Our first reading today is part of the account of Paul’s second missionary journey when for the first time he travelled from Asia into Europe. This was the result of a vision one night in Troas in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) in which he saw a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (NRSV Acts 16:9)
It was in Philippi in Macedonia that Paul converted a wealthy business woman called Lydia but was then flogged and put in prison with Silas after he had exorcised a slave girl who kept following him and shouting “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (NRSV Acts 16:17)
When he was released from prison he went on to Thessalonica and Berea but there was so much opposition to his preaching that for his own safety he was hurried on to Athens where he could wait for his companions Silas and Timothy to catch up with him.
While waiting for them he seems to have gone on a tour of the city, which was a highly cultured and civilised city with a proud heritage of democracy and the exchange of ideas. What struck Paul, however, were the many statues and temples, not just in honour of Athena the patronness of the city whose temple crowned the heights of the acropolis, but in honour of many other gods as well.
He cannot keep silent and he speaks first of all in the Jewish synagogue and then in the agora, the civic centre which included the market but was also the site of many public buildings which were used by notable teachers and philosophers as classrooms.
Two important schools of philosophy at the time were the Stoics and the Epicureans and Paul started debating with some of them. As a result some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) (NRSV Acts 17:18) Perhaps they thought he was talking about two gods, one called Jesus and the other Anastasis (i.e. Resurrection).
The upshot of this was that he was brought before the Council of the Areopagus so that they could hear what he was teaching and give him their approval to teach in the city. The Council took its name from a rocky outcrop which was named after Aries, the god of war, and was originally the court responsible for trying murderers. By this time it had acquired other responsibilities concerned with the culture and morals of the city.
Our reading today, then, is a report of Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in which, instead of basing his presentation of the gospel on the religion of the Jews, he starts with what he has seen in his tour of the city and what he knows of the teaching of their philosophers.
Referring to the objects of their worship which he has observed he mentions an altar ‘To an unknown god.’ and then goes on to assert that this is the God whom he will make known to them. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (NRSV Acts 17:23)
He speaks of God as the creator of Heaven and Earth and then contrasts him with the gods of the Greeks in whose temples they were provided with clothes and food and entertainment —
“God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (NRSV Acts 17:24–25)
He then speaks of God’s closeness to his people, perhaps thinking of the difference with the gods of Olympus who from their lofty viewpoint would interfere in human affairs in a most arbitrary way. To support his argument, he quotes, not the Jewish scriptures, but a Greek writer from Crete called Epimenides who wrote in about 596 B.C.. ‘In him we live and move and have our being...’ — Paul quotes from the same writer in his letter to Titus, whom he had placed in charge of the Church in Crete. 'It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”' (NRSV Tit 1:12)
However, back to Paul’s address to the council of the Areopagus. He goes on to quote from Aratus, a poet who belonged to his own home district of Cilicia, and whose work, therefore, he may have known as a young man. “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (NRSV Acts 17:28)
From this it follows that if we ourselves can be described as the offspring of God then God himself cannot possibly be likened to an image which is the product of human imagination and art — God has to be much greater than that!
The final part of Paul’s speech is only briefly outlined here but speaks of Jesus Christ the man sent by God to call people everywhere to turn from their ignorance in preparation for the time of their judgement. The truth of all this is assured by the fact that he raised Jesus from the dead.
Our reading this morning does not include the outcome of Paul’s sermon but there was a mixed result as you might expect. 'When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.' (Acts 17:32–34) One of those who responded was actually a member of the Council of the Areopagus, so we cannot say that Paul’s witness in Athens was a failure, as some scholars have claimed.
What do you think Paul would have to say to us if he were to visit Milang or Strathalbyn or Adelaide next weekend? He might not be struck by the specifically religious observances of the populace but he nevertheless might find that they had many objects of their worship which could rival those he found in the city of Athens.
He would find many worshippers at the local golf course and a good number with their eyes focussed on the activities of the Crows or Port Power. There will also be those polishing up the Toyota or the Audi and those taking their children to soccer or netball practice. Other people, of course, will just be relaxing after a busy week or catching up on the household chores which mount up when both partners are working.
More importantly, what would Paul say to these people? This is what we need to know as a Parish which has the responsibility of proclaiming that we are God’s offspring who are being called by him to repent and change our lives. Let us pray to the Father that the Paraclete will show us how to bring the people of this district to know him and worship him.