Our first reading this morning sees St Paul in Athens. This was not where he had wanted to be and, indeed, he was only there because of circumstances. St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had travelled from Asia Minor on what is commonly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey. As a result of God’s leading, they had visited and established a Church in Philippi in Macedonia and then another in Thessalonica.
They had, however, encountered severe opposition. In Thessalonica, this was mainly from the Jews, and they had had to leave Thessalonica because of it. Unfortunately, moving did not solve the problem and they found that those Jews who had opposed them in Thessalonica had followed them to Beroea. It was St Paul himself who was the focus of the opposition and in the end St Paul’s supporters put him on a boat and shipped him off to Athens leaving Silvanus and Timothy behind in Macedonia. They were to join him later.
St Paul, then, was on his own in Athens and took the opportunity to look round. He did not like what he saw. Everywhere he went there were temples, shrines, and the worship of pagan gods. This went against everything that St Paul believed both as a Jew and a Christian. The Ten Commandments, for example, specifically forbade the worship of idols and here they were everywhere to be seen.
St Paul, however, didn’t simply disapprove or condemn, he engaged, arguing with anyone who would listen. This included Greek philosophers. His arguments proved interesting to those who heard them and he was invited to address the Areopagus, a formal gathering of the leading citizens of Athens. It was so named because of the hill on which the gathering took place. Over-shadowing it was the Parthenon, the Temple of the goddess Athena.
St Paul in his speech was courteous and avoided unnecessary rhetoric, but he was very much ‘on message’ and direct: ‘Athenians,’ he began, ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way….’ They would not have disputed this. God, however, he told them does not live in ‘shrines made by human hands’.
Now some of the philosophers present may have had some sympathy with this, but most would not. The gods were everywhere in the first century, and it was axiomatic that they should have temples dedicated to their worship.
The gods of the first century were not, however, exclusive and just because you worshipped one that didn’t stop you from worshipping another. I may have thought, for example, that my god was better than your god, but that didn’t mean your god didn’t exist. The Athenians, in particular, revelled in the worship of many gods. Something that St Paul makes use of in his argument. It was to be one of the achievements of Christianity that it destroyed these gods and ended their worship.
Christianity asserted what Jews had been asserting for years:
‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God …’ (Exodus 20:4-5)
There are still different religions today, but the pagan gods of St Paul’s day are just a historical memory, so much so that we find it hard to imagine what it must have been like in St Paul’s day.
So what is the situation today?
1. Today many people in our world still continue find themselves born into a religion. So, if you live in one part of the world, you will be born a Muslim. In another, a Hindu, or a Buddhist. In some parts still, a Christian. With the movement of people and travel, your religion may be determined by your family rather than the country you are in. But it is birth still that determines it.
2. It is, however, also true today that many people are born into NO-religion. The process of secularization in the West has resulted in the privatization of religion so that religion has become about what consenting adults do in private. Religion has no or little place in the public arena. Increasingly, it is not even done in private. With the result that in the West most people are born and brought up believing that either there is no god or no god worth bothering with.
There may not be an outright denial of religious belief, but religion is not the key to existence. It doesn’t make much difference to what people believe, to how they live their lives, and the decisions they make.
If you think this is extreme, try asking yourself when your faith in God was the major factor in a decision or choice you made for you or your family.
This is very different to how it was in the past. The secularist in the West is proud to have thrown off their medieval past when people were born Christians in the way they are still born into other religions in parts of our world today.
But note this: the modern liberal in westernized societies is in much the same position as the medievalist. They have not made a choice about religion, birth has made their choice for them. They have inherited a non-faith which they have grown up believing to be right in a way no different to the Christian medievalist or, for example, Muslims in the Middle East today.
Now, obviously, some do think about the way they have been brought up and either affirm or reject that upbringing. Others, especially those born into No-faith, often seek a faith becoming dissatisfied with not having one and having been denied one by birth. But many do not. Like the citizens of Athens their non-faith is no more than a superstition, something they just believe without examining it or asking questions.
One of the things that really annoys me is the way many in the west and in westernized societies criticize those of us who are religious. One of their major criticisms is that we indoctrinate our children. They hate faith schools arguing that we teach intolerance and prejudice because for them simply to be religious is to be superstitious, intolerant, and prejudiced.
What they do not see, for they cannot see, is that they are doing exactly what they accuse us of. They are bringing their children up not to have faith and to be intolerant of anyone who does have faith or, at least, of anyone who allows it to make a difference to how they live. They have a superstitious fear of religion which they, in turn, pass on to their children.
Many schools have become places where faith is relativized, put in its place, if not rejected altogether. Instead, the values of materialism are celebrated. And you only have to go on social media to see the success they are having. Aphorisms such as ‘you only have one life’, ‘when you are dead, you’re dead’, ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ are taken as stating the obvious. Videos telling us to ‘pursue our dreams’, that we can achieve ‘whatever we set our hearts on’ are prolific. Happiness is assumed to be found in career, family, and friends.
In other words, the philosophers of our day are pursuing a ‘materialist’ philosophy. A philosophy that just assumes that life is what happens here and now in the here and now: that success is to be evaluated by the job we do or the cars we drive or by the size of our bank balance or the number of brand labels we wear.
So what is to be done?
St Paul, we are told, argued in the ‘market-place’. He got out there. He debated with the philosophers of his day, the Stoics and the Epicureans. At the Areopagus, he found a way to proclaim the truth in a way they would understand. So superstitious were the Athenians that in case they missed a god, they built an altar to the god they didn’t know about. It was an altar to the ‘Unknown god’. St Paul told them that the god they worshipped as unknown, he proclaimed to them. Despite all their religion, philosophy, and learning the true God remained unknown to them and it is he who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
All this presents a challenge to us who have chosen to believe in God through Christ. We now live in a society which is as pagan in its way as was Athens in its. The true God remains unknown. So what are we to do and how are we to rise to this challenge? Sadly, we can only touch on this this morning.
In the first place, we have a duty to our children to pass on our faith and values.
This is not as easy as it seems, and, I have to say, it is not enough simply to call some schools church schools and assume this is happening if all those schools do is mimic what goes on in secular schools.
Do not misunderstand me, it is great that we have schools that have a Church connection, that encourage the worship of God, and tell Bible stories, but it is not enough if they also promote the same material values and follow the same curriculum that transmits them as do secular schools. We need faith schools not simply church schools, that is, schools that are not only connected to the Church and managed by it, but schools that actively promote the Christian faith and Christian values not only in separate religious lessons, but throughout the curriculum.
This is a view I have held for some time. In July, 1989 I wrote a letter to the Christian magazine, Third Way, in response to the news that Christians were setting up a Christian faith school in an English village.
This is the link to the letter, which, I discover, can still be read online:
There is much more that can and should be said about this, but let it be enough today to say simply that the upbringing of our children is too important a task to be left to today’s pagans.
Finally, for today, we too must get out into the market-place and like St Paul we must argue and debate. It is wonderful that we have a renewed place of worship here at Christ Church. A place that I hope people will want to come to and where they will be welcomed and where they will feel at home.
But that is not enough. We cannot wait for people to come to us. Like St Paul, we must go to them. St Paul, when he went, proclaimed to them the God they worshipped as unknown. Today we proclaim the God they refuse to worship, but who still remains unknown.
There is, however, a sting in this tale. Our society may reject the Unknown God; it may have turned its back on our faith and values; it may think that that life is not a dress rehearsal and that when you are dead, you are dead; it is, however, in for a big shock. St Paul closes his presentation to the Areopagus with these words:
‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)
The message we proclaim is not a polite invitation. It is not something to be accepted or rejected as people see fit or as suits them. It is a divine command. And how each person responds to this divine command will one day have consequences. For God exists whether we believe in him or not, or follow him or not, and one day we will be judged on the basis of whether we have believed in or followed him or not.
So let us make a renewed commitment as we return to this renewed place of worship to proclaim the God we worship to those for whom he is as yet unknown and may this be a place where he is not only known and worshipped, but followed and obeyed.