I have a really awesome sister-in-law. She has done a lot of cool things in her life, but one thing that I find really cool is that she has worked at comic book conventions, and thus knows a lot of famous people in the television and comic book worlds. For those of you who don’t know what these conventions are all about, it’s a place for comic book vendors to sell their wares, and it’s a place for comic book fans to come and meet the people who draw the comic books, as well as meet the stars from some sci-fi and fantasy TV shows. Several years ago, I went down to Florida to visit my sister-in-law and my brother, and she got me into MegaCon for free. I am a huge Star Trek fan, and I was excited because I got to meet Brent Spiner when I was there—he played the android named Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. MegaCon is also a place where people can walk around in costumes, dressed up as their favorite characters. I saw several people dressed up as characters from Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek, and many, many others there. To say that this was a weekend of weirdness would have been an understatement. Towards the end of my visit, I began to reflect on this—because I was in seminary at the time, and they teach you to think theologically about everything there—and the question I came up with was, “How would you preach the gospel to this sci-fi/fantasy/comic book crowd?” When I posed the question to one of my fellow students, they looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Well, that’s easy. Characters in comic books die and come back to life all the time. There’s your way in.”
The reason that I bring this up is because this is what the apostle Paul is doing in today’s lesson from Acts. Before arriving in Athens, Paul had been in Thessalonica and Berea, spreading the gospel of Jesus, but had been run out of town by people who thought he was teaching the wrong things. Athens was a place of culture, a place where new ideas were exchanged all the time. Athens was the home of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Athens was also the place where all those Greek gods that we learned about in school were worshiped. So, here’s Paul, a good Jewish man who has been taught that there is only one God and that all the rest are idols, cooling his heels and waiting for his traveling companions to catch up with him in a city that is full of idols and where the people are sleek, educated, and cultured. Luke says that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” That was probably an understatement. So what does Paul do? He starts arguing with the Jewish people in the city in the synagogues and starts talking to the philosophers in the marketplace. So, they bring Paul to the Areopagus, the place where the city council of Athens meets, and ask him to clarify what he is talking about. This is the context for the speech we hear Paul making in our first reading today.
And the interesting thing about this speech is that Paul does not start with who he is and where he is on his faith journey. He does not start by talking about Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, because these Greeks have never heard of the Scriptures that Paul holds dear. No, Paul starts from where the Athenians are: He talks about the gods that they worship, even though he himself finds them distressing. He then finds the point of contact between where the Athenians are and the message that he wants to give them: the altar inscribed with the words “to an unknown god”. Claiming that this unknown god is the one true God who made the heavens and the earth, he speaks of how all people were created by this one God, calls the people to repentance by talking about the coming day of judgment, and finally speaks of Jesus being raised from the dead as the sign that the day of judgment is coming. And notice that Paul does not even call Jesus by name. This is a beginning teaching for a people who had no concept of one God but of many. Paul eases them into the idea of the resurrection in what is a seemingly backward way.
I think that, as we witness today to the society around us about Jesus—who he is and what he has done for us—we can learn from Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As I mentioned before, Paul starts with where the Athenians are. Rather than speaking to them about the Hebrew Scriptures, which they wouldn’t have known anything about, he begins with their altar that says “To an unknown god” and uses that. He proclaims that the god that they don’t know is the God whom Paul knows, and the God who wants to make himself known to the Athenians. He uses what the Athenians know and then proclaims the good news from that starting point.
Over many years, our society has become more and more secular. A growing number of people have had either no contact with the church, or bad contact with the church. So, we too need to rethink how we talk to others about Jesus, because we cannot always assume that they know who Jesus is and what he is all about. So, when we encounter someone today who is not churched, how do we speak to them about a god that they do not know, or a god who they may dimly remember from a childhood when family members brought them to Sunday school?
Well, let me tell you a story to illustrate how we might approach this. My first congregation, before I came here to be with you all, was in northwestern Wyoming, about a half hour from the Montana border. And about an hour from where I lived was a cute little town nestled at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains called Red Lodge. And in the town of Red Lodge, there was a small bookstore with a tea bar at the back. The owner of the store would get all sorts of different kinds of loose leaf teas and mix them together to produce new flavors of tea, and you could sit at the bar and make your choice of tea based on which scent appealed to you most that day. As I was sitting at the bar one day drinking my tea, I started having a conversation with the woman next to me. And when she found out I was a pastor, she started asking me all kinds of questions. You see, she had been brought up in a fundamentalist church, and when she came out of the closet, she was hurt by family members and members of her congregation, and she had fallen away from church completely. But she was now feeling a lack in her life, and I think she was trying to find her way back to God. In my conversation with her, I did my best to proclaim that God was a God of love, and I directed her to a couple of congregations in the area who would love her as she was and where she would hear that God loves her, too. I don’t know if she ever did find her way back to a congregation or not. I hope and pray that she has.
But, friends, this is the society which we live in today. We’re not in the ’50s and ‘60s anymore, where everyone went to church and where the Sunday school classrooms were filled to overflowing. We are in a society now that has become disenchanted with the church, and sometimes for good reason. We are in a society where many people have been brought up without the church, or where people have been brought up in the church but have been hurt by it, thinking that we are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical do-gooders who condemn anyone who does not follow the rules as sinful people whom God cannot love unless they shape up. And such a God is not the God that I worship—that is a god that is unknown to me. We serve a God of love, a God who does not demand perfection before he has a relationship with us. We serve a God who loved us even while we were still sinners, and who gave up his Son to die on the cross for us because he loves us so much. And we, the church, need to be better about proclaiming that God to the rest of the world.
So, how do we do that? How do we talk about Jesus to a society that, while it is disenchanted with the institutional church, often likes to think of itself as still somehow spiritual? How do we witness to people who are, as the apostle Paul puts it, groping for God? Well, we have to start by listening. We have to listen to people when they talk about how the church has hurt them in their lives, no matter how painful it might be for us to hear. We have to listen and find out what’s important to people. We have to listen to what people need and see what gifts God has given us where we might be able to meet the needs of the people around us. And only after we have listened to people do we get to speak and to act. Only then can we say that we’re sorry they’ve been hurt. And only then can we tell them about the God we worship: the God who loves us so much, who loves us even when we mess up, that he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. And then we can tell them that not only did Jesus die for our sins, he rose up from the dead, and so we, too, have new life in him here in this world and in the life to come. We may not know if the person to whom we are speaking will actually return to the church, but when we witness in a manner that is respectful of the other person, then the Holy Spirit can use that to touch the other person’s heart with God’s love.
Further on in the story, which we don’t have in front of us today, Luke tells us that most of the people who heard the apostle Paul speak on that long-ago day scoffed at him when he started talking about the resurrection of the dead. But there were a few people who continued to listen to Paul and eventually became believers in Jesus. And when we speak to others about Jesus today, there will be some who will laugh at us. There will be some who can’t get past the mistakes of the institutional church, but who will respect us for our beliefs. And there may be some who actually become believers based on the words that we have spoken to them. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit will move in a person’s heart or when, and that’s the good news: it’s not up to us to convert people, it’s up to the Holy Spirit. Our calling is simply to give others a reason for the hope that we have in Jesus. And when we have such good news to share with the world, then nothing should hold us back. So let us be open to the unexpected opportunities to share Jesus with others, but let us do so by first listening to the other person, and then finding ways to connect our faith in Jesus with where they are in life. We may just be surprised by how the Holy Spirit may work through us. Amen.