The Athenians were deeply spiritual people. They were “religious in every way.” Type A religious folk. Some people work hard to leave no stone un-turned, these people worked hard to leave no god un-worshiped. Athens was full of temples, shrines, alters and markers, places to worship gods. They were an eclectic people who worshiped an eclectic assortment of gods.
When Paul first arrived in Athens he was distressed by the amount of idols he saw. So he went into the synagogues and the marketplace and “argued” with anyone who would speak to him. This sounds hostile and unfriendly but what he was doing was the practice of the people in Athens. It was a sort of verbal dance, point, counter point; verbal fencing thrust, parry; a congenial back and forth that allowed intellectual life to thrive in Athens. Paul was speaking, but he was also listening, hearing, paying attention to what was going on around him. He was learning about the city and the people who lived in the city. It just so happened that this arguing debate he was doing was the very best way to understand the people there.
Understanding our audience is something they taught us, when we were in seminary. Whenever a preacher gets up to preach, she should work hard to understand her audience. This is easier when the audience to which you are speaking is a congregation you have pastored, and walked alongside for nine years. It is a little harder when you are asked to preach to someone else's congregation or to be a special speaker at an event. There is a lot more guess work and extrapolation, but none-the-less one must work to know the people to whom you speak as best you can. And at times you shift and change your sermon as you are speaking to adapt to the people who are in front of you, so that the truth you have to share will be best understood.
As Paul is doing this, he is cut short, he is taken to the Areopagus a large rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis. Now why Paul was brought there is greatly debated. Some, siting that the Epicureans and Stoics found him to be a babbler at best and a purveyor of foreign deities at worst, say he was taken there hostilely, much as Socrates was, to be tried and convicted for the ideas he was presented in the marketplace. Others believe the purpose was one of genuine interest, wanting to know and understand what exactly it is that Paul is teaching, sighting the words of inquiry used, “this sounds strange to us, we would like to know what it means.”
Either way, Paul gains the ears of all the most important citizens, best thinkers and possibly their ruling court on all matters concerning public life, philosophy, religion and morality. Given this opportunity, Paul seizes the day. While he was debating, he was listening, while he was listening he was paying attention. He has worked to know and understand these people as best he can during the time he was been there and he is ready. He has seen their idols, he has heard the desire to know and learn new things. He sees they are a people full of religious fervor. And he knows how to speak so that they can hear, how to share the gospel with words so that they can understand him.
Standing on the street corner yelling, “The end is near!” Or shouting, “You are all vile sinners repent and be saved!” is easy, but it is more than that it is lazy and it does a disservice to the Gospel. I think most of us agree that this is really no way to win people to Christ. We instinctively know that although perhaps at some point in our history this kind of preaching would have started a discussion with a passerby, that if that time existed, that time is not now. Today, doing this would arouse disdain in passersby, at best they would simply continue to pass by, and at worst hurl insults and other things in our direction. We know enough about our culture, our society, the people in our city and our country, to know that this tactic simply would not work.
Sharing the gospel is hard work. If it was as easy as marching into Central square standing up on a bench across from the Starbucks and preaching the gospel, I would say, lets, pack up Church right now and go do it. And you had better bet that we would not be the only people who were vying for space to do it.
Paul begins with prayer. This is not specifically mentioned in his passage, but Paul makes his dedication to prayer, abundantly clear throughout his writings. He speaks frequently of praying. He prays for the Church; he prays for the people who minister alongside of him; he prays for the work and ministry God has set him to do. He tells us that he prays continually about all things. And he asks all his churches to do so as well. There is nothing Paul does which is not immersed in prayer from start to finish. So we know that not only his journey to Athens but everything he does and says there is bathed in prayer.
Paul by going into the marketplace to debate and argue with the Stoics and the Epicureans, was meeting them in place they understood. He was using tools they understood and speaking the language of philosophy which resonated most with them. Paul began by connecting with the people of Athens. He works within their system. He goes into the marketplace and debates with them, works to understand their way of thinking and where they are coming from. He works to connect with them at every point. He wants to understand them; wants them to feel comfortable with him. He works to see who they are and where they are coming from. By debating in the marketplace, he is also coming to understand how they think, how they reason, the words and language that will speak to them. The ways they understand their world, the place religion and worship play in there lives. And because he does this they are ready to hear him when he begins his sermon on the Areopagus.
He begins his sermon by finding common ground. Paul is a devoutly Christian man, and although the amount of idols in Athens distresses him, Paul can see they are a deeply religious people, so he begins there. They are people who want to make sure every god is at least acknowledge, if to not properly worshiped. Every god is included, not even one is left out. Paul begins there. He makes their religiosity the foundation from which he builds. So they are all starting in a place that deeply matters to them.
It is only because he does these things that he is able to declare to them that the unknown god whom they have so carefully included in the pantheon of gods they worship, is in fact the the God of the heavens and the earth through whom all things find their existence. Paul is able to find a point that will make sense to them. He is able to find a way to help God make sense to them.
Christians down through the ages have worked and done a similar things. We bring trees into our houses at Christmas because when Christianity came to the Germanic lands we connected the evergreens they brought into their house for their mid-winter celebrations to the undying nature of the Christ child. We paint eggs and do egg hunts at Easter for a very similar reason. Saint Patrick is said to have used the ubiquitous shamrock to help the people of Ireland understand the Trinity. Finding common ground, understanding and using the language, the symbols and the tools of a society to share the Gospel is actually the best way to help them come to understand who Jesus is.
Once Paul has connected with the people of Athens, participating in their lively debates and arguing with them in their traditional manner, and thus finding a place of commonality, it is only then that Paul begins to tell them about Jesus Christ. Sharing with them the truth of the gospel clearly and articulately, continuing to use means and language that makes sense to them, so that they can hear and understand him.
Paul throughout his life is literally fulfilling the final command of Jesus for us all to go into the world making disciples, being a witness not only in Jerusalem, Judea and the surrounding countryside, but literally to the ends of his known world. This is the call of Christ on us all. Perhaps not so much each of us going to the ends of the earth, but we are at the very least called to be witnesses in all the parts of the world in which we inhabit. Our neighborhoods, our schools, the places we work, shop and play, our offices, our grocery stores and coffee shops.
Whatever we are doing our lives, like Paul's should be bathed in prayer. We too should be praying continually, and among the many things we pray for should be our fulfillment of Jesus' call on our lives to make disciples and to be witnesses of the gospel in our world. We should continually be praying that we are able to bring the truth of Jesus to those around us, praying that we will do and say the right things when the time comes.
But we can not just sit around and wait for someone to approach us and ask us about our God, seeking to learn and understand more about Jesus Christ. Although there are stories about this sort of thing happening, it has never happened to me, and my guess it has never happened to you. No matter how much I wish that someone else would walk up to me and start that kind of conversation, in my experience it is yet to happen. So we begin by connecting with people around us.
We put ourselves in places where people are. We talk to our neighbors, we engage our co-workers. If we always have the same checkout person at the grocery store we seek to get to know them. In short we make friends with people around us. We get to know them, come to understand them. We invite them into our homes, we participate in leisure activities together.
The second thing we do is find common ground. We find out what matters to the people in our lives. We find out how they think, what is important to them. We seek to understand their symbols, what they believe, what they think about the world and the things that are going on around us.
And then once we have bathed everything in prayer, once you know and understand them, and they trust you. Once you are a part of their lives, are in relationship with them. When in the course of your friendship, over dinner, or a share cup of coffee, or through the course of a conversation you can find away to share the truth of Jesus Christ with them.
And lets be honest, working to understand how people around us think, what they care about, and what matter to them is easy. Being in relationship with other people is fulfilling. We like making connections, we like having friends. It is not difficult, over the course of time, coming to know and understand someone, to truly care about what they care about. To be friends.
The hard part is to find the right time the right words and boldly sharing about Jesus Christ. This is why we pray, this is why we prepare, so that when the opportunity comes, we do not miss it; when the conversation turns a certain direction we are able to sense it and know what needs to be said; or even be able to seamlessly guide a discussion toward spiritual matters, so that we are able to share about our faith in Jesus, our belief in how he can transform our lives, to invite someone to come to Church or other religious activity or even know when someone is ready to hear and accept Jesus as savior.
Pray, connect, find common ground and then share the gospel this is the pattern we see in Paul and is a good pattern to follow throughout our lives.