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Preaching the Gospel in a University Town

San Williams

May 29, 2011
Acts 17:22-31

05-29-2011 SermonIn 1992 some Christian graduate students at Harvard University inaugurated what became known as the Veritas Forums.  These forums resulted in a book you may have heard about, called Finding God at Harvard.  Veritas Forums continue today.  Scholars, scientists, and philosophers are brought together on college campuses and asked to engage in dialogue and debate.  They explore how their disciplines connect  with the person and story of Jesus Christ. 

Well, our reading this morning looks like a kind of first-century Veritas Forum.  Paul, who had already been pegged by the learned men of Athens as a babbler, was invited—maybe forced—to defend his strange teaching.  Since many people in our day openly ridicule the Christian faith as meaningless, stupid, or both, let’s take our seat in the assembly of scholars, lean forward and hear what transpires in this Athenian version of a Veritas Forum. 

The forum opens with Paul standing before the Areopagus.  The Areopagus was a rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens.  It was a place where the wise men of Athens gathered to discuss matters of law, philosophy, and politics.  These venerable scholars were famous for their intellectual curiosity, their skill in rhetoric, their command of Aristotelian logic. A rather intimidating audience, wouldn’t you agree?  It would be like being dragged across Guadalupe Street and commanded to defend your faith in front of skeptical philosophy professors.  Imagine standing before an auditorium of PhDs who are skilled in argument and ready to pounce on any inconsistency, departure from reason, or slip in logic. If you can picture such a scene, you’ve got an idea of what Paul faced when he stood before the Areopagus to defend the Gospel he had been proclaiming.     

And Paul got off to a good start.  Wisely, he began by paying the Athenians a compliment.  “I see how religious you are,” he said. Paul, who had been hanging around Athens for a few days, had noticed that there were stone altars dedicated to one deity or another on nearly every street corner.  As a monotheistic Jew, Paul was actually appalled by this show of religious promiscuity, but he didn’t lead off with any accusations. Rather Paul delivered a well-constructed piece of classical rhetoric that would have made Socrates proud. He got their attention with a little flattery and by mentioning things familiar to them. 

We preachers today are given similar advice.  Start with what folks are watching, reading and talking about. Take an illustration from American Idol, maybe quote from a recent Lady Gaga song (if you can find one that you can actually quote from the pulpit), or talk about Oprah’s retirement from daytime television.  In other words, tap into the culture in order to identify with your audience, which is exactly what Paul did in his address to the learned men of Athens.

In particular, Paul mentioned one altar that bore the inscription, “To an unknown god.”  You have to give the Greeks credit for spiritual inclusivity.  Just in case there was a deity out there they had overlooked, they covered their bases with an altar “to an unknown god.”

That instinct to cover the spiritual waterfront is also common in our day.  Consider the car of a man in southern California who has rabbit’s foot sitting in the cup holder of his car, a Virgin Mary dangling from the rearview mirror, a bobblehead Buddha sitting on the dashboard and a Darwin “Fish with Feet” emblem on the trunk.

Methodist Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of an undergraduate who complained about her religion department at her college, which included four professors who taught courses in everything from Hindu beliefs to Christian history. “They know a great deal about a great many things in religion,” she said, ‘but none of them in the department is a practitioner of any particular faith.  I find that strange.  They know everything about God except God!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take issue and find fault with the religious practices—or lack thereof—of our contemporaries. Critics of religion had a field day with Rev. Harold Campings’ predictions that the world would end last Saturday.  Those gullible folk who actually believed this prediction, sold their possessions, and cashed out their savings. They are easy targets for ridicule. But maybe Paul’s response to the Greeks is instructive to us today.  Paul may have regarded the Greeks as idolaters, but he recognized that at least they were searching.  He commended their spiritual inclinations.  He identified with the restlessness in their soul, and their yearning to make sense of their world.

So Paul took the Greeks’ curiosity about all things spiritual as his opening.  He enlarged their vision of God by pointing to a God not made with human hands, one who is Lord of the whole creation, who breathed life into every mortal, brought the nations into being, set boundaries and allotted our span of life. The striking thing about Paul’s preaching up to this point is that it fit so nicely into the Greeks’ intellectual framework.  Paul spoke their language when he told of God’s ordering of the world, and you know how the Greeks love order, balance, and logic.  Paul sealed his argument by quoting one of their own poets. Brilliant! You can almost see the philosophers pulling on their chins and nodding their approval.  If only Paul had stopped at this point, gathered his notes and sat down.

But Paul didn’t sit down. Paul continued to say, in effect, “You know these idols of gold, silver and stone we’ve been talking about? The truth is they are not going to satisfy your spiritual longings any more than all the logic in the world can solve our fundamental human dilemma.  But listen, friends,” Paul continued, “God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  What’s taking place is a cosmic drama of redemption that comes from God and has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  In him the world has been judged, and in raising him from the dead, the world is being put back together in the right way. Now, repent and believe in this good news.” 

Well, not surprisingly, the response was mixed.  As expected, some rejected the Gospel outright. That response is echoed by many people today.  As recently as last Saturday, a retired classics professor wrote a newspaper commentary in which he scoffed, “Every assertion that is specific to, and distinctive of, Christianity is either false or simply meaningless.”  Yes, some scoffed at Paul; some still do.

Others, though, responded to Paul’s message with a wait-and-see attitude.  They weren’t ready to make a decision one way or the other, but they were at least open to hearing more.  Plenty of people today are similarly uncommitted.  Some of you are in church this morning, and I assure you that you are welcome in this congregation if you’re among the many who are not sure, but still listening.

But Luke tells us that a few others did believe, and they joined the Jesus movement. Granted, there were only two that anyone could remember by name.  But, hey, for a university town, two’s not bad.  

Friends, this first century veritas forum that Luke records in Acts is surely one of the most interesting and timely texts for our spiritually hunger but intellectually skeptical age. Like the early Greeks, we too are open to reason.  We cherish the life of the mind, but with Paul we don’t ask of reason what can only come from God. Namely, rest for our souls and hope for our world.