Text: Acts 17:22-33
As many of you know, I spent a year living in Scotland. Now Scotland isn’t all that different from the United States compared to many other countries, but there are some definite difference in culture. I experienced some culture shock when I first moved over there. First thing I noticed (which reveals a little something about me): I couldn’t get regular bacon! If I asked for bacon, I got something more like country ham. It was so sad! Second thing I discovered out was that if I happened to mention in the company of any British folks that I needed to change my pants, they would likely assume that meant that I had soiled my underwear rather than understanding me to mean that I wanted to change into a different pair of jeans. Let’s just say that moment of discovery was embarrassing. Then of course there were the other differences in vocabulary and slang. We all spoke English, but we weren’t always speaking the same language! If someone said, let’s go get some tatties they were not talking about tattoos but about eating potatoes. If someone mentioned a kirk, they weren’t talking about Star Trek, they were talking about the church. If, in a conversation, someone said to me, “yer ma!”, they were not, in fact, making a comment about my mother, but telling me that they couldn’t believe what I was saying. Not only was vocabulary different, but there were different social cues and expectations, different ettiquette. There were other things that were different as well, like traffic patterns. They drive on the opposite side of the road and the driver’s side of the car is on the right side. I only tried driving over there a couple of times and then decided that was enough if I wanted to, you know, not wreck. Towns were more defined and lacked the suburban sprawl that we live in. It was very apparent when you reached the edge of the town. The largest grocery store in St. Andrews was about the size of Fas Check, and offered a much slimmer variety than our grocery stores. Coming back home I had to get used to everything super-sized again from Wal-mart, to restaurant meals, to cars. I had to get used to having to drive everywhere again, rather than being able to walk, ride my bike, or take the train.
Needless to say, I underwent something of a culture shock when I moved to Scotland, but also when I moved back home. I had to learn how to understand and navigate in a culture different from the one that I was accustomed to, and today’s story in Acts that follows Paul’s work in Athens underscores this idea. Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey when he went to Athens, and when he was there, he was likely experiencing a bit of culture shock. Athens was much more cosmopolitan than his home, and it was also a center for religious worship and philosophy. I can only imagine what Paul was thinking as he walked around Athens, as he saw the Parthenon up on the Acropolis, all of the temples, and all of the buildings of learning and philosophy. Athens is often called the seat of Western Civilization. It was here that the great philosophers of Socrates and Aristotle established their schools of learning, it was here that the roots of democracy was born. There really was no place quite like Athens in the ancient world, and even though its prominence had lessened some by the time Paul got there, Athens was still a fairly central city in the ancient world. Paul may have been used to the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but nothing could have prepared him for Athens. So I imagine that as Paul looked around this city that he had just arrived in that he might have felt a little uncomfortable, a little out of place, a little unsure of everything and everyone that he was seeing.
Have you ever been somewhere where you felt a little out of place? A little unsure of the people there? Wondering how you can talk to people? Many of you who may have grown up in and lived most of your life in the church can feel this sort of discomfort and uncertainty with people who are not a part of the church. You might feel unsure about how to talk or interact with people, especially about the Gospel. For some of you, spending time with people outside of the church might make you feel just as uncomfortable or as uncertain as Paul probably felt when he went to Athens the first time. But Paul was an astute learner and reader of culture, and he wasn’t afraid to engage a culture that was different than his own. Paul wasn’t afraid of this new situation, and he also didn’t try to speak the language and vocabulary of his own culture, knowing that he first needed to find a point of connection with the culture of Athens.
So what did Paul do when he got to Athens? First he went to the synagogue to preach, like he was in the habit of doing. It was a more familiar place, and a place where he could speak using words and terms that he was used to. Paul was a Jew and he knew Jewish customs, practices, and beliefs. There was much less of a cultural barrier at the synagogue. However, soon Paul actually caught the ear of some of the philosophers of Athens who were intrigued by what he had to say on an intellectual and philosophical level, so they invited him to come to the Areopagus to speak and debate with them.
How Paul responds here shows us how he is a good student of culture. He goes to the Areopagus, and as he looks around and sees all of the religious monuments and altars, rather than speaking the language of condemnation and judgment, he looks instead for a point of connection, a way that he can begin to build a platform of good will from the Athenians in order to share the good news. As Paul goes to the Areopagus, he notices one altar in particular: the altar to the unknown god. This altar was present because the Athenians worshipped many gods, and the created this altar to make sure that they weren’t missing anyone. They were trying to cover all of their bases. So as Paul notices this altar and he also notices the importance of religion in Athens, he begins his speech at the Areopagus in this way: ‘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.”
Paul, even though he is rightly disturbed by the worship of many false gods, recognizes the opportunity to appeal to the religious and philosophical culture of Athens. He recognizes where God may already be working, and he speaks in a way that already makes sense to the Athenians. Paul can see that the Athenians are already in tuned to the worship and reverence of what they consider to be sacred. While it may be the wrong thing, at least Paul sees that they are at least trying to be on the right track. Knowing this, Paul appeals to these questions of spirituality and he looks for the good that is already there and attempts to build upon it. As he sees the altar to the unknown God, he knows that this is the place to communicate. He has come to tell them about this unknown God that is already recognized, but unknown by the Athenians. Paul has come to help them understand who this unknown God is.
We live in a time and a place that is, in some ways, similar to Athens. Here, in America, while we may not be surrounded by literal altars to multiple gods, but there are two observations that I would make about the larger, dominant culture of America. First: we do have many gods or idols: money, fame, country, youth, beauty, sex, . Second, regardless of what we once may have been, we are not a Christian nation now, but spirituality is still something that many are very open to and seek in less conventional ways. In fact, I want to say a little bit more about this second observation, of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, but not religious. The word “religion” for many has come to be equated not with God, but with institutionalized organizations of faith, like the church. For many, God is not the issue, but the people who claim God through the church. Today, there are many people who are setting up altars to an unknown God. Let me cite a couple of pop culture references:
First, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. He said this in an interview in Time Magazine: “I put the Force in the movie (Star Wars) in order to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’—this is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this and am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have a faith.”
Second, I want to mention Oprah. She is the most recognized spiritual leader of the 21st century in America. (You might questions this, but the reality is, the city of New York asked her to lead the prayer service after 9/11) Oprah Winfrey has said that Jesus can’t possibly be the only way to the truth. When audience members expressed their convictions in Christ, Oprah said that she couldn’t get into a religious argument.
These are just two examples of a culture that affirms “spirituality”, but is wary of “religion.” These are two examples of a culture that is seeking something akin to the Athenians who put up an altar to the unknown god.
Before we give in to the temptation to say “these people just don’t get it”, a more important thing to do is to ask the question: if there are many people in this country on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, why doesn’t anyone seem to want to include the church? Why would George Lucas want to encourage young people to have a faith in God, but not be a part of a religious system? Why would Oprah be considered a spiritual leader to many but not want to talk about religion? Why is there an increasing interest in spirituality but a decline in mainstream church attendance and membership?
I think the biggest answer to these questions is that the church is not viewed as a place of mystery or as a place where one can ask questions and seek truth. Instead, it is often viewed as a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. And why is this the case? Well, for starters, sometimes the church does actually behave like a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. But not always. Many churches, including ours, are full of well-intentioned people who seek after God and want others to do the same. So we now come full-circle back to the question of culture and how we engage (or more often, dis-engage) in the world around us. As the church, we so often isolate ourselves from the world. We want to seclude ourselves in order to protect ourselves from false idols, from sin and temptation. The problem is, in doing so, we neglect the great commission, and we end up only paying lip service to wanting to see God’s salvation play out in our communities.
This past Tuesday at Adventures in Missing the Point, which is the new group for young adults to have conversation and study, we talked some about how many Christians seem to be afraid of the world. Brian McLaren wrote in the chapter we read this week, “We want to protect folks from alcoholism and drunkenness, so we tell them not to drink any alcoholic beverage. To protect them from alcohol, we recommend they avoid establishments that serve it. To be on the safe side, we tell them to avoid people who drink alcohol… and to avoid excessive laughter as you’d hear from tipsy people…and in fact to avoid parties in general except boring ones. We want to protect folks from following the crowd and succumbing to peer pressure, so we imply or outright assert that good Christians don’t go to R-rated movies, don’t listen to rap music, or any popular music at all. We discourage them from making non-Christian friends. We approve of them spending all their time in church services, church meetings, church activities—safe rabbit holes, a protective Christian ghetto. We want to protect folks from losing their faith, so we warn them against reading philosophy, from participating in culture and the arts, from dealing with tough questions and controversial issues.” Don’t mishear what I am saying, thinking, “Cindy told me that it was ok to go get drunk!” Or “Cindy told me it doesn’t matter if I listen to music that talks about sex and violence.” That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that we, as the church, have become so afraid of becoming like the world that we simply retreat from it. We isolate ourselves and pronounce judgment on those outside of the church. No wonder many people do not want to include the church in their quest for spiritual fulfillment!
But what if, for instance, some of us chose to go hang out in bars? Not because we want to get drunk, but because we just hang out with and get to know the people who are already there? Personally speaking, I have had some of the best conversations about God hanging out with people in bars. Why? Because it is one of the few natural social settings where it is accepted and expected that you talk with people you might have only just met, and it is a natural place to hang out with friends. I can’t help but imagine that if Jesus were here today, we would frequently find him hanging out in bars just talking with people.
My question today is, why are we so afraid of the world sometimes? Why do we retreat to our Christian ghetto, as Brian McLaren calls it? I think for many of us, we can just feel a little lost and confused if we get too far outside of our comfort zone, out of the church culture that most of us have known for most of our lives. But today, we need to take a lesson from Paul in Athens. Paul didn’t stay where he was comfortable, or where he felt safe.
How many of you have close friends who are not Christian? How many of you spend time and build relationships regularly with people outside of the church? If you already do this, this is great. But if you only see other Christian friends and stay away from places where people outside of the church are, then you are falling short of the Great Commission. I’m not saying that we, as Christians need to become like the world. In fact, as Christians, we are supposed to stand out. We are supposed to be different. But that doesn’t mean we are supposed to avoid the world. Jesus tells us that we are to be in the world, but not of the world. As Brian McLaren points out, “There are of course, two ways that we can go wrong. Living within our culture as we do, we can accommodate it, be infected with it’s evil, forget our unique identity, and thus become of it as well as in it. That’s obviously tragic. Or we can slide into the opposite and more subtle tragedy: we isolate ourselves. Rather than being servants in our culture, doctors healing sickness, seekers after lost sheep, coins, and sons, we instead become an elitist clique, angry critics, snobs standing above culture, a frightened minority cringing outside of it.” We don’t want to do either of those things. Instead, Jesus wants us to remember our identity as Christians, but also our mission to the world, and he wants us to join him in entering the world to celebrate everything that is good, and to work to transform everything that is not. We can’t do that if we keep ourselves isolated, if we fail to become students of culture.
So how do we follow the command of Jesus and the example of Paul as he engaged the Athenians at the Areopagus? How do we navigate a culture that might be a little different and frightening? How do we deal with the culture shock? There are a couple of ways that we can stay on track. First, we need to live missionally. We need to stay focused on Jesus’ Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations. We need to see every place in our community as the mission field and as a place where people can encounter God. Second, we need to live in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ as we encourage one another on. We also need to ask ourselves the question, am I setting a bad example to them either by my isolation from or conformity to the world? Am I listening to their warnings when I get closer to danger? Third, we need to live without judgment. Is it possible for us to believe the best about others without getting preachy or inquisitory? Can we learn to engage others based upon our common ground and look for the places where God is already working? And finally, we need to live carefully. Sin can be tricky. We need to be aware of our own weaknesses. If you struggle with alcohol, a bar is clearly not a good place to hang out.
As Christians, we walk a path that Jesus said is narrow. When he said this, he was not legitimizing narrow-mindedness: the reality is quite the opposite. To take one more image from Brian McLaren, “If we try to avoid the rattlesnake that is beside the path on the left, we’d better be careful not to edge too far over to the right either, because there’s a crocodile in the bushes there.” Narrow minds can only see dangers on one side of the narrow path. Broad minds can see both. There are people out there who looking for spiritual fulfillment. Let us be like Paul, people who are not afraid leave the comfort of our own familiar Christian culture to proclaim the truth of the unknown God.