Sunday, 24 November 2013

Acts 17 - the ground of our being

It is difficult to appreciate the majestic setting of Athens in the bustle of the modern polluted city.

It was no less bustling a city in the days of Paul.

The centre point of the City then as now was the Akropolis.

A city set on a hill with the most remarkable of buildings that 2000 years later still  have a remarkable majesty about them.  And crowning glory of all the temple home of the Goddess  Athene – the Parthenon – complete, then, with its telling of the story of Athene and the great stories of the Greeks.   The Parthenon still stands in all its splendour, though the story is now told by the Elgin Marbles a couple of thousand miles away in the British Museum.

And under the Parthnenon a fine theatre still used for many a performance.  And so many fine temples, not least of which of course is the one to which we owe a debt of gratitude here in Cheltenham for the Caryatids up on Montpellier – a reproduction of the fine statues that hold up the roof of one of those temples.

It is to this cosmopolitan city that Paul and his travelling companions come.

And what happens there is so very telling.

He had plans to tour through churches in the region of what is now Western Turkey but in Luke’s account in Acts God had other ideas.  He made up for not visiting those churches in the region of Galatia by writing a letter to them.

That letter to the Galatians is a wonderful celebration of the freedom Paul so treasures

1For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

2 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.

Then it was they sensed the man from Macedonia summoning them across to what we now think of as Greece – from Philippi they made for nearby Thessalonica where Paul shared the wonderful good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus:  initially people were drawn to their message – but then they were accused of turning the world upside down and ‘acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor’

Hounded out of the city they made their way to Berea – and it wasn’t long before Paul was writing to the Thessalonians another of his early letters – urging them to hold on that resurrection faith, seeing death as but a sleep.  But they were to live as children of light and children of the day, not of the night or of darkness!

Then it was that Paul was escorted to Athens alone and had to wait to be joined by Silas and Timothy.

What happens in Athens is fascinating.

He is amazed at what he sees and in particular disturbed in a strange way by the number of idols there are in the city.  It’s a place for great discussion and reflection on the world.    A kind of coffee shop culture where people meet to explore the meaning of life and what its purpose is.  Different schools of philosophy – Epicureans who were out to enjoy life to the full with their eating and drinking, stoics, who reacted against unhelpful emotion and advocated strength of will and determination all vied with each other for support.

And so what did Paul do.

I think what he did is a key thing for us to take to hear in seeking to share our faith.

Up until now for the most part we have met with Paul and the other apsostles when they have been sharing the good news about Jesus with Jewish people who were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He rooted his account of the  Christian faith in those scriptures describing Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

But the people he engages with here in Athens don’t have that background.

The genius of Paul is that he engages with them on their ground, in their terms.

And this is what we need to take to heart in our sharing of the Gospel.

Advent is about to start and in the run up to Chritmas we have a wonderful opportunity to share our faith.  We are doing some things differently this year – take the opportunity to invite others – to the Advent service next Sunday evening.

To the Christmas CafĂ© the following week – we are wanting to share with people around us in the community around.

Take an opportunity through Christmas to share with others its meaning.

IN explaining the Christian faith how important it is to start where people are.

19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Was it a forum.  Was it on a hill overlooking the Acropolis?

A place of discussion.


And Paul has something he wants to share.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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.

He starts where they are – and comes alongside them.  There is a respectfulness in what Paul says and a determination to share.

24The 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,

You have to imagine the location, free from the smog of today.  Athens is set against a backdrop of majestic mountains, it is a city of hills, and in the distance the harbour and the glistening sea.

You can imagine Paul surveying the wonderful sccene of those remarkable mountains, the wonders of the sea that could be so cruel and yet so benign and these words come alive.  The sweep of his hands takes it all in and then points to even the finest of those buildings.  The finest of those buildings pall into insignificance in comparison with the majesty and the awe of the world of nature and those mountains and that sea.

This is an echo of much the same kind of thinking Stephen had shared when speaking of the Temple of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.

This is something rooted in Jesus’ insights himself – God’s presence is not located in buildings made from stone – it is to be seen and to be sensed in the whole of creation.

24The 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,
25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

That sense of the glory of God in creation Paul then elaborates on.

I find this to be the roots of my valuing the world of science as a way into speaking of the sheer wonder of God in creation – it’s a great starting place.  IT doesn’t give evidence and proof of God – but it shows that there is good warrant for our belief.

26From 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, 27so 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.

There is, suggests Paul, something built into all humanity – a questing after truth, a question after God.  In every society, however remote, there is a sense of the divine, a sense of the religious.  This sense paul makes something of.

People reaching out after God.  And at the same time God is reaching out after them.

In two quite different settings recently I have found people fascinated by the writings of Sartre and the existentialists of the 1960’s.  In response to that way of thinking then thinkers like Paul Tillich and nearer to home the Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson sought a response that would use the language of that day to present the truths of God.

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Honest to God John robinson’s attempt at popularising that thinking.

I have always found it helpful.  To think of God as Being, the very being that makes us be.  Being itself.

Tillich has a wonderful theology that he develops around the idea of correlation.

People seek for God.

Let’s suppose there is a God.

It would not be unreasonable to suppose God would reach out to people.

It is as people’s questing, and God’s searching meet that something is triggered off .  A moment of disclosure.  An awareness of God.

This, it seems to me is what Paul is speaking of here.

26From 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, 27so 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.

He then goes on to quote not the Bible, but one of the Greek poets and thinkers …

28For “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.”

So God is something beyond our understanding , the very lifebreath of our existence – the ground of our being, being itself.

29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.’

It is then, obliquely, that he turns to the story of Jesus.

The very nature of God can be undrsood in the one in whom God’s presence dwells supreme – in Jesus Christ himself.

Now Paul reaches the climax of all he shares and he focuses on jesus Christ.

A triumph – it’s interesting that it’s not long after this he describes to the church in a neighbouring city that we are going to visit next week, Corinth, that it is this bit of the message he has come to focus on more than anything else.  We preach Christ crucified.

This kind of philosophising has its place.  But it is in the simply sotry of Jesus that the impact of our faith is felt at its greatest.

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Isn’t it intriguing how we catch a glimpse of people, named presumably because they could be tracked down, their witness verified, because they became people who played their part in the life of the church.

Damaris – what was she like, I wonder.

There’s a wonderful website,  that explores the modern world of culture and the way in which in particular films speak of the deep things of life and touch on our Christian faith.

They have named the website after this woman, Damaris, who so valued the approach of Paul who was willing to start where people were and then draw them towards God, towards Jesus Christ and towards faith.

I for one am pleased Damaris has such a part to play in the life of the church now … just as much as then.

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