Paul in Athens
Lent Midweek II
March 15, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
“Whoever Confesses Me before men, I will confess before my Father in heaven,” Jesus says. Whoever confesses me. That’s the theme for our meditation this Lent. Last week we heard the account of the Jewish man who was cast out of the Synagogue for confessing Christ. We considered how confession often meets opposition, even within the church. Today we see another instance of confession in the New Testament. This time, it is the Apostle Paul who confesses Christ before men, and this time, the men are unbelievers, the pagan philosophers and mystics from the city of Athens.
This record of Paul’s actions is a gift to us, for we live today in the midst of an unbelieving audience. Our world is not Christian. Most of your coworkers are not Christian. When you students go off to college, most of your professors, classmates, and roommates won’t be Christian. Our government is not Christian. The overwhelming majority of our news media is not Christian. The overwhelming majority of our popular entertainment is not Christian. Not only do most of the people around us assume the teachings of the Scriptures to be childish and old fashioned, they consider them bigoted and hateful. But notice that I said the teachings of the Scriptures are assumed to be these things. The unbelieving world assumes it knows what the Scriptures teach. It assumes it knows what the Church believes.
Our call to confess Christ includes challenging these false assumptions and clearly confessing the truth of our Lord’s Word. That’s what Paul did in Athens. Although it was home to the Parthenon and technically dedicated to the goddess Athena, Athens was a virtual buffet line of various theologies and philosophies, much like America today. All kinds of different people there believed all kinds of different things. Paul engaged those people and their beliefs in three different ways, each of which can guide us in confessing the truth today.
First, and most importantly, he preached the Word. Look again at his confession. He proclaimed the truth that God is the Creator. He proclaimed the truth of sin and our separation from God. He proclaimed the truth that in his love for us, God reached out to save us in our sin. He preached Christ crucified and risen as God’s gift of redemption. He preached the Word, for the Word of God alone creates faith. Paul knew he was just a messenger. He knew that he was given work to do by God, but that the Holy Spirit gave growth. So Paul just preached the Word and let the chips fall where they may. He did not attempt to coerce or force anyone into faith. He did use threats or scare tactics. Neither did he compromise the confession to entice people or make his message more palatable to pagan ears. He simply proclaimed the Word, trusting that God would work through it as he saw fit. We too can approach our confession with such confidence. We are called to be faithful, to proclaim the truth of God’s Word, and to let God take care of the rest. The first and most important thing we can learn from Paul is to boldly and faithfully proclaim the Word, even to an unbelieving world.
The second thing we can learn from is the way Paul intentionally engaged the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans. He preached the truth of God’s Word, but he also engaged the false philosophies of his day. If you don’t know what Stoics or Epicureans are, that’s fine. It’s not really the point. The point is that he engaged the secular philosophies of the people. Of course, that means he would have had to be familiar with those philosophies first. While we are not given a transcript of their conversations, we can be sure Paul challenged their assumptions and presented the truth of God’s Word in their midst.
Are we prepared to engage the philosophies of our time? Do we even know what the philosophies of our time are? Do we know the different answers people will give about what it means to be human, what it means to exist, what history is, what knowledge is, how we gain knowledge? Do we know why these answers matter. It may sound harsh, but the honest truth is that we live in a sea of paganism. We need to wake up to the reality that the world around us is not Christian. It’s not just that people don’t live like Christians. They don’t even think like Christians. Sometimes it’s like we’re not even speaking the same language. It’s no great shock that people starting from unscriptural places and thinking according to unscriptural philosophies will reach unscriptural conclusions. It’s next to impossible to have a productive conversation with someone about something controversial when we don’t agree on what it means to be human, whether objective knowledge is possible, or whether history is always marching forward to the good. We must be prepared to engage the Stoics and Epicureans of our own day by studying our Lord’s Word and not blindly drinking whatever cocktail Hollywood or Washington puts before us this week.
Does that intimidate you? Does that make you feel unequipped or unprepared? Do you cringe at the prospect of studying metaphysics or epistemology? Take heart. The often ignored truth is that most people outside the church can’t articulate their philosophy either. They’ve never been asked to seriously reflect on the nature of truth or existence, of knowledge or history. What they have done, like us, is absorbed pagan philosophies through music and movies and education. While that kind of absorption can be toxic, the good news is that because the truth of God is written on people’s hearts and built into creation itself, not everything that Hollywood puts out automatically leads people down the path to perdition.
That’s the third thing we can learn from Paul today. Paul uses the tools of the culture to confess the Faith. Like a wrestler can use an opponent’s momentum to gain an advantage through a counter move, Christians can turn aspects of popular culture into opportunities to confess the Faith. Paul quoted pagan poets who accidentally stumbled upon some truth in nature. He used glimpses of truth that the people already knew as a springboard for a fuller presentation of the Gospel truth.
Such springboards exist in our world today. For example, our world feels a powerful internal pull toward justice. Political movements seek to rid the world of injustice and inequality. Movies that chronicle a crusade against injustice ring true in our ears. We cheer for those who fight injustice. Groups today are quick to organize protests against injustice. But where does this desire for justice come from? If the world is truly a randomly developed evolutionary machine, then there would be no justice or injustice, only survival.
And yet we can’t help but to fight injustice. We write stories and songs about heroes and their quest for justice. The desire for justice is an indication that such a thing does exist, that this world is, indeed, unjust and broken, and someone needs to put it back together. The Christian confession is that Jesus is the one who puts it back together in a way that political movements and social crusades never could. The Christian confession is that Jesus will make all things new, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, that all tears and sorrows will be wiped away, and that God himself will dwell among his people. The desire for justice and intuitive recognition that this world is broken open a door for Christians to preach the Gospel.
Relationships are another prime place for Christians to use Hollywood to begin conversations about the truth. All around us relationships crumble. The number of healthy marriages portrayed on screen is almost non-existent compared to the number of abusive, affair-ridden, neglectful marriages.
Yet people still seek out romantic companionship. We can’t stop writing love stories and love songs. People want a happy ending, which almost always includes some level of commitment between lovers. The overwhelming cultural support for homosexual marriage is odd when compared to the systematic ridiculing and destruction of marriage that we have seen over the last several decades. But there is something instinctive in people that desires these relationships.
And it’s not just romance. Even the most ardent introvert doesn’t want to be alone all the time. People seek friendships and sibling relationships. How many books and movies praise the value of friendship and community? The philosophies of the world will try to tell you that such impulses are rooted in the desire for food or reproduction. But that explanation hardly does justice to the feelings evoked in us by a good tale of friendship and loyalty.
The Christian confession is that God has created us to live in relationships, that relationships are the places where we live out the Ten Commandments and his design for creation, where we learn the value of self-sacrifice and the security of unconditional love. The Christian confession says that it is the gift of forgiveness that makes meaningful relationships possible in the long-term, and that the forgiveness of sins we have through Jesus has restored our relationship to God so that we can live in right relationships with each other. The overwhelming desire for relationships offers an opportunity for Christians to proclaim the Gospel.
The same could be said of beauty and spirituality, to say nothing of the moral law that resurfaces throughout history regardless of place or time. The point is, this is our Lord’s creation, and each person in it is our Lord’s creation, whether they acknowledge him or not. And as our Lord’s creation, each person has certain aspects of God’s design written on his or her heart. We can use these elements of design to point people to the fullness of truth revealed in God’s Word. In Paul’s case, many mocked his confession of Christ and the resurrection. But others wanted to hear more about it. And through further conversation, some believed. In the same way, the “echoes of God’s voice” that people can’t seem to get out of their heads offer us the chance to proclaim the Gospel. But we dare not forget that it is the good news of Jesus that will bring people to faith. As Paul says in Romans, faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.
So much more could be said, but I’ve gone on too long already. I’ll leave you with this concluding thought. This is the Lord’s world – take comfort in that. Yes, the culture around us is unapologetically pagan in a way that America has never known. But such paganism is not unknown in the history of the world; just look at Paul’s Athens. In it all, our Lord remains constant. He is our rock. He is our fortress. And for all the arrogance and hubris of humanity, we remain people created by God. Every person out there is a person created by God, whether they acknowledge it or not. Every one of them, just like every one of us, is a sinner in need of forgiveness. We all recognize that this world is broken, and we are all longing for something to put us back together. As the people of God, we have the joy of seeing where the philosophies of the world fall short and the responsibility of sharing that knowledge with others. But we also have the joy of knowing our Savior who has given us hope through his life, death, and resurrection. We can give names to those longings people feel within themselves, the longings which express themselves through music and art and movies. We can point people to the Lord who gave them those longings. And we can show them the fulfillment of those longings in Christ.
That’s how Paul confessed in Athens. It’s a pattern we can follow in our confession today.
May our Lord grant us the words to speak and the opportunity to speak them, that the world may know his love and trust him alone for salvation.