Thought for the Week: 17th May 2020
This thought was written by Steve Langton.
One of the readings set for today is Acts 17: 22-31. Let me start by setting the scene. Paul is travelling about spreading the gospel and, whilst many are responding to the message, things are not always going to plan. In Philippi Paul and Silas are flogged and sent prison, being released after an earthquake because they are Roman citizens. Thessalonica is little better, and they have to flee after a riot instigated by some of the Jewish leaders.
Paul then moves on to Athens and, as he enters the city, he is distressed to see so many idols. He discusses the issues, firstly with those in the synagogue and other God-fearing people (verse 17), but also with those he finds in the market place. As a result he is invited to address a group of prominent people about his beliefs, and our reading is Paul’s speech to them.
So how does Paul set about addressing these people? The obvious thing might have been to go in all guns blazing, condemning the city for the widespread worship of idols. There was plenty of precedent for this in the scriptures (i.e. our old testament), where the prophets frequently launched this type of blistering attack for very similar reasons.
But, no, this is not how Paul plays it. Instead he engages with them, talking about the objects of worship that he sees around the city. Rather than condemning them outright, he uses these idols to introduce Christian beliefs:
‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.’
I think the church (i.e. us!) would do well to learn from Paul’s example as we seek to engage with a world that is increasingly removed from the Christian values. We may not see shrines to strange gods around our streets, but we do see many signs of the worship of power, money and sex. As Paul did in the synagogue, we will probably first discuss these issues with those who share our beliefs, and we may be quite forthright in our condemnation in these private discussions. However, we then need to consider how we can engage constructively with the wider society, meeting people where they are, not where we would like them to be. As has been evident in the current crisis, many people of no faith nevertheless demonstrate boundless love and care for others; perhaps we can link this to our loving God, in the same way that Paul linked the altar to the unknown God to the worship of the one true God.
Almighty God, we bring before you the world around us. A world seemingly full of people who, just like the people of ancient Athens, are ignorant of your loving goodness. Give us the strength to engage with all people, tending the seeds of faith within them so that may come to understand your grace and mercy. Amen.