Scripture: Acts 17:16–34
Anthony and Mark were friends before the pandemic. Not like “in each other’s weddings” friends, but “our kids are in the same activities, and we go to the same church and we really like being around each other, so we occasionally go on vacation together” friends. The pandemic made it harder to stay in touch, but they stayed in contact on Facebook, and were able to catch up on each other’s lives there.
Until the Supreme Court unauthorized leak of a potential reversal of Roe vs. Wade. All of a sudden, their Facebook feeds lit up with a lot of anger and shock and hope and joy. And it became clear that Anthony and Mark did not share the same opinion on this issue. Anthony watched some of the stuff that Mark was posting, and the comments that he made on others’ posts, and he finally had to say something. He tried to be respectful, but he would admit later that his emotions got the best of him.
The response was immediate. There was anger. And there was name-calling. And “you call yourself a Christian.” And “I thought I knew what kind of person you were.” Twenty years of friendship was over in twenty seconds. Now, it took longer than that for the break to be official. There were more emotional comments, and ugly responses. Then, one day Anthony searched for Mark’s name on his list of friends, and it was gone.
“Good riddance,” he said out loud. But then he remembered shared camping trips, and church outings, and his boys on his baseball team, and felt a twinge in his gut. “I guess it’s all over now.”
Perhaps you or someone you know has felt a bit like Anthony. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and others are, in many ways, not for the faint of heart. On one hand, they are vibrant, thoughtful, creative spaces, where new ideas can be tried out and discussed…and on the other, they can be cynical, mean-spirited places where healthy conversation and healthy relationships go to die.
Scholar Kathryn M. Schifferdecker compares social media to today’s story of Paul in Athens.
When we last left Paul, he was in the city of Philippi. He had preached the Gospel, freed a slave girl of demonic possession, been beaten and jailed for his trouble, and by the end of his time there had converted perhaps dozens of followers to the Gospel of Christ. From Philippi, he continued south down the Macedonian coast. Amphipolis. Apollonia. Thessalonica. Berea. And then Paul left Silas and Timothy and headed by himself to Athens.
Now, Athens was a big deal. Before the Romans showed up, Athens was the capital of Greece, and the cultural and political capital of the Western world. And even after Rome supplanted Greece as the political power, Athens continued as the cultural and religious and philosophical center. Katherine Shaner says it this way:
Athens was a city that was a hub for intellectual and cultural elite life of the Roman Empire. It was the Cambridge, or Oxford, or Hyde Park, or Harvard Square of the world in the first century CE. Philosophers and wannabe philosophers swarmed in the porticoes and stoas (modern-day coffee shops and craft beer halls) of the city. Athens was teeming with writers and historians, geographers and composers, artists and architects, physicians and lawyers. If you were looking for something ancient, edgy, profound, exotic, different, or intellectually stimulating, Athens was the place to be.
Sounds like Twitter to me! The newest, most cutting-edge ideas, on display and shared in creative ways. Doesn’t this line sound like social media: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” But not only was Athens creative and cutting-edge, it was also just plain cutting and unkind. Did you notice the name-calling in the passage? The Athenians heard Paul speak, and some of them called him a “babbler,” according to the NRSV. Which sounds bad enough, until you learn that the Greek actually calls him a “seed-picker.” A slang term for someone who pecks at ideas like a chicken, picking up thoughts here and there, but not really understanding any of it. They thought Paul didn’t have a brain in his head, and brought him up to have a little sport with him.
The Areopagus was not for the faint of heart. The folks at the Two-Way [sermon discussion group] last week pointed out the fact that this rock outcropping was named after the god of war. Ares Hill, sometimes called Mars Hill after the Roman version, was kind of an intellectual battleground. Debaters would try and prove their mettle and intellectual fortitude here on this hill named for the war god. The intellectual battles that happened here were no-holds-barred, snarky, sarcastic, and sometimes mean-spirited, as we see here in Acts.
Now, Paul could have responded in kind. From his letters, we know that he is capable of some harsh, even sarcastic words, and he could have met their tone with the same sarcasm and biting anger. But look at what he does instead. I want to take the next few minutes and ask “What Would Paul Tweet?” How would the Apostle engage with the sometimes creative, sometimes cruel world of intellectual and social discourse in our world today? What did he do…and in turn, let us ask how it informs how we might engage in kind. This isn’t just about Twitter, or just about social media even. Maybe your social discourse happens at the table at the senior center. Or the graduation party with that uncle you always disagree with. Wherever our disagreement lies, let us learn from the Apostle together….
Rule #1: Start with Common Ground
Instead of ridiculing their history and philosophies, Paul begins with an attitude of learning. He quotes their scholars. The line “in which we live and move and have our being” is a quote from Epimenides, a Greek philosopher from 500–600 years earlier. Meanwhile, the line “We are his offspring” comes from Aratus in his famous work Phenomena. Paul goes out of his way to understand their culture and philosophy, and make connections to it. The Stoics would have believed that God could be found in the natural world, and in natural processes. Theologians have made connections between Stoic philosophy and the book of Ecclesiastes, which suggests that God is present in the natural cycles of life and death and love and war. This is Paul’s theology and his culture, too, and chooses to connect to the ways that his faith overlaps with theirs. He doesn’t resort to their sarcasm and name-calling, but begins with an attitude of learning and acceptance. He works really hard to find common ground with them. He tells them “I may not agree with everything you believe, but I see that belief and value it.” He quotes their scholars, works to understand their faith, and builds bridges instead of moats.
Perhaps even more striking, Paul doesn’t even speak the name “Jesus” in his sermon. He is clearly talking about Jesus, but doesn’t use his name, perhaps knowing that invoking the name of a foreign and misunderstood deity would cause more division than clarity. It is a fascinating rhetorical move.
How much we have to learn from Paul! What if we made a point to learn from those with whom we disagree? Learn about their theology before we try and fix it? I love theologian Paul Tillich’s quote: “The first duty of love is to listen.” What if we, like Paul, listened first as an act of love? Could we, like Paul, quote ideologies and theologies that don’t align with our own? Or do we dismiss, name-call, and seek to defeat the other in intellectual conquest? Paul has so much to teach us here. But he doesn’t end there.
Rule #2: Own Your Truth
For Paul, finding common ground was an important first step, but it was not the final step. He also felt like he brought something novel and important to the table, in the person of Jesus. For Paul, Jesus coming into the world changed the whole story. It was a game-changer. A dramatic and supernatural event—a God-with-us moment—that would have been deeply counter to the assumptions of the Epicureans and the Stoics. Paul could have come in with guns blazing, but he also could have come in with a whimper. He could have apologized for his faith in Jesus, or downplayed what he considered a core value and religious belief. But Paul did no such thing. He was clear about his understanding of Jesus, and shared that clarity. He didn’t need to use the name of Jesus to explain who he was and what he did. For Paul, who believed that Jesus was returning any moment, in his lifetime, there was an urgency about his message. He wanted folks to get on board right away! He did not apologize or cower in his faith, but owned it and proclaimed it in a way that others could hear and understand. “You worship an unknown god, but let me introduce you to him!”
Again, notice what he didn’t do. He wasn’t defensive about the place of Christ in his theology. Sometimes, the loudest “defenders” of the faith are those who ironically are the least comfortable with it. They figure that volume trumps clarity. It’s almost as if they are trying to cover up their lack of understanding or comfort or clarity with a slight of hand or increase of volume. Instead of becoming more aware of and comfortable with their own beliefs, of allowing them to be tested and tried, they get louder and more shrill, screaming down anyone who would dare oppose them. Like a battle on Mars Hill, they belittle and demean and cancel and name-call. In short, instead of owning their own beliefs and allowing others to take or leave them, they try and beat others into submission until they agree. Paul does the opposite. He owns his faith and proclaims it proudly, even when he disagrees with them.
He is not intimidated or offended or afraid of their differences, but finds ways to grow from them. Can we be the same, with those with whom we disagree? Faithful and courageous enough to own our faith, but comfortable enough to stand alongside of those who differ?
Finally, Rule #3: Respect the Response
The Book of Acts is filled with stories of amazing and overwhelming response. Three thousand people joined the Church on Pentecost! Day by day, more were being added. In Philippi, Lydia’s whole household responded to Paul’s call at once. The jailer and his whole household were baptized. And what was the response in Athens? Two.
Well, two named converts. A member of the court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, and a few others. Besides that, a few others said that they wanted to hear him again. Not quite the same response as Philippi. At the end of the passage, a handful believed, a few sneered, and a few others said that they want to hear more. Not thousands of baptisms, or entire households being converted, but measured and thoughtful success. But did Paul wave his arms and tell them they were doomed? Did he curse Athens on his way out of town? No. By all accounts, he quietly rejoiced for those who came and continued his work. Much like when the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, he let him go.
We have to respect the way that others respond to our words and our perspectives. Not everyone is going to agree with us, and we must respect where they end up after our conversations with them. After the disagreement, will we still respect the other. Will we continue to show love?
There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The team that Anthony and Mark’s boys played on were winning by a run, but there was a runner on and a dangerous hitter at the plate. Anthony and Mark had refused to talk to each other since the Facebook incident, and it made for some uncomfortable moments on the team. Anthony even resigned his position as coach to smooth things over, but it didn’t.
But now, with the league championship on the line, their boys’ team was about to win. The coach had noticed that the boys were not as close friends as they once were, and had to separate them a time or two when they got into spats. But they were two of the best outfielders, so he had them next to each other in center and left field.
The hitter hit a pop-up, and it looked like the game was over! But the hit was right in between Anthony and Mark’s sons, and both called for the catch. Instead of either of them giving ground, they both ran headlong…into each other. The ball dropped, harmlessly to the ground. The boys, embarrassed and angry, ignored the ball, and attacked each other. Tackles were made. Punches were thrown. There in the outfield, these two boys released months of pent up anger, as the batter raced around the bases for an inside the park home run. They lost the game. They lost the league championship. One of them lost a tooth.
They sat sheepishly in the dugout after the game, while the coach talked to them. Just as sheepishly, next to their sons, sat Anthony and Mark. Watching their sons wrestle on the ground, they both realized pretty quickly that they were simply internalizing the anger that their fathers had for each other. Months of hearing complaints and anger had led to their sons’ anger and conflict.
After the boys got a stern lecture from the coach, Anthony and Mark made eye contact. This had gone on too long. For an hour, the two of them sat in the dugout and talked it out. There was anger and honesty, but there was the beginning of understanding. They each told their story and why they had come to their conclusions on such a controversial topic. Both agreed to coffee the next week, to talk a little more. And both agreed that they needed to apologize to their sons. They did not leave the dugout in 100% agreement. But they left again as friends.