In my preaching class at seminary, our professor emphasized that we should know our audience. Dr. McDaniel encouraged us to ask, “Who am I preaching to?” “What are their challenges?” “What are their strengths?” “What are they hungry to hear?” “What kind of admonishment might they need?” “Are they the kind that will laugh at jokes?” (I added that one!) I took my professor’s advice seriously because of the time I made a fool of myself as a chaplain intern at a hospital.
I was called to a patient’s room who requested that I read to her from scripture. I asked, “What passage would you like me to read?” She told me that I was the pastor and that I should pick. Being the very learned seminarian that I thought I was, I looked up the Daily Office readings for the day.
The epistle for that day was taken from the fifth chapter of Galatians. I began to read, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law…”
When I finally finished reading about the circumcision controversy, there was a brief silence. As I struggled to figure out to relate circumcision to this woman’s illness, the woman looked at me and said, “How about you read to me from one of the Psalms.” “Great idea!” I said. And I read a few favorites from the psalter.
In today’s lesson from Acts, Paul finds himself preaching to an audience that has no grounding in the Jewish tradition. He can’t rely on the same sermon he preached to Jewish audiences because this pagan audience doesn’t know the Hebrew scriptures. Therefore, he can’t talk about how, Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah has fulfilled scripture. Instead, Paul must learn about pagan culture and customs. Paul must figure out what they hold sacred.
As Paul enters the city of Athens, a university town, he notices how extremely religious they are. More specifically, the Athenians value an intellectual pursuit of the mysterious. And trophies of their intellectual pursuits are littered throughout the city. (In all reality, the city might have looked a lot like the scene outside of Bryant Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa). But the most curious idol in Athens is an altar dedicated ‘to an unknown god.’
Now, if St. Paul was preaching to a Jewish audience, he would immediately remind them of the commandment that says, “thou shalt not make unto me any graven image.” And then he would tell them to destroy the idol just as Moses commanded the people to destroy the image of the golden calf that Aaron made in the wilderness.
But something tells me that approach wouldn’t have been a very effective way to share the good news of the gospel. If he commands the people to tear down the idol, then we’d get yet another story about how religion often gets in the way of truth. And I imagine Paul would have been escorted out of the city if not stoned to death.
Paul notes that this altar is dedicated to a god that the Athenians cannot name. Even after all their study and thinking, the Athenians know that they cannot attain to all truth. Therefore, they dedicate an altar to a god they know exists but cannot grasp or name.
And this is Paul’s opportunity to share with the people the good news of the risen Lord. Paul has the opportunity give them news that will fill this great void. Paul gets to name how the truth of an unknown god is revealed in the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
During my time at All Saints’, I spent some time with a missionary named Kevin Higgins who is a part of Global Teams. The mission of Global Teams is to make disciples of Jesus in cultures that are least familiar with the gospel.
Kevin spends much of his time in Muslim cultures. And let’s just say he isn’t a John the Baptist type who comes in guns blazing, yelling, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Not only might that get him killed but at the very least would shut down any chance at dialogue.
Instead, like Paul, Kevin makes a point to learn their culture and customs. He learns to understand what they hold sacred. He befriends these Muslims. Eventually, these Muslims invite Kevin into their homes and even into their places of worship. Once a level of trust is established, these Muslims start to ask Kevin what he holds sacred.
They know Kevin to be a Christian, of course, and when the time is right, Kevin names how he sees Jesus alive in their religion. He names the ways in which the risen Lord is being revealed to him in their culture. Like scripture often says, some believed, others were intrigued, while others did not believe.
One community even let Kevin baptize some of their people in the mosque. These newly baptized didn’t necessarily stop worshiping in the mosques but they did come to Kevin for training in discipleship. I know, it is hard to believe but so is the power of the gospel message.
Just last week we heard Jesus tell his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” More often than not, today’s religious people hold people hostage with this statement. They say things, “you cannot be saved unless you follow Jesus. It says it right here in scripture.” There is no effort to understand what non-Christians might hold sacred. There is no effort to walk alongside them to help them see the mystery of Christ in what they already believe.
Bishop Willimon, retired Methodist Bishop, said, “The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul in Athens, minister to their searching.” In today’s lesson from Acts, Paul uses a passage from one of the poets in Athens. He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.” And now, centuries later, we use this same saying in our prayers to describe who we believe God in Christ to be. How wonderful!
It is clear that the mystery of God cannot be captured by intellectual ponderings. The mystery of God cannot be captured by one particular culture or group of people or even in religion itself. Rather, the mystery of God is most fully expressed in Jesus, the One who is not of this world, the One who transcends culture and even religion, the One who is the fullness of creation in all times and in all places.
Christians in the United States live in a post-Christian world. We share the message of the gospel in a country where “88% of households own at least one Bible – and the average household has 4 Bibles.” But even though the Bible is everywhere, most have not actually read the Bible. Most people cannot even name one of the gospel writers.
Therefore, we have a different challenge before us. We have an audience that is even different than the audience Paul faces in Athens. How can we preach the gospel to a people who think they know the gospel because they own 4 Bibles? How can we preach the gospel to a people who think they know the gospel because they go to church every Sunday? How can we preach the gospel to a country where the gospel has been hijacked by political and social agendas on every side?
I sure do wish I had the silver bullet to answers these questions. But the good news of the gospel lesson for today tells me that we have “Another Advocate.” Jesus gives us the Spirit of truth. We have a guide. God gives us a new ark to help us navigate the currents of culture that threaten to sweep us away into a great abyss of nothingness. We have the life of God perfected and made fully known in Jesus Christ.
This perfected life of God in Christ is revealed in an abiding love, in a love that will never let us go, in a love that will guide us into all truth. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, if our love of Jesus is the force that guides us, then we can’t help but to keep the commandments of God.”
We should be mindful of the setting we are in when sharing the good news of the gospel. Some people need to hear that they are a beloved child of God and nothing can change that truth. Some people need to hear that just because they are a beloved child of God doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of sin.
Some people need to see how the stories of scripture are relevant to their life today and how that story is saving their life too. Some people need to see how God’s truth doesn’t stop with the last chapter of Revelation but continues to speak through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No matter who the audience is we should remember what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is fond of saying, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God
Beloved of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ works because the message of love is a universal language. The message of love is a language that all of us crave to know – even the enemy. The message of love is what connects humanity to God and each other. The message of love is what makes us live and move and have our being. As seen in the risen Lord Jesus, the message of the love of God in Christ is the only message that will lead to abundant life. Amen.