A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
A couple of years ago Pope Francis made a cogent observation about praying for those who are hungry: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” (Little Book of Compassion, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA:2017, pg 88) When I heard that, I remembered my Methodist grandfather’s teaching about prayer, “Never pray for something you aren’t willing to work for.” That came mind as I pondered the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.
The story told by Luke in the reading is illustrated in our altar window. Paul, standing on the Hill of Mars or “Areopagus,” addressing the philosophers of Athens and telling them about the God of the Hebrews and his Son Jesus, drawing on Greek religion, philosophy, and poetry to do so. It is a model for our sharing of the gospel with others outside the Christian faith and for our sharing with other Christians of our peculiar Anglican expression of the faith; it has both positive and negative lessons to teach us.
It is a strong part of our tradition that we pray for those of other faiths and for those of no faith. For example, in one of the Prayer Book forms of the Prayers of the people we pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him . . . that they may find and be found by him.” (BCP, pg 386) In another we pray “for those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel.” (BCP, pg 390) And when we pray for the dead, we included “all who have died in the communion of [the] Church, and those whose faith is known to [God] alone.” (BCP, pg 391)
A few days ago, the parish chapter of the Episcopal Church Women met and, as is their custom, we began their meeting with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That particular day was the feast of a missionary bishop, William Hobart Hare, who ministered among and with the Lakota Sioux in the Niobrara territory which we now know as the states of North and South Dakota. The epistle lesson for Bishop Hare’s commemoration is from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he writes:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom 10:13-15)
Or, to paraphrase the pope, “You pray for those who haven’t heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how prayer works.” We Episcopalians are pretty good at the praying, not so good at the telling. So let’s listen to what Paul says to the Romans and let’s look at how Paul told the Athenians.
First, some background. Why is Paul in Athens? Well, Paul has not come to Athens to preach; he’s come there to let things cool off in Thessalonica, where some folks upset with Paul’s preaching had “formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5), and in Beroea these same folks had “stir[red] up and incite[d] the crowds” (v. 13). So the local “believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast,” (v. 15) wait for his companions Silas and Timothy.
Athens was no longer the center of the world. “That center now was obviously Rome. Still, Athens’ vast history of intellectual and political and architectural vigor made it a destination place, and the perfect location for the confrontation of the new message of Jesus and the old message of the Greek philosophers.” (John C. Holbert, Perkins School of Theology) So Paul decides to preach at the place where philosophers meet to (in Luke’s words) “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (v. 21) In other words, Paul has been given an unplanned opportunity to share his understanding of Jesus, and that’s the first thing to learn from this episode: most opportunities to share our faith will be unplanned. They will be serendipitous. They will come about not because we are searching for occasions to be evangelists and missionaries, but simply because we are going about our daily lives and in some way will be given an opening.
Paul saw an opening and ventured into it, but he didn’t go into it unprepared. As he says, he had spent some time walking through the city, looking carefully at the objects of Athenian worship (v. 23). He learned about their religion so that he could share his own. Rather than dismissing their beliefs and, thus, dishonoring the religious hunger all human beings experience, Paul acknowledged points of common belief with them. For example, although the Greeks were polytheists, the concept of a creator deity was not unknown to them; laying this foundation of common ground is an important part of Paul’s witness.
Paul can do this because he is an educated man. He clearly knows his own religious background both as a Jew and now as a follower of Jesus, but his education must also have included Greek literature. We can conclude this because in this address he is able to draw on Platonic, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophy and even quotes the Stoic philosopher poet Aratus.
So here are a whole bunch of additional things we learn from this episode: (1) be prepared; you never know when these unplanned opportunities will occur, so be prepared. (2) Look for the common ground, which means (3) you have to know your own faith well and (4) you have to know at least a little about the faith and the circumstances of the other person or persons. The other person’s life circumstances are, in our world and context, probably more important to understand than their religious beliefs.
My Education for Ministry group is reading a book entitled My Neighbor’s Faith which the authors describe as a collection of “stories of interreligious encounter, growth, and transformation.” One of the vignettes describes the friendship between a conservative Southern Baptist and a left-wing cultural Jew who discovered that they “were both fathers of seriously handicapped daughters and both heavily involved in their care.” In their story, they describe how they would meet and talk for hours “often finishing each other’s sentences,” which is something I thought only married people did. They were able to do so, able to share their faith stories, because (and here is another lesson) they shared a common life experience.
On the negative side of the learnings from Paul’s Areopagus sermon is, I think, a warning to avoid assumptions.
Paul tells the Athenians that in his tour of their city he has seen an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God” and proceeds to equate this mysterious deity to the God of the Jews whom he then identifies as the father of Jesus Christ. What Paul seems not have appreciated, however, is that that isn’t what that altar was all about. The “unknown god” was “not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder, for [a god] whose name [was] not revealed.” In other words, if a Greek felt moved to make an offering of thanksgiving or propitiation or supplication to one of the gods but wasn’t sure which one to address, he or she would make that offering at the alter “to an unknown god.” As the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann asserted, “An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply.” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21) Or as Karel van der Toorn and his coauthors tell us:
Probably the most frequent motive to raise altars for (an) unknown god(s) was uncertainty or doubt about the identity of the god who had caused a certain event. In ancient religions it was of utmost importance to know the right name of the deity when invoking him/her or sacrificing to him/her. [The aim was] to prevent the god invoked from being offended…. (van der Toorn, Karel, et al, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1999 p. 884)
So Paul, rather than appealing to his hearers’ religiosity, was instead calling out their possibly fearful religious ignorance. This may be why when all is said and done only two people who heard this sermon are named as expressing any interest in Christianity. So a negative lesson: don’t assume.
But don’t be afraid to speak! And here is the last lesson I want to suggest we take from Luke’s story of Paul at the Areopagus, a reminder of something Jesus said on many occasions and which Peter repeats in our epistle lesson today, ” Do not fear . . . do not be intimidated!” Specifically referring to unexpected opportunities to testify to one’s faith, Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Lk 12:11-12) In our place and time, we are unlikely to be dragged before religious councils or secular authorities, but we will have opportunities to speak. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated! Don’t worry! The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.
That is the promise of today’s gospel lesson: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth [who] abides with you, and he will be in you.”
So . . . lessons from the story of Paul at the Areopagus, lessons we who worship in a church building named for Paul and who every week look at this window depicting this story should learn and embody:
- Unplanned opportunities to share our faith abound.
- You never know when they will happen to you, so be prepared.
- Know your own faith well; study it, learn it.
- Know your audience; know something of their faith, if any, and of their life.
- Ground your message in shared experience, in the shared human hunger for meaning.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Don’t be afraid.
There are many in our world who have not heard any story from our scriptures, let alone the gospel of Jesus. In September of last year, the religious demographer George Barna published a book entitled America at the Crossroads. In it he reported that 46% of American adults are not religiously affiliated. The current adult population of Medina County, Ohio, is about 106,000. Putting those two statistics together suggests that there are nearly 49,000 residents of this county who don’t go to church (and driving through my own neighborhood on a Sunday morning, I can well believe it). Barna also reported that 14% of the religiously unaffiliated “said they are open to trying a new church.” In our county, that would mean 6,800 adults who open to hearing from you about your faith and your church. (Barna data from Preaching; census data from Suburbanstats.org)
“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”
As I mentioned earlier, Paul didn’t really have much success preaching in Athens. Luke tells us that some of his audience scoffed; some said they might like to hear more. Only two people are specifically named as responding positively to his sermon, a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, and Luke says there were some others. (vv. 32 & 34) It wasn’t a very large harvest, but that hardly matters. We aren’t called to be successful; we are only called to be faithful. As the Psalmist says in this morning’s gradual, “Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard.”
You pray for those who have not heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how it works. Amen.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.