Saturday, July 30, 2011

Paul's Greek Adventure

[Right:  Painting by Kennedy A. Paizs of St. Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)]

The second reading for today's Divine Office is from Acts 17, and it set me to thinking about what Paul's experience of preaching at the Areopagus must have been like. This was his 2nd missionary journey. He, along with Silas and Timothy, ran into some major trouble in Thessalonica, where he had preached in the local synagogue so convincingly over three Sabbath days that some Jewish believers, as well as some devout Greeks and, Luke says, "not a few of the leading women"  became followers of Jesus. Such "sheep-stealing" didn't go down well with the majority of the synagogue members. They began a protest among the local gentry, into the marketplace where they enlisted the help of some "ruffians". Paul and Silas ran for cover. Accusing Paul and his band as "these people who have been turning the world upside down [and] have come here also", the crowd searched for them, in the meantime attacking Jason, the host of the preachers, and others, and hauled them before the local authorities on the charge of "acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor" by referring to Jesus as "King". After shaking Jason and company down for some bail money, probably under the excuse of a "slow economy", the city officials release them.

By night the Christian community sends Paul and Silas off to Beroea, the next town, where they do a repeat teaching session in the local synagogue. Even though the Beroean Jews, as well as "not a few Greek women and men of high standing", seem more receptive, the gang from Thessalonica pursues Paul there and continues to stir up trouble. With that, Paul is sent off to Athens, on the coast, for safety, while Silas and Timothy remain behind. Paul's final directive to his chaperones is to have Silas and Timothy join him ASAP.

Luke continues: "16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols." One can imagine Paul, ever restless and eager to tell people about Jesus, walking the streets of Athens, taking in all the astounding architecture and listening in on the heady philosophical conversations which characterized the city at that time, looking for an "angle" to convey "the mystery hidden for ages". 

Following his usual preaching routine, he can't stay away from "his" Jewish people: "17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there." Nothing like a bunch of rabbis for a lively discussion! We can imagine Paul also being the sort who "never met a stranger", probably walking right up to folks in the marketplace and initiating  conversation. Maybe even some form of "Are you saved?" 

Here in Athens, unlike some of the other podunk places which Paul missionized, he would have run into some rather well-trained and intelligent academics. Luke notes: "18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Basically, they challenged him to "Show us what you got".

Paul unabashedly accepts their challenge, so filled was he with passion for spreading the good news about Jesus the Christ. From what Luke says next, one assumes that Paul knew Greek, which was a plus. Intellectually, given his very fine Hebrew upbringing, he could easily hold his ground with these folks. "22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way." A compliment isn't never out of place as a good way to start a sermon.  

"23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" Brilliant stategy: take something with which they're familiar, then expand on what is really means. 

"What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things." I'm guessing that on this point the hearers were pretty comfortable. 

26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said,
'For we too are his offspring.' " Had we been standing in that crowd on the Areopagus, we might have noticed a few people becoming a little restless at this point. Greek philosophers had grappled for centuries trying to understand life, human beings, the origin of things, and had been all over the map in their conclusions, not necessarily coming to Paul's conclusion. For sure, many of them probably had "groped" for the existence and meaning of God.

Paul is clear in his mind about one thing, and wants to set the Greeks right about it: "29 Since we are God’s offspring, 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." I don't know if there were statues and representations surrounding them there at the Areopagus, though I'd imagine there were. Undoubtedly Paul caught their attention, and probably more than a few snuck furtive glances at representations of any deities that might've been there. 

Now Paul comes to the real message he wants to offer them: "30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’" There were probably a few winces at the words "commands", "repent", probably even some audible groans, hissses, and/or other manifestations at the phrase "the dead".

That, as Luke notes, pretty much did Paul in! "32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’" It probably wasn't the first time people had ridiculed Paul or walked away from his sermon. Some of us preachers have experienced similar situations. It really does hurt when you've tried your best to honestly share deep convictions about your faith.

Luke intimates that it wasn't all bad news, though: "33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them." Dionysius [Denis] the Areopagite shouldn't be confused with the later 6th century Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius was apparently a judge of the Areopagus when he heard Paul preach, and, touched by what he said, believed. Early Church legend has it that he became the second bishop of Athens. Damaris, whom Luke also mentions, living around 55 AD in Athens, also embraced the Christian faith following Paul's presentation. She may have been of high social status, since only such women were allowed to assist the Areopagus meetings. This may be the reason why her name has been especially recorded. According to Christian tradition she may even have been the wife of Dionysius the Areopagite, and she is remembered to be his faithful assistant in organizing the early church in Athens when her husband later became bishop there. Apparently, for Luke the Evangelist, having such elite citizens converted to the new faith was very important. It served as an example of sacrificing luxury and wealth in order to serve Christ.

Perhaps the moral of the narrative, if there is one, might be that we should take great care, as Paul undoubtedly did, about what we say about our faith and how we say it, not to mention about how we live it in practice. You never know the one or two persons who may be really listening and taking what you say to heart. You could even, unknowingly, help set that person(s) on the way to a unique and wonderful relationship with Jesus.

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