When Paul goes to the Areopgaus he is entering what was really unknown territory. Whilst converting people to Judaism was not unheard of in general the people of God understood themselves to be Jews by birth. Something which I have found remains true today.
Paul finds himself in a different country, addressing people from a different ethnic background and with a different world view. As much as the world view of our era is different from Athens I believe many of us find ourselves in a foreign place, those who have travelled from overseas to join us and those who have lived through the radical changes in Western culture over the last 6-70 years.
This week I read some reflections by the resident of the Uniting Church in Australia contemplating how much the context of the Uniting Church has changed since it began in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. It was an article full of hope but also tinged with truth the way we understood who we were as church 40 years ago and how we lived that out is no longer who we are.
For me the best analogy is to think we have all become missionaries in a foreign land. I want you just to think across the span of your life and reflect on the significant social and technological changes that have occurred. Consider what the big issues are now and think about what they were when you were younger.
Who would like to share?
(Some of my thoughts: music, television, movies, mobile technology, end of Cold War, climate issues, overpopulation, sexual revolution, more people live alone, loss of nuclear family, accessibility to travel, transience in work)
So the world we live in has changed and it has changed significantly: we are struggling to keep up! What can we do? How can we, like Paul, share our message meaningfully?
One of the keys to what Paul does is he shares the message he has not from where he is and what he knows but from people are and what they know. He has taken time to observe and to listen to the culture.
His opening words reflect that he has seen what is happening in Athens and how the people live and how they express themselves. Whilst he may be critical of their idolatry he applauds their commitment in faith. What can we applaud in the culture around us? It is worth occasionally stopping and affirming the achievements of our culture and society as much as we might need to critique it!
Paul uses references in his speech to two significant sources of thinking for the Greek people quoting from a poem by Epimenides, a philosopher poet who lived around 700 years before Jesus, as well as from another poem called Phaenomena by Aratus who lived about 300 years before Jesus. Paul’s knowledge of these philosophers and their work gave him a strong point of connection and by quoting them in the way he did he affirms what he has already inferred that god was already in their midst at work. He even goes as far as to suggest the Greeks are already worshipping God albeit ignorantly, saying ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!’
In this strange and new culture in which we find ourselves embedded the lesson of Paul is to listen and observe and learn and to then to name that God is already at work! Often I hear evangelists quoting bits of the scripture at people but maybe, just maybe, instead of quoting scripture we need to find other points of connection.
In quoting Epimenides and Aratus Paul was appealing to reason and even the ancient scientific view. The poem Phaenomena describes the movement of the stars and the relationship this has to the seasons and agriculture.
Where can we hear echoes of the divine presence in the culture of our time in movies and music, in philosophy and the sciences, in the news and in the daily lives of people? Paul proclaimed the good news that despite his perception of the idolatry and waywardness of the Greeks God was still at work and that God had even been speaking to them through their great thinkers and leaders.
This is good news that we can share too, God is already work and not limited to the Christian community nor only speaks through the scriptures but by the power of the Holy Spirit is present with all peoples – maybe our task is simple to discern and name that presence.