know this story, you’ve heard told over and over again. The challenge with the gospel is not one of knowledge. I have been so impressed with the amount of biblical and theological clarity in this church all summer – you know the story. The challenge with the gospel is that it requires us to reorient how we think and how we live. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and proclaiming the good news means that all other competing loyalties and practices must be set aside in order to begin a new life with him – That is why we gather together every week. We pray and we listen and we sing and we worship to help reorient our lives to God: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace! My gracious Master and my God assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name!”
This morning as we gather together I want to be very clear with you, that I am not asking us to take up a modern Evangelistic agenda. I am not asking you to go knocking you on the doors of your neighbors to tell them the story of Jesus. I am not telling you to sit your children down and talk to them about ancient Palestine. But, I am asking us to think about how we should live our lives in such a way that the Gospel is fundamental for understanding who we are, just as fundamental as the story of how we met each other.
How would anyone know you are a Christian?
Maybe you have a cross on your necklace, or you pray together before you eat your meals at restaurants. I want people to know we are Christians by our love, by the way we talk and move and live. Paul tells us today that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. I want to show that in the way that I live my life.
If we take seriously what the scriptures tell us, the gospel is part of the very fiber of our being, it is inseparable from us the moment that God breathed into the breath of life. We are connected to it through the water in our baptism, through the bread and wine in our communion. It is in the hymns we sing and the prayers we pray. It is in our offerings and our service. It is in the mission programs and the committee meetings. The gospel is who we are!
Paul was willing to walk before the Areopagus in Athens because he believed in the good news. He understood the necessity of taking up the story of Jesus and living into it himself. It was his hope to show how God is not far from each one of us, that from our one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and that God has given assurance to all by raising Jesus from the dead.
Walking into this building is itself an act of faith and courage, being a Christian is no longer revered as it once was. It is often mocked through the media and considered naïve by many. Coming to church now carries with it a stigma unknown throughout the history of Christendom. Truly I tell you, living out the gospel as you own story requires more bravery than anything else I know. It requires us to stand before the Areopagus every day of our lives.
What does this babbler want to say: Jesus the Christ preached in Galilee, prayed in Gethsemane, suffered on Cavalry, and was raised triumphantly. That is our story.