Someone stopped by my office recently to say hello. He shook my hand and said something rather odd: "You staying out of trouble?" I wasn't really sure if it was a greeting or a question. I wanted to say something cute. But I decided to treat it as a legitimate query. I said: "Well, I try to stay out of trouble, but trouble always seems to find me! In fact, I've about decided that the nature of what I do in ministry is trouble." There was an awkward silence. He gave me one of those funny looks, as if to say, "I'm sorry I brought it up." And then he turned and left.
I've thought about the question since. And I've come a conclusion: if you're looking to stay out of trouble, don't follow Jesus! The more I study the Book of Acts the better I understand that trouble follows Jesus. And trouble follows those who follow Jesus. So if you're earnestly seeking to be a witness for Christ's sake, you can be assured trouble will come to you!
Early on in ministry, I think I envisioned discipleship as a kind of perpetual safety net, a safe haven, a warm blanket. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Discipleship always has a cross in it. Disciples don't avoid trouble. They actually inhabit trouble!
While Paul was seeking refuge in Athens, he ran into trouble! The text begins with the angst of the apostle: "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed," says Luke. The word for distressed is paroxyno. It's actually a medical term for a seizure or an epileptic fit. We use it today of someone who gets upset. "She had a fit," we say or "He spazzed out!" Another translation says Paul was "irked." For good reason, I think!
The city of Athens was absolutely chocked full of idols. Nothing irks a Jewish Christian more than idolatry. It's a violation of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith which, of course, begins, "The Lord our God is one." Our entire theology is rooted in monotheism. Athens was a violation of the first two commandments of the Law: Thou shalt have no other gods before me and no graven images. A monotheist in a polytheistic town? Of course, Paul was irked.
An ancient historian once said of Athens: "It is easier to find a god there, than a man." Everywhere Paul looked, there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Ares, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.
But in spite of the fact that Paul was irked by the culture, he didn't detach himself from the people. He engaged the community. It's impossible to be a witness unless you engage the culture. It's impossible to influence the world if you never leave the church. Typically, when Paul visited a new town, he would begin at the synagogue. There he would find hospitality. There he would find a place to stay, food to eat, a bed to rest, fellowship, community. There he would teach on the Sabbath and explain the Scriptures. But Paul would not remain at the synagogue. He would actually go into the marketplace, into the street, and this is where trouble begins. As long as we keep our faith private and confined to the church, we are alright, but when we go public, there's trouble.
During Jesus' ministry, he didn't settle at the synagogue. He went out to where people lived and worked and played.
In fact, Jesus didn't call a single disciple at the synagogue. He called disciples at the dock, at the tax office, on the hillside. Luke, chapter 5, even goes so far as to say that Jesus invited Peter to follow him while Jesus they were fishing.
The truth of the matter is you can't catch fish unless you go where the fish are! And so Paul went to the streets. He went to the agora. The gathering place. The hub. The place where people assembled.
The agora was the central spot in Greek city-states. In Athens, a university town, academicians and philosophers gathered there and debated, argued and discussed the latest ideologies.
Paul himself was no slouch intellectually speaking. He was a graduate of UT (the University of Tarsus), educated in Jerusalem by the finest Jewish scholar of the 1st century, Gamaliel (5:34), a PhD in the Jewish law. Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel the Elder, one of the great minds of the day. Paul could stand toe to toe with these sophisticated academicians. It's interesting, also, that at first Paul didn't just lecture and preach. Paul used an Athenian technique. We call it the Socratic Method. Q&A. Question and Answer. Dialogue. So Paul's not just using Jewish methodology, he's playing by their rules.
The initial response to Paul was largely negative. They called him a babbler, a cock sparrow, a bird-brain. A retailer of second-hand scraps of philosophy. Others referred to him as a propagandist for foreign deities. Suffice it to say, many of these cultural elites were not buying what Paul was selling. Paul would later say in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the Gospel message is, in fact, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks.
Some, however, were impressed, impressed enough to invite a second hearing. Verse 19 says: They brought Paul to the Areopagus, that is, the hill of Ares, the Greek God of War, the son of Zeus. The Roman name for Ares is Mars. They took Paul to Mars Hill, the place where the Supreme Court of ancient Greece gathered. And here at the place built in honor of the son of Zeus, Paul proclaims the Son of the one true God.
In many ways, I think, this is Paul's finest preaching. He's having to adapt. He's communicating to people who do not share his Bible. These Athenians don't know the Scriptures. The Bible is not their story. It has no authority for them. Of course, as people belonging to the way, the Bible is our starting place.
But how do you teach people who have no concept of Scripture? How do you teach folk who don't recognize the Bible as inspired, God-breathed?
Paul has to find a bridge, a cultural connection whereby he can begin to teach biblical truth. So what does he do? Though he's irked by their idolatry, he actually uses their idolatry as a point of contact.
"Athenians," he says, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way." It's actually an under-handed compliment. In other words, he's saying, "I appreciate your piety. I thought I was pretty spiritual 'til I met you. But you guys take the cake! You're up to your ears in religiosity!" Do you see what he's doing? Rather than Paul using their idols to beat them up, he uses their idols to relate. "You guys are very spiritual!" he says. I see in your statues and shrines--your spirituality. And I applaud that!
"But as I looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'to an unknown god.' What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." And starting with creation, he tells the Gospel story. He shares his witness.
It's interesting that when we don't really know God, anything and everything can assume the place of God.
When I'm not living in devotion to God, anything can take his place. Oh, I may never actually build a shrine or burn an offering, but my attachments and obsessions reveal my idols.
We're all made with a god-shaped hole in our hearts, and we often try to fill it with god-substitutes, which cannot possibly satisfy. Indeed, those substitutes only serve to make us more hungry. But everybody's looking, everybody's searching, everybody's groping. We all have an instinct for God. "We are His offspring," says Paul. Notice, that's a direct quote from one of the Athenian poets, perhaps Aratus. Then Paul quotes another, "In Him we live and move, and have our being." Paul knows the music of Athens. He knows their poets. He understands their culture. Paul has been studying the Athenian culture, not because it's cool, but so that he can relate, connect, and bridge the gap between the unknown and the known.
It's true that the better you know the culture, the better you can empathize with the people, the better you're able to be a conduit to God.
This is incarnational ministry. When God chose to make himself known to the world, He didn't come as some alien that nobody understood. The shepherds didn't come to Bethlehem and say, "Whatizit!" They said, "It's a baby." And the unknowable became known! Not in some generic child, but in a Jewish kid from Nazareth. A bi-vocational carpenter-teacher, who was nailed to a tree, who rose up from the grave, who is coming again to judge the earth. This God is not just a divine mystery. You can know Him! In fact, He wants very much to know you. Indeed, He is not far from you now!
This is what Incarnation means. It's not just our theology. It's our ecclesiology. It's the way we do church. It's the way we do ministry. It's the way we witness. We seek to make known the unknown, by building bridges. Chuck Swindoll once said, "People who inspire others are those who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets."
Sometimes you actually see it. I saw it in the life of my friend Barbara. She died unexpectedly a short time ago. Her father was one of the original sculptors of Stone Mountain. He died when she was just a teen-ager. Barbara's mother had to go to work, and so Barbara helped raise her siblings. She cooked, cleaned, washed, nurtured and loved. For many years she worked at DeKalb Community College. She had a love for the students there, particularly the foreign students who were far from home. She adopted many of them, fed them, cared for them. In one particular situation, she moved an entire family into her own home. They didn't share Barbara's faith, but because of her faith she loved them and cared for them. She was a bridge builder.
Her daughter told me that during the last year of her life she even learned how to text on her cell phone. Seventy-nine years of age and texting! She learned. When I asked her daughter why, she said it was because Barbara loved her grandchildren. She wanted to be a part of their lives. And after all, that's the way they communicate. So she learned their way. She connected on their turf, in their world, and showed love on their terms. Because in Barbara's mind, they were worth the trouble!
She spoke a language that is cross-cultural, cross-generational. We call it Gospel. And she was fluent in it! She was a witness!
"Staying out of trouble?" asked my friend. Not a chance! Not in this lifetime, for I am a witness!
Would you join me in a moment of prayer. O God, we thank you that you have demonstrated through your own Son Jesus Christ that we are worth the trouble of loving. We pray that our lives in your hands might become a conduit to God, that we by our witness might become a bridge for your sake and for the sake of your kingdom. In Jesus' name. Amen.