The Unknown God

The Unknown God
X PAUL SECOND MISSIONARY TOUR Paul was resting in Athens as a kind of tourist. He was actually on his second missionary journey traveling with Silas and Timothy to Macedonia in Greece. The first City on their itinerary had been Philippi, where Paul had successfully mentored the wealthy widow Lydia as a follower of the way of Jesus. Lydia was a merchant who knew the secret of dying and exporting purple cloth. Lydia’s whole household, children, slaves, workers in her factory and their families were all baptized and became the nucleus of the church in Philippi. The mission was going well until Paul healed a mentally ill slave girl who had been used by her owners as a fortune teller. When the girl was healed she was no longer sought after as a soothsayer and her owners stirred up crowds of people to attack Paul and Silas as dangerous foreigners, and they were driven out of Philippi.
X PAUL WAITING IN ATHENS Leaving behind an infant but thriving new church start, Paul, Silas and Timothy moved on to the City of Thessalonica. There they began preaching in the Synagogue and convinced a few Jews and a goodly portion of the “God Fearers,” non-Jews who attended and supported the Synagogue to join them in becoming followers of the way. But members of the Synagogue indignant over what they considered to be sheep stealing soon stirred up local opposition to Paul, Silas and Timothy, and the three of them were sent packing. Next they came to the small City of Berea on the Northern slopes of Mt. Olympus. Initially they enjoyed some success in planting a church, but soon Jews from Thessalonica showed up and began stirring up people against Paul in particular. After a couple of riots it was decided that Paul should get out of town, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to nurture the fledgling congregation. Paul was to go on to Athens and wait for his colleagues and stay out of trouble – hard job for Paul.
X PAUL INVITED TO SPEAKRome was the political Capitol of the Mediterranean world, but Athens was the cultural center of the ancient world. Alexander the Great had spread Greek culture all the way to India and Rome had people speaking Greek all the way to Spain and across Northern Africa. Athens had been the home of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Epicurus, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides. Paul had been schooled in Greek philosophy as well as Hebrew theology, and I can imagine him truly enjoying his visit to Athens. I can picture him looking through the shops of the Agora, sitting in on the different schools of philosophy. And Paul being Paul began to discuss and debate. The sages of Athens found him amusing, even interesting and so they invited Paul to address them from the Areopagus. The Areopagus was a hill located on the south side of the Agora at the base of the steep incline that led up to the Acropolis home of the Parthenon.
X ALTAR TO THE UNKNOWN GOD Paul tried to engage his audience by referring to their altar to the Unknown God. He claimed that the source of our being had been revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and finally most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of his listeners, probably the skeptics and cynics mocked him. Other listeners invited him back to speak again. Two people Dionysius and Damaris became the nucleus of a fledgling congregation in Athens.
X HOSTILE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENT I am fascinated by Paul’s experience in Greece and especially in Athens, because I believe there are important parallels to our modern context. He was trying to take the message of Jesus into a hostile and skeptical environment. The Greeks were weary of what seemed like an endless array of religions and philosophies vying for adherents in the ancient world. There were the classical Greek gods no one believed in any more. There were a multitude of mystery cults pouring in from Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Palestine, Nabatea. And then there were the Gnostics who claimed secret knowledge from a variety of sources that granted eternal life. Finally, there were the schools of philosophy especially the Skeptics and the Cynics who asserted that all claims to absolute truth must be rejected and all religions were humbug – and everyone was chasing a buck – materialism — consumerism. Sound familiar?
X OUR MISSION IS TO TRANSFORM Like Paul, if we are going to connect with the culture we are called upon to transform, we have to be able to get the attention and speak the language of the people we want to attract to the way of Jesus. Remember our mission is not to get to heaven. We are already assured of God’s eternal love for us. And our mission is not to build a bigger better Jesus club. Our mission is to transform the world by calling people to follow the way of Jesus showing forth love and kindness to all people welcoming everyone to the Sharing Table of Jesus.
X GO OUT MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE So how do we invite people to come to the Sharing Table? Did Paul, Silas and Timothy arrive in Philippi build a church building and wait for people to come saying, “Let’s be the best kept secret in Philippi? No! They went out into the market place and met people where they were. At the very least we have to advertise in the market place. Don’t be invisible. We have to have a presence on the internet and in social media. Today, before anyone visits a church they check out the congregation’s website. A better sign in front of our church that stands out rather than blending in with the possibility of posting information that can be changed once a week is another promising idea. Taking our programming outside of the church. Discussion and fellowship groups that meet in restaurants, coffee shops or pubs. Making up church “T” shirts that can be worn, when our volunteers are out doing good in the world. Letting people know who we are and what we do!
X God Loves You This past Monday Malcolm Clark made a presentation to the Re-visioning Committee about how churches can better present themselves outside their walls. One suggestion he made from the Church of the Highlands in Birmingham is to print up cards that on one side say: “God loves you.” On the other side of the card is the church’s name, address and contact information. Then ask members of the congregation, whenever they are performing a kindness, mowing someone’s lawn, giving a nice tip to a server, offering a neighbor flowers for their window box, paying for the person behind you in the drive through, give them the card. A simple gesture of kindness out in the world can help someone take a new look at following the way of Jesus.
X MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND Another way of speaking the language of people in our culture is learning to communicate the gospel message in ways they can understand and to which they can relate. Music is desperately important. If the music we use in worship is foreign to their ears, they won’t be able to hear it. Fortunately Brian Berry has given the church a grant to help try to provide live music for our alternative worship. We don’t know yet what that will look like. We may leave the early service as it is and explore something on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening. Again if we are going to connect with people we have to be willing to be flexible to go where they are, rather than expecting them to conform to us. Our message is too important! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome is too important to allow it to die, because we are too lazy to reach out, or we are too afraid to extend God’s love to others, or we are too inflexible to change in order to communicate the gospel in a way that others can hear.
X CHALLENGE OF A MORE CONVERSATIONAL STYLE One of the challenges I will face as we try to reorient our alternative worship is to learn a more conversational style. The millennial generation is looking for dialogue, and opportunity to engage and converse and not just to be talked at. I know a young pastor who preaches with his cell phone sitting on the pulpit, so he can respond to texted questions from the congregation. In those churches rather than admonishing members of the congregation to turn off their cell phones, they come with at least one sometimes two electronic devices, so they can text each other as well as the preacher and check the sermon references at the same time – talk about dialogue. I’m not sure I can do that, I have a hard enough time following a train of thought as it is, so yes it will be a challenge to develop a more conversational style.
X CALLED TO SERVE RATHER THAN BE SERVED But if we are clear that we have been called into the Body of Christ to serve rather than to be served, then our mission is to connect with people where they are. We are called upon to adapt our methods, the language of our message, and our life together as a faith community in order to mentor other people into following the way of Jesus.
X GOD IS MYSTERY There is one other lesson I want to draw from Paul’s address at the Areopagus. The God in whom we live and move and have our being is ultimately a mystery. “I am what I am,” what does that mean? We share the message that in Jesus Christ God is revealed as love, but God is still a mystery beyond all our understanding. And that is why with profound humility we never seek to judge another person’s experience or understanding of God. We can only share with them our limited glimpse of the divine we have been allowed and invite them to share in a community of faith where everyone is welcome and we pray with and for each other. The world needs the message we have been given – so share the faith.


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