16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 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, 28 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.’
29 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. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.”
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
When I was a college student, I had a chance to visit New Orleans with one of my friends whose father served a parish there. One day, my friend’s father, who knew I intended to enter the seminary, offered to take me along to what he labeled his “backstretch ministry.” My initial thoughts were filled with images of people contorted into various yoga poses. But he disabused me of that and went on to explain that he conducted a ministry to the people who worked at the local horse-racing track: the stable hands, handlers, ticket-sellers, etc. While the fans sat near the finish line, the workers toiled in buildings which were situated along the backstretch of the course. Because Sunday was a prime racing day, these folks did not have a chance to go to church, so he offered a service midweek for them on site, with the blessing of the race-track owners. It might seem like an odd place to hold services, but I credit my friend’s father with seeing through the very rough exterior to the common humanity of these people.
I must say, seeing what he saw took some effort. The service was held in a large and repurposed room. As we arrived several “members” were busy setting up. One fellow walked up to us and said my friend’s father, “Where do you want the G—d—. hymnals.” He was not angry. Apparently, any object in hand was routinely consigned to the fires of hell. The pastor calmly told him to put them on the table near the entrance. Being from a group of pious Midwest Lutherans, this was new to me.
In the reading for today Paul finds himself among the idols of Athens, which were many. Being a pious and rabbinically trained Jewish theologian, Luke tells us that he was provoked within him. Jewish people had fought and died to keep their monotheism. It was one of the bedrock principles of Paul’s life. But he does not preach against the idols so much as he invites them see the world with new eyes. He does not compromise what he believes, but Paul finds a way to proclaim Jesus who calls people out of darkness and into light.
Paul’s approach did not have a 100% success rate. Some mocked him. But the Holy Spirit blew that day too. Some believed. What united Paul and my friend’s father was a firm conviction that Jesus had died to redeem all people. How should we meet them today?