Splattered across the front doors of a trendy restaurant in Palo Alto, California, were these words: This is a bad place for a diet! That most visible, in-your-face warning suggested to me that there are certain places where some requests are out of order and certain times where some appeals are in poor taste. No matter how noble, how worthy, how life-giving they are in and of themselves, there are certain times and certain places where it is simply unseemly to speak of some things.
In like manner it appears to me that we could splatter across the pages of our text this day a similar warning: This is a bad place for the gospel. Whether one regards Acts as a bona fide historiography or simply a piece of well-crafted Hellenistic literature, the gospel in Athens comes off sounding like a bunch of misguided, out-of-place "hooey."
Athens had seen and heard it all. In Paul's day, this once great and proud city was still considered the cultural and intellectual capital of the Roman Empire. It was a city steeped in art, literature, and learning. Of longstanding it had its names and its heroes and thus was not easily impressed by the new or the now. It was the place where Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato had lived and taught. And still counted among its sacred places was the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the porch of Zeno the Stoic and the garden of Epicurus.
The voices of her poets had been heard throughout the civilized world and the hands of her artists had filled her streets and temples with images of the gods. It was said of Athens that while strolling her streets you were more likely to meet a god than you were a man or a woman. Her myriad buildings and works of art stood in silent testimony to her former glory and grandeur.
Even though Luke goes to great lengths to create for us this scene where Paul is standing face to face with the philosophers in their own town and on their own turf, the upstart Christian gospel still comes off as out of place. It just doesn't seem to fit in Athens. The gospel seems to be out of its league in Athens. Athens is a bad place for the gospel.
The gospel seems all the more misplaced when one considers how Paul got to Athens in the first place. Athens is a temporary stopover. He did not arrive there by way of some well-thought out missionary plan, but he arrived there through happenstance and rerouting born of necessity because the work God had called him to do had not gone well in other places; it had not gone as he had prayed or planned. He arrived in Athens not on a set schedule but on a wing and a prayer trying to rearrange what unforeseen circumstance had wrought. He does not enter the city fresh and friendly but he enters disheveled, unkempt, bedraggled, woebegone, battle-scarred and road weary. And because he is already in a bad mood, he is immediately repulsed by what he sees. He does not see a city filled with beautiful works of art, but rather a city full of idols.
Yes, he probably could have been in a better mood. And, yes, he probably would have been better received had he feigned some initial aesthetical appreciation for the works of art he found in the home of Hellenism's literati and intelligentsia. But when you've been stoned in Lystra, jailed in Philippi, threatened in Thessalonica, and hounded out of Boreoa, it is understandable that you might not be in a sightseeing mood when your friends finally drop you on the outskirts of Athens.
May I say here parenthetically, brothers and sisters in the faith, that sometimes we do our best work under life's most austere and trying circumstances. We do our best work when life is hard and the load is heavy, our best work when life finds us in a situation where we would prefer not to be and hope not long to stay. Like Paul, when life finds you there, do not bemoan your plight, but lift up your head and your heart and go forward with the work God has assigned you to do.
So Paul ends up in Athens, not through some grand plan, but through happenstance. Even in the face of the uncertainty, tension, and anxiety that crowd his existence, he continues to press his case for the gospel of Jesus Christ. But his arguing and preaching are not well received in Athens. When the people of Athens first heard Paul speak, they asked with some derision and not a little contempt, "What does this babbler want to say?" What does this seed picker, this one who picks up just enough of an argument to speak about it in a superficial manner, what does he have to say? In Athens God's international gospel globetrotter, our first theologian, and the greatest preacher this side of Jesus Christ comes off sounding like an outgunned pipsqueak taking on a fight he must surely know he cannot win.
Even when invited to address the Aeropagus court his speech/sermon does not go well. After that powerful sermon about the unknown God, there were no mass conversions and no triumphalist claims of victory. The word Luke chose to describe the impact of Paul's preaching in Athens was not "all" or "many" but "some." Luke said "some" scoffed, others said we will hear you again, but "some" believed.
He's in hoity-toity Athens, he did not intend to be there, he is not in a good mood, he is not well received, his preaching is so-so. The question just jumps out at you--Why Bother? Why put yourself through this, Paul? These people are not interested in hearing the gospel. This is a bad place for the gospel. You are just spinning your wheels trying to get them to see life from God's point of view. Why don't you leave these high-faluting, know-it-all Athenians alone and go on to Corinth where you might be appreciated?
But do not give up so quickly, for there is some good news in the Athens experience. Running like a thread throughout the Luke-Acts schema is the notion of a universal offer of salvation. It was begun by the Messiah who preached good news to the poor and outcast of his day and picked up by his prophetic successors. Thus in Acts the gospel is proclaimed to poor widows and proconsuls, to jailers and sailors, merchants and military officers, kings and philosophers. Even in unreceptive Athens, the message is clear: The gospel is to be preached to all! Paul has to preach in undesirable places, under less than ideal circumstances, and so do we because of God's universal offer of salvation.
The gospel is to be proclaimed to all even if only received by some. I sometimes worry that those who consider themselves most faithful in our day seem the least sure about the universal appeal of the gospel. I worry that those who consider themselves to be the lone inheritors of the Christian witness seem the most determined to turn this gospel to some truncated, privatized religious hope palatable only to the few and the feeble-minded.
The gospel is to be proclaimed to all. We can all say that when ministry finds us in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost where thousands of souls are added to the church, but the true challenge is to say it when ministry finds us on the hard streets of a disinterested Athens. Somebody's got to go to Athens where they look at you strange and dismiss you out of hand, where they laugh at you to your face and lie on you quick, fast, and in a hurry. Somebody has to speak the good news in a bad place.
This gospel is to be proclaimed to all. It has universal appeal and power. It's not up to us to enforce it or to effect it. We are to tell it. The power is not in us, but in God. Some of us act as if we do not trust the gospel to work its way through tough situations. But be it Athens or Jerusalem the gospel is to be proclaimed to all.
That is what we are to do, tell the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the good news of the coming reign of God, the good news of the power of the gospel to change and transform lives even in this 21st century. It is to be proclaimed to all, even if only received by some.
Granted, it's going to be more difficult to get a hearing in this day because we all live in a time of what Microsoft researcher Linda Stone calls CPA--continuous partial attention. Owing to modern technology we can answer email, talk to the children, and hold a conversation on our cell phones at the same time with no one thing fully claiming our attention. It will be more difficult to get a hearing now because very little fully claims our attention.
It will be more difficult now because a recent publication on the proliferation of fast food in America confirmed what many of us suspected all along: that the McDonald Golden Arches have now replaced the Christian cross as the more widely recognizable symbol in the world. Just As I Am has been replaced by you deserve a break today. It will be more difficult now because of the many implications of the post-modern era with its dismissal of metanarratives and its debunking of truth with a capital T.
But tell it we must, for there is power in the telling of that old, old story. Too oft times we want to be deep and profound in our telling, but I encourage seminarians just to get the basic story straight. For there is power, wonder-working power in the telling of that old Story of the Crucified One.
Tell them of Jesus Christ, tell them that he was born in Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, baptized in the Jordan, tempted in the wilderness, preached in Galilee, was arrested in Gethsemane, tried in Caesar's court, died on Calvary's cross, and rose from Joseph's tomb. Tell it! Tell it when you are up and tell it when you are down. Tell it when all is well and tell it when all is hell. Tell it when you are well received, and tell it when you are absolutely not believed. Tell it until sinners are justified. Tell it until hell is terrified. Tell it until Jesus is magnified. And tell it until God is satisfied. Amen.