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Wisdom of Solomon 13.10-19

Acts 17.22-34

Greece Is the Word

(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – V)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens is, I think, one of the apostle’s finest efforts, it is a pivotal moment in the book of the Acts, and it’s a formative gesture in the still-gestating life of the early church.  It took place during Paul’s second missionary journey as it is described in Acts – he ultimately undertook three such journeys – and it is his opportunity to make the case for Christianity in the center the city that in its heyday was the philosophical, cultural and, yes, the religious fulcrum of western civilization.  In other words, it was Paul’s opportunity to demonstrate the reality of God in Jesus Christ on the world’s stage.  The Areopagus was a kind of a forum where Athens’ leading lights would gather to debate issues of the day.  In the lead up to this morning’s New Testament reading, we find that Paul had been engaged in conversation and debate with Epicuran and Stoic philosophers, who wanted to know more about this Jesus of whom he spoke.  They brought him to the Areopagus and asked, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”  And the writer goes on to say that, at the forum, “All the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing bur telling or hearing something new.”

What is genius about Paul’s speech is that, rather than begin with the strange teaching, as the philosophers put it, of Jesus and the church, Paul meets them on their own terms and calls on their own deities, teachers and writers to make his case.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul begins, having noticed the temples and altars of the Greek pantheon.  “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.”  And as he proceeds, he quotes their own writers and philosophers back to them.  Verse 28, “In him we live and move and have our being,” was written by  Epimenides of Crete, a philosopher who live six centuries earlier.  A second quotation, “For we too are his offspring,” is taken from Aratus, a 3d century BCE poet familiar to the Athenians.  And so it is that by using their own poets and writers and the sights and sounds of the Athenians’ own world, Paul makes a case for the God of Jesus Christ.

I have long been fascinated by Paul’s argument at the Areopagus, which is why, on my first full day in Greece during my 2015 sabbatical, I headed straight for that Athenian forum.  As it turns out, the Areopagus is dominated by a large stone, roughly about the size of this sanctuary, where the speaker stood and strode about while speaking, and the audience would stand below, listening.  As I stood where Paul did, I came to understand the genius of his speech.  Because as he stood on that promontory, he could look around and take his inspiration from his surroundings.  Athens’ famed Acropolis was less than fifty yards away.  And if you have ever visited the Acropolis, you walked right by the Areopagus and perhaps didn’t even notice it, as your eyes were likely fixed on the massive Parthenon that dominates the site.  To the left is the temple of Athena Nike.  To the north the Erechtheion, built to honor the mythical Athenian king Erechtheos, and the grand entrance to the Acropolis is the Propylaia.  And even if the entire complex were to your back, you would be looking down the hill from the Acropolis into the Agora below, where you can’t help but see to the left the Temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of artisans, carpenters, blacksmiths and fire, and across from that the fabled Stoa, the Greek word for porch, a long pillared outdoor arena where people would gather and debate religion and philosophy by day and night – in fact, it is the Stoa that lent its name to the idea of the Stoics, or stoicism.  So Paul’s use of the ideas of the Epicureans and the Stoics and the gods of the pantheon came directly from his ability to look around and take what he saw as the impetus for his speech.  It was an eye-opening experience for me, having preached on Paul’s speech at the Areopagus at least a dozen times, to stand where he stood and to understand why he framed his argument as he did.  It would be as though I could stand here at the top of our hill in Chester and take in all that encompasses the town and improvise a speech that, let’s say, begins with a quote from Charlene Janeczek’s most recent Friday epistle to the community, takes note of some of the new businesses that have opened recently, observes how Richie, the new cook and owner at the Villager has been able to build on the history and tradition of Kyle and Mike, teases new meaning from a song we might hear Leif Nilsson’s band play later on this morning at the Sunday market, and who knows, even pour out an offertory libation or two from the wines and ales at Erik’s.  Paul was able to use the experiences, assumptions and beliefs of the Athenian people that were evident on every street corner, and certainly there at the Acropolis, to make the case for Christianity.

And so it was on that 2015 sabbatical to Greece that I followed Pual’s second missionary journey, though I confess that by visiting the Areopagus on my very first day I took the journey all out of order, but friends, I just couldn’t resist.  It wasn’t until our third week in Greece that I made it up to Thessaloniki and the former part of Macedonia that the real journey began.  Thessaloniki is veritably peppered with places of worship, and it is there I saw the church I described for you two weeks ago.  Agia Sophia, or the church of holy wisdom, was built in the third century after Christ, in the late 200s, on the well-worn road from Rome to Constantinople, or current day Istanbul, which I’ll speak more about next week.  Because the region was part of a tug of war between the Roman and Ottoman Empires, there are multiple churches and mosques to be seen.  It was Agia Sophia, whose original building was destroyed and rebuilt in the 8th century, that was reconstructed into a mosque in 1430 when the Ottomans took over, and then rebuilt, or repurposed once again in 1912 when Thessaloniki was reclaimed by the Greeks.  But it retains its eastern influence as it was built in the pattern of Istanbul’s grand Hagia Sophia, a mosque that was itself originally a Christian temple.

From Thessaloniki we traveled south.  First we stopped at the tomb of Macedonian King Philip II, a tomb only discovered in the 1970s – Philip was the father of Alexander the Great.  Later the same day we stopped in the small town of Litochoro, where Paul did not visit but had to have passed through on his way to Athens, and certainly noticed, as Litochoro sits at the foot of Mt Olympus.  Paul or no Paul, we couldn’t not stop and pay our respects to Mt Olympus.  From there he traveled to Athens and gave the speech we heard from Acts this morning, and finally he made his way south to Corinth on the Peloponnese peninsula.  Now to be fair, just as I stood on the Areopagus where Paul did in his shining moment, when we got to Corinth I also stood in another spot in Paul’s history.  In Acts 25 the apostle stood trial at the order of the emperor, and what we today would call the dock, where the accused stands to face his accusers, so Paul stood in what the Greeks call the bema, where he faced his.  And, to take his story one step further, one thing I didn’t mention two weeks ago about our trip to Italy is that while in Rome we visited the tiny cell where Paul was imprisoned, carved into the side of a hill not far from the Colosseum.

But the trip was not all Paul all the time.  After our first four days in Athens we took a ferry to the island of Paros, one of the Cyclades Islands in the southern Aegean Sea, where we rented a bareboat charter - a 42 foot catamaran - and sailed the southern Aegean for a week.  We sailed from Paros to Syros, to Mykonos and its neighbor Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo, on to Naxos and at the end of the week, back to Paros.  It was a memorable adventure, and a challenging sail, as we battled the Meltemi, or northeast winds that come down from Asia Minor in summer.  But as I’ve told you before, I did take the opportunity during our week at sea to read the story of Odysseus as he sailed the same waters on his way home from the Trojan Wars, a journey described in Homer’s epic The Odyssey.  “Sing to me, O muse, and in me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end.”  And as we sailed, we witnessed for ourselves the “rosy-fingered dawn” which Homer described, as well as the aptly depicted “wine-dark sea” of the Mediterranean. 

We also took in some of the region’s most ancient history.  We spent a week on Crete, and while there saw the ancient temple of Knossos, arguably the birthplace of western civilization, which dates back to seven thousand years before Christ.  It is the center of the Minoan culture, and where the mythical Theseus battled the minotaur.  While on the Peloponnese we spent a day at Mycenae, a settlement that dates back to about 1200 BCE and is the setting for Greek playwright Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia, the story of Orestes, King Atreus, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Elektra and Clytemnestra.  In fact we were able to visit the tomb of Queen Clytemnestra, and if anyone ever told me, back in my college days when I was trudging through the Oresteia, that I would one day stand at Clytemnestra’s tomb, well, being 18 at the time I would have shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes at such an outrageous suggestion.  We also spent a day in Delphi, the navel of the universe, as Greek mythology has it.  In The Odyssey, Agamemnon travels to Delphi, formerly Pythos, to receive an oracle, and legend has it that Zeus, seeking to find the center of the universe, released two eagles to circle the globe, one traveling east and the other traveling west, and the spot where they eventually met was Delphi.  Today there is a conical stone there called the Omphalos, or navel, to designate the world’s center.

I could go on, but Sunday market beckons.  Let me just say my 2015 sabbatical touched a number of my interests:  biblical theology, literature, history, the sea, and the places where Christianity intersects with other faiths and other cultures.  Between the Areopagus and the Aegean and the Areopagus – I did return on our very last day in Greece to stand in the apostle’s spot one more time – it was a trip that gave me a lot to bring home, to integrate with and inform and influence my ministry, and above all to be grateful for opportunities to expand my faith and my horizons, and share them with you.

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