On the surface, Paul’s experience in Athens stands out as one of his less successful preaching efforts. For example, you won’t find a Letter to the Athenians in the New Testament. That suggests he wasn’t able to start a congregation there. From all appearances, he stayed in Athens a short time and never came back. So it goes.
That’s not to say he failed. What he did was to plant seeds of faith that took root and grew after he was gone. Luke puts it this way:
“Now when they (the Stoic philosophers) heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, ‘We want to hear you again concerning this.’ Thus Paul went out from among them. But certain men joined with him, and believed…” (Acts 17:32-34)
The Areopagus was one of the sites I most wanted to see on my trip to Greece last year. Historically, it’s where the philosophers of the day met to debate the weightier issues of philosophy, science, politics and religion. Some even lived on the hillside. It had been home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others. It’s where the dream of a democratic republic was first born. It’s also the place where the Christian movement took a giant leap forward. There’s a historical marker at the summit that reads in part:
“… The Areopagus is also associated with the spread of Christianity into Greece.
Sometime near the middle of the First Century,
the Apostle Paul is said to have converted a number of Athenians
by teaching the tenets of the new religion from the summit of the hill.
Among the converts was Dionysius the Areopagite,
the patron saint of the city of Athens,
who, according to tradition, was the city’s first bishop …”
Luke also mentions “a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:34).
What this says to me are two things: One, you never know who’s listening and how what you say is going to affect and influence others. Paul may not have persuaded the Stoic philosophers to accept Jesus as the Christ, but his message hit home with Dionysius and Damaris and, in time, that made all the difference in claiming this corner of the world for Christ and his kingdom.
It also says to me that, in order to win the world to Christ, we have to venture out from our comfort zones. Paul’s normal routine was to go to the local synagogue and try to convince faithful Jews that Jesus was their Promised Messiah. He did that in Athens, but, in this case, he did more. He went up to the Areopagus and proclaimed the gospel to a largely hostile audience.
And this is what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning – how God is calling us to take the gospel to the streets, to go where the people are, to listen to their concerns and share with them what we’ve seen and heard and experienced of God’s grace and love. What would it take? What do we have to lose? What do we stand to gain?
To put it into context, I’ll never forget the day a new family moved into the small, rural community where I was serving. I asked the elders if one of them would volunteer to drop by, introduce himself and invite them to church. They gave me an incredulous look. Finally, the Clerk asked, “Are they Presbyterian?”
Here’s the problem: As long as we expect people to come to us, we’ll always fall short of the kingdom of God. Only as we venture out and bridge the gap between us and them
– whoever them may be – will we make new disciples and grow the kingdom in this time and place.
I picked up an article off the Internet this week entitled, From Synagogues and Sanctuaries to Bars and Boardrooms: The Apostle Paul at the Areopagus, by Dan Clendenin. Here’s one excerpt:
“At our worst, we Christians have isolated and insulated ourselves
from our culture’s mainstreams.
We (tend to) be inward-looking, self-absorbed, self-important, and cloistered,
instead of engaging people at our modern day Mars Hills.
(For example,) a pastor told me that at his annual denominational meeting
the delegates were, in all honesty, merely talking to themselves.”
We needn’t dwell on other denominations. I spent two days in Dallas this week attending a meeting of the Synod of the Sun. Among other things, we debated our new mission design, discussed ways to enable grant initiatives, and talked about exploring betters ways to encourage communities and connections across Presbytery lines. Does any of that speak to you? How do you think it sounds to non-Presbyterians? Clendenin goes on to say:
“At our best, (there are) Christians (who) have been just as comfortable
living, learning and sharing the Gospel in the marketplace of ideas
as in the ministry of the church,
in bars and board rooms as well as in basilicas,
in university lecture halls as easily as in church fellowship halls.
In an outward, centrifugal movement modeled after Paul at the Areopagus,
believers have welcomed the opportunity to meet real people
where they live, work, and think,
in order to gain a hearing for their ‘strange ideas’
about repentance, rebirth, and the resurrection.”
Clendenin says we need to be more intentional about engaging the world around us with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He cites as an example an organization called, Veritas Forums. It started out in 1992 as a small group on the campus of Harvard University. Today there are chapters on the campuses of eighty major universities. Here’s how they describe their mission:
“We create forums for the exploration of true life.
We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture
to connect their hardest questions
with the person and story of Jesus Christ.” (veritas.org)
But take heart – you don’t have to go to Harvard to create “forums for the exploration of true life.” You can start in your own back yard.
That’s what Gerald and Judith Hammock are doing this weekend. Last week they told us about their work with CMA, the Christian Motorcyclists Association. They’re in Helena today helping host a motorcycle rally. They’re mixing and mingling with bikers as we speak, passing out bottled water and tracts and making their presence known. If someone wants to talk, they’ll listen. If invited, they’ll share their faith. How simple is that?
Yet, how important! As a rule, you don’t see many bikers in Presbyterian churches on Sunday morning.
Nor do you see many ex-cons. That’s another one of CMA’s ministries. Gerald and Judy routinely visit the federal penitentiary in Texarkana.
For that matter, you don’t see many college students in church on Sunday morning either, and that distresses me. We’re always proud to have Kelsey with us when she’s home, but where are the others? There are about 1,200 students enrolled at UACCH. Where are they on Sunday morning? I suppose we could put a message on the marquee, “College students welcomed here,” but I don’t think it’d do much good.
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For almost six years I served a church within five miles of a university campus with an enrollment of 44,000 students. We never had more than a dozen in church on any given Sunday morning. Why is that? My hunch is it’s because our invitation is one-sided. We want students to come to us, but we’re not willing to go to them, to meet them where they are, on their turf.
We’re also on different pages. Last month I did a program for the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ at UACCH. While I was there, the guy who invited me gave me a copy of a book by Rick James entitled, Jesus without Religion. In it he tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry in conversational language. It made me think of how complex and complicated our message must sound to those outside the church. While we talk about the great doctrines of justification, sanctification, incarnation and various theories of the atonement, Rick James writes,
“At roughly the age of thirty,
the time when most young men are just moving out of their parents’ basement,
Jesus began his life’s work.” (p. 33)
My point is this: If we’re to communicate the gospel to those who haven’t grown up going to Sunday school and church, we need to get on the same page and find a common ground on which to meet.
This is nothing new. In the 18th Century, an Anglican priest named John Wesley was frustrated with the emptiness of the church – in both attendance and spirituality – so he took his message out to the people. He preached in open fields and near coal mines – wherever the people happened to be – in order to convey the message of God’s love to everyone who’d listen. In the meantime, his brother, Charles, set the great themes of the gospel to music using tunes familiar to the common folk.
It caught on. People turned to Christ in droves and committed themselves to a new life of worship, prayer and self-discipline. The bishop criticized him for going outside the boundaries of his parish. In response, Wesley said, “The world is my parish.” If we’re to be true to the gospel, we ought to be saying something like that today.
Years ago, a church in Dallas looked for ways to expand its ministry. They started by canvassing the neighborhood, getting to know the neighbors, then responding to their needs. It transformed the neighborhood and the church.
They got so caught up in their new-found outreach that they decided to share their story with others. They hired a local company to produce a documentary entitled, “Beyond These Four Cozy Walls.” I don’t know if it’s still available, but I do know its message is still relevant: We need to move beyond this setting – the sanctuary, the church building – as rich and meaningful as it is to us – if we’re to engage the community around us with the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We need to take the gospel to the streets.
This is what Paul did in Athens. It’s what Jesus did in Galilee. Sure, he preached in the synagogues of Nazareth and Capernaum, but what we remember most are his teachings on the hillside, the parables he told along the way and the miracles he performed in homes and on the road.
I’m not suggesting that we close up shop and stop coming to church on Sunday mornings or having fellowship luncheons or PW circle meetings or giving to Hope in Action and all the other things we do. What I am suggesting is that we add the one component that’s missing – taking the Good News of the gospel out into the world in which we live.
Is that too much to ask? Here are some ideas as to how we could get started:
• Canvass the neighborhood. Let’s draw a five-block circle around the church on a map and visit every home within that circle. Let’s get to know the people who live there and what their needs are; then respond, if with nothing else, with prayer. When we visit all the homes in a five block radius, we’ll extend it to ten blocks, then twenty, until we canvass the whole town.
• Give copies of my printed sermons to your friends, co-workers, employees and customers. My Dad has been doing this for years. At first I was embarrassed. “They might not want to read my stuff,” I said. “Their own preacher may be offended.” He did it anyway. As a result, hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone thanking me for something I said that touched their life.
• Start a daily or weekly devotional time where you work. Pray with your co-workers and employees. Last Sunday I told you about Tony Dungy’s book, Quiet Strength. In it he talks about the Bible study he has with the other coaches every week. I figure if the coaching staff of the Indianapolis Colts football team can study the Bible and pray together, so can you with those with whom you work.
I could go on, but you get the picture: We need to be more proactive and intentional about sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We have a compelling message to share. And, with all of the conflicts and troubles and competing voices in the world today, it’s a message the world needs to hear more than ever.
Let’s take it to the streets. Like Paul’s experience in Athens, some may turn a deaf ear and some may scoff, but, mark my word, some will take us seriously. As a result, our church will begin to grow, little by little, and our community will inch that much closer to being a microcosm of the Kingdom of God on earth.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.