How many of you remember reading stories from Greek mythology in high school or maybe even in college? Stories of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hermes, Artemis? If you’re like me, you probably thought they were fun stories, but could not believe that anyone ever took them seriously. But after my recent travels to Greece and to Turkey, where I saw all sorts of ruins of temples to all sorts of gods, I can tell you this: all of those fun stories that we had to learn in school were, once upon a time, deadly serious. I think I finally started to understand this when I was climbing up the steep hill at Delphi, where the most important temple of Apollo was, and heard stories about how people would make this climb in order to hear a prediction about their future that was very hard to decipher. For example, one Greek general wanted to know if he should go to war against the Persians. When he came to the oracle, he was told that if he crossed the river, it would mean the fall of a great empire. Assuming that to mean that it was the Persian Empire that would fall, he took it as a sign to attack. However, when he did, he fell in battle, and it was the Greek Empire that fell that day, and the Persians who were victorious. And yet, people still climbed that hill to seek out any hint of the future that the oracle might give to them.
Today we find Paul in the city of Athens, a city which not only worshiped all of those Greek gods that we had to learn about in school, but that also had schools of philosophers, some of which we also may have read or at least learned about in school. Names like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle should sound familiar to all of you. When we visited Athens, we were told about the mythological origins of the city: the god Poseidon, who was the god of the ocean, argued with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and of war, over who would be the patron of Athens. It was decided that the one with the best gift for the people would be the patron. Poseidon gave water, but it was salty, and the people couldn’t drink it or use it. Athena, however, gave the gift of the olive tree, and so she became the patron of the city of Athens, which was named after her. Because she was the goddess of wisdom, the people of Athens valued wisdom, and that’s why you had all these people in the city who, as Luke writes, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Think of walking around Athens as being similar to walking around a university campus, but not just any university—think more like an Ivy League school, such as Harvard or Yale.
So, Paul arrives in this cultured and educated city after being kicked out of Thessalonica and Berea, because, the people in those places said, he was acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. There was probably some truth to this accusation: in my sermon last week, when we saw Paul and Silas imprisoned at Philippi, I mentioned that every good member of the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge the emperor as divine, make an offering in his temple, and say, “Caesar is Lord.” For the Christians to run around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” was treason to the Empire. So, Paul flees to Athens and is cooling his heels there waiting for Silas and Timothy.
And Luke tells us that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. Now, I’m a little confused by this statement, because Paul lived in this Greco-Roman culture where every city had at least one temple, and more often than not, more than one temple, to some god or other. My guess would be that Athens probably had more than the usual number of temples and idols in it, and that is what disturbed Paul so much. If you travel to Athens and go to the top of the Acropolis, where the Parthenon (the temple to Athena) is located, you will also see a temple there that is dedicated to Nike, the goddess of victory, another one that is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, and the remains of a smaller one to the Roman emperor that was plopped right in front of the Parthenon. Furthermore, there are also remains of other temples to other gods in that area. So, perhaps Paul was thinking, “OK, I’ve seen idols before, but the sheer volume of idols here in one place is ridiculous. God is calling me to witness that there is only one true God in this place.”
And so he does. He argues first in the synagogues with the Jewish people and the God-fearers, those non-Jewish people who were intrigued by the Jewish faith, and he debates with the philosophers who have no interest in the Jewish faith and no knowledge of it. And apparently he makes enough of an impression that they bring him to the Areopagus—which translated means “the hill of Ares”, who was the Greek god of war—to make his case for what he is witnessing to. When I was in Athens, I got to stand on top of this hill of Ares—which is basically a huge rock—and read today’s story. And from where I stood as I read Paul’s speech, I had a perfect view of the Acropolis with the ruins of all of those temples standing on top of it. And I got chills—because now I better understand what Paul was talking about with all of those idols, and the case he was making for one God who created all of us and for Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.
And, when we read Paul’s speech, we see that it is indeed a good example of how to witness to people who have not heard the good news. Remember, Paul is standing in a group of Athenians who, as educated as they are, have never read or heard of the Hebrew Scriptures. They don’t know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or their wives and children; they don’t know of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah or any of the other prophets, and they don’t even know about David or Moses. So how does this Jewish man witness to these people about his God and about what God has done through Jesus? He finds the lowest common denominator. He does not condemn all of the idols that he is so distressed by. Rather, he acknowledges that the Athenians are indeed religious; they want to appease the gods, and they even have an altar “to an unknown god” just to cover all of their bases. And he takes that “unknown god” and tells them that what they do not know is now being revealed to them: the one God who created heaven and earth, and he makes the case, using some of the Athenians’ own poets, that all of us are God’s children. Only from there does he begin to talk about the resurrection of the dead, and that’s where he loses most of the Athenians.
Paul’s speech on the hill of Ares in Athens is a great model for us as we witness to Jesus in a world that, although it sees church as irrelevant, is still very spiritual and is still desperately in need of hearing the good news. When we encounter someone who doesn’t share our faith, do we condemn what that person believes without hearing them out? Or do we listen, as Paul did, and then find something that we have in common and use that to witness to our faith in Jesus? Several years ago, I went to a comic book convention with my brother and sister-in-law. It was fascinating to see all of the people dressed in colorful costumes and to wander around the booths and admire the art and to see different celebrities from the comic book world, TV shows, and movies. And the question that I came away with was, “How would I witness to my faith in Jesus with this particular group of people?” When I asked this question of a friend, he said, “Well, that’s easy. Characters in comic books are always being killed and then brought back to life. There’s your ‘in’.” So I could perhaps start a conversation like this: You know how they killed off Batman in this particular story line and then brought him back to life over here? Pretty cool, huh? Well, I believe in someone who actually was killed in real life and then was raised from the dead. And then see where the conversation would go from there.
This is a key point when we witness to people in our culture who have little or no contact with Christianity. There are so many people out there who have had bad experiences with the church, because the church has focused so much on being right that we have forgotten how to love one another. Witnessing to other people about Jesus is not about condemning them and telling them that their beliefs are wrong. Even though the Apostle Paul was distressed by all the idols in Athens, he knew that condemning them outright was not going to win them over to one God. Witnessing to other people about Jesus means listening to them, listening to their stories, and then finding something that our story has in common with theirs, linking our stories together, and then saying, “I have faith in Jesus, and I would like to tell you my story and what it has in common with yours.”
Even with this brilliant witnessing strategy, Paul did not win everyone in Athens to his faith on that day. Luke tells us that, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” Paul then leaves them in peace, but some people followed him, and Luke tells us that some Athenians believed, including a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Jesus worked through Paul on that day to win the hearts of a few people, and with those few people, the church in Athens was born. Not everyone was converted on that long ago day, and that’s okay. Sometimes we who are still in the church struggle when we see our congregations getting older and getting smaller, and we wonder if it makes a difference when we witness to Jesus. I’m here to tell you that yes, it does; but we may not see the harvest in our lifetime. But have faith that the seeds that you sow will one day bear fruit. So let’s get out there, listen to other people’s stories, and then share with them why our faith means so much to us. Amen.