Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

27 aug 2017


Preacher: The Dean

Readings: 2 Kings 6.8-23, Acts 17.15-34


'What do you see in that time-touched stone,
When nothing is there
But ashen blankness, although you give it
A rigid stare?

'You look not quite as if you saw,
But as if you heard,
Parting your lips, and treading softly
As mouse or bird.

'It is only the base of a pillar, they'll tell you,
That came to us
From a far old hill men used to name

- 'I know no art, and I only view
A stone from a wall,
But I am thinking that stone has echoed
The voice of Paul,

'Paul as he stood and preached beside it
Facing the crowd,
A small gaunt figure with wasted features,
Calling out loud

'Words that in all their intimate accents
Pattered upon
That marble front, and were far reflected,
And then were gone.

'I'm a labouring man, and know but little,
Or nothing at all;
But I can't help thinking that stone once echoed
The voice of Paul.'

So wrote Thomas Hardy in his poem ‘In the British Museum’.  I don’t know when you were last in the museum and last visited what we know as the Elgin Marbles – but I’m going to encourage you to go and to take your Bible with you.  I encourage you to sit amongst those glorious sculptures plundered from the Parthenon on the Acropolis and read the Second Lesson for this evening. 

Paul is on a missionary journey that has taken him from the north of modern Greece, a journey involving imprisonment, adulation, rejection - now he’s in Athens.

The Acts of the Apostles gives us a fantastic insight into what happened in that city of gods and philosophers.  We mustn’t for a moment imagine that Paul was some kind of country bumpkin.  He was a sophisticated, educated, urban man.  But even so arriving in this amazing city must have been awe inspiring.  Like a modern day tourist he had a look around, visited all the temples to the different deities that the Greeks worshipped and he heard the men in the agora, the market place, debating, philosophy, politics, the holders of the knowledge of the world. 

Then we’re told that he goes to Mars Hill.  If you go to Athens you can go to the very place, in the foothills of the Acropolis, with the Parthenon, devoid of its frieze, looking down on you.  As Thomas Hardy somewhat romantically mused

I can't help thinking that stone once echoed
The voice of Paul.

The Athens that Paul encountered was on one level much like the city that we can still visit.  It was full of temples but then with priests leading the cults of numerous gods.  Paul wanders around just as we might, taking it all in, listening to what was being said.  Then as he goes to the place of debate he does a very clever thing.  Firstly he quotes to his listeners their own poets.  Paul begins where they are – takes their familiar words and makes them fresh and unfamiliar.  And then he does something even more wonderful and inspired.

In his wanderings around the city, visiting these pagan temples he spots an altar, with its inscription ‘To an Unknown God’.  Amongst all these gods, the Athenians recognise that there is a God whose name they do not know.  Paul gives that God a name and he tells them about Jesus and he tells them of his resurrection.

The stones echoed with the voice of Paul, they echoed with the sound of scoffing from some, but they also witnessed to the fascination and wonder of others who, caught by what Paul had to say, wanted to hear more.

Pope John Paul said that we’re living through the age of the ‘New Areopagus’.  His words are still true.  For many people there is an Unknown God, for many people there are other gods, worshipped in other shrines – and I’m not talking about members of other faith communities, but those who worship at the altars of celebrity, or wealth, or power, or fanaticism, or prestige, the silver and gold deities of so many people’s lives.  Like Paul we have to name the Unknown God and bring other people into that liberating knowledge and that personal relationship in which they too can name the name of Jesus.  Some will scoff – they did then, they will do now.  But others went off interested, wanting to know more – some still want to know more.

The stones of which this city is built need to echo with Paul’s words spoken by us

‘he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’

and we know who he is.