The Church in the Real World

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 29, 2018

Acts 17: 16-31 (CEB)
While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought.30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

You have probably heard the phrase, “be in the world, but not of the world.” We Christians talk about this a lot as key to following Christ even as we live in this world. In fact, we say it so often that I suspect there are many who assume this is a Bible verse, but it’s actually not. It is certainly, in many ways, a faithful conglomeration of several Bible verse, but there is no one verse in any translation of the Bible that reads, “Be in the world but not of the world.” But there is a verse, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he writes “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” So which is it? Are we to be “in the world, but not of the world?” or are we to be “all things to all people?” These two ideas just don’t seem to go together. If we are going to be “all things to all people,” then surely we will end up being “of the world.” Right?

It’s certainly possible, but I think in this passage from Acts we read this morning, Paul models for us a different way. True to his self-description, as Paul speaks to the council on Mars Hill, he is being as a Greek to the Greeks, he is “speaking their language” (so to speak). But even as he draws upon the wisdom of great Greek poets and philosophers, Paul’s message is “not of this world.”

When I was in seventh grade, I joined several of my peers for a student exchange to Japan. First, several students from Oak Ridge’s Sister City, Nagamachi, Japan, traveled to my hometown. We housed one of these students for the two weeks they were visiting our city and our country. Her name was Asami, and there was a pretty significant language barrier, but that was just one of many differences. With the guidance of teachers and city leaders, my parents and I made preparations to welcome Asami and provide for her an authentic American experience during her stay. We prepared the guest room and planned meals of classic American foods like hamburgers and hot dogs. Everything that we did, Asami did, so that she could gain a greater understanding of life in the U.S. But almost as quickly as Asami and her peers arrived, we were bidding them farewell.

Just a few months after their departure, I prepared to board a plane and visit Nagamachi, Japan, myself. But before we went, there were many things we had to learn; basic Japanese phrases—like “thank you,” and “where’s the bathroom?” Myy peers and I also spent a lot of time learning about Japanese history and customs. As we prepared to go and live with a Japanese family for two weeks, this was important information to have. My hosts in Nagamachi were Asami and her family. For two weeks I slept on a futon (which was rolled out on the floor, by the way), I ate all kinds of Japanese foods (some good, some strange, and some not so good), and I lived as Asami and her family live. It was a great experience, and part of what was great about it was getting a full understanding of Japanese life as I lived it alongside Asami and her family. But the thing is, those two weeks didn’t make me Japanese. I came home at the end of our exchange, and after sleeping off the jet lag, I integrated right back into my normal, American, teenage life.

This morning, we are once again looking at Paul’s ministry in the early years of the church. Paul was a Roman citizen and a convert to Christianity. But as you heard in the Scripture reading early, Paul has made his way to Athens, the center of Greek culture. Athens was the seat of Greek learning and philosophy; the seedbed of much that would become central to Western thought and civilization. This was the home of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the great poet Homer. To say that Athens was a bit out of Paul’s wheelhouse would not be overstating the reality. Yet, as Paul enters the city, he takes in all the signs and symbols of the Athenians’ religion. So when he is pulled before the council on Mars Hill because he seems to be a “proclaimer of foreign gods,” Paul is able to connect with the people because he recognizes that like himself, these Athenians are also highly religious. But Paul uses the signs of their religion, and in particular the inscription on the altar that read, “To an Unknown God,” to share with the Athenians a new way, a new religion. And even as Paul reveals this way to the people around him (we can imagine his speech was much longer than what is recorded here), he drew from the language of Socrates and quoted a great Greek poet. Paul did this because he knew it would help the people understand what he was explaining to them. But it didn’t detract from the truth he was declaring.

It’s like understanding the culture of Japan by living it for a few weeks. You can describe a Japanese fish pizza to me all day long, but until I taste it, I won’t really understand. This is like talking to a teacher who is a soon-to-be parent. I wouldn’t say to that person, being a parent is like being a pastor; that’s not something the teacher will connect to. But if I say, being a parent is like being a teacher and went from there, the person would more fully understand what I was describe to them. Jesus did this kind of thing all the time. Remember when he called his first disciples? Jesus told some fishermen that he would make them “fish for people.” Christ could have told those guys he was going to make them heal people, and save people, and connect people to the living God, but that doesn’t make sense until he speaks in their language—you will “fish for people.” He was using their experience, their understanding of the world, to help them see that in following him, they were going to catch people for God!

Paul was being “all things to all people so that [he] could save some by all possible means.” This, however, does not also mean that by quoting philosophers and poets, Paul was also being “of this world.” We tend to get pretty “judgy” about this kind of stuff. We claim that people who use “worldly” language to proclaim the Gospel are only proclaiming some watered down version of the good news. But Paul’s proclamation is not watered down at all. Even as he drew on the language and experience of the Athenians, Paul proclaimed truth!. He said, “God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth…In God we live, and move, and exist (have our being).” He says much more than that, but isn’t that the Good News? Isn’t that the core of our belief?

Paul’s speech in Athens is tremendously important, and not only because he shared with them the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ. This speech is important because it shows us how to be witnesses in the world. The truth of sharing the Gospel is that it must be translated into the local language of the people. Anywhere that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t thrive. I can’t help but think that one of the greatest challenges before the church in these modern times is our need to connect the gospel message in real, tangible, meaningful ways to the lived experiences of the people around us. For the most part, the church today is not speaking to people’s lives, we are not answering their questions. To help people understand Jesus and the importance of Christ in our lives, we must find metaphors in local life, so that the gospel message is not “lost in translation.” But in order to find those metaphors, we first have to listen to the people around us. The first skill in witnessing is not proclamation, but affirmation—listening to and affirming the lived experiences of the people in our mission field. Only when people know that they are heard, only when they can share freely of their life and know that they are understood, can we witness freely to the power of God in their lives.

The really amazing thing about what Paul did as he witnessed there in the heart of Athens was that in “speaking their language,” he essentially said to them, “I’m here to reveal to you what you already know in part.” Paul recognized that already, a seed was planted in the hearts of many of these Athenians. That’s the way God works, and if we are to be effective witnesses sharing the good news in our community and around the world, we must know and always remember that God goes before us. We don’t bring God when we share the gospel. Instead, we trust that God is already there. Our job is to name what is already happening, the work that God is already doing in the hearts and lives of people. And we will be most effective in doing that when the people can understand what we are sharing; “in their own language.”

My friends, far too often, we try to take our version of the “good news” into the world. It’s usually some reflection of a decades old belief system that was formed in us in our younger years. It is wrapped in all kinds of “churchy” insider language that doesn’t make any sense to the world. We go out and we tell people that they need this because it is the right thing, as opposed to whatever wrong thing they are doing. And so our message falls flat. The church will not work this way; the church, even with God’s help, will not change the world in this way. We cannot “impose” church onto a world that doesn’t understand. Instead, to be the church, we have to understand the world around us. We have to listen to the people in our mission field, and in return we must speak their language. But most importantly, we have to remember that God is already working in the world around us—planting seeds and preparing hearts. In knowing and understanding the people around us, we are able to make plain to them the work that God is already doing in their lives.

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