July 30, 2017
This is the story of Paul in the city of Athens. If you remember from your history class, Greece was divided into two parts, represented by the two major cities, Athens and (Who knows?) Sparta.
Sparta was the part of their culture where they emphasized athletic competition. They had great arenas, and they celebrated perfection of the body, feats of strength, and competitions of speed. Those were all part of the world of Sparta. The Olympic games grew out of that part of the Greek culture.
Athens, on the other hand, was the center of Greek intellectual pursuit. Philosophy, intellectual thought, and debate were the big things in that part of their culture. And, as you know, debate was Paul’s “thing.”
We don’t know if Paul ever visited Sparta. (Although, I have this funny vision of him running around track with his pharisaical robes flapping behind him!) We don’t know from the scripture if he was ever there. But he did use references to their culture in his writings!
Paul told the Corinthians (Which was another center of rhetoric and debate!) “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it!” Do you remember that? “Every athlete,” he says, “exercises self-discipline in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath but we an imperishable. I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air…” (I Corinthians 9:24-26) That sounds very “Sparta-like” to me! And of course, to the Hebrews he wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a crowd of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
So maybe Paul did visit Sparta! Because he used references that would have been meaningful to them! And that’s what’s so great about this visit to Athens. Paul stepped into their realm. He stepped into their arena of discussion and debate. Literally! The Areopagus where he spoke was sort of like an arena for those things! Debate had the stature of an Olympic sport! And like the runner and boxer references, he spoke their language! And I think he was doing, what I’ve called here, “Speaking the Truth in Love.”
Actually I “borrowed” that phrase from Paul himself. It was part of the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. That’s where he told them to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” And in verse 15 he said, “…and speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Christ who is the head…”
Well, I believe “speaking the truth in love” was what Paul did when he reached out to people. And he did that by “speaking their language.” When he debated people in the synagogues, he used Jewish references. He quoted their scriptures. He was good at that! Maybe when he was in the realm of Sparta, he talked sports. But here in Athens, he used none of the Jewish references. He used what he saw in their town. He used the idols and “gods” that he noticed as he was walking around. And he started by saying, “I see that you are very religious.”
That’s the first thing. When we “speak the truth in love,” one of the important things we need to do is to observe. We need to see what people are going through. We need to see the things that are important to them. We need to speak to people by acknowledging their “reference points.”
We can’t just give people our religious language, our formulas, our doctrine. We won’t reach them that way. Paul knew that. He didn’t use the Jewish references in Athens. That wouldn’t have helped. He spoke in ways that were meaningful to them. And we need to do that, too. And the way we do that is by listening. We need to hear what people are saying. We need to hear their needs.
That’s what Paul did in Athens. He started by talking about their statue of “the unknown god.” The Greeks had a God for everything – or at least they hoped they did. But, just in case, if they “missed anything,” they had this “catch all” god. They called it the “unknown god.” But Paul used that idol to tell them about the God of the universe, the God who was the “creator of all things.” Then he told them how that God had come here so that we could know him! That meant more than just acknowledging God’s existence. And they were good at that! They were, as Paul said, “very religious!”
It’s the same in our world. People in our world will readily acknowledge the existence of God. They have no problem with that. There are not many actual atheists in our world. (There are many more agnostics – people who just want nothing to do with God.) Most people believe there is a God. Many may even be “religious.” But there’s a difference, is there not, between “being religious,” and having a relationship with the living God, the creator of all things!
As I said before, people do know who Jesus was. If you stopped anybody on the street and asked if they knew about him, they would probably give you a good account. But as far as really knowing him, that’s what they are “resisting,” as I said a few weeks ago. And we need to know, like Paul, that we will probably not be able to get through to them using our jargon, our doctrine, and our scriptures. Because that’s part of what they’re resisting! We can’t talk to them using our jargon! Besides, they probably already know all of that, too!
So, how do we speak to them? We need to “speak the truth in love.” That means we need to acknowledge their world. It means we need to speak in terms that will be meaningful to them. And, as I’ve said recently, that means showing them what’s important to us! It can’t just be telling them about God. It must be showing them the relationship with God – the daily relationship with God! That’s part of the “love” in speaking the truth in love! That’s what will make people take notice!
We need to relate to people, as Paul did, in a loving way, in the way we talk to them, in the way we show God’s love. And we need to give them the simple message that Paul gave, that God did come here so we could know him.
That’s the message of our faith. It’s not about “knowing the right things.” That’s fine. But it’s about God coming here so that we can know him! So the final word today is, do you know that? Do you know God? It’s too easy to slip back into doing all the “religious things,” and to let our relationship with God fall off. But that’s the part God really wants.
So I “exhort” you to be vigilant about that. Again, you can’t have much of a relationship with anybody in this life if you don’t spend time with them, if you don’t talk to them very much. And relationships in this life can slip away from us, can’t they? All of us know people who used to be our very close friends, but who aren’t any more – for various reasons. And maybe for a long time! And it’s always great to renew those old friendships isn’t it?
Well, the same thing can happen between us and God. In the book of Revelation, the spirit said to the church in Ephesus, “you have abandoned the love [for me] you had at first.” Think about that. If that’s happened with you, then renew that old friendship. Remember your love for God, renew those old ties. I guarantee it’ll be better than renewing a relationship with an old school friend!
The God of all creation has come here, so that we can know him!
Eternal God, your love for us is amazing. We thank you that you did come here, so that we can know you. Help us to draw close to you and to feel you drawing close to us. Fill us with your love and your spirit, so that our words and our lives will reflect that love to others. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.