Young Leaders Series V: Proclaiming Christ in the New Areopagus

I must make a confession.  I have never really liked Paul.  I say this realizing that I am about to preach about Paul and that I may be risking my credibility as a Protestant minister.

But when I think about Paul, I usually focus on his major epistles.  I know that his letters to the churches in places like Corinth, Galatia, and Rome are some of the most important Christian documents in existence.  They tell an amazing story of faithful persistence and outline key principles of faith that define our tradition to this day.  I know all of this.  Still, sometimes, I just can't get past the tone of Paul's speech.  I know I should get past this, but consider the introductions to Paul's letters in The HarperCollins Study Bible:  Pauline experts describe Paul as "ironic and argumentative" and "bitterly polemical."  First Corinthians is called "a letter of exhortation and pastoral counsel," yet the commentator states, "[Paul] reinforces his argument with reprimands, irony, threats, and (less frequently) praise."  Charming, yes?  I often wonder how this PAUL was able to spread the good news of Jesus Christ into the Roman world bringing so many to faith.

So I admit I was surprised as I reflected on the story from Acts--surprised to encounter a respectful, intelligent, and courageous apologist for the faith, in the Paul who preaches the good news in Athens.  I had often heard the story of Paul's sermon at the Areopagus--but I had always just assumed he was bullying his way to winning another debate using clever arguments.  However, my new exploration of the second half of Acts 17 changed my perspective.

At the beginning of our passage, Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens.  As Paul waits in the public spaces of the city, he is disturbed by all of the idols he sees.  He begins conversations about this, first in the synagogue, but then in the marketplace with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  In the course of these dialogues, he begins to preach the good news about Jesus.  Some of the Athenians label him a babbler, while others say, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities."  Now this second charge doesn't seem too serious to us, does it?  Not to us who live in a society where freedoms of speech and religion are societal foundations.  However, the Athens of Paul's time was a different place.  Five hundred years prior to Paul's visit a very famous Athenian, Socrates, was accused of "[proclaiming foreign divinities]."  On account of this charge he was brought to trial at a place called the Areopagus.  In that trial he lost his argument with his accusers and paid with his life.  Paul faces the same charge...Paul is brought to the same place.

Paul isn't just engaged in light interfaith debate; he isn't condescendingly tossing verbal barbs at a crowd of locals.  Paul is risking his very life, before a deadly serious crowd, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to people suspicious of new teachings.  When Paul leaves the Areopagus alive, AND some Athenians at that ancient court say, "We will hear you again about this;" I think it's clear that Paul accomplished something quite surprising before the highest court of Athenian public opinion.

How did this happen?  The key, I believe, is in how Paul begins his sermon at the Areopagus:   "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way."  He then relates how he walked the city and looked carefully at the objects of their worship.

What if Paul's praise of the Athenians was genuine?  What if he really was admiring their dogged pursuit of divine knowledge, their quest for a real relationship with TRUTH?  Perhaps by recognizing the value of their spiritual practices, respecting their culture, and understanding their context, Paul was able to find a way to get the Athenians to receive a message about Jesus Christ.  He discovered a way to make them say, "We will hear you again about this."  Were they taken aback, surprised by the open and respectful engagement they encountered?  Had they expected to simply butt heads with a closed-minded ideologue?  Might they have been expecting irony and bitter polemics?  Did they share my surprise at the Paul they met?

We Christians need to pay attention to what Paul accomplished at the Areopagus--how he engaged the Athenians.  Christendom has been declared dead; Christian cultural values are no longer the undisputed norm.  Mainline Protestant communities no longer dominate American political life.  The fastest growing religious affiliation is "none."  Can we deny that we need to develop new ways of speaking to a skeptical world?  It's not hard to imagine we're in Paul's place--that we're visitors in a new city and we must learn how to proclaim Christ before a new Areopagus.

Not long ago in 2005, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter identifying the situation of the church in the world with the crisis Paul faced at the Areopagus.  In his letter, "On the rapid development of technology in the area of media," John Paul II wrote about the challenges the church faces in proclaiming the gospel message in an increasingly complex world; and he specifically stated "that the first Areopagus of modern times is the world of communications, which is capable of unifying humanity and transforming it into... 'a global village.'"  He goes on to write that "The communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior.  We are dealing with a complex problem, because the culture itself, prescinding from its content, arises from the very existence of new ways to communicate with hitherto unknown techniques and vocabulary."

John Paul II was warning that because of rapid advances in communications and the rise of the internet, the world had changed drastically.  Due to this dramatic shift in the way people engage society and one another, the Church needs to find new ways to relate to people--especially those outside the faith--and new means of proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ.  John Paul's prophetic call to attention was issued almost a full year before (the most widely used social networking website) was available to a general public audience.  Today, one in ten clicks on the internet is on Facebook.

I, for one, believe we should heed John Paul II's words--that we Christians really are facing our own post-modern Areopagus moment.  In this moment--as the ways in which we communicate and relate and our notions of community, are being revised daily--the society that develops and inhabits this new world of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, of blogs and social networks, is engaging in its own conversations about truth and meaning, about God and faith.  Before this new court, Christians are asked to make a decision:  Do we continue with our old ways of being, talking, relating--our ways of being church?  Or dare we risk trying something new?  Can we develop new ways of thinking the faith, living the faith, communicating the faith?  What if we did?  We can't know for sure, but consider this story that illustrates what might happen.

In 1907, North American missionaries were working to spread the message of Jesus Christ all across the Korean peninsula.  The people willing to listen were mostly from the lower classes, and they suffered physical deprivation, political oppression, and social poverty.  Yet, in the midst of these impoverished communities, something surprising emerged.  During a revival in Pyongyang (now the capitol of North Korea), a new kind of prayer exploded among the participants.  This kind of prayer--tong-seong gido or "prayer aloud together"--was a jumble of voices all praying at once, many crying out in anguish and violent throes of emotion.  This cacophony of voices as prayer was unfamiliar to the missionaries, a great surprise to those "bringing and teaching the faith" to a foreign people.

Now, amazingly, instead of discouraging a practice not a part of the faith they had known, the missionaries served as witnesses to a new movement of the Holy Spirit among Korean Christians.  Not shying away from what they saw--not labeling it heretical--these missionaries allowed the message of Christ to be conveyed using "hitherto unknown techniques and vocabulary."  Since that time Korean prayer practices, particularly tong-seong gido, have formed the backbone of a vibrant expression of the Christian faith, providing a foundation for the explosion of Korean Christianity.  Could those missionaries have imagined what was to come?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  But imagine how different things might have been if they had closed off the possibility of this new engagement of Korean culture and Christian faith in prayer.

So what about us?  John Paul II already laid out the challenge:  How are we going to learn to spread the message of Jesus to a world that communicates, relates, and lives differently from any other before it?  If we are to follow Paul's example before the Areopagus, what should we do?

I don't have all the answers to these questions.  Bu, I do want to use my reflection on Paul in Athens to call for certain approaches to these challenges.

First, I believe we need to spend time understanding the residents (especially non-Christian) and the geography of this world of new media and communications.  We CANNOT just do this with the aim of finding the first clever trick to recruit the residents of this new reality to our cause.  Too often, Christian communities and institutions engage in the use of technology and social media only to better market themselves.  We are too quick to see non-Christians we encounter only as warm bodies to bolster our declining memberships, pledging units to be tapped, targets for our message.  When it comes to media, these people are savvier than we are and they can see right through us.  If we want to stand a chance in conversation with them, we need to genuinely live into their world and engage them for the sake of truly understanding how they live and what matters to them.

Spend some time following the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings of those who live around, but not in, our churches.  You'll find that they are paying attention to the same social issues and problems that Jesus engaged through his ministry.  Read their blogs and spend time in their chat rooms--they care deeply about spiritual connection and community, even about their relationships with God.  I believe that we who would represent the Church and Jesus need to be able to know the language and the lives of people outside the church well enough to be able to say, much as Paul did to the Athenians, "We see that you are extremely thoughtful and sincerely spiritual people in your daily lives.  We honor that and we have looked carefully enough to know those things about which you care most deeply."  Unless we get to this point, in a genuine way, how will we develop the means to convey our message about Jesus in a way they can receive?  Paul communicated the truth about Jesus in a way that resonated with the Athenians' own search for divine truth.  Can we follow his lead?

Next, we need to commit fully to real engagement with a world increasingly filled with "spiritual but not religious" individuals, even if it means that we might be at risk of losing the church that we know and love.  Paul did not enter into dialogue with the philosophers of Athens without risk.  On the contrary, the story makes it clear that Paul was willing to give his life.  Even a decade ago, nearing his own end, John Paul II understood how drastically the world was changing, how radically the nature of human existence was being transformed by the rapid advance of technology and communications.  His challenge to all of us, to learn new methods and new vocabularies, reveals that he knew the Church could no longer remain what it had always been if it was to become what our world, desperate for God's grace, would need in the years to come.

This is the message revealed to me in the new Paul I encountered in Acts 17:  that unless we are willing to approach the context of those around us with real understanding, respect, and humility--and unless we are willing to risk all that we HAVE and all that we ARE to enter into dialogue with them--we cannot be faithful to our call to make sure that the good news of Jesus Christ is spread to all we meet.  Will our primary focus of conversation remain inside our own walls, where we use language only we understand to debate issues that are of vital importance only to us?  Are we content to continue simply being the church that we have been, busy with our age old practices, comforting to us but lifeless and constricting to outsiders?  Can we stop being the threatening and threatened, argumentative Paul of the epistles that I used to dislike?  Can we be the open, outwardly focused, genuinely engaged, and selfless Paul of the Areopagus I now admire?  Can we surprise those who have been wary of us for so long?

If we can move away from closed off ways of practicing our faith, if we can move toward the outward focus and selfless conviction of Paul in Athens, I believe we can experience great new revelations of the presence of God's Holy Spirit among us today.  Yes, this might mean that we have to start practicing our faith in contexts and in ways that are uncomfortable and even scary for us; and as we move into the process, we might feel like we are in danger of losing parts of who we have been or of crossing lines that we never wanted to even approach.  Yet, it is critical for us to find genuine engagement with a world that is being daily refashioned through shifts in technology and communication.  In doing so, I believe that just like the early missionaries in Korea who bore witness to whole new ways of being in conversation with God and an explosion in faith, we will have an opportunity in this modern Areopagus to develop new communities of conversation and discover new ways of telling the world the good news of Jesus Christ.

If we do so with the same sincerity and conviction of Paul in Athens, then I am convinced that we, too, can surprise those around us.  I pray that we will have the courage to achieve a new way to proclaim Christ before this modern Areopagus and that we will move them to say, "We will hear you again about this."