May 15, 2022
Acts 17: 16-31
This week’s passage from Acts has me remembering the cereal aisle at the Safeway in Transcona.
When I was a kid, my parents and I would do grocery shopping on Friday nights after dad got home from the flour mill. While they picked up the essentials, I was sent to the cereal aisle to pick my breakfast for the coming week.
It wasn’t an easy choice for a kid … especially in the pre-health-conscious time of the ‘60s.
There was a lot more sugar and chemicals back then … the boxes all had characters designed to attract a kid’s attention … and there were prizes inside many of the boxes … and that was usually the deciding factor.
It was tough to choose … and if I chose wrong, mom would take the box from the cart … head back to the aisle and make the choice I should have made.
Next time you go grocery shopping, linger a bit in the cereal aisle for a time of reflection.
Consider all the choices that are presented to you … there are healthy cereals intended to keep your digestive system working … there are ones aimed more toward kids … not that you can’t grab one of those anyway … there are others that flavoured like candy and others made from alternate grains.
You can pick more than one so that each day has a different cereal.
There are so many choices … just as there are so much choices when it comes to faith communities and spiritual pursuits.
This is what Paul faced when he arrived in Athens.
Paul is alone when he reaches the city. Silas and Timothy are somewhere back along the road from Beroea.
Rather than wait for them to arrive, Paul decides to share the good news of Christ’s resurrection at the synagogues in Athens.
There, he discusses and debates with the Jewish attendees. The reception he received was less than inspiring. So, Paul heads to the marketplace to share the good news with the Greeks and others who gather there.
Unlike the other places he visited, Athens was a cosmopolitan city of art and thought.
It was a hub for the intellectual and cultural elite of that part of the Roman Empire. Athens was filled with writers, composers and artists.
Scholar Katherine Shaner wrote: “If you were looking for something ancient, edgy, profound, exotic, different, or intellectually stimulating, Athens was the place to be.”
The marketplace was where the thinkers of the day went to share their philosophical theories or beliefs with the people … trying to convince the people that they were the spiritual cereal box worth grabbing.
Paul visits the marketplace each day and shares his message of hope and love.
Stoic and Epicurean philosophers debate Paul and accuse him of being a pretentious babbler … offering bits and pieces of something that they don’t believe is well-thought out.
Paul is led to the Aeropagus to answer more questions about his teachings.
Some can read this section as Paul defending himself from possible persecution, but in a community where many beliefs and teachings are shared, it seems likely that members just want to fill in the gaps in their understanding of Paul’s teachings.
After all, it was a city where many beliefs collided and co-existed.
It was natural that Athens was home to statues, idols and altars dedicated to a number of religious expressions. The presence of so many idols distresses Paul, but in his teachings … in his proclamations … Paul never offers an attack on the gods they worship or the beliefs they hold.
Rather, Paul tries to make the unknown known among the people.
In among all the idols, Paul spots an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” Those who constructed the altar knew there was something reaching out to them … they just couldn’t name it or understand it.
So, Paul sets out to engage those in the synagogue … the Greek thinkers and those in the marketplace and teaches in a way he hopes will connect with the people there.
And through this connection, help them know the God that he knows. When Paul leaves Athens, some people follow along, while others remain skeptical.
Like Paul, we are also called to make the “unknown god,” the “known God.” In today’s passage from the Acts, Paul models away to do this … and a way to deepen our understanding of other’s beliefs or even of their non-belief.
Just as in Paul’s time, congregations find themselves facing people in the marketplace … or if you prefer those standing in the cereal aisle.
There are a lot of faith choices available to people and … if an Angus Reid survey is accurate … Canadians are taking bits and pieces from various faith traditions to tailor their own personal faith system … one that they believe fits their needs.
So, in such a marketplace, how do we make the unknown God known with so many spiritual choices available?
How do we, as disciples guided by the Spirit, share the good news with others as we are called to do?
Paul demonstrates how we can engage other belief systems … by going to where the people are located and seeking out common ground through respectful discussion recognizing our shared desire … to better understand God the creator.
To Paul, the church is in the world … not apart from it … and we are called to present our beliefs in a way that invites others into the community.
Paul seeks out the people in the world … in the systems and places … they inhabit … rather than wait for the people to come to him.
Like the great teacher that he is, Paul tries to speak their language and make the message understandable and relevant to their lives.
Such a dialogue … such an invitation … means listening to others’ stories and experiences … understanding their wounds … recognizing the common ground we tread … speaking in a way that reflects respect … and acting in a way that models the love … the gift of grace … we are called to share.