A Gospel For Athens (and For Us

Don Ledford

So, this is Sunday morning.

For most of my life, Sunday morning meant rising early and scrambling to get ready for church, then spending half the day in a whirl of supposedly sacred activity. More recently, though, I’ve been absent from the pews. Sociologists and demographers might label me as “de-churched” — part of a growing population of devoted church-goers who have quit going.*

I didn’t realize what I was missing. Sleeping late. Brunch at a favorite coffee shop. Long trail runs through the woods. Mostly, the sense of rest, of grace, of gently easing into the day. I understand, now, why my unchurched friends and family balked at my insistent invitations to skip their weekend at the lake, or their tailgate party before the game, to come visit my church.

I have to admit, I don’t miss going to church. When the church I faithfully attended for 11 years closed its doors, I figured it would take some time to find a new place of worship. Instead, I’m finding new ways to worship … ways that don’t necessarily require Sunday morning attendance or denominational membership.**(see important disclaimer at the bottom)

Remember when just about everybody went to church on Sunday morning? Last Sunday, on average, less than 20 percent of the folks in our community attended a religious service. Church membership is on a steep decline while the numbers of the de-churched (like me) and those who claim no religious affiliation are growing at a rapid and escalating rate.

Those of us who grew up in church, or have spent years attending church, who are (or have been) “insiders,” don’t appreciate how it all looks to our friends on the “outside.” To those outside the church, it looks like an exclusive, private club for a certain kind of people. You know, people who dress a certain way or talk a certain way or believe a certain way. People who follow a long list of rules that don’t seem like much fun or don’t make much sense. People who are into stuff like that. It all seems so irrelevant to those outside the bubble.

A yawning chasm exists between “church people” and most of our neighbors. Too many Christians, inexplicably, are furiously digging away in a madly misguided effort to widen that gulf. Instead of “a ministry of reconciliation” (the biblical description for how we should engage others) they promote a ministry of alienation.

We’ve defined the gospel in terms of exclusion.

About who’s in and who’s out. Who’s right and who’s wrong. We’re in and everybody else is out. We’re right and everybody else is wrong. We’re going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell.

What’s needed is an evolution in how we understand the gospel. Or, paradoxically, maybe what’s needed is a radical rewind, a recapturing of the original heart of the gospel.

In this clash between traditional, evangelical Christianity and our increasingly postmodern culture, we can find a way forward in the story about another culture clash, between the ancient city of Jerusalem and the pagan Greek metropolis of Athens.

Athens was an ocean away from Jerusalem, and even more distant culturally and religiously.

So when the very first Christian showed up in Athens, he was something of a curiosity. What could this tiny sect of Jesus followers contribute to the rich traditions, respected philosophy and pervasive pantheon of gods in a sophisticated metropolis like Athens?

As today’s Jesus followers seek a hearing within a culture that seems to be growing more and more distant from our faith, we have much to gain by eavesdropping on this conversation. Hold onto your pew cushion — you might be shocked by this example of the earliest Christian evangelism.

The great Christian missionary and leader, the Apostle Paul, arrived in Athens during one of his long trips abroad. Alone in the city while waiting for his companions to join him, Paul engaged the Greek philosophers in conversation. They were fascinated by this strange new religion. But Paul was provoked by the many idols that seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the city.

As they gathered around Paul in the Areopagus (pictured above) to hear more, that’s where he began:

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world 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 17.22–31

No self-respecting evangelical pastor would dare preach such a sermon today.

There’s no altar call, no “repeat this prayer after me,” no threat of hellfire and damnation or promise of heavenly mansions. Paul doesn’t ask them where they will spend eternity if they get hit by a chariot leaving the Areopagus. (Read all of the sermons in the book of Acts, and you’ll notice that none of them spend any time on the afterlife. If we insist that those elements are part and parcel of “the gospel,” then the apostles never preached the gospel!)

Instead of drawing clear lines of opposition and exclusion, Paul takes the opposite approach. His sermon is downright friendly, conciliatory. He finds common ground where most preachers today would fear to tread. How different is this gospel proclaimed by Paul!

God is bigger than our religion

Paul launches his sermon with an expansive view of God, recognizing that God transcends any single religion.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Spoken by a Jew whose life revolved around the temple in Jerusalem, this is a startling declaration. God doesn’t need temples! Or man-made structures and systems.

Paul is making a significant cultural shift here — from a religion that was literally “carved in stone” (the Ten Commandments on stone tablets) to a living faith that crossed the borders of Israel to thrive in a global, cross-cultural environment.

Every religion — including Christianity — is a cultural construct, a man-made device to help us understand, serve and worship a deity. Religion is a vehicle we utilize to express our understanding of God, and a tool to help us grow in our understanding of God. Some religions perform these functions better than others, but no religion can fully encompass all that God is. God is not limited by “temples made by man” or by “human hands” … or by our own doctrines and traditions.

For that reason, every religion must change and adapt, because people change and societies change and culture changes. That has certainly been true of Christianity, as any honest reading of history demonstrates. As our understanding of God grows, as our culture progresses, we transcend aspects of religion that once served an important purpose but are no longer helpful. We incorporate new insights, we embrace progressive ethics, we discover fresh practices. Our faith evolves.

We find this trajectory in the scriptures. The concept of God evolves from the earliest expression of God as the most powerful deity among a pantheon of gods, to the realization that the Hebrew God is the only true God and the gods of the other nations are false idols. There is an evolution from a religion centered around temple and sacrifice to the searing critique of that religious system by the Hebrew prophets to the abolition of temple and sacrifice by Jesus.

We should not assume this spiritual evolution stopped in the first century.

In fact, we have witnessed in history the continuing trajectory of the movement launched by Jesus, both in the way we think about God and in the ways we worship God. We’ve continued to refine and redefine a host of theological and ethical issues. The Christianity of the 21st Century would not be recognizable to the Christians of the 1st Century. They would likely consider us heretics, and vice versa.

Not because God has changed, but because we have.

We say that the sun rises in the morning, and moves across the sky to set in the evening, and from our perspective that seems to be true. But of course, we know it isn’t. The sun is not actually moving, but the earth is. As the earth rotates, our perspective of the sun changes. In this sense, when we consider what it means for faith to evolve, it may seem as though God is changing … but of course, God is not changing. God is not moving, but we are.

As our understanding of God matures, our faith must evolve and our understanding of the gospel must adapt.

“God is not far from each one of us”

Paul recognized that his listeners were “very religious” as evidenced by the plethora of idols. He acknowledged the legitimacy of their spiritual experience.

Paul, the lifelong, faithful Jew and committed follower of Jesus, says to a throng of pagan idol worshipers that God “is not far from each one of us.” Paul recognized and validated their religious expression, though it was so contrary to his own.

He didn’t try to convince them that they were separated from God. He didn’t berate them for the wrongness of their belief or the sinfulness of their lifestyle. He didn’t insist that God was angry, or wrathful, or had rejected them. Just the opposite. He acknowledged that God “is not far from each one of us.” Paul found common ground in our human experience of the divine.

When our friends and family testify to feeling God’s presence, or hearing God’s voice, don’t discount or disparage their experience. God is present in the lives of our friends and family whether or not they go to church with us. God reveals himself to those who may or may not confess our denomination’s statement of faith. God hears the prayers of petitioners who embrace expressions of faith and spirituality contrary to our own.

The Great News of the Gospel

Paul even recognized that his listeners — pagans, remember, and idol worshipers — were children of God. For some reason, evangelicals are very uncomfortable describing the adherents of other faiths (or no faith) as children of God. In fact, I was taught by a fundamentalist evangelical church that there are two families in the world — the children of God, and the children of the devil. You can guess to which family I assumed myself to belong. And to which family we relegated everybody else.

This is a watershed.

Protestants and Catholics, unlike our brothers and sisters in the more ancient Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, embraced the fifth century doctrine that every person is born in a sinful state. The doctrine of original sin says that everyone deserves God’s judgment, that everyone carries sin and death in their genes, and only an act of divine intervention can make any of us acceptable to God. We are born in a state of alienation from God. That baby in the crib is, by default, destined for hell … unless she is fortunate enough to hear the gospel proclaimed by an earnest evangelical, and says the right prayer or walks the right aisle or believes the right doctrine in order to be saved.

By contrast, Christians in the first centuries of the Church (and still today, among the Eastern Orthodox) believed that all human beings are in union with God. All human beings bear the image of God, are worthy of the love of God, possess the innate capacity to experience the Spirit of God. We may feel separated from God because of our own sense of guilt and shame, and we may suffer the very real and very painful consequences of our sin, but that is one-sided. We may have rejected God, but God has not rejected us.

I love the way Pastor Stan Mitchell at Gracepointe Church (Franklin, TN) put it in a recent sermon:

“Progressive Christianity divides from traditional conservative Christianity on this idea: Progressive Christianity believes in inherent union. That means we believe people are born in absolute union with the divine. Traditional Christianity believe in inherent separation, that human beings are born naturally separated from God … Traditional Christianity says there is good news — you can be reunited with God. Progressive Christianity says there’s better news — you have never been separated … the great news is, God has always been with us.”

All truth is God’s truth, all goodness is God’s goodness

As the Apostle Paul says, we all need to seek God; this isn’t an excuse not to take faith seriously, not to question or explore or ponder. It is a confession that we’re all in this together. Religion is the means we share by which all people “feel their way toward him and find him.” We are all feeling our way. So rather than rejecting any faith expression that is different from our own, we would be better served to question whether there is something we can learn from others to better inform our own faith.

Paul recognized the wisdom of ancient Greek poets and philosophers, and even quoted them to support his gospel message.

“In him we live and move and have our being.”

That’s not Paul’s original thought, that is a quotation … not from the Hebrew scripture, but from a Greek poet. Paul simply says, “as even some of your poets have said,” assuming the learned Athenians would recognize the source. An early Christian writer (Clement of Alexandria) credits Epimenides of Crete. Others credit the poet Aratus, who uses the same phrase in the opening invocation to Zeus in “Hymn to Zeus.”

“We are indeed his offspring.”

Again, Paul quotes an Ancient Greek poet, this time citing Aratus’s poem, “Phainomena.”

Paul honors his listeners by honoring the truth that is found in their own tradition, then building on that common ground to support his own message. When I honor the truth found within other faiths, I am not being disloyal to my own faith. Indeed, I am being loyal to the work of God that transcends my own faith, the truth of God erupting throughout creation and discoverable in surprising places.

The truth revealed in science is God’s truth. The truth revealed in cosmology is God’s truth. The truth revealed in mathematics, or philosophy, or biology, or psychology, or geology … it’s all God’s truth. There is no other kind of truth, but God’s truth! And God’s truth should always be embraced and celebrated, wherever it is discovered.

Likewise, when I see compassion and justice practiced by other faith traditions, I confidently affirm they originate from the same divine source. Again, there is no other source! “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). I bathe in the streams of love and peace wherever I find them flowing, because I know they originate in the same heavenly headwaters.

God is for all of us, not just some of us

God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” All mankind (or humankind, all of us human beings). God gives life and breath to us all.

According to the Apostle Paul, God’s design involved placing “every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” God, says Paul, “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” God did this, says Paul, for the specific purpose “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

In other words, God was at work in the lives and religions of other peoples around the world (“boundaries”) and throughout history (“allotted periods”) as part of his plan to draw everyone to himself.

God called Abram to be a blessing to all nations, not to selfishly hoard the blessing for himself (or his descendants in the nation of Israel). But as Paul preaches, the fullness of God could not be contained within a small Semitic tribe. God did reveal himself to this tribe, as much as they were able to receive … and more fully through the generations, as they matured and evolved and learned to embrace more and more of God’s revelation through the Law and the prophets. Ultimately, when they were able to receive a fuller revelation, “in the fullness of time,” as the scripture says, God revealed himself in Jesus.

But as God was at work revealing himself to this particular people in this particular place at particular times … do we really believe that he was not at all engaged with the rest of the world? There are hints, in the Hebrew Scriptures, that God was thus engaged (remember Melchizedek?).

Do we (Christians) really believe that the God of the cosmos, the God of all space and time and existence, would be satisfied to reveal himself only to a tiny fraction of humanity at a pinprick of history? That God would ignore millions of souls throughout space and time? That God would leave the vast majority of the world’s population to stumble in the darkness? That God would so narrow his view and confine his work?

Of course not.

Just as God revealed himself to Abram’s descendants in ways that accommodated their cultural context, so he revealed himself to other nations … as much as they could receive, in ways they could understand, accommodating their cultural context. There was a blend of truth and error, because none of us is perfectly able to receive or understand the divine revelation. So some of these other religions, in other parts of the world, got some things right and some things wrong. Just like Christians have done. Some religions went terribly awry and completely misunderstood … or even took a downward spiral toward evil. Some religions gleaned insights that could be a blessing for the rest of us.

They need to learn from us, and we need to learn from them.

Not all religions are asking the same questions, so it only makes sense that not all religions arrive at the same answers. Religions are culturally conditioned, they arise in the context of a culture where certain issues are predominate, where certain questions are being asked. Buddhists, for example, don’t believe in sin (in the Christian sense); rather, the Buddhist religion identifies humanity’s great problem as suffering, and the solution is to achieve nirvana (which is not heaven, in the Christian sense). Christianity and Buddhism are solving different problems, so it makes sense that they would espouse different solutions. Christianity and Buddhism are speaking about different subjects, so it makes sense that they would not be saying the same thing.

Other religions answer questions that we’re not asking (or, at least, that the culture which gave rise to Christianity was not asking during its formative years). These other religions can shed light on our own condition, speak wisdom into our own setting, as we begin asking questions relevant to them.

Brian McLaren says it well in “The Great Spiritual Migration”:

Our religions truly are different: They are not simply saying the same things in a different way. Nor are they saying different things about the same things. They are often saying different things about entirely different things.

Stephen Prothero, in “God is Not One,” makes that point with an insightful analogy:

Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink puts. So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start. To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.

Baseball players ought not criticize basketball players because they aren’t scoring any home runs. Maybe, instead, baseball players would enjoy learning more about the game of basketball … not because they want to change the rules of their own game, but because they want to develop a new set of skills (which, in the process, might even make them better baseball players).

As I interact with Muslims, or Buddhists, the intent isn’t that they convert me to their faith … but that they make me a better Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus, because I am convinced that Jesus is the truest, fullest expression of God.

I believe that Jesus encompasses humanity and divinity in a singular and unique way that sets Christianity apart from other religions. I believe that the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are crucial to God’s work of redeeming the world. I believe that the life of Jesus provides the pattern for what it means to be human, the teachings of Jesus provide a foundation for right living with God and others. I am a follower of Jesus, who I confess is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed).

Although other faith traditions have different understandings of Jesus, or don’t hold him in special esteem at all, I am not turning away from Jesus when I show respect to other faith traditions. I am simply recognizing the presence of God working differently at different times and in different places for different people. I am honoring the best motives of my fellow spiritual seekers. And my own faith is enriched by a mutual sharing.

No, not all religious beliefs are equally beneficial, or helpful, or true. The Apostle Paul certainly hoped to convert the Athenian pagans to the way of Jesus. Paul wasn’t merely admitting that all religions are pretty much the same, or all religions are equally valid. He calls the Athenians to repent and to take Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, seriously.

But many religions contain deep truths and wise practices. Many religions are a blessing to their adherents. As iron sharpens iron, the best of Christianity can benefit from the best aspects of other faiths. At the very least, we can demonstrate mutual respect, and love of neighbor (in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan, remember, the namesake Samaritan was a different religion and culture from the Jewish neighbor whom he served).

As a Christian, I can affirm the wisdom and truth contained in other religions … not only when they agree with my religion, but even when they challenge or instruct or address issues that haven’t been adequately considered by Christianity.

There is more to say about all of this, including a conversation about the sociological concept of bounded-set and centered-set groups, but it will have to wait for my next post, “Don’t Throw Jesus Off The Cliff.”

*Skye Jethani defined and described what it means to be de-churched in a Christianity Today article several years ago: “These Christians have simply lost confidence in the institutional structures and programmatic trappings of the church. For them the institutional church is not an aid in their faith and mission. Rather it’s become a drain on time, resources, and energy. It feels like a black hole with a gravitation pull so strong that not even the light of the gospel can escape its organizational appetite.” >Here’s the full article

**I haven’t abandoned the ideal of Christian community; I’ve just taken a break from the organizational/institutional form of Christianity. For how long, who knows? At this point in my journey, I would love to just gather with friends at the coffee shop to read scripture together and engage in conversation. A faith community that provides support, accountability, and a connection to Christian tradition (such as the sacraments) is crucial to a healthy individual faith. But such a faith community doesn’t have to look like traditional American Christianity. Fresh expressions of Christianity are sprouting all over the place, an encouraging sign for the future of our faith.

Peace to You,


Source : https://medium.com/@donledford/a-gospel-for-athens-and-for-us-8159c5fb5b2

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