Reflection – Sharing the Gospel
by Peter Mitchell.
‘In him do we live and move and have our being.’
An alien environment
It sometimes happens that, unexpectedly, we find ourselves in an alien environment, or perhaps in an environment where we may be thought of as aliens; somewhere in time or space where we hadn’t planned to be but circumstances have brought us here. We may be encountering new and strange things, some of which make us feel uncomfortable, insecure or unsafe, or which even horrify us. And we may discover that we have to experience this without our usual support network of family, friends and colleagues. How best might we respond to this? Ought we to find a way to lie low, to keep safe and to wait until help arrives or until we find a way back to more familiar, trusted ground? Ought we to explore our surroundings a little, to see if positive opportunities might present themselves amongst the challenges and to find purpose in our current situation? Or can we, in fact, find a way to do all of these things in some measure?
In last Sunday’s reading from Acts Acts 17:22-31 NRSVA we read that the Apostle Paul has experienced something like this during his second missionary journey. Paul and his companions, Silas, Timothy and probably now also Luke, have crossed the Aegean Sea from Asia to Macedonia and have made their way through Philippi to Thessalonica. Possibly Paul intended then to cross northern Greece, on the ancient Via Egnatia, and to continue over the Adriatic Sea to Brindisi, in Italy, and on to Rome; the Holy Spirit seems to have had other ideas though, for things turned out somewhat differently.
A riot in the city
As usual, Paul had proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue in Thessalonica and some of the Jews and devout Greeks were persuaded by his message. But there was conflict with other Jews who, with the local pagans, started a riot in the city and Paul was caught in something of a religious and political maelstrom. To calm things down, the believers in Thessalonica arranged for Paul and his companions to leave the Via Egnatia and to head inland and south of the main road to Beroea, where the Jews were more receptive and welcoming. But when the Jews of Thessalonica heard of this, they too headed for Beroea and stirred up trouble there as well, so the believers arranged for Paul to move on again. This time, Silas and Timothy were left behind and Paul was taken back to the coast and then all the way south to Athens.
Alone in Athens
Alone, in the unfamiliar surroundings of the great capital city of Athens, his plans interrupted by the need to flee from extreme Jewish opposition, Paul didn’t like what he found, a city full of idols and false gods. Did he decide to lie low for a while and to wait for his companions to join him? No, not exactly, although he did take more care to try to avoid the sort of violent conflict he had experienced in Thessalonica. But, having already tested the power of the gospel against the zealous Jews and against the economic and political forces of the Roman Empire, Paul wasn’t going to overlook the opportunity to see how the gospel would match up to the challenge of this major centre of ancient, classical philosophy, the intellectual hub which dominated much of the developed world’s thinking at that time. So, Paul argued with Jews in the synagogue and argued in the market place with anyone who might like to debate with him. This time his words aroused curiosity more than anger and Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus, the highest court in the city, set on Mars Hill, where it looked down on the famous market place and across to the even more famous Acropolis.
Meeting people where they are
Now Paul had the platform he desired to denounce the beliefs and practices of the Athenians and to proclaim the Word of the one true God and the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. We might be forgiven at this point for thinking that it would have taken very little time indeed for the educated Greeks to take exception to Paul’s teaching. However, Luke includes this short summary of Paul’s speech to demonstrate, amongst other things, how wisely and skilfully Paul could preach the gospel to people of widely differing backgrounds to his own. Paul knows that it is important to meet people where they are, to engage with them, to acknowledge their worldview and to speak their sort of language before trying to get their attention, to stimulate their interest and to teach them, then to use examples with which they can associate in order to illustrate that teaching and to encourage them, in a non-threatening way, to open their minds to new possibilities; especially if this will involve rethinking existing strongly held beliefs.
Respect, tolerance and sensitivity
Paul is fully committed to Christian mission and his theology is usually robust and uncompromising but the process is carefully adapted to suit his audience and the prevailing circumstances. His mottos might well be, “Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32) and “… we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). To fellow Christians Paul is clear that other gods do not exist and are merely idols, the worship of which is demon worship. Publicly, however, Paul refuses make any attack on people of other faiths, openly treating them with respect, with tolerance of their beliefs and with cultural sensitivity. Only then does he offer bold, unqualified, critical analysis of those faiths and unapologetically bear witness to the Christian faith, the only true faith; affirming that their lives do have meaning, just not the one that they thought that they had, and asking them to exchange their rich profusion of religious props for a simple faith in one man, our risen saviour. Paul doesn’t pull any punches in his opposition to idolatry but, mostly, he manages to achieve this in a sympathetic, inclusive, loving way, which is the mark of the best of Christian evangelists.
Good news for pagans
In Athens Paul successfully holds in tension the differences between competing schools of philosophy, notably the Epicureans and the Stoics; effectively saying to both parties, you are right in your thinking …… up to a point, …… and I can explain how you can develop your right-thinking further, and how you can re-think some of your other beliefs in line with this, to your advantage. He uses examples from local culture to open conversation with his hosts, in this case reference to a famous altar dedicated ‘to an unknown god’ and a quote from the pagan poet Aratus, but he cannot be accused of syncretism nor of watering down the gospel to curry favour with his listeners, for he picks up on their slogans only to do something very new with them, sweeping away, with a subtly nuanced blend of compliment and criticism, much of their much valued tradition. New believers, wherever they are, will meet the risen Jesus and come to faith on God’s terms, not on their own; good news for pagans is not that they are more or less all right as they are but that, although they are in fact completely wrong, the one God who made them loves them and longs to remake them, so that they will finally fulfil their calling to reflect his image in the world.
Power to transform lives
And the basis of the gospel message is the same today as it was in Paul’s day; through the working of the Holy Spirit, it continues inherently to hold the same power to transform people’s lives. Can we be as flexible as Paul in proclaiming its truth? Unlike Paul, we haven’t moved, but the world has changed around us and, like Paul, we have left behind some of our familiar companions and props; can we, like Paul, adapt the way in which we share the gospel to suit our different circumstances? Can we take people’s new worldview as our meeting point? As we look around us and take in the details of this new landscape, what can we find that we can use to keep the gospel fresh, attractive, accessible, relevant and full of the energy to motivate disciples, new and old; whilst, at the same time, taking care of ourselves, keeping other people safe and being sensitive to people’s pressures, anxieties and different personal needs, both today and for the future? For many things will be different for a long while yet and some changes will never be undone. But God is the same, yesterday, today and for ever and, happily, it is not in our own strength that we face this challenge but in God’s strength and trusting in him alone; for on him all our hope is founded and in his loving care do we live and move and have our being.
Put thou thy trust in God, in duty’s path go on; walk in his strength with faith and hope, so shall thy work be done.
Reader (Lay Minister)