The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
2 Kings 6.8-23; Acts 17.15-34
To be honest I’m a bit confused about where you can and where you can’t go on holiday at the moment
But when we’re able to freely travel again, and if you haven’t yet been, you must go to Athens. Ok, it’s a bit noisy and polluted and far too crowded. But it is fantastic. There’s nothing quite like ascending the acropolis and seeing the Parthenon standing there, presiding over the city as it has done since it was completed in the year 438 BC. It’s hard to imagine, but Paul would’ve seen it just as we do, except that the marbles would’ve been there and not in London, which, lets be honest, was not even a twinkle in someone’s eye at the time when the temple was built!
When Paul walked around like any modern day tourist, this place and all the other temples and the agora and everything else were already the stuff of antiquity. He was a sophisticated chap but I suspect there were elements that took his breath away. His Jewishness would’ve been so scandalised by the imagery and the devotion to such a panoply of Gods that it must have been mind boggling.
Paul clearly took in all the things that he saw, just as he took in the philosophy which was the conversation on the streets and in the schools and on the benches in the agora. He took in the poetry which was being recited and performed all around him. He lapped it all up.
When I’ve taken pilgrim groups to Athens we stand on Mars Hill, just below the remains of the great temple to Athena, the place where Paul meets the Areopagite in our Second Lesson and we read this passage in situ. This is where it happened, this is where these words were spoken and it’s good to be reminded of all that, in context. Because it’s context that’s all important.
We talk a great deal in church circles about mission and mission strategies but it seems to me that Paul hits the nail on the head when he addresses the Athenians. He wasn’t a person who always minced his words but in this instance he doesn’t trash or decry or denounce all the scandalous pagan stuff he has seen. But instead he takes what’s there and uses that to speak of what he knows and what he brings.
He has spotted an altar to an unknown God. What they worship as unknown, Paul, through Jesus, knows. He takes the words of their own poets and quotes it back to them. What he is saying is, you already know the God of whom I speak, you already speak of the God I know, it’s just that you haven’t realised it, you haven’t put two and two together. And in this sophisticated place he got a hearing and a further hearing. Some rejected him, some scoffed, but not all of them.
When St Augustine landed with his monks in Kent he found plenty of worship going on. There were sacred yew trees on hills all over the place, where the people gathered to worship their Gods. But unlike some later saints such as Boniface who took an axe to a scared oak in Germany, Augustine simply chose these already sacred spots as the places where the gospel would be proclaimed and the cross planted and the church built. It was a process of assimilation and not destruction. There was wisdom in it, meeting people where they were, meeting people where they are, honouring who they are and then opening their eyes to what they already know – that God is with them.