While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them.
The Athenians loved to stand around debating and hearing new ideas. Into this culture, Paul arrives. Here Luke is portraying Paul as a great philosopher, debating the Greeks on their own turf, and proclaiming the Gospel in ways understandable to them. Paul sees all of the idols, gets angry, and starts arguing with all-comers; first in the synagogue and then in the market place. As a result, public opinion is divided about him; is he a babbler or ‘a proclaimer of foreign divinities’. The latter is similar to the charge that led Socrates to trial, and so Paul follows in his footsteps to the Areopagus, the chief administrative body in the city and the place where philosophers are tried.
When he gets there, he praises his audience, shares that he has explored their religious places, refers to something they are well aware of, and then shares his view of God. He has got them on- side, speaks in words and ideas they understand, and then expands the meaning of what they know. Paul despises the idols he sees filling the city, but rather than denouncing them he searches for the good and starts from there. He backs up his argument by quoting lines from their own poetry, encourages them to think bigger about God, and then declares the Resurrection. Again, public opinion remains divided, some are scornful of this talk of resurrection but others want to hear more. Then Paul leaves, some become believers, but Paul is on his way to Corinth.
So how does this model of evangelism strike us? Paul immerses himself in the culture, struggles to find something positive, affirms his audience, shares the message in terms they understand, and then leaves with some wanting more.
This again led me to reflect on the language we use in church and when speaking to folk outside or visiting. Do we fall into the familiar phrases and images, or do we immerse ourselves like Paul did? For many of us we are so immersed in ‘Church-culture’ that it feels like the rest of the society is living in a different world. Sometimes we try to bridge the gap, but often it feels like when the middle-aged try to be down with the kids. But is there a middle ground? Maybe if we tried to make our Church-talk more understandable, maybe some would be willing to meet us half-way?
In his book, ‘Speaking Christian’ (SPCK 2011), Marcus Borg refers to this passage in his chapter entitled ‘God’. He says, ‘In language attributed to Paul, God is ‘the one in whom we live and move and have our being’ (17:28). Note how the language works. Where are we in relation to God? We are in God. We live within God. We move within God. We have our being within God. God is not a being far off, out there, somewhere beyond the universe, separate from us and the world. Rather, the word refers to “the one” in whom everything that is, is – a reality that encompasses us and all that is.’ p.69 He also offers ‘a simple analogy, we are in God as fish are in water. The water is all around; fish move within the water, live within the water, have their being within the water. The water is not separate from the fish – and yet the water is more than the fish. So also God is not a being separate from the universe, but a reality that is more than the universe – even as God includes the universe.’ p. 69-70.
Is this an understanding, an analogy, to describe God that could draw people towards faith? Does it have things in common with the spirituality abounding outside of the Church that finds Christianity irrelevant as it doesn’t see it being expressed in these terms? If so, I’d encourage you to get hold of a copy of Borg’s book and explore the other Christian words he unpacks.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open us up to your glory.
A glory we feel in the beating of our hearts, in the bonds of friendship and family, in the imagery, music, and words of worship, in the majesty of the world around us, and the enormity of the universe.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open us up to your presence.
A presence we sense in silence, in prayer, through reading your Word, meditating on the life, actions and words of Jesus, by sharing in the journeys of our companions, and by waiting on your still small voice amid the clamour of life.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open us up to your way.
A way lived fully by Jesus, shown to us in his example, empowered by the Spirit, and discerned through prayer, discussion, reason and faith.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open us up to you. Amen
The Rev’d David Coaker, Penwortham and Leyland URCs.