In Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles, and this Sunday finds us in Athens with Paul as he spoke to the governing council (Acts 17:22-31). It is a passage that is often used as classic exemplar of preaching skill and evangelising engagement. Paul had been talking about Jesus and the Gospel to everyone whose ear he could bend: the Jewish community, Everyman in the marketplace, the Epicurean religious sceptics and the Stoic ethicists striving for a life of virtue and harmony with nature. The Athenian leaders were curious and invited Paul to tell them more. Paul reached out to his audience through respectful referencing to what was already part of their religious and cultural fabric and used this to introduce God and human relationship with him.
In this passage we see Paul’s gift of connecting with others and speaking their language to communicate the Gospel. He found opportunities to talk about God in all sorts of places and he was willing to fail in most cases for the sake of just a few fruitful conversations.
We know from archaeological sources that there was indeed a temple in Athens dedicated to an unknown god. In a nation with a pantheon of gods, perhaps the Athenians were simply hedging their bets, making sure they had not left out an influential deity. Perhaps this was part of God’s great plan, that when Paul arrived in Athens there would be a resource he could use to make known the God with no name other than I AM, God of all existence, and yet the God who invites everyone into knowing him personally in Jesus. Perhaps the fact of the Athenian curiosity and culture of debate was a mark of people constantly seeking deeper understanding and meaning in life.
This seems to resonate now. While people in our culture are not as Paul expressed at the Areopagus – ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way’ (v22) – we do know that today many people claim to believe in something divine, ‘other’ and are searching for a spiritual unknown and a sense of meaning in life. So, what are the community spaces we move in? Who is asking the questions around us and what are the questions? We don’t have to have Paul’s preaching skills and evangelising engagement; we just need to be willing to enter the conversation and to trust the Holy Spirit to shine light into the fog of uncertainty and the exploration of the unknown.
Image adapted by LG from BBC material, with thanks.