Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 14 May, 2023. Readings: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
15”Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3.15).
This verse for 1st Peter is often quoted in discussions about evangelism because it shows how the early church felt that it had to explain itself to a pagan world in order to sell the good news about Jesus Christ.
Now most of us aren’t really good or confident about talking about our faith outside (or even inside of) church circles. We feel that it’s a matter of privacy, we want to respect the autonomy of others and not “shove faith down their throats”. But think of how good you are at being an evangelist for other things. Is there a favourite recipe, show, or household brand that you’re happy to about? A favourite vacation spot that you will readily wax lyrical about?
In my case, I can go on at tedious length about this new machine that’s in the church kitchen. It’s a gadget called LOMI that turns food scraps and green waste into compost and soil for the garden. Joy got me one last year because I go on about composting, and now I can happily try and selll others on LOMI without even a commission. Anyone who’s passionate about something can be an evangelist.
But Christian evangelism is different from talking about your favourite brand. People get composting and everyone wants to be green, but not everyone gets Jesus or wants to be a disciple. Last week I was speaking about how we as Christians, when we try to reach out to the community around us, need to take into account the fact that many people around us, who are basically unchurched, may not have the slightest idea what we are talking about. That doesn’t mean that they are bad people. It doesn’t mean that we have to think of them as pagans. It just means that we have to work hard to be understood, and we want to be understood, because our message is good news.
One of my professors in seminary used to say, that evangelism was finding some way to relate to people, establishing some common ground, before you started talking about Jesus. So, when I was a military chaplain, I’d always ask people what hockey team they cheered for, and then I’d say that as a person of faith, I was naturally a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. And you know what? That joke still hasn’t gotten old!
The same professor encouraged us to read books with titles such as The Gospel According to the Simpsons o What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. These books were attempts by Christians to use iconic television shows to try to explain our faith using ideas and characters from popular culture. The only problem with using TV shows as illustrations in sermons is that they often don’t age well and they don’t translate well across generations. One parishioner may love The Simpsons, whereas another may think television went downhill after The Ed Sullivan Show. Even so, pop culture references can help make a point (I referred to the film Apollo 13 in my Easter Sunday sermon) and in general it’s always a good idea to try and meet people where they are.
Today in our first lesson from Acts (and during the season of Easter, our first lesson is always from Acts) we hear how Paul tries to find common ground with the Greeks in Athens. Paul is doing a sort of tour of the cities of Greece, “telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17.18), and he’s been invited to a place called the Aeropagus, near the Parthenon, to explain his teaching because, as Acts tells us the Athenians love to debate new ideas.
Paul knows a few things about the Athenians because he’s been wandering around their city and noticing their spiritual habits. Acts tells us that Paul is “distressed” because the city is “full of idols” (kateídōlos), idols in New Testament Greek meaning “false gods”. Worshipping idols made from human hands was as much a sin to the early Christians as it was to the Jews since the days of Moses (remember the story of the Golden Calf from Exodus), except that Paul, who is both a Jew and a Christian, does not go ballistic on the Athenians.
Instead, Paul chooses to engage his audience where they are. He begins with a polite phrase, “I see that you Athenians are very religious” which then leads to what I think is a somewhat tongue in cheek compliment to their “having an altar to an unknown God”. From there he goes on to a simple statement that gods are not created by humans, but that we are created by a God who loves us, who wants to know us, and wants to be known by us.
24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
To further connect with the Athenians, Paul quotes a verse from a Greek poet (Aratus of Tarsus, the poem being the Phenomena) who wrote that “‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 7.27). Never mind that the Greek poet was writing a hymn to the Greek God Zeus, but Paul borrows the verse to talk about how the Christian God gives us life.
So Paul’s teaching isn’t welcomed by everyone. Acts goes on to tell us that some Greeks “scoffed” at it, but others were willing to hear more and some even came to believe. Paul will go on to say elsewhere that the message of the cross is “foolishness” to Greeks to value reason, but we know that his message did lead to churches being planted across the Greek speaking world, spiritual homes to people who wanted more than what the brutal world of the Roman Empire could provide.
I think we can learn something from Paul’s approach to the Athenians. I said last week that we are surrounded by people, neighbours, friends, coworkers, our adult children, who will say that they are not religious but will claim to have some sort of spirituality. I think we can take these claims at face value but, when the time is right and there’s a chance of conversation, we can ask questions, such as:
Tell me about your spirituality. I’d like to know more about it.
What gives you hope? What comforts you? What films, books, or practices help you develop your sense of the spiritual?
What is your idea of a good life? A purposeful life?
I think we may find that if we enter into these discussions respectfully, we may find there’s some substance to discuss. Or, it may be that claims of spirituality are vague and undeveloped, like the Athenians’ altar to an unknown God. Either way, door may open to a discussion where we might find similarities, like, “your idea of being one with creation isn’t that different from what Jesus says about never leaving his followers alone and always being present with them through his Spirit”.
We may be challenged to explain our faith, but more likely we can share our faith through conversations that are gracious, open ended, and which meet people where they are in their spirituality, however undefined.
Let me finish with a little infomercial for an upcoming book study. C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books as a way to give an accounting for his Christian hope. While he wrote them as novels for young children, they offer a winsome and accessible introduction to core Christian ideals, such as using Aslan the Lion to explain who Jesus was. Who knows, but maybe talking about Narnia at your next book club, or offering to read it to your grandchildren (as a break from the latest Disney or Pixar movie), might be a way to open a conversation that allows us to share our faith.