Making the Unknown God Known
A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, May 14th 2023, at the beginning of Christian Aid Week, in a service including induction of Elders to a period of service within the congregation.
Watch the whole service on YouTube
The Elders’ Meeting ‘is to foster in the congregation concern for witness and service to the community [and] evangelism at home and abroad.’ That’s the first part of the first of twelve functions of a United Reformed Church Elders’ Meeting, as set out in the Manual of the United Reformed Church, Part B, para., 2.2.1 … as I’m sure we are all aware!
To ‘foster in the congregation concern for witness and service to the community [and] evangelism at home and abroad,’ is a pretty big ‘ask.’. If we take ‘the community’ as encompassing the world community, then continuing support for the work of Christian Aid makes perfect sense. By encouraging us to connect with the work of Christian Aid, including with people like Esther in places like Rwanda, our Elders’ Meeting encourages Christian witness and serving in the world. Tick!
But what about fostering congregational concern for evangelism at home and abroad? What is our Elders’ Meeting doing about that? And how ready and willing are we, the congregation, to be encouraged to participate in evangelism? Those are questions demanding an answer, and there’s the Apostle Paul doing his best to provide it; or if not an answer, then an example to ponder and to respond to today.
Some people read that passage from the Book of Acts, where Paul speaks to a crowd in the Greek city, Athens, and suggest that Paul made a poor job of it. Earlier in the Book of Acts, when Peter addressed a crowd in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, ‘about three thousand persons were added’ to church numbers. In chapter five in the same book, following ‘signs and wonders’ done by the apostles, ‘more than ever believers were added.’ (5:14) In the next chapter, ‘the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem’ (6:7).
So what was the result Paul spoke in Athens? The very next verse after today’s reading tells us: some scoffed, some said they wanted to hear more, and ‘some joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris, and others with them.’ (17:33) Dionysius, Damaris and others is some way short of three thousand new believers, or of ‘the number of disciples increased greatly.’ Two named people, plus unnamed ‘others’ means that there were at least four new believers, but probably not many more.
So was Paul’s speech a failure? If three thousand people converted sets the minimum standard for success you would have to say it was a failure. On the other hand, Paul was sharing good news (that’s what ‘evangelise’ means) in a very different sort of setting compared to Peter. At Pentecost, Peter spoke to Jewish religious pilgrims. Paul was speaking to Gentile Greeks in a city where philosophy and the gods, not the monotheistic Jewish faith, was prized. This was the city of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and other major philosophers, and its population were proud of that fact.
Ministering in secularised Western Europe in the twenty-first century I feel more in solidarity with Paul’s situation than with Peter’s here. If I ever preached a sermon that resulted in four or more people becoming believers in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, far from being disappointed I would be elated about a unique, unprecedented, rip-roaring success in my preaching career to date.
So maybe it would be a good idea for Elders – who have a responsibility to ‘foster in the congregation concern for … evangelism at home and abroad’ to pay attention to Paul’s practice and experience here. And the rest of us don’t get off the hook because, as it says elsewhere in scripture, we should always be ready to make our defence to anyone who demands from us an accounting for the hope that is within us. (1 Peter 3:15) So let’s look at how Paul went about the task of sharing the good news about God with the people in Athens.
The first thing Paul did was to look carefully at the culture and society around him. He toured the city, observing what mattered to people: ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way, for … I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.’ (17:22, 23) Athenians were so religious that they even included an altar dedicated to ‘an unknown god.’ (17:23) Maybe they were afraid of annoying a god by leaving them out; an insurance policy against divine thunderbolts.
If we journeyed around North Shields town centre today, as though for the first time, what might we observe? What might strike us, as all that religious paraphernalia so struck Paul in Athens? What might our town centre landscape suggest about what matters to people around here?
Like ancient Athens, we too have our religious buildings, though they tend to be older rather than modern, so we might wonder if religion is as important to people around here as it once was.
There are quite a lot of pubs and cafes, so sociability, associated with eating and drinking seems to be a thing. The YMCA nursery and the schools indicate that children and education are important.
There are various shops, though several units are empty, so if shopping remains important then a lot of it is happening elsewhere, including online. And then there are all of those housing developments and redevelopment, with the design of the more recent ones suggesting that privacy is a big thing.
The second thing that Paul did was to link what interested the Athenians with the good news he wished to share with them. So Paul then declared, ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it … who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,’ (17:23, 24)
Having made the link between what interested them and what interested him, Paul proceeded to tell them about God, who is the God of ‘all of the nations who inhabit the earth … [who] is not far from each one of us,’ (17:26, 27), and he did so, referencing their own writer/philosophers: ‘for “in him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said.’ (17:28) And that prepares the ground for Paul to mention Jesus, though at this point not by name: God ‘will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (17:31)
At that point the conversation really gets going, with some Athenian locals scoffing, some intrigued, and a few convinced to the point of belief. I’m glad that some Athenians ‘scoffed’ at what Paul had to say. Do you know why? Because when you tell someone what you believe about Jesus some of them are going to scoff. If it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for us.
Another way of looking at this is that nobody comes to belief unless they have the chance to say ‘no.’ The only way to avoid people saying ‘no’ to Jesus is not to tell them about him, but if you don’t tell anyone, then nobody will ever say ‘yes’ either. It’s challenging for us to foster a concern – an enthusiasm – for evangelism, though, because, as far as we can see, unlike those Athenians, people around here don’t seem to be so interested in religion.
It is more challenging for us, then, to find things that interest others which can be linked in conversation with our experience of God’s love. And just as an aside, don’t forget, we have to have a genuine interest in things that interest others, not just to think we can exploit their interests as a means to getting the conversation around to what interest us. Let me assure you, people can see that sort of thing coming a mile off!
As a congregation, we can do with some getting some help to do all of this. If you think we’re not going to do any good news sharing, let me remind you that that Elders’ Meeting exists in part to encourage us to do so; and who here wants to disappoint the Elders! I’m glad to say, then, that we’ve been making progress with the getting a Synod-financed-and-managed Pioneer Worker in place to work with us.
The job description should be finalised this coming week. Then we will be looking to recruit a twenty-hours-per-week worker to support us with existing activities where we are most effective in engaging with people around here about faith. They will also spend time exploring North Shields for new ways to have conversations about faith.
So as our Elders get on with their work; as we live our lives as a congregation of believers in Jesus, the one who has been raised from the dead; let’s bear in mind the Apostle Paul’s example. He looked at what concerned people and then shared what his experience of God said about that. Let’s look forward to some conversations about things that matter, expecting some to scoff, some to be intrigued, and some to come to believe about God’s love made known through Jesus Christ. Amen.