I have a confession to make. I’ve been to the Areopagus, which stands at the base of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece… a few times. So many times, in fact, that I’ve been heard to utter petulantly on a couple of occasions: “What? The Parthenon… again? As y’all know, Philippa’s family is from Greece and for many years, her folks had a country house in the Peloponnese where they’d spend their summers each year. Honey and I would visit every other summer, usually for two or three weeks at a time. It was pretty cool… staying in this house, designed by Philippa’s engineer dad, which sat on the side of a mountain—smack dab in the middle of a grove of olive trees—overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Actually, it was more than cool… it was spectacular, and I’ll always treasure the memories.
But here’s the thing: over the course of nearly twenty years, and nine or ten trips to Greece, we would serve as tour guides to a variety of family members and friends—many of whom had never been before, and who might not go again—so a lot of sightseeing had to be crammed into each of these visits. And, of course, most folks wanted (or arguably even needed) to visit the same short list of “places you have to see when you go to Greece” in order to get a real feel for the country. And so, we visited all of the same top museums and geological/archeological sites over and over… year after year. I doubt there were more than a couple of summers when Philippa and I were truly on our own to go off and explore lesser-known places or just laze around the house and the beach, soaking in copious rays from the warm Mediterranean sun. Hence, my whining about having to visit the Acropolis and the Parthenon again and again. And, by the way, the Acropolis is a pretty amazing place. But what really made each visit unique and memorable were the people we were shepherding around… who were all experiencing Greece for the first time. That made it all worthwhile.
I particularly remember surprising my mother with a trip to Greece during one of those summers. Though she had taught Greek literature to countless high school and college students over the years, she herself had never been abroad. Being the bookish person that she was, she might have told you that she had “experienced the world through the printed word… and didn’t need to get on an airplane to be a tourist.” Part of it was the cost of airfare, I’m sure, and part of it was her not wanting to subject herself to the rigors and vulnerabilities of international travel. But we took her with us one summer and, though she was in her mid-seventies by that time, she had a blast. We did a lot of stuff the day we were in Athens, and by the time we got to the Acropolis, she was pretty tired… and hot… and beginning to get dehydrated. But she was game, nonetheless. And as much as she was looking forwarded to seeing the Parthenon, she especially wanted to stand on the Areopagus… where Paul had stood when he addressed the Athenians back in the day. The Areopagus is a rock outcropping that towers over the Agora, or central meeting place, of ancient Athens. And like many rock formations on or around the Acropolis, the Areopagus is composed almost entirely of white marble. It’s an absolutely remarkable feature… no wonder philosophers and politicians would routinely stand in front of or atop it to deliver their orations. Stairs had been cut in the marble in antiquity to aid people in climbing the formation; but weather and use had worn them down to a series of steep, undulating humps… very polished and slippery. And you didn’t want to fall. And there was Mom, standing at the bottom… looking up. So hopeful… and yet so afraid. This could be a dream come true, or just another place she’d simply read about. So, we got her up there… by hook and by crook. It wasn’t elegant—in fact, I had to put my hand in some awkward places on her anatomy… especially on the way down. But we got her safely to the top, and she got to stand where the Apostle had stood as he preached to the Athenians about “the unknown God.”
Paul was about halfway through his second missionary journey (~49-52 AD) when he had a bit of a dust up with some Synagogue leaders in Berea (in Macedonia) who didn’t appreciate the way he was gadding about their bailiwick, converting their congregants to the Gospel of Christ. So, Paul took ship for Athens, asking Timothy and Silas to join him there when they could. Paul spent his time there preaching the Gospel to any Athenian who would listen. Some were Jews and other people of faith, while others were a harder sell: Epicureans (followers of Epicurus) who believed the highest aim of humankind is to seek a pleasant life… and Stoics who believed that happiness depended upon bringing oneself into harmony with the universe. Do these philosophies sound familiar to you in the present day and age? But, despite the challenges, Paul’s preaching began to gain some traction, and it wasn’t long before he was invited to speak to a larger audience at the Areopagus. And he used the example of an altar he had seen elsewhere in the City, dedicated to “an unknown god,” as his entrée for teaching the crowd about the real God… who can be known, and who desires to be known. Mom was devout… a person of great faith, who had spent her life living into the Gospel of Christ in thought, word and deed. And there was something about that marble outcropping that brought it all home for her. And I can tell you that simply being there with her somehow deepened my faith as well.
How many of you have friends and relations who you might think of as modern-day Epicureans and Stoics? Good people, who do no harm—and yet whose lives seem to be consumed by the mundane: working… buying stuff… raising kids (for better or for worse)… working more, to buy more stuff… seeking solace in yoga, or golf, or the latest self-help scheme (or booze, or drugs) when what they’re really hungry for is knowledge and understanding of the “unknown god” who created the Universe from dust… and within whom we live and move and have our being? Paul spoke to the Athenians of idols… and judgment… and the need for repentance. And not all of them listened… but some did. So, here’s my question to you: how are you working to spread the Gospel of Christ to a world in great need of hope? Spreading the Gospel: the Good News… εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion)… evangelism!
It’s sometimes said that Episcopalians are really not all that much into evangelism. I wonder why that is? Maybe we’re jealous of our dignity. We want people to think well of us. We are God’s “frozen chosen,” after all. And some of our more evangelical brothers and sisters can come across as a little “over-zealous” at times. But I’m pretty sure that many folks in Paul’s day thought that his ministry was “over the top” most of the time! Jesus’ too… and, like Jesus, Paul ended up being executed on that account. But Paul never soft-pedaled his faith. He always lived it out loud! to the annoyance of many. And yet, boy, was he effective. But you don’t need to travel the world… or be off-putting to people to be an evangelist. All you need to do is be faithful to God’s movement and purpose in your life, and “bloom where you are planted.” And make no mistake: you are planted in the middle of God’s vineyard. You were created to engage the Epicureans and Stoics in your lives and offer them the chance to know, and be in relationship with, God Almighty through our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m assuming y’all are all here in the (virtual) pews today because you believe in the Gospel of Christ: the Good News of Grace and Salvation, and of the coming Kingdom. And if the Gospel is true, then it’s everything. And if it’s not, then I wonder if we might as well just (press stop and) go about our business. In fact, I’m not sure we can call ourselves Christians and not be evangelists to one degree or another. It’s not enough to be a good person. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. We have to begin living our lives for something greater than ourselves. That’s what it means to be a priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). And we’ve been called to be just that! When we begin living into the Gospel each day—every day—loving and serving God and our neighbor in thought, word and deed—only then will we begin to understand what it truly means to be Children of God. And I figure we have all of eternity to get that figured out… but wouldn’t it be a good thing to get started on it sooner rather than later?