Harrowing Of Hell
May 21, 2017

Preach it, Paul!

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Preach it, Paul

How many of you are or have been athletes in your life? Competitive chess players? What about competitive gardening or singing? Is that a thing? Now, I know we have some Seahawks fans in our midst, right? Go ahead and raise your hand. This is going somewhere I promise. When competing, one of the most important things for any individual or team, just as important as conditioning or skill is to know your opponent. You must know what you are up against. This translates to many facets of life. When speaking publicly, preaching, or making a pitch at work, you’ve got to know your audience, right? It certainly can’t hurt and usually it helps a whole lot.

Last week, we talked about the metamorphosis of Saul; from the time the seeds of transformation were planted at his feet all the way until he had a conversion experience and was made new. And here we are again, the metamorphosis of Paul just continues on in new ways as he travels around the Mediterranean spreading the gospel.
He isn’t the same guy we saw last week, persecutor of the Christian faith, bearing witness to Stephen’s vision and execution

This guy, this version of Paul is a heavy lifter for Jesus. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He isn’t afraid to take some big risks. And his spirit is on the move as he travels from one place to the next and to the next with his loyal band of followers; preaching, teaching, healing people, and sharing the good news of God in Christ. What is remarkable about Paul, as you will see more fully, is how Paul really knows his audience.
He doesn’t preach in the synagogues in the same way that he teaches to the Gentiles. Each group; each culture or tribe elicits a new approach or at least a slightly nuanced message and that makes all the difference in their hearing.

Just prior to where the story picks up today, Paul and Barnabas were traveling around to Iconium and Lystra and Derbe. They had mixed results. Iconium was a divided crowd of Jews and Greeks and there they were pretty much run out of town. In Lystra, Paul healed a man and ended up being stoned outside the city. It’s complicated and I won’t go into the details here. But they thought they had killed him and Paul just got up and walked away. Now, Derbe was a home run in which many disciples were made. After that, they did a victory lap back through several cities to give pep talks to the fragile new communities of Christians.

In Philippi, again things didn’t go so well. Paul was beaten and thrown into prison along with his companion Silas. After praying and singing all night, an earthquake shook the prison doors open allowing the prisoners to escape. Some there were converted, others were angry. All in all it was an ugly scene. Paul needed to get away.

He was hurried along to Athens to wait on Silas and Timothy to join him. He was running away from trouble for a little while and no better place to hang out than the intellectual capital of the Western World.

All along the way though, Paul was changing. With each city, each altercation or experience Paul’s metamorphosis continued as he learned more about himself, more about God, and more about God’s people. By the time Paul landed in Athens he had really come into his own. This is where we start to see the authentic Paul, confident, self-assured, a man who knows who he is and whose he is.

This guy is a risk taker, not in a dangerous way, but in the kind of way that someone does when they are grounded in self and in God. This version of Paul is an authentic and mature spiritual leader and that becomes clear in his words and actions in Athens.

So, when Paul arrived in Athens, he didn’t have it in him to relax and take it easy. That wasn’t in his nature, not in his days as a Pharisee and not now as an advocate for Jesus. Paul’s spirit was still growing and transforming with each encounter he had, with every argument or conversation, his metamorphosis still wasn’t complete. I guess they never really are. Not for Paul and not for us. We’re always changing, growing, transforming, and moving along our spiritual journeys.

While waiting in Athens, Paul didn’t read books in his hotel room or lounge by the pool. He established a new routine. Every day, he first went to the synagogue and argued with the Jews and god fearers he found there. After that, he went to the market-place. Have some of you been to the market in Athens? Today, it’s like the farmer’s market you can find in most Seattle neighborhoods with local farmers selling fruits and vegetables, meats and eggs. Then you also have the artists and jewelers selling their handicrafts. But in Paul’s day, the Athenian market-place was also packed with philosophers debating weighty issues and theological concepts. That would be like having Jon Roberts or Ben Bradstreet camped out in the middle of the farmer’s market conducting a minyan on CS Lewis or debating the resurrection. That’s not a bad idea…

The two major schools of thought represented in Athens at this time were the Epicureans and the Stoics and they were less than impressed with Paul calling him a “babbler” or “word-scatterer”. Something was getting lost in translation however as Paul was speaking to them of “Jesus and Anastasis”. Anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection, but it’s a feminine word and they likely thought he was talking about two foreign gods named “Jesus and Anastasis.” showing up in Athens and shooting off your mouth about foreign gods. After all, about 400 years prior, that’s exactly what ended up getting Socrates killed as documented in Plato’s Apology.

Remember what we talked about earlier? What’s the key to competing against a team or speaking to a particular group of people? Know your audience. Paul certainly did. He knew the Athenians and their history. He had read the Apology in his hotel room the night before and was prepared for what would happen next.

The dubious philosophers took Paul with them to a hill up away from the city, a place called Areopagus, or Mar’s Hill, named for Ares or Mars, the God of War.It is actually a very large rock on a hilltop that you can still visit today and look out over the city of Athens. This was the historical site of the city’s council of elders. It was like being summoned to the Roman senate, and Paul immediately registered its weighty significance. This was the place where Socrates was tried and convicted.

But let’s back up for a moment because it’s interesting. 400 years prior, Socrates had been speaking and teaching in the market-place, causing trouble by disturbing the status quo just like Paul. Socrates was accused of introducing new “foreign” gods to the Athenian peoples just like Paul. Socrates stood before some sort of court just like Paul. These are fascinating parallels that certainly were not lost on Paul. This field trip to the Areopagus is multi layered and dangerous. Socrates was condemned to death for his challenging of the establishment. What will come of this event with Paul?

Paul knows himself and knows his audience.He is cognizant of the historical significance of place and context. They are giving him another, more thorough hearing and he can’t say what he said in the synagogues. He can’t preach what he would in Jerusalem where people actually remember Jesus. This is a new playing field. Christianity is the new, young faith up against the old, established, tried and true philosophies of the Western World. This is his opportunity to preach it, to evangelize, to spread the good news of God in Christ to the Athenian peoples.

There is something else critically important here and Paul knows it. He has nothing to hide as the philosophers suspect he might. Rather, (and stay with me – this is critical) what Paul is doing in this speech at the Areopagus is REVEALING the mystery of God through the power of Jesus and the resurrection. He has nothing to hide and everything to reveal and therein lies the difference. This is why Socrates was condemned to die and Paul wasn’t.

Paul’s speech is brief and yet, it would take another entire sermon to do the specific content justice. On this historic hill, Paul steps into the arena with every ounce of authenticity and vulnerability he can muster and preaches his heart out. And it works.

It works for Paul because he knows in whom he lives and moves and has his being and that is Jesus Christ. Paul understands himself. He is deeply grounded in his relationship with God AND he has a deep sense of the Athenian people and their universal relationship with God. That is what gives him the capacity to speak truth. That is how he is able to preach the gospel. An Evangelist is born, people are converted, and the Good News spreads, spreads, spreads.

Paul’s metamorphosis, this cyclical path of change and growth is the spiritual journey of which we each travel, both individually and together. Last Sunday, leaving church, someone said to me, this pattern of transformation is never ending, it just cycles and repeats, cycles and repeats. We are just as much Paul’s audience as the Athenians were all those years ago and his life and witness continue to inspire. Paul’s brave testimony at the Areopagus echoes in this room as we are reminded once more that it is in Christ that we live and move and have our being. You are urged by Paul and “this preacher” to be grounded in self, to be grounded in who you are as God’s beloved, and to then boldly proclaim that to those who have ears to listen.

Sermon Reflection Questions
1) With each passing evolution in his metamorphosis, Paul becomes more grounded in who he is and comes into his own. Where are you in this process or metamorphosis and what has is taught you about self?
2) The Athenians had their idols just as our culture and society has its own. What idols tempt you away from a life centered in God?
3) Paul says in Christ we live, and move, and have our being. What does that look like for you?
4) Paul could share the good news of God in Christ in such a bold and powerful way because he had been utterly transformed. In what ways, big and small, do you share the love of God?