In the Name...
A couple of clergy were standing by a road holding signs. One read, "The End is Nigh." The other read, "Turn Back, O Man." A car approached, slowed down, then sped away. A few moments later, was heard a squeal of brakes and a splash. Then one minister said to the other, "Maybe we should just say that the bridge washed out."
Sometime back, I was asked if I knew why the Pope is called by the title of Supreme Pontiff. What is a pontiff, anyway? Well, that term derives from the Latin title Pontifex Maximus and it means "chief bridge-builder."
In ancient times, science and religion were intertwined. Priests were also doctors, astronomers, architects, engineers, and so on. We need only look at Stonehenge and the Pyramids to get a sense of that.
The Tiber River was sacred to the Ancient Romans and the men who could build a roadway across the home of the river gods were believed to be especially powerful. Pontifex Maximus became the title of the senior official of the Roman religion. That all changed, however, in 376, when the Christian Emperor Gratian decided that the title more appropriately belonged to the leader of the Christian Church, the Bishop of Rome.
Bridge building, though, in a spiritual sense, - reaching out to people of every race, nation, and culture - is a task to which all Christians are called to be doing and in this morning's Scripture we see a powerful example of this in action.
Peter may have been leader of the fledgling Church, but Peter was a man of his culture - a rural, working-class Jew who had never travelled far from home. We read, in Acts, several examples of how bridge-building was not easy for him. That's why God chose Paul to model the role of missionary. Paul was also a Jew, but a well read, well-travelled man fully conversant with the prevailing Greek culture.
Todays' lesson shows him in Athens - the New York City of the ancient world. A place both sophisticated and jaded. Luke comments that the Athenians “liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest new thing." And he might have added, "believing everything and nothing". Athenians were religious to the point of being superstitious. In such a place, how could one present the Jewish Messiah as the Way, the Truth, and the Life for all peoples?
Well, like any good builder, Paul starts from the shore where his hearers are located. What has he observed in Athens? In Athens they worship Athena, Poseidon, Zeus, Ares, Hermes, and many others. Paul has even found an altar dedicated “To The Unknown God” – just in case they missed one.
So, this altar became the starting point for Paul’s message, the point at which the Athenians had acknowledged their religious system was incomplete. Paul did not say that their superstitious building of this altar was a good thing to do. But, he said it was good that they realized that they didn't have all the answers and Paul says he can help them because he happens to know the Unknown God. It is his God to whom they have been reaching out and this is what he wants to tell them.
He tells them that his is the God who “gives to all mortals life and breath”. And God’s care for all races of mankind was “so that they would look for him, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”
And you notice Paul doesn’t once refer to the Scriptures for support. Paul knew his Scripture backwards and forwards but he also knew that the Athenians had never heard of the Law and the Prophets. They were clueless about Isaiah's Suffering Servant or the lineage of David. So, using the stock mantra, "The Bible says..." wasn't going to go far with this audience.
And, here's where Paul shows his bridge building genius. The Greeks didn't have holy books like the Bible. Instead, they had holy poems which they sang. And Paul makes his case for the Gospel by quoting from sacred Greek poems.
The first we saw him use today was by a fellow named Epimenides in which addresses Zeus:
"Although they built a tomb for you, O mighty, sacred one,
their schemes were undone; their eyes kept from seeing
that in you we live and move and have our being."
Interesting isn't it? That famous line "in you we live and move and have our being" was not written by a prophet or an apostle, a Jew or a Christian. It was written by a pagan poet about a pagan god. But, Paul baptized it and made it Christian.
And the second quote he uses is from a poem by a fellow named Aratus:
"The market, the street, the harbour, the sea,
are filled with the presence of Zeus the king;
for we are all his offspring."
St. Paul has no difficulty using the language of his time to make Christians among a people not raised in the historical Hebrew idiom.
George Orwell's famous novel "1984" introduced the term "new-speak" to refer to incomprehensible government jargon. Well, church-people have a tendency to "church-speak", to use terms and phrases which mean a lot to us, but which might as well be Chinese to most people in our society.
And it's no exaggeration to say "most." Almost everyone in America says they believe in God, but only about 40% claim membership in a specific church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.
So, what do we say to the 60% who are really worshipping "The Unknown God"? And how do we say it? A lot of Christians reach for their Bibles, but, the Bible is as meaningless in our society today as it was 2,000 years ago in Athens. The Gospel, however, is not. The Gospel is greater than the Bible because it is a message which transcends words. The Gospel is greater than the Bible.
And that is the great advantage we have. That the Good News of God in Christ is not limited to a particular culture, time or place. St. Paul understood this. He didn't expect his Greek audience to understand Hebrew history and theology. And, he didn’t water down the faith, either. He didn't teach that Jesus was just Zeus under another name. But, he used what his audience was listening to in their daily lives, and the importance they attached to it, to connect with them.
Without civil bridge building, we'd all be cut off from each other on the wrong side of rivers, but, with it, we open up infinite possibilities. Our society is no different to St. Paul's. It's made up of people listening to, and talking about, every new thing, believing everything and nothing.
But, we still have a Gospel to proclaim. We just need to make sure that when we do, we use the words which make sense to them so that they know this bridge is not washed out.
In the Name...