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Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Acts 17:16-34
Date: Sep 15th, 2019
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I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and I feel that it’s ok to talk about the Raptors once again since it’s been a while.  It was either this or start my sermon with “When I started this sermon I looked up contextualization in the dictionary and here is what I found.”  During their spring championship run of the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors, the team showed that for different opponents the team had to play different ways.  The way they defended Giannis Antetokounmpo was very much different from the way they boxed out Steph Curry.  The way their offense was run against the size of the Sixers was very different from what they ran against the Magic.  The goal was always the same.  Put the ball in the basket and keep the other team from putting the ball in the basket.  The way they went about this differed.

There was no one size fits all approach when it comes to reaching the goal.  It depends on the context. 

We get this when it comes to communication.  The way we write a letter to a government official or someone from whom we are seeking a job is much different than the text we write to a friend or family member.  There are ways we communicate with those who are closest to us which would not be immediately understood by those who are not so close to us.  Even our accents can change.  I joked with our friend John DeWitt this summer when he met the team from Murfreesboro TN.  Immediately after they started talking with one another when they met the Saturday night of the team’s arrival, John went all Southern!  I said “Has everything we’ve taught you over the last 6 weeks been for naught?!”

What we have in our story today is a different way of speaking for Paul.  The mission is still the same.  It never changes.  Paul finds himself in a new context.  Let’s ask for God’s help today as we look at this story.

Paul’s Greek tour continues.  If Paul was making his own itinerary, the logical way to go would have been west – toward Rome (his promised destination).  After Thessonalica Paul and his companions are sent to Berea, where we read that the Jews there “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” They were very engaged!  Some agitators come down from Thessalonica to stir up and incite the crowds.  Silas and Timothy stay behind, while is Paul is sent to the coast and from there to Athens.

While Athens was the capital of ancient Attica, it was no longer a capital city – that honour belonged to Corinth which was the administrative centre of the area.   While it may not have been an administrative centre any more, it was a hotbed of learning and philosophy.  This is the place that Paul finds himself in.  There were a plethora of worldviews represented in the marketplace (literally the centre of town - the agora as it was called) which is where Paul found himself.  Paul was distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  We’ve talked about misdirected worship before.  Worship of the created rather than the creator.  It caused Paul to be deeply distressed.  The word here is the same one from which we get paroxysm.  The same word used to describe the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.  It affected Paul in a negative way.  May we not become used to worship of the created rather than the Creator.  May it unsettle us.

It caused Paul to want to do something about it.  He argued in the synagogue with the Jews there and with those who were devout – interested non-converts as we’ve been reading about throughout these weeks.   And also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.  The marketplace.  The civic centre.  Where things were happening.  There is a great lesson for us here, or a reminder at least.  Waiting for people to come to church to hear the good news is not going to get it done.  How do we as a church go from here into the marketplace in order for the good news to be known in our words and our deeds?   One of the ways in which we’ve been doing this for the last few years is with our Lawrence Heights Summer Camp.  Another is through our Out of the Cold ministry which has enabled us to do and speak the good news both in church and outside of church.  This might look like the Saturday night service we hold for all guests, volunteers and city staff.  It might look like Pastor Abby going with Jennifer and our volunteer coordinator Sue Thomas to Lawrence Heights CI to talk to students about what we do and why we are called to do it.  It might look like speaking at the end of a volunteer information night for OOTC; speaking of how we believe that every single person has been made in the image of God; that there is an innate dignity in being so made and that the divine spark that resides within each of us means that no one should be ignored.   What else does it look like to take these ideas out into the marketplace?  The places where we work and go to school.  The places where we live.  The places in which we are called to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar or political power or wealth or fame or financial security or social media popularity or likes or our stuff or obtaining more stuff or our next vacation or…… Rather we are called to proclaim and live that God alone is worthy of our honour and praise and foundationally speaking our love and adoration.  This is the message which we pray God helps us to teach one another.  To teach our children with our words and our actions.  God grant that little Vince may grow up to know this truth and that we might be signposts of this truth for him.

 So Paul is out there.  He’s coming across people.  He’s been in the synagogue where he’s no doubt been talking about Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of the promises God made to the nation of Israel.  In the marketplace he’s debating with Epicureans and Stoics – two of the major philosophical movements of the day. 

Now here’s the thing about philosophical movements of the day.  One does not need to be a philosopher or to have taken a first year philosophy course to be affected by the philosophical movements of the day.  They tend to be pervasive.  Their effects can be so pervasive and ubiquitous that we’re not aware of them.  We can think of our world and think of the effects of philosophies and belief systems like humanism, individualism, consumerism, environmentalism, capitalism, socialism and any other ism that we care to describe.  Their relative merits can be debated and belief in them can be fanatically or very loosely held.  The question of philosophy at heart is “What is wisdom?”  On what do we base our life or what is it that makes life worth living?

Heavy questions I know.

Being out there means that Paul is aware of the prevailing world views of the day. He’s in conversation with them.  “So tell me what is this thing all about?”  We might think of Epicureans as lovers of food ( and Stoics as  - well… stoic.  There was a bit more to it than that.  Epicureans were sort of agnostic theists.  To them everything that exists is material.  If God or gods existed, they were far away from humanity.  This life was all we got.  Their belief system has been summed up like this – “Nothing to fear in God/Nothing to fear in death/Good (pleasure) can be attained/Evil (pain) can be endured.”  The Epicureans.  The Stoics were  more monotheistic – they believed in one God who was found in everything.  All is divine in other words.  They were big on self-sufficiency, self-control, obedience, duty and reason.  Marcus Aurelius is one of the best known Stoics.  Roman emperor.  Wrote Meditations which has been summed up in haiku form like this – “As grapes become wine/So must one accept one’s fate/Die well.  Like a grape.”  You can look up Marcus Aurelius quotes and may find some that resonate.

This is what Paul does.  Paul looks for points of resonance.  He’s telling the good news of Jesus and the resurrection.  Jesus and life!  This is the work that Jesus began.  This is the work that Jesus continues in the church.  This is how this work is continuing through Paul.  Some are asking “What does this babbler want to say?”  Others are saying he seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.  This might be because he’s talking about Jesus and Anastis – resurrection. If you ever meet a Greek woman or girl called Anastasia this is what their name means.  Who is this Jesus and who is this Anastis?  Some foreign gods?  He’s brought to the Areopagus where he is asked about this teaching he’s been presenting.  Paul stands up and begins to speak.

He tells them that they are very religious.  We’ve been talking about points of contact with the wider culture for some time now.  This is a point of contact.  You have these objects of worship and among them I found one that’s labelled “To an unknown god.”  Note that he doesn’t attack them. He’s not angry at them, despite his earlier distress.  Too often the church starts from a point of anger at misdirected worship.  Remember the reaction of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra.  It was grief.  It was lament.  It was the tearing of clothes.  Here Paul tells them something good – they’re religious to the point where he’s found an altar to the unknown god.
Then Paul says let me tell you about this unknown god.  Let me make God known to you.

 Paul takes it back to the beginning.  In the beginning, God created… The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.  He doesn’t live in shrines built by what he created.  He doesn’t need anything.  God must be very needy if God needs our worship and praise no?  God doesn’t need anything from us – it’s what he created us for.  He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  From one ancestor he made us.  From one blood he made us all and he’s not far from each one of us and “In him we live and move and have our being” and as one of your own poets has said “For we too are his offspring” and the command now is to repent and turn to God and acknowledge these things and this our invitation because one day a man whom God has appointed will judge the world in righteousness and justice and will make all things right and we know who this man is because he lives he lives Christ Jesus lives today.

And thousands believe! Not here though.  This resurrection stuff was hard for some to take.  Dead is dead after all right?  Sometimes we think that people in ancient times were so unenlightened that they could believe stuff like that.  We on the other hand are much more sophisticated.  Results are mixed.  Some scoffed.  Others said “We will hear from you again about this.”  At that point Paul left them.  He had done what God called him to do.  Christian proclamation is not to be judged based on numbers, its success in winning people over or the rate of approval of the message.   It’s to be based on faithfulness to the old old story that here has been told in a new way – given a new frame.   The day is not without result.  Some of them joined Paul and became believers.  They turned.  They accepted the invitation.  Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Are you with them?  Paul accepted the invitation when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  It led to him preaching at the Aeropagus.  Who would have thought?  I accepted the invitation first as a child and it led to me being up here in front of you now.  Who would have thought? Marleybe and Gina have accepted the invitation and it’s led them to a desire to dedicate their child to God in thanks and love with their faith community and with all of you.  The invitation is there to claim the risen Christ as the one worthy of all your love, all your worship, all your adoration.  If it’s for the first time then there it is.  If it’s not the first time the invitation is before us this morning to reclaim Christ as our centre, our cornerstone, our solid ground.  Through the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit may these things be true for each and every one of us gathered this morning.