" Mars Hill," Pastor Kinsey
Paul wanders into Athens, Greece – and into the age-old polarity of Reason and Revelation. Up the road, in Thessalonica, Paul had just wore out his welcome, and was actually smuggled out of the city, for his own safety! But the Thessalonians were also a forgiving bunch, it would seem, for Paul’s initial contact there turned out to be seeds well planted, exchanging letters, two of which are found in the NT canon, as Paul helped the believers of the church assembly grow in their faith.
In Athens, Paul has some success with his evangelism – his missionary outreach of sharing the Gospel – but apparently, he starts no church there, though, as Luke says, some Athenians did join Paul, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. So, that’s good news in itself – the gospel Paul preaches results in new believers – both a man and a woman, as happens so often in the book of Acts.
But not everyone comes along, in the city of Reason, the home of Socrates and Plato, and the birth-place of modern democracy. Paul also had contact with the community of Hellenistic Jews that thrived in ancient Athens. But the main religion was the pantheon of paganism, full of idol worship, that, “distresses” Paul, says Luke.
Still, Paul’s tactic is not to talk down, or condemn the people for their beliefs. But Paul engages with the learned lot of Athens in the Agora, or public square, who often “spent their time,” says Luke, “in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” People like the Epicureans, who maintained that, deities, played no role in human affairs. And the Stoic philosophers, who believed that humans should use Reason to live a life of virtue, and to develop a will in accordance with nature. So, following a ‘Son of God’ who took on human flesh, was going to be something of a heavy lift for Paul!
Apparently, at one point, as Paul engaged with them, they were confused when he was sharing about the resurrection. So they invite him to the Areopagus, to speak in a more formal setting, otherwise known as Mars Hill, the city’s chief administrative council, near the Acropolis.
It’s interesting that there’s a church in Michigan, called Mars Hill, a non-denominational mega-church. I’ve heard of it through Rob Bell, the “teaching pastor” who was called there at age 28, and who soon after, wrote the Velvet Elvis – a book we read here in a bible study group when I first came to Unity. The name of the church, Mars Hill, was taken deliberately, based on this passage, to acknowledge that the audience of the church today, is more and more made up of agnostics, like the pagan worshippers of Athens. And so, ‘everything old is new again,’ as they say!
So when Paul is invited up to speak at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, he’s ready, because he’s taken the time to hang-out with the Athenians for a while! He even picks up on their speaking tradition of beginning with a compliment: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” says Paul. Although, as Amy-Jill Levine notes, the Greek phrase for “extremely religious,” can also refer to ‘a superstitious belief,’ in which case Paul could also be speaking sarcastically to them – or, I suspect, the ambiguity comes from the way Luke has expressed it in print, some decades later!
“As I went through the city,” Paul continues, “and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the One who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God Godself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find God — though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For 'In God we live and move and have our being,'” as followers of Plato have been known to say.
Slow but sure, Paul shares his faith, not in ‘so many,’ doctrinal confessions, but by appealing to their self-interest, the worship of idols, and specifically, the altar to an unknown god. Paul transforms their natural curiosity, and belief in many gods, into something new. He shares his belief, that there is one God, the God who made everything. And therefore this God is way too big to be contained in any one shrine. In fact, the God Paul knows, does not need to be served by humans. God has created you and I, and given us this universe to live in. We cannot repay God, but we can worship God, share the good news, and live a life worthy of our calling.
So, how do we share this message in today’s world – on our own Mars Hill – in our post-modern culture of reasoned sceptics and agnostics, who are just our family and friends, those we got confirmed with, all of us who are questioning? The age of Contantinian Christianity is past – which is a good thing for our Faith, but a challenge to the Institution. We find that, sharing the good news of Christ is not a contest, not a debate to be waged, demanding there must be a winner and a loser. Even zealous Paul knew that!
Paul stated his case in such a way as to be sympathetic to his Athenian listener. He appealed to their curiosity, while proudly declared the life-giving gift he found in his God – even without ever saying the name of Jesus. And Luke concludes that the modest number of followers Paul found that day was satisfactory.
By the 4th century, less than 300 years later, after Emperor Constantine made the Christian faith legal in the Roman Empire, the tactics of evangelism became much more forceful. The pantheon of gods was officially abolished, altars torn down, and the Acropolis was converted into a church, in Athens. But such strong-arm tactics failed to win over many more believers than Paul did. And the enlightened parts of the culture of Greece became vulnerable to decline, and war, and destruction, throughout the Middle Ages.
“29Since we are God's offspring,” says Paul to the Athenians, “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance [in the past], now God commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because God has fixed a day on which God will have the world judged in righteousness by an individual whom God has appointed, and of this, God has given assurance to all, by raising him from the dead.”
Reason and Revelation. Notice, I commend a both/and approach here, not an either/or. Paul too, I think, moves back and forth from Reason to Revelation, not exclusive, but being inclusive in his approach. It’s reasonable to us then, as God’s children, that God is not contained in human-made art, however beautiful such gold, silver or stone statues are – but God is living, and continues to reveal who God is to us, in this world. And what God is revealing now is that we have the opportunity to turn around from old ways of faith in idols, whether it’s the love of money, or country, or coveting what our neighbor has, and to choose the God of the living, the God who appointed one righteous person to be raised from the dead as our assurance, a free gift of grace for all.
This revelation of God to the world, does not negate our Reason, but enlivens the life we have been gifted, to more fully understand and appreciate how precious it is, and to use the Reason and brains we have been given, to accept the responsibility we have been tasked with, to tend this Garden, our home, and to make it grow.
Let us go to our own Mars Hill’s, and share the good news!