Recent census details in both the UK and US show that the fastest growing religious belief is no belief. None. In the UK, in 2021, 46% described themselves as ‘Christian’, down 13% on 2011. 37% described themselves as ‘none’, up 12%. It’s as if what you believe, or what you believe in, what you live for, doesn’t matter. Hold that thought.
It’s lovely to be back. It’s always a delight to be here and it seems like ages since I was last with you. Just between you and me, this is my favourite place to come and preach…
Now I don’t want you to feel manipulated – but did you see what I did there? The cynical one amongst you was probably sat there thinking to themselves: “Oh, please. That was a bit over the top. He probably says that everywhere.”
But for everybody else – the generous, warm-hearted ones – you might feel nicely predisposed towards me and for what I might say next.
And I wonder if Paul was thinking along similar lines as he pondered what to say first, in the perilous situation in which he found himself in Acts.
Saul to Paul
It seems like it was only last week, when Saul was present at Stephen’s stoning – and approving of the killing. But now here he is as Paul rather than Saul and he’s in Athens. Truth to be told, we’re probably 20 years on from Stephen’s death and today it is Paul that’s potentially in very big trouble.
It might appear as if he’s having quite a nice little discussion here. But the Areopagus was a judicial court overseen by the most senior judges in Athens. It considered crimes of murder, arson and religion. And it had the power to hand-down the death sentence.
Stoics and Epicureans
Paul had been taken to court by two sets of philosophers with whom he’d been debating – the Stoics and the Epicureans. These 2 schools of thought dominated Athens at the time. Paul’s view about there being One God, about Jesus and the resurrection, fitted with neither of them.
For the Epicureans, the gods might well exist, but they are entirely separate from the human world. Everything in the world and in human life just has natural causes, there’s no divine involvement, The point of life was to have pleasure – as long as it didn’t cause anyone pain. It’s a bit like materialism today. And at death a person completely ceases to exist. That’s it.
Indeed, the very foundation of the Areopagus itself was based on a story of the god Apollo saying that when people die and their blood is spilled, then there is no resurrection for them. The crime of murder was thus a serious one, precisely because there was no second chance for the victim.
In contrast, the Stoics believed that ‘God’ was in everything – and everything was God. They called this the logos. Virtuous human life consisted of acting in accordance with this inner logos. Of being in harmony with it. Eventually this logos would die out and the world would start all over again, with all events taking the same course as before, in a cycle, ever repeating, no real direction. The point of life was to master your emotions and desires. A bit like Buddhism perhaps or like Spock in Star Trek!
Neither of them would have agreed with Paul and they both assumed he was talking about two new foreign gods – called Jesus and Anastasis, the Greek word for ‘resurrection’. According to the law in Athens, that assumption was enough to get him dragged to court.
Paul is there on his own. No Timothy or Silas. They’re still trying to calm down the uproar at the last place that Paul had visited. Here in Athens, he had been taken to court for allegedly talking about foreign gods. Whilst Athens was generally quite tolerant, this was the same charge that years before had been levelled at the philosopher Socrates. His fame didn’t stop him from being found guilty and he was killed as a result. Rather than renounce his beliefs, in a final speech Socrates talked about the immortality of the soul before being obliged to drink hemlock.
So, Paul needs to be on his A-game. He starts, like I did, by seeking some sort of common ground. Hopefully, the stakes for me aren’t quite as high as they were for Paul.
As a believer in the one true God, we’re told earlier that Paul was deeply distressed to see all the statues and idols throughout the city. That wouldn’t be a great way to begin his speech though. Instead, he butters them up with: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…”
Then with great skill he continues to challenge the basic assumptions of the Greek worldview. We can only imagine that Luke is giving us just a snapshot of what Paul actually said. That he’s picked two minutes from a two-hour speech.
Paul is in a bind. A lifetime of absorbing Jewish scripture informs his thinking but if he starts quoting from Isaiah or the Psalms, then he’ll just dig a deeper hole for himself. Instead, he essentially sets out to prove that what he’s saying isn’t new but has just been hidden from their sight all this time. So, he starts with that inscription to an unknown God. Paul doesn’t so much care as to why it was put there in the first place but he’s taking the idea of their self-acknowledged ignorance and using it to his advantage.
In God we trust
One preacher put it like this. It’s as if Paul went to the US, pulled out some cash and said to his audience: ‘I notice that on your money it says: “In God we trust.” Well from the way you spend it, I’m a bit confused as to which God it is that you’re trusting in. Let me tell you about one you can really trust in.’
Paul then weaves his way through the rest of the speech, partly using their own words and partly rebutting them too. The Stoics wouldn’t have been happy with the idea of a God who was set apart from, and creator of, the world. The Epicureans wouldn’t have liked the idea of God not being detached from the world.
Paul could have quoted lines from the Hebrew Scripture to prove his points but “in him we live and move and have our being” is from the poet Epimenides. “For we are his offspring” is by the then popular Stoic poet Aratus. Both were written about Zeus, rather than the God of Israel – but perhaps the point hits home all the more strongly because of that.
Ironically, in his speech Paul also uses an idea that helped to get Stephen killed in our reading last week. That God did not dwell in buildings and shrines, because God was much bigger than that.
Paul finishes up with Jesus and the resurrection. The ideas might be foreign in the sense that they come from the Jewish world, but Paul is saying that the ignorance and inconsistency within the Athenian world pointed to this solution all along – they just didn’t realize it. He even ends by contradicting those words of Apollo about resurrection – but he argues that their own traditions, read in a certain way, pointed to this conclusion.
It was enough to get Paul off. He was acquitted. And a few were converted. He didn’t hang around in Athens to try his luck a second time, even though some there seemed open to further debate. In some bible commentaries, his lack of directly quoting from Scripture is criticised.
But so what? Well, it might seem an obvious point, but these verses should make us think carefully about how we talk to and communicate with people who don’t have the same background as us. After years of coming to church, many of us here will have a certain religious vocabulary and a shared knowledge of scripture.
Many outside of these walls won’t have that though and if we want them to know about Christ, then we need to think about which words to use. What areas of common ground are there which are consistent with our message but understood by both? All the while making sure that what we say is underpinned by, and consistent with, scripture, just like Paul did.
It’s not enough to live a good life and hope our loved ones catch on. We need to find the words to tell them that they are loved.
In a sense though, every Sunday, we tailor the message in a way that we hope fits with those listening. How would any of us here recognise it as good news if we didn’t?
Paul had to tip-toe his way through risk, ambiguity and complexity. We too, are often in that place. And perhaps we too will get the same mixed response as Paul did of jeering and curiosity and embracing of what we have to say. We can only hope that, for those who don’t quite get it at the time, that God will one day bring to fulfilment any of the avenues of thought that have been opened up in the preaching.
Paul set aside what he personally found difficult and attempted to meet the Athenians in their own spiritual landscape. To find common ground. He began with a recognition of shared origins with God – and ended with Christ offering new life. He told them that what they believed matters. What they lived for matters. That seeking after justice and righteousness matters. And what you believe, what you live for, that matters too.
And this really is my favourite place to preach. Honest! Amen
‘We stand on common ground’ was delivered by Ian Banks on Sunday 14th May 2023 at St Margaret’s, Heywood. It was based on Acts 17:22-31. In memory of my stepson, Stuart Maurice Clarke.
- For census information: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/bulletins/religionenglandandwales/census2021
- Wright, N.T. (2018). Paul. HarperOne.