Friday, April 25, 2008

Known Vs. Unknown (Acts 17:22-31)

Paul’s chat with the Athenians at the Areopagus is probably one of the most important evangelistic conversations in the Bible. Which makes it weird that we often manage to learn things from it that it doesn’t actually teach.

By that I mean that we frequently carry some of its actual lessons places where they don’t work so well. Or at least I do.

Our story opens in Athens, the centerpiece of the Greek culture that dominates the Roman Empire. Athens’ culture and philosophy won out over other Greek cultures and then the Romans adopted it as the high point of human achievement. In certain areas, of course, because the Romans knew they’d conquered Greece and that was a sort of hint they’d bettered the Greeks in a couple of things here and there.

As a centerpiece of culture, Athens hosted many visitors and many people who moved into it as a large city with opportunities for newcomers. Most of these newcomers brought their own religions and gods with them.

The Athenians already had many temples and shrines to their own gods. Some were the old familiar names of the Olympus mythology, like Zeus and Athena. Or Ares, the god of war whose hill this little discussion takes place on. Some were newer understandings about the divine, following the philosophers who had pared the list down to one and thought of that god as what they called the “prime mover.”

Now Paul, as a nice Jewish boy and as a Pharisee to boot, has learned from the time he could walk that all other religions are false and all other gods just idols and hot air. He wouldn’t deal with their followers and wouldn’t even go into their homes, because doing so rendered him ritually unclean.

As a Christian, he’s relaxed a little bit – he probably enters the homes of unbelievers and speaks with them regularly. But he still knows each and every god with an altar in Athens is false.

Yet when he wants to speak with them, he doesn’t start out with a broadside blast against idolaters, heathens and blasphemers. Maybe the old Paul would have sneered at the Athenians, “You are very religious in every way,” but Paul the apostle says it as a compliment. He still knows their religions are false, but he will treat them with respect anyway. They are God’s children, after all, and if God isn’t going to blast them into oblivion for their misguided worship of idols, why should Paul think he can?

When we proclaim the gospel to others, we need to remember they may not know about it. They may not know about Christ or if they do they may know only bad things because they met mean churchpeople or had bad experiences.

Paul knew the Athenians wouldn’t know Yahweh from a highway and probably only a handful had ever heard of Israel or Judea. So he had to speak to them on their terms, as well as with respect.

And when we learn the lessons of Areopagus, we try to do that also. Sometimes, though, we go too far and adapt our message to another culture so much the gospel disappears.

Which Paul definitely does not do, if you notice. He speaks to the Athenians on their terms, but he keeps his gospel message. The “unknown god” was partly a way to honor the Prime Mover concept of the philosophers, but also a way to cover bases in case there was some god the Athenians should have worshipped but didn’t know about.

All of the other shrines and temples were to real gods, but the one Paul mentions was to a maybe-real god. Which is where he flips the entire system on its head.

That god isn’t unknown at all, Paul said. In fact, he’s not only known, he’s the only one of the whole bunch you’ve got up there who’s real.

He doesn’t need a shrine or a temple built with human hands because he makes his home in the whole universe. We don’t have to go to a certain place or building to meet him – we live and move in him every day. You all may have put up this altar to cover your behinds, but instead he showed up to save them. I may have added that last part myself.

When the gospel enters another culture, its truth may take on some of that culture’s features, and it may look like just another piece of that culture. But the eternal truth of God is still its core, and that shows through every time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The One Thing (Acts 2:42-47)

Different churches may not agree on much. But most seem to share a kind of nostalgia for what we call “the early church.”

Usually we’re talking about the church we see in the first chapters of Acts. We want to have their commitment, their unity and their dedication to the gospel. We probably wouldn’t mind three thousand people joining at a time, either, as well as the daily addition of new members. We Methodists would probably have to refill the baptismal fonts a few times.

But I’ve found we sometimes overlook this part or at least we don’t emphasize it much. This part about holding everything in common. Say it in some parts of the country and get a cold eye while people ask you if you’re some kind of communist.

Hey, it’s a reasonable question. Karl Marx said the central idea of communism was, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” I don’t think you can read Luke’s description of the earliest church and see them as doing anything different from that idea. If someone was in need, then another believer who had something to sell did so, and passed out the proceeds to the needy. He didn’t get a receipt or turn in records to the church for reimbursement or take a deduction from the IRS. Some folks even think Marx borrowed the phrase from Luke, but who knows?

OK, but the difference is that communism didn’t work, right? Definitely true, thank goodness, but the church doesn’t seem to follow this pattern anymore either, at least not as often as they apparently did here.

The two ideas are different, even if they’re expressed the same way. But the difference is at their core.

Obviously, the church’s system involved God, and the communist system was very clear about its atheism. But that alone wouldn’t make the difference, I think. Let’s say I’m a member of the church who has more stuff than someone else does, and we find out that believers are in need. The church elders come to me and ask me to sell my second car so the needy can have food. I don’t want to, why should I, I ask. Because God said so, they tell me.

Well, that’s really no different than the way the communist system relied on state power to make resources were distributed evenly. One group of leaders tells me God says I have to give up stuff I paid for; the other group tells me that all of the fellows with rifles say I have to. Neither sounds like the earliest church to me.

What Luke writes about worked because God was involved, yes. God was at the center of this system of relationships among the believers. But God was at the center of the system because he was at the center of the believers’ lives, not because he was somehow legalistically pasted onto something someone already dreamed up. No one had to tell people to sell stuff and help each other out – they wanted to do it.

The communist system dreamed up by Karl Marx was just one of an endless number of ways people have tried to create a perfect system made up of stubbornly imperfect people.

Time after time, in philosophy or novels or political speeches and writings, folks have offered a blueprint on how to build paradise. Some of them did better than others, but none of them made a paradise. Sometimes they leave out what seems like a lot of details and sometimes they leave out only a few. But even if they left out only one, they’d never build a paradise as long as that one thing they left out was God at the hearts of the people involved.

The church in Acts 2 succeeded at this kind of communal living because the people centered their lives on God rather than on themselves. Our spirits were made to seek something greater than ourselves, which we Christians say means we were made to seek God. If we don’t seek God, we’ll make gods of our own out of something or someone else – sometimes us. And when we’re the gods of our own lives, we sure as heck aren’t going to inconvenience ourselves for someone else’s benefit. Unless there’s something in it for us, that is.

Rather than asking, “What’s in it for me?” a Christian asks, “What’s in it for God?” When his children help one another, then “what’s in it for God” are actions and words that uphold the dignity and worth of even the least of them.

It’s a better deal than we might think, too. Even while we ask, “What’s in this for God,” we can be reminded what God has told us – he’s in it for us.