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 market-place 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. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Paul had been driven out of Thessalonica and headed west to Berea for his own safety. But his opponents caught up with him and his friends sent him to the coast and then down to Athens. I am sure his friends were hoping that he would keep a low profile. But he couldn’t help himself and went to the Synagogue to argue that Jesus was the Messiah and went out into the marketplace to do the same. He ended up at the Areopagus, a meeting place for debate about the latest ideas, the ancient Speaker’s Corner.
You have got to admire Paul that he couldn’t keep quiet about his faith despite opposition. He took every opportunity to engage with others so that they might learn about Jesus. Some years ago when I led a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul I stood where Paul might have stood on Mars Hill and read this passage. As I read it, I had some eager listeners who didn’t question me. I could never stand in a public place like Paul and be questioned about my faith. And yet I often find myself in more intimate surroundings being asked about my faith. In 1 Peter 3:15 we read ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ It is not about fine words or great philosophical arguments but simply re-telling our story.
What is also striking about this story of Paul in Athens is that he engaged with people using what he could see around him and which would make sense to his listeners. That is how it should be with us, sharing our experience in a way that those we talk to will understand and can relate to.
Dear God, like many who have gone before us, we don’t claim to be eloquent. Help us not to be quiet about our faith. Help us to tell our faith story to help others in their journey of faith when we have the opportunity. Take our inadequate words and use them to let others know that they are loved by you. Amen
The Rev’d George Watt is the Moderator of the Thames North Synod