Living Where Worlds Collide (final part)
Acts 17 is one of those chapters in the Bible that Christians love. Our reasons are various. I suspect the main reason is we wish we could be like Paul in this passage. His reasonable approach in presenting the gospel message was both careful and direct. We love that. He pulled no punches, kept it clear and concise, offended some and reaped a harvest of others who were saved. And if the message of the passage misses, the action of the passage doesn’t. There is bold proclamation, persecution, and a daring escape under the cover of night.
By mid chapter, however, the action slows down a bit. The scene is set with Paul waiting in Athens for his traveling buddies. I have imagined him kicking rocks around the bright stone streets of the big city, taking in the sights – The Parthenon, The Acropolis, Olympia Stadium, the ornamental palaces, and countless temples and shrines to Zeus, Athena, Hera, and how many other gods and goddesses of money and sex and power. And just about the time boredom would set in for most folks, the Bible says Paul’s “spirit was provoked.”
What did that mean? I can’t say for sure, but it must have been close to what’s happening for those four emerging adults who sat in my office. Their spirit has been provoked…to do something; to engage the cultural ethos, to approach the idolaters, to reconcile them to God. Paul had just brought the presence of the Kingdom of God; the world in which he was a citizen, into proximity with another world just by showing up and these worlds were on a collision course. Same with these four in my office. The question is “what then?”
Never one to miss an opportunity, Paul strikes up conversations – who of us strike up conversations anymore? We live life in our personal space, wirelessly connected to iEverything, while missing out on everyone. Well, Paul strikes up conversations in the synagogues and in the marketplace, with both Jews and Greeks. All really smart people. And the eventual outcome was an audience with the Areopagus. This was a council, or to use church-person terms, a committee, who oversaw matters of religious philosophy and ethics in Athens. All really smarter people. And Paul, once there, proceeds to tell them all about the God whom they had enshrined as “unknown.”
Now when we come here, to this part of the passage, we usually begin by reading verse 22 and 23 as mere background; informal commentary that speeds us along to Paul’s brief and bold homily in verse 24 and following. But it occurs to me now, it’s not commentary. It’s Paul’s introduction. And any good speaker will tell you – because they’ve told me plenty – an introduction is vital to the health of the message. It either breathes life into it or sucks the life out of it. Paul’s breathes life into it.
Paul takes a minute to establish credibility. How often do we forget this part when we talk to people? Paul’s the real deal. Verse 22 and 23 tell us he wasn’t just kicking rocks around the city waiting for his friends as I have imagined. He spent time looking and watching, exploring their land, their people, their religious trends and habits. Do we do this anymore? Do we care enough about people to actually explore who they are and what they’re about before we open our mouths?
Consider some of the words Paul uses in these verse…
· Paul “perceived” their religious ventures. He recognized, picked out, caught on to them by sitting where they sat and wandering where they wandered.
· He “passed along” the roads with them, paying attention to their faces and expressions. I bet he smiled at people. When do we smile at people today? Go to a mirror and smile and look at your face. Not your smile, but the rest of your face. Really try this. See your eyes deepen and your cheeks cheer. Notice how your ears perk up and your chin lifts. All those muscles shifting and contorting your face just to smile. I know, it’s a lot of work. But when people see it, their disarmed. A smile opens us up to receive another; to receive their countenance. Either they smile back or look away because they can’t stand the presence of happy. I bet Paul smiled. I bet Jesus did too for that matter.
· Paul “observed” their objects of worship; their place and position, their size and importance. He probably lingered around outside those massive ornate temples and shrines instead of skipping quickly by without looking as though sin might spill out the front door and get on his clothes.
· He read the “inscriptions” on the altars and learned about them. Which god went with which altar and why. And however long all this took, he finally came upon an altar “to an unknown god.” And here was his bridge.
Pick up any tips on living where worlds collide? Did you catch onto any tidbits of principle I could pass on to these four emerging adults whose spirit is provoked to engage as Paul engaged? What if we perceived more? What if we passed along the streets of others’ roads and smiled more? What if we observed and read and learned more about others? That stuff isn’t that hard, is it?
Here’s the thing, the passage goes on with well thought out and inspired gospel words that provoke some to mocking, some to curiosity, and some to belief. I mentioned already how we love those words. And those words are important words. But we miss the whole thing if we skip to those words in practice, overlooking Paul’s introduction in principle.
Listen, I’m not so sure post-Christian America (and by “post-Christian” I do not mean to imply we were once Christian, but rather we are now beyond an era when Christian thought prevailed in areas of cultural formation) is all that different than ancient Greece. Our gods are dressed different, if they are dressed at all, but they’re the same gods. Our temples and shrines for these gods now have electricity and wireless capabilities. Our manner of sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices themselves; our time and money in particular, still damage souls and strain communities. Yup, Paul would probably recognize this place.
But wouldn’t Paul take the time and space needed to look around and learn; really seek out a good launch point from which to construct the gospel message in a culture altogether different than what’s familiar? I wonder if we could do that too, you and me. I wonder if we ought to trend in the same direction as what Paul did. Maybe that would give Christians some precedent of repute. Maybe that would begin to dissolve the barrier between Christians and the world around us so people can hear about Jesus. What do you think? Anyone want to take a look around?