Sermon: Paul at Athens
Preached on 27th April 2008
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Ah, Athens... Who has not felt the pull of the city that once led the world in its dazzling intellectual, cultural and artistic achievements? If I could choose another era of history to live in, perhaps it would be 5th century Athens of Pericles' time, where European civilisation was born. I was only a teenager when I had to read Medea at school - pretty ambitious, you might think, to tackle Euripedes at the tender age of 13, but the impact of it has never left me. Think of him and the other two great tragic writers of the age, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Think of Thucydides, perhaps the founder of history writing. Think of the originality of Athenian philosophy represented by Socrates and Plato, and of the dazzling oratory of Demosthenes. Think of the vitality of Athenian art and sculpture, of the Parthenon and the Propylaea. Think of its science and mathematics, and of the infinite subtlety of its language. And not least, think of how it cherished freedom and citizenship, and created a democratic polis that even now continues to inspire and shape our institutions.
Well, no doubt there was an Athens of the mind, fostered by gentlemen of leisure who went on the grand tour and sailed the wine-dark seas in search of forgotten temples in Arcadian landscapes. We can still echo something of the nostalgia felt by people a couple of centuries ago for whom progress meant a return to an Athenian golden age. But perhaps nostalgia was familiar centuries before, when the centre of power had moved elsewhere, and Greece now meant Macedon, and Philip, and Alexander the Great. When the Romans came in 87 BC and besieged the city, she pleaded a glorious past, but Sulla replied that he was there to punish rebels not learn ancient history. By the time St Paul came and stood on the Areopagus and surveyed the decaying temples and monuments around him, the glory had already departed. Athens was still beautiful and seductive, even great. But her greatness lay in a memory of the past and its abiding influence among people of intelligence and culture. There were no movers and shakers here now.
Yet for St Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's address on Mars Hill stands as a climax in his journey towards the true seat of empire, Rome. It is a truly remarkable sermon for many reasons. One is that in its style and language, it is totally unlike anything Paul can reliably be said to have written in his letters, so much so that many scholars dispute whether Paul could ever have spoken in such a way. Of course, we would not expect him to cite the Hebrew Scriptures in an address so carefully crafted for a civilised gentile audience, so the fact that he effortlessly quotes the classical poets in support of his argument is not in itself surprising. Rather, it's the content of the message he announces, in some ways startlingly different from the uncompromising monotheism of his letters, which owe more to the fires of Sinai than the cool measured discourse of the Peloponnese. To suggest that the ‘unknown god' of the inscription is none other than the Lord of heaven and earth, that humans are all the offspring of God, that the divine is not far from any of us, that he is the object of our human search - this is familiar from Hellenistic Christianity in later times. But it is unparalleled in the New Testament.
What are we to make of this? What does Luke make of it? He records how the Epicureans and Stoics spoke derisively of Paul as a ‘seed-picker', spermologos, a bird hopping about on a ploughed field picking up unsorted bits of rhetoric and philosophy here and there. At the end, Luke says, ‘some scoffed'. Only a few became converts. It reminds me of what John Wesley said about preaching at Alnwick; ‘many were moved, but none much'. And some commentators leap on this apparent failure and put it down to faulty technique on Paul's part. He had made a mistake in trying to be clever and dabbling in Greek literature and philosophy. He ought to have focused solely on Jesus Christ, on the cross and on salvation through grace alone. They point to the famous passage in the first Corinthian letter where Paul himself seems to acknowledge this disappointment and accept that what he had tried at Athens was flawed: ‘when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.'
I don't think this will do, for the simple reason that Paul's audience at Corinth was entirely different from those who listened to him on the Areopagus. The Corinthians were not intellectuals like the Athenians, though some may have thought they were. They were urban Christians in a great trading city: proletarian, hard-headed, cosmopolitan, and not a few of them slaves or ex-slaves: ‘not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth'. So he speaks about coming among them as a fool, so as to bear witness to the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom. Prime-ministers may make U-turns when it comes to our tax arrangements, but not the Apostle to the Gentiles. He knew what he was doing at Corinth, and it is of a piece with his entire career from the day that the terrible thunderclap and awesome shaft of light held him in its grip and broke his life apart that fateful day on the Damascus Road.
St Paul was always clear about his missionary strategy. It involved becoming ‘all things to all men', in the old words. Perhaps Luke has presented Paul's Areopagus address more in his own words, as if to say: this is how a man of Paul's intelligence might be expected to be in command of the key classical poets and philosophers, and speak to his audience in their native Attic Greek language in the service of the gospel. In other words, this address is programmatic. It's intended to stand in the Acts of the Apostles as a key moment in the ever-widening mission to the gentiles that now embraced those who stood at the apex of the intellectual and cultural life of their day. And while the sermon is crafted as an exquisite piece of classical rhetoric, there is no doubt where its thrust lies. There is no compromise with the idols, no suggestion that humans could ever rest content worshipping an unknown God. Luke's orator, who knows how to pack a rhetorical punch, carefully builds up to the arresting Parthian shot where the gospel is laid bare. ‘Now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a date 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'. This is precisely what the Athenians did not want to hear, dangerous talk of resurrection and changing the direction of your life. The lazy assumption about the unknown God is always easier and more comfortable.
In a university city, where religion is constantly up for debate, this Cathedral speaks very much into Athens. I hope that what is proclaimed from this pulpit is intelligent, thoughtful, Christianity that provokes thought and reflection, that takes seriously the many different ways in which people feel after God, that does not rush to condemn the agnosticism of so many. To be ‘mission-shaped' is to understand and respond to the culture in which we find ourselves speaking about God, whether it is to the intellectually intrigued as at Athens, or the confused and wayward as at Corinth. But at the end of it all, what we are about, what every Christian church is about, what Paul was about is the resurrection of Jesus. Whatever the route by which we travel there in our apologetic and our proclamation, our discipleship and our formation, he is the beginning and the end, our reason for saying what we say and doing what we do. We are here this morning because we have learned Jesus and the resurrection. We are here to recognise him in the breaking of the bread, and then to speak of him to others in time-honoured words of Easter: ‘the Lord has risen indeed'. That is mission.