A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 25, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Acts 17:16-31
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Later this afternoon, the community that is Pacific School of Religion will gather for the 2014 Commencement ceremonies. Students who have spent years studying theology, scriptural interpretation, faith formation, pastoral care, and worship leadership will walk across a platform and be handed a piece of paper proclaiming that they have completed their studies. Most of them will move on from the academic world into a local church to serve as a pastor – if not immediately, eventually. One of those people is named Pepper.

Pepper is a friend of Pastor Brenda. They met as adults at Eden United Church of Christ. It took Pepper quite a while to come to church. She was invited repeatedly by another friend until she finally showed up. And then it took a while to decide to apply to seminary. And today, she will receive a Masters of Divinity degree and a declaration that she is trained and ready to serve the church as a pastor.

I share this story in part to celebrate this year’s graduates of my seminary. And more importantly, I share it because it is a story of evangelism. That persistent friend whose name I don’t know was instrumental in bringing Pepper to this day. Had this persistent friend whose name I do not know given up in extending the invitation, Pepper would not be moving on to provide excellent leadership to the church. This persistent friend whose name I do not know acted in the best Pauline tradition.

Paul is probably more famous in our congregation for writing things that have been interpreted to be very patriarchal and even anti-women, as he is for being an evangelist. His sexist writings are fodder for some other sermons. Today, I want to focus on his actions in Athens, the story we heard in today’s reading from Acts.

Paul is in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers. Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset. He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting. Upsetting enough that Paul couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection. He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1] He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2] Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill

So they took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion. In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3] By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it has become a place of much more common conversation: “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is now the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4] The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5] Paul used this as another opportunity to share his good news.

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6] In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to an unknown god. I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.

Paul found his opening.

Paul decided he could use this “unknown god” as an opening to tell the people gathered there about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus). Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life. “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul has an interesting assumption there – one that I agree with: Human beings long for a connection with the transcendent, with divinity, with the ultimate, with God. And since God made us, we can’t make God. This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols. Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent. Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31). The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation: First, Jesus is raised from the dead. Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8] The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

Two months ago when I was reading the lections assigned for the Sundays in May and thinking about sermon topics and worship themes, the thing that struck me about this scripture reading, this particular lection, was how Paul found his opening. He had a message he wanted to share and he found his opening. There on the streets of Athens was an altar to an unknown God. “I can use that,” Paul must have thought. “I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing this message I have.”

I noticed this and I decided that my sermon today would be about evangelism. As I studied this scripture more carefully this past week I noticed that it wasn’t only an opening that Paul had. Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had something to share. Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ. His life was transformed. He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it. He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols. The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with. People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip. They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had is opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen. He went to the synagogue. He went to the market place. He went to that Areopagus. And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

On the last page of your bulletins (or the cover of the announcements if you have a large print bulletin), you’ll find five questions with blank space to write down some notes. These five questions are based on the five things I identified that Paul had in Athens.
What do you have to share?
What is your reason for sharing it?
With what people could you share it?
What opening might there be to share it?
Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?
The invitation of this sermon is for you to think about these five questions and join Paul in his evangelism work.

I think it’s really important to think about questions 1 and 2 before you start looking for your audience and opening. I, of course, have had a few days to think about these questions, so I’m going to share a few of my reflections about them.

My life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might have meaning and grounding and direction, but I suspect that it would be in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, greed, even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

I’ve also come to realize that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder. I need and have found a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey. That’s what I have to share.

I believe that people want to know God, want to be connected to the transcendent, to the ultimate. Someone once said that each of us is born with a God-shaped hole. That metaphor works for me. I’ve seen people try to find ways to fill it. We try to fill it with addictions like drugs, food, and sex. We try to fill it with diversions and lies. We try to fill it with accolades and power. We try to fill it with accumulation and possession. But nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

For the past millennium or more, the primary reason to share the good news of Jesus was to “save people,” to insure that they had an eternal place in paradise. Our hymns about evangelism still speak of this reason (or at least hint at this reason). I’m not worried about our place in eternity. I trust God to envelop in love all that is willing to be enveloped. So my reason for sharing this good news about being in relationship with God is for this life. I believe that people want to know the love of God that gives meaning, grounding, and purpose – but many don’t know, or they’ve forgotten that they want to know this love. That’s my reason for sharing it.

But who to share it with? I need to pay attention to this. In his “Apostolic Exhortation,” The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis identifies three populations that need to hear the good news: Those who are part of Christianity, but aren’t participating in Christian community; those who once were part of Christianity and have rejected it (or have been rejected by it, I would add); and those who have never been a part of Christianity.[9]

I think those are helpful populations to consider. I also know I’m not interested in sheep stealing. If someone is in relationship with God through some other religious tradition or through some other congregation, bless them. So, I want to find people who aren’t part of a faith community and to share this community with them because I believe that in this faith community, they can grow in their relationship with God.

I think the way to get more specific about who I could share this with is to pray. Unless you know immediately who you can share your faith with, I suggest praying. Earnestly ask God to place in your heart someone to share with.

Once you know who you might share with, you can start looking for your opening. You know what you want to share. You know why you want to share it. Now, suppose you have this new neighbor you could share it with. What’s your opening? Maybe you share an interest. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, neighbor, this Sunday our pastor’s going to preach on __________________. Would you be hearing what he (or she, if Brenda’s preaching) has to say? I’d be happy to give you a ride.”

And when that first invitation doesn’t work, look for another opening, and another, and another.

I don’t know if Pepper’s persistent friend whose name I don’t know had any inkling that God might be using her to get Pepper to be a Pastor, but it sure turned out that way. Thankfully, that friend was persistent, and Pepper eventually came to church.

So, take some time to answer these questions. Reflect on questions 1 and 2. Write your answers down. Come back to them. Read them again. Read them again before you ask God to show you who to share with. Then ask and really listen for an answer. Then look for an opening, and then another.

Niles Discovery Church is an amazing congregation. We are unique because of our embodiment of God’s radically inclusive welcome and our desire to encourage the journey with all its twists and turns of uncertainty, questioning, and doubts – to, in fact, welcome that uncertainty, questioning, and doubt because we know they further the journey. It’s worth sharing.



[1] “Epicureanism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism (24 May 2014).

[2] “Stoicism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism (24 May 2014).

[3] “Areopagus,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus (24 May 2014).

[4] Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5] Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6] Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7] Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love (24 May 2014).

[9] Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013), 10-11.