Delivered at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Poplar Bluff, MO, 6th Sunday of Easter, 5-14-2023
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter3:13-22; John 14:15-21
In getting ready for the sermon today, I actually had to turn to an expert. Our reading from Acts today is Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus is actually a hill in Athens — it literally means “Ares’ Hill”, dedicated to the Greek god of war. But “Areopagus” was also a name for a tribunal that held court on that hill. And at first glance the scripture is not clear as to which is being referred to. And it matters.
So I did what anyone else should do when they’re not certain as to how to interpret a particular piece of scripture: I asked an expert. Luckily, I know a guy. I sent a message to a friend in Cape Girardeau who did his doctoral dissertation on Luke and Acts. In his opinion, the Areopagus that’s being talked about was the tribunal, if only for the fact that reading it this way would match other episodes in Acts where the Apostles are getting in trouble for the message they are bringing. That seems to have happened a lot. He sent me some articles to read, and they all seemed to agree, mostly on the basis some linguistic stuff that I can’t explain because I don’t read or speak koine Greek.
And this matched up with the sense I got from reading the passage before today’s reading, which says that they “took him and brought him to the Areopagus…” It doesn’t sound to me like an engraved invitation. It sounds more like they dragged him there.
When I was younger, we were taught that the Areopagus was basically a debating society, a place where ideas were discussed. As it turns out, it was not.
It was a court. A tribunal.
A court that judged matters of violence, and of religion.
It was a court that had the power to pronounce sentence of death.
Paul was there because he had been dragged there.
He was arguing for his freedom or, perhaps, for his life.
Perhaps that’s why Paul seems so conciliatory. He seems to be going out of his way to flatter the Athenians: “I see you are very religious.” This is especially interesting when you consider what Paul said about pagans in his letter to the church in Rome, when he said that pagans knew better than to worship idols, that they knew there was only one God, and therefore deserved God’s wrath. Paul never was one to back down from a good fight. This has led scholars to question whether the speech at the Areopagus is really Paul’s words, or that the author of Acts was putting words in Paul’s mouth.
One thing we always have to remember when reading the gospels and Acts: history at the beginning of the Christian era was not the same thing as history today. When people wrote “history”, it was to make a point. In the case of the Gospels, the evangelists wrote because they wanted to ask a loaded question: Who was Jesus. In the case of Acts, we are seeing Luke’s (or whoever the author was) view of the early growth of the Church. And, as is even the case today, personal opinions sometimes get thrown in.
But let’s look at it this way: in his letter to the Romans, Paul wasn’t speaking to pagans, he was speaking to Christians, and one of the things he was warning them about was the danger of slipping back into paganism. At the Areopagus, Paul was speaking to pagans and hoping to convert at least some of them away from their worship of many gods, turning them to the worship of the one true God and his Son, Jesus. I don’t think his approach from Romans would have worked very well at all.
Nor would it work as a legal defense! Insulting the judge is never a good idea when you are on trial for your life! Any attorney worth their pay will tell you that.
Now, most of you know that I am a professor at Three Rivers College. I use language — ways of speaking — with my friends that I would never use with my students, and I’m sure that those present who are currently teaching or have been teachers in the past would agree that you use different approaches with your friends than with your class. Different approaches with different people.
Even if Luke is actually putting words in Paul’s mouth —Luke is obviously a huge fan of Paul — there is, I think, a lesson for us to learn in respect to evangelism, and that his: evangelism isn’t a one-size-fits-all matter. Evangelism must be adaptive.
I think that Paul knew the Greeks would be more receptive if he started by complementing them, so he did, even though he knew their religion was…well…wrong. He found a way to approach them through their own religion, by claiming that their one statue to an unknown God was, in fact, pointing to the one true God who created the world and all that is in it.
And this is the lesson for us. We are all called to be evangelists in some form or another. All of us. We may not be called to be preachers like Paul, but we are still called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. What this does NOT mean is standing in the marketplace shouting at people. It doesn’t mean going up to people and confronting them while demanding “DO YOU KNOW JESUS?”, or flat out telling them they are going to hell. As the old saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
But we tend to be afraid of evangelism. We’re afraid of saying something. Afraid of being singled out as weird. Afraid that we’ll be tagged as “ultra-religious” or some such. We should keep today’s reading from the 1st Epistle of Peter in mind:
“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
Isn’t this a good description of Paul’s speech?
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be intimidated.
Be ready to explain the Gospel.
Do it with gentleness and reverence.
And you too can be like Paul.
You too will be an evangelist.