If you've been checking this space lately you know that I've been preaching through the first half of the Book of Acts, with a focus on what it means to be a real-world church. We ended the series last Sunday, and so I thought I'd share a brief version of that final message.
The text was Acts 17:16-28.
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'
The point of this final message was that Paul models the mature life of faith in that he understood what he believed--cognitively and spiritually--and that he was also aware of the beliefs of the people he was trying to reach. But that wasn't the end. What we learn from Paul is that he took the knowledge of his own faith, his awareness of the beliefs of others, and worked hard to find points of connection between the two. That's why he was able to show his Athenian listeners where Christian teaching overlapped with what their own poets had said.
This is such an important message for us. It's too easy to look around and retreat into our own worlds, surrounded by people who believe like us, look like us, and spend like us. The world is a much bigger place than that, and the call to us is to engage it for the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we do that? By following Paul's example of understanding our own faith first, then knowing something about Islam, or contemporary Atheism, or whatever else is the challenge to Christian belief in your neighborhood. Once we've done that it's our job, our responsibility, to find the bridges or points of connection between those different ways of living. Maybe the most important lesson we learn is that it's not about outcomes. Let me say that a different way.
Being a mature disciple of Jesus Christ is more about being faithful than it is about being successful.
There's no indication in the text that people came to faith after Paul's speech. Some people 'sneered', the text tells us. But just after our text ends, at the end of chapter 17, you'll notice that Paul gets invited to speak again. He got a second hearing. By being knowledgeable about his beliefs and those of the Athenians, he earned another chance to share the points of connection between the two. Paul was faithful to the process, and when people asked him to share again, he proved himself to be worthy of the invitation.
It's not hard to find points of connection between biblical faith and the culture around us. The world outside the church is growing in its passionate commitment to the poor, the sick, and to protecting God's creation. Funny, I know I've read something about all three of those in the Bible somewhere. When we can get away from our biases, when we can take our cultural blinders off and just relax a little, then we can see that the time is ripe for finding points of connection between the gospel of Jesus and the concerns of the world. That's good news.
But as we engage these tangible issues we have a responsibility to remember that the world has a need for a savior, too. It’s one thing to connect with the earthly needs we see around us, but when we do that at the expense of sharing the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we stop being a church and we become just another socially-conscious club. That’s not what we’re about. That’s not why God gathered this diverse group of people into this unique place and gave us his name.
My prayer for all of us this place and in all gatherings of Christians, is that we’ll take seriously the call to be the hands and voice and heart of God wherever we go, wherever we live, and wherever we work.
The call on all of our lives is to know God’s story—to know our own stories—and to know the stories of the people around us. The rest is about sharing and helping and loving as Christ showed us in his own ministry.
Being real-world believers in a real-world church is about sharing our experiences of God in ways that are meaningful and authentic—complete with struggles and doubts…and victories and even miracles.
We accomplish that—we live it and make it real—when we commit ourselves to being (say it with me):
Engaged with the culture around us,
Grounded in the Scriptures God gave us,
And alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in each one of our lives.
On our church website we say ‘welcome to the journey’, as a way of understanding the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction, as one writer described it. That journey begins—or continues—right here in this place—right now, and every day going forward.
My prayer for all of us is that we’ll take this calling seriously as we live and worship together as a church in the real world. Amen.