Taking it to the Public Square
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Acts 17: 22 – 31. Focus on why Christians need to take the Gospel into the public square today. Check out Kelly Crandell & Bill Ucker’s solo following sermon.
I’ve been talking with millenials and others who do not attend church on any regular basis. The church has to find out why people are not coming to church if it wants to understand what it can do about that. “Church” for unchurched people and many who are millenials is simply a matter of not going to the building we call the church. As one person said to me: “Forget church at 10:30 on Sunday, he said. Rather, meet your friends for sports and games on Sunday, then repair to the pub. Meet people on their own terms and at their own places, he said, rather than expect them to come to your church.”
This is exactly what Paul was doing at the Areopagus. The Areopagus was both a place to go and a group of people. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens. The Areopgaus was the most prestigious council of elders in the history of Athens, so named because it met on that site.
Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine magistrates who guided the city-stat away from the rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece’s eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Arepagus changes, so that by Paul’s time it was a place where matters of the criminal courts law philosophy and politics were discussed and decisions made.
Paul was publicly proclaiming the Jesus Way in the public squares and synagogues with anyone and everyone who would listen and he was ridiculed by these cultural movers and shakers and opioion makers as a “babbler” who advocated for a “foreign god.” But they allowed Paul to speak in Athen’s most powerful and important public square to explain what they derided as his “strange ideas.”
At our worst, we Christians have isolated and insulated ourselves from our culture’s mainstreams. For example it’s a joke but has an element of truth in it, “Do you know why Baptist’s don’t like sex, because it will lead to dancing! Or “Do you know why Presbyterians are the frozen chosen?” Because we never thaw! I know Christians who think everything outside of their silo is bad. I remember one of my neighbors who remarked that she would never listened to Rock n Roll music because it was the devil’s music.
She may be right but the devil sure can keep a beat! I told her I could turn her on to several rock n roll artists who were speaking Christ’s words in the lyrics to their songs. Amos Lee, U2, Dylan, Johnny Cash to name but a very few. You just have to listen. And I asked her why so many evangelical churches use guitars, drums, and all things associated with Rock and Roll and yet she is claiming it’s all bad. And hiding or isolating ourselves from that world will not help us reach people who are not in church with Jesus’ gospel.
At our best, Christians have always gone into the public square to advocate for their ideas and that should and can happen not just in churches but in bars, board rooms, in university lecture halls and in our schools and in the halls of our government. Christian evangelism, the kind that Paul demonstrated, has always been an outward movement away from believers toward attracting non-believers. And that does not mean we forget about those who are in our midst but we should always remind ourselves we are not here to serve ourselves we are here to serve and disciple others.
Like Paul we need to go to our equivalent of the Areopagus and embrace the opportunity to meet real people where they really live and think and work, in order to gain a hearing for these ideals that we believe in things like – our faith, how did we came to it, our experience with repentence, rebirth and resurrection. And if we continue to decline and do not change our ways and serve God’s agenda then we deserve to die and will.
Christian evangelism should include Christ followers studying art, music, politics, science. It should involve everyone and everything. Christ did not come and die just for us. He came and died to save the whole world, which includes everyone, even those who are not like us. For we have seen the enemy and they are us!
We should be offering an example of what following Jesus looks like in our time and place. Did Jesus spend all his time in the synagogue? Did Jesus just speak to those who agreed with him? Did Jesus not say, “Go and make disciples of all nations?” But what did the mainline churches go and do? We made ourselves into a nice little club that only talked to others like us.
My sense is that Christ followers today are becoming more and more secularized and less and less aware of who Jesus truly is. Why do an overwhelming number of Christians support Republicans over Democrats? Why do Christians hate gays? Why do Christians condone guns and torture or any form of violence? I hope you are squirming because these are questions that are being asked by the people I talk to, millenials and those who are not in our churches. You can say they are wrong. You can call them secular humanists. You can call them agnositics and atheists, but it doesn’t matter what you call them. They are growing and not coming to us.
How many of you are aware that Christianity is declining in every industrialized democracy in the world. Why is that? Once we stop being the victim in our own story and become aware of what we have done to ourselves by misrepresenting who Jesus is then the reason for our decline will change. How many here have read their Bible cover to cover? How many here have read a single Gospel or book of the Bible? How many here can recite by memory a single piece of scripture? How about two pieces of scripture?
You get what I’m talking about. We need to look at what we are doing and not doing that is either promoting Jesus’ way, truth and life or what we are doing to hinder it. I see so many Christ followers in our country who do not resemble anything that looks like Jesus to me. I see too many Christ followers defend what Paul called us to critique – namely the principalities and powers of our age. We are not contending with mere flesh and blood but with groups of people who have power in institutions that are supposed to represent us.
What sort of reception did Paul receive at the Areopagus? Early in the book of Acts we read that the first Christians “enjoyed the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47). But a few chapters later a raging mob stoned Stephen to death and scattered the church. (Acts 7). And in Luke’s straightforward way he described Paul reception among the Anthenians that he was speaking to this way. Some people “sneered” when they heard Paul speak about the resurrection. Others took a rain check and asked to learn more at a latter date and a few believed, namely Dionysius who was member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and “a number of others” (Acts 17: 32 – 33).
And with that Paul left to go and talk about Jesus in Corinth. And in this way Paul founded according to some scholars upwards of 14 churches in his lifetime. How many have we started? Amen