The best version of ourselves
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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Our reading today comes from Acts 17:22–31,
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
A long time ago, when people could go out for walks, go out to work, sit next to each other, I decided that I wanted to do something for my community. A colleague invited me to consider joining the local Rotary Club. Its motto was “service above self”. “Great,” I thought, “Doing something worthwhile to support my local and global community.” I became a signed-up member, meaning I could eat food and attend meetings, a new hobby of eating, community development, new friendships, learning about others. My first meeting was about how we might go about modernizing the Rotary Club. I was at least 25 years younger than most of the other members there. I didn’t know that there were so many rules, regulations, and bye-laws. All I wanted to do was enjoy the company whilst raising money for local community groups. Gosh, what a surprise, all of these laws. I really wasn’t interested in the finer workings of Rotary. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
Just to recap a little bit, we are continuing our journey through the lectionary readings until Pentecost, which are interestingly all based in the book of Acts. A few weeks ago, we heard Peter’s speech, how he got them thinking about how to live their lives in the light of the Holy Spirit. Next, we saw how the community of faith grew, and then last week we heard how it was that the death of Stephen, the food delivery man, began a backlash from the authorities, meaning that the new church had to scatter themselves into the outer regions, something they had not planned, but yet it fulfilled Jesus’ desire that people would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
This week, we come to another speech, this time spoken by Paul in Athens as he uses the cultural cue of the shrine of an unknown God, and chooses them to introduce this to the Greeks, who are very well known to have a culture of gods, and philosophy, and a higher way of learning. It’s here that I think about how my thoughts about Rotary Club might begin to align with Paul’s way of introducing an unknown God. You see, it’s my view that people don’t join clubs in order to follow the rules. That may be assumed. I didn’t join rotary to learn about all the laws. I just wanted to get stuck into the action about communities. The last thing I wanted to do was get bogged down into the minutiae of the law.
Similarly, with Christianity, people, I don’t think become Christians so that they can sign up to a set of rules or beliefs or doctrines. They sign up because they want to follow Jesus. Of course, the Greeks were up for a bit of philosophy, it was their thing, as was worshipping a whole host of different gods. Here was Paul in Areopagus, the highest law court in Athens, giving it his all, explaining to the Stoics and the Epicureans that what they were looking for wasn’t quite right. That everyone, their poets included, weren’t looking in the right direction for the one God. Perhaps today in our country, people aren’t looking for a philosophy or belief system to worship in the same way that the Greeks were. Maybe our task wasn’t to convert people. Maybe our task was always to gently help others become interested in Jesus. Perhaps for us, it’s less about telling people about the beliefs we hold, and more about the lives we live, and intentionally showing Jesus to them. As many folk today do not profess to hold a knowledge of any god, whilst the Greek culture was multi-god centred, perhaps Paul found it easy to convict some of them about this unknown God, and even that they were all God’s children.
I know that I was never much of a traditional evangelist. Being called to talk to others about Jesus by knocking on the door of a stranger: scary. Perhaps it’s easier for us to remain in our church buildings and offer programmes and activities to entice people in, befriend them and hope that a bit of Jesus will rub off on them. Recently, we looked at whether “ consumer church” is now over because of coronavirus. This is where the church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services, a place where people come to be fed, and to attend courses. Whether we’re being forced into becoming a more missional church, where this body of people are gathered together somehow, for worship, community engagement, and teaching, and then to be sent out to our daily lives. I’ve had a few conversations and discussions about this lately. Who are we becoming as a church now that we can’t gather in our building? What will it mean if we can’t gather in the old way? How scary is that for us? How exciting might it be for others?
I wonder whether the context of Paul’s speech to the Athenians in verse 27 of our reading today helps. Verse 27 in the English Standard Version that I was reading from earlier, says this, “that they should seek God in the hope that they might feel their way towards Him and find Him.” That they may feel their way towards Him and find Him. For me, faith has never been about just following the rules. Maybe for decades or centuries, Christianity has focused on the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” rather than introducing people to our God, who might be unknown to them, but who nonetheless is their father. That’s what Paul is talking to the Greeks about here, faith, and it being a journey, not just, “I didn’t believe and now I do believe.” Faith is a journey that is best taken together, so that we can put one another straight when the need arises, to journey together so that we feel our way towards God.
This feeling our way towards Him makes me wonder whether it’s often a scramble or perhaps a groping around in the darkness to find that next step sometimes. Is this permission almost to be free from the regulations of legalism? Perhaps. After all, Paul is a Jewish scholar, who after many years has discovered that Jesus has made an end to all those little laws that had to be kept in order to be a good Jewish person. If it was for freedom that Christ has set us free, then perhaps there is an element of people, individuals and groups, almost blindly finding their way over the rocks and through the oil patches of life, feeling their way towards God. In hard times, we often, perhaps look at that poem, Footprints, asking God where He was when there was only one set of footprints in that sand in the journey of life. And, at the end, we find the response that God was carrying us. Whether we are clambering over difficulties and it doesn’t feel that God is there or not, or whether we sense the loveliness of the footprint in the sand poem. Perhaps we’ve got different experiences of life, we’re all on different journeys. Life was always a journey, and it’s always best done in company. That’s the whole point of communion, the togetherness of remembering Jesus.
Perhaps this taking people on a journey was what Paul was aiming to do to his audience in Athens. To help them see the unknown God in a new way, a new way of looking at things, a new journey. Using principles they already knew, philosophy, poetry, the gods, and reinventing it for them to be enlightened toward the way of Jesus. Whilst the idea of gods in Greek culture was all around them, none of them were knowable in the way that Paul presents it now. “We are God’s children,” was a far cry from the unfamiliarity of the gods of the Greeks. So, to introduce the One God, who created everything, who created you and me, was a whole new and scary or perhaps exciting, depending on your point of view, experience for those listening. That’s why some thought Paul was blabbering. That’s why others like Dionysius, a little bit later on in the chapter, we’re interested in finding out more.
Similarly today, we ourselves, or perhaps our family, or friends, or neighbours that we would love to share Jesus with, might have a generic understanding of God. They might have gone to church school. They might have learned lines from him or the Bible. They may have attended Sunday school. They may have attended church or maybe even made a decision to follow Jesus once upon a time, but there’s no evidence of that right now. We might find it hard to find the words to tell them that God loves them. Maybe they are finding it harder now to find God because churches aren’t open, or perhaps they might find it easier to listen to an online message, to slip in quietly unnoticed into a Zoom service, or just watch a video like this, or maybe, maybe it’s actually just you, me, that is the message, that your family member, your friend, your neighbour needs to know. Maybe it’s you that God is working through to help them on this unseen, perhaps unknown, spiritual journey. Maybe it’s not about the, “If only you would believe this and all will be okay.”
What if it was never that way? What if we are having to learn another new way to introduce people to Jesus? What if that new way was actually the old way of journeying with people until they know, or until they ask questions. Maybe it’s like a road-map like our Prime Minister was introducing us last week in order to unlock our country. Perhaps not a road-map but road signs pointing us on each step of the way. Maybe the road signs are all we need because it means we are journeying together. We’re still on the way. In the journeying together, we become friends, we become family. There’s something here in Paul’s message, a message about family and journeying that’s totally different for the Greeks to hear. Whilst their gods are of stone and gold and man-made things, this one God is beyond that. Yet, He’s with us. This one God journeys alongside us. This one God will one day, bring it all to another conclusion but it can only occur through the death and resurrection of the one God, Jesus. Perhaps the connection of family is no longer there.
For the Greeks who wanted to find God in this way, but never found it, or for us, in our situation, by estrangement from God or because we didn’t know that there was a connection, we’ve got to start by revealing this unknown God as the one God to his listeners. Paul was helping people make that connection. Some wanted to find out more. Others thought he was off his rocker. The very reason that he had been called to the Areopagus in the first place, N T Wright reports, was that he had been telling people about a new kind of God. He had been called to account for this as part of the court hearing. Paul was on his soapbox. This soapbox oratory was, as Stephen Gaukroger puts it, the way to put across an argument in Paul’s day. Perhaps no longer. Perhaps we’ve journeyed on from that sort of argument. Maybe when it comes to personal evangelism, it isn’t about this way or doing it that particular way. Maybe, in the end, it is about us being us, me being me, you being you, our best versions of ourselves. Fortunately, Paul was a Greek-speaking Roman, who happened to be a Jew that understood that Jesus was the Messiah for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, making him the perfect person to tell people the good news of Jesus.
Perhaps when we think about this scary thing that’s become known as personal evangelism, and whether or not you’ve done a course in presenting Jesus to one another, maybe you need to simply know that you were created to be you: created in God’s own image, becoming more and more in His likeness. You are enough. By becoming the best version of yourself on this journey of life, you show others who Jesus is. You are the only one like you. You were designed that way. The way people see Jesus in you is different to the way that they may see Jesus in someone else.
In coming into land, I wonder if the secrets of telling people about an unknown God is to reveal them Jesus through our lives, through your life, through my life, through our actions, our lives, our love. Maybe it was never to tell people. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, that they may glorify your Father in heaven.” Maybe now is your chance to shine.
Wright, N T, About Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13–28, SPCK, 2008
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Scripture quotations marked ESV on this page and in the audio are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked ESVUK are from the Anglicised edition.