Paul’s trip to Athens reported by Luke in Acts 17 is part of Paul’s second missionary journey. His journey had already met with mixed responses but prior to coming to Athens he had been in a place called Beroea and had predominantly shared his message with the Jewish community. The contrast between his proclamation and encounter in Beroea an Athens could not have been more different.
At Beroea Paul met with a Jewish community and as a Jew and as a teacher of the law by background he was in familiar territory. Now whilst some of the Jewish communities had not received Paul’s message well it appears in Beroea the case was different. The people listened and appeared to welcome his message.
In verses 11 and 12 of chapter 17 we read:
“These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.”
In Athens, however, Paul was encountering a very different community in a city replete with Temples, shrines and statues of gods. Whilst he did speak with the Jewish community in Athens Paul also spoke to many gentiles as well. These were people who did not share the monotheistic Jewish mindset and had little understanding of anything much of what Paul had to say. His debates with some of the philosophers led to him being taken to the Areopagus to address the community and explain his ideas. It was a foreign place.
At the last meeting of the Queensland Synod Dr Aaron Ghiloni presented one of the Bible Studies and despite my jetlag I was struck by his tagline “We’re not in Beroea anymore!” and we are definitely not!
By suggesting we are not Beroea anymore I believe Aaron was telling us as church that the situation we find ourselves in now is more akin to the Athenian Areopagus than to the Beroean synagogue. We are a in a strange place. People do not speak about God in the way they have in the past, despite the claim that our county is based on Christian values we have no state religion, and for many the stories of the scriptures and of our faith are simply unknown.
Yet in some ways the situation we find ourselves in now is even more complex and difficult than the place Paul found himself in Athens. At least in Athens Paul was able to point at the city and say, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” This is certainly not true of our Australian culture and even though there is great interest in spirituality it is viewed as a completely private matter and in general people who are searching don’t often think they will find it in the church.
On the front cover of the most recent issue of the magazine The NewScientist were the words “World Without God” and inside a most telling article entitled “God not-botherers: Religious apathy reigns”. The article is focussed on the United Kingdom and I would like to share a few words from the article:
Just under half of British adults profess no religious affiliation; Christians of all denominations are in a minority. That drift away from religion is an interesting phenomenon. The UK isn't becoming a country of committed atheists. Most of the unaffiliated neither accept nor reject religion: they simply don't care about it. In that respect, the UK looks a lot like much of the developed world.
Let me just say again that most people simply don’t care about it. Whilst this is a study of the UK it is entirely pertinent to our Australia context which is probably even more so a place where people simply don’t care about god and religion as long as you keep it yourself.
As Aaron said at the Synod we are certainly not in Beroea anymore and I would suggest to you neither are we in Athens.
It may be the case that Paul’s identification of the Athenians as religious and devout is of little use to us if we are to engage in witnessing to God’s love in this 21st century Australian culture. And, even more troubling for us as Christians, is that the things that we have trusted as central in the expression of our faith may now be impediments for us as we think about inviting others into a relationship with God.
As we look around this congregation and other local congregations both the more traditional and the more contemporary expressions we are a tiny segment of our community and based on census figures the whole church is continuing to shrink in size. It is easy to forget how much the world has changed around us when we primarily interact within this space with others who are of a like mind. Yet, when we really think about we know the world has moved on and that as followers of Jesus we are now in a very strange place.
Listening to Paul address the Athenians whilst we have no correlation in terms of the devout practices of those ancient peoples there are two things which I believe can continue to give us hope and be good news for us. The first is that Areopagus as the place where the world of ideas meets is now far broader and more far-reaching than a hill in the middle of the city: it is called the internet and is a public space of sharing. This week 100s of people have visited the websites associated with this congregation. All of us can access the Areopagus of our time!
The second is that we still have a message to share, the same message that Paul shared. The good news the Jesus came and lived and died and rose again and that this gives us hope.