31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
May 6, 2018
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
What a strange and foreign place Ancient Athens was in comparison to our own. Can you imagine a place where no one knew about Jesus? Where they were totally unfamiliar with the faith customs and traditions, with the scripture passages that spoke of God and Jesus?
The city of Athens was a bustling, busy place. Its people were of diverse beliefs and religions. Some were very attached to their cultural idols. Some were “spiritual but not religious”, and still others believed in total rationalism.
So when Paul shared about a God who created the world, who loved God’s creation so much that God came to be with human beings, those rationalists called Paul a “babbler” of old ideas that were no longer meaningful or relevant.
Can you imagine a world where people discount the Christian faith as no longer meaningful or relevant?
Maybe Ancient Athens was not so very different. Because although no one is standing around our grocery stores discussing philosophy, we do have our own places to “stand” around, endlessly debating the latest fads and trends. And while the Internet and social media have replaced the City Council chambers, the modern equivalent of the Areopagus, we continue to debate and defend and wrestle with each other about how best to live.
The people of Ancient Athens were not so very different from the people of our own time. Theirs was a world in which Paul saw the need to share a new way to live, a way based on the love of God as made known in Jesus Christ. Ours is a world which needs to know a new way to live, a way based on the love of God as made known in Jesus Christ.
The mission field, the harvest, those who spiritually hunger, are right in front of us – just as they were with Paul. And all it takes is three simple steps to share the good news, to evangelize, as Paul did with the Athenians so long ago.
First step, Paul connected with them. He was a foreigner, unknown to them, having just arrived in town. They did not know who he was or what he was doing there, but they were curious. At first some of the Greek philosophers called him a hick babbler, but other Athenians kindly inquired of Paul, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” I love the way the New International Version puts it. “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (Acts 17:20) “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”
Paul understands that they don’t know him. They don’t know the Jewish sacred writings that proclaimed a Messiah, the prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus. The Athenians have no familiarity with the words, traditions, and experiences that ground Paul’s life and inspire his ministry.
Paul and the Athenians have no common ground, so Paul finds some. Paul walks around their city and pays attention to what is going on in Athens. He looks carefully at what they are worshipping, listens carefully to what they are talking about. So when he speaks to them, he speaks to them with words and concepts they are familiar with. He praises them (because who doesn’t like to be praised), and then he uses a part of their faith, the altar to an unknown God, to share about his faith in Jesus the Christ.
First step in evangelism, connect with your listener. Don’t just talk. Don’t assume they know what you know, believe what you believe, or share your vision of the world. Listen to them. Know them. Find common ground to connect with them. And don’t underestimate the power of a compliment to create a connection. It shows you appreciate and understand them.
The second step in evangelism is a bit more challenging. After Paul connects with the Athenians, he begins to teach. He begins to share about a new way.
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by humans hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things….Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, (Acts 17:23-25, 29)
This is the challenging part of evangelism, the potentially awkward part. In his teaching, Paul is gently correcting his listeners. Paul is sharing with them that their current way of worshipping, idolizing metal and stone statues, is not right, not life-giving. That the God who made heaven and earth and gave us breathe that we might seek God is not “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29)
After establishing a connection, Paul gently points out that their current life, their current way of putting their faith in things, is flawed. How can something you made have made you? How can a stone statue walk with you and guide you through life? How can an inanimate object love you?
Step two is probably the number one reason why we shy away from fulfilling Jesus’ call to go forth and make disciples. We don’t want people to think we are judging them, putting their choices down, that we know or are better than them.
And yet, in other areas of our lives, people are rarely shy in sharing their opinions about the best way to live. I was at a birthday party where a complete stranger told me in great detail how changing to a paleo diet has totally changed her life. When I was pregnant with Jack, one set of friends was insistent that we get never get a stroller. Another set was insistent that we get the biggest stroller we could find.
Think about your own life – you find a delicious new recipe, great new restaurant, super deal on something, even a new appliance that slices and dices and chops and shops, and what do you do? You tell someone about it! – without a single thought that your sharing of this thing that has made your life so much better, would be seen as judgmental or pushy.
We simply, automatically, do the third step of evangelism. With enthusiasm and heart felt conviction, we share about what has made our lives better. In the same way, Paul shared with the Athenians a new way that made his life better, a way of love, love of God and love of our neighbors.
Why is it so easy to share about things and not so easy to share about this way of love? Why is it so easy to gush about the trivial and not so easy to speak about the God who created us, the God who gave us breathe and life, the God who seeks to be near us and love us unconditionally, through the valleys of sunshine and the valleys shadowed with death?
Especially when in each of our lives, there is at least one person who needs to know that they are loved by God, that they are precious to the Creator of the universe, that God Almighty calls them “beloved child”?
And all it would take on our parts is three simple steps. Connect. Teach and gently correct. And share a new way of love.
We do not know what our listener will do with what we share. We cannot control what our listener will do with what we share.
Like Paul’s listeners, they may scoff. Others though might say, “We will hear you again about this.” (Acts 17:32) “I’ll think about this new way.” And still others will say, “Yes! Yes! I did not even know what I was looking for, what I needed; however I heard what you said, and my soul said Yes! I want my own relationship with the God who is known through Jesus Christ. I want to feel that love.”
We can hope that everyone we share the good news with will respond like this. We can hope that they, too, might want to know the peace, the love, the joy, the hope, we know through our relationships with Jesus Christ.
We do not know what will happen though. We cannot control. We do not judge, and we cannot worry about how our listeners will respond.
We have been called. We have a story to tell. We have a relationship with God that gives us joy and peace, hope and love. How can we keep that good news to ourselves?!