05/17/20 “Common Ground”

Acts 17:22-34

The morning of my daughter Peyton’s wedding, I was chatting with a some of my neighbors, one of whom is a local rabbi. We were talking about how the weather forecast was a little iffy, with the possibility of showers during the wedding and reception. Someone said to the rabbi, “Sam, can’t you do something to make sure it won’t rain this afternoon?” Sam laughed and said, “I’m in marketing, not management.”

As you may know, I was once in marketing myself. I was an Account Executive for AT&T Information Systems, and I sold really big communication systems to companies and institutions like BGSU.  Even though I had a fancy title, I was basically a salesperson.  One of the first lessons you learn in sales is how important it is to establish rapport with your customer. You do this by learning as much as you can about your customer so that you can find some common ground between the two of you. “You grew up in a small town? So did I.” “You’re a UT Women’s Basketball fan? So am I.” “You were a member of your high school marching band? So was I.”

Common ground makes us more comfortable with each other. We’re more likely to trust someone who seems to be like us. If someone shares our interests and our background, we (rightly or wrongly) gamble on the likelihood that they’ll also share an interest in our well-being.  Even when we’re being led out of our comfort zone, having common ground as a starting point creates a feeling of confidence and a willingness to hear something new. Paul seemed to know this, because that’s exactly how he approached the people of Athens, Greece, some two thousand years ago.

Paul’s stay in Athens wasn’t a planned stop on his second evangelism tour. He was only there because he had recently been run out of two other towns.  In Thessalonica, he had argued his case for Jesus as the Messiah on three separate sabbath days in the synagogue. He was successful in persuading some of the Jews, along with a lot of Greeks, including some leading women.

Well, this made the synagogue authorities jealous. So, the author of Acts tells us, they “recruited some ruffians in the marketplace to form a mob and set the city in an uproar.” The mob went looking for Paul at the home of Jason, his host. The mob didn’t find Paul or his coworker Silas, so they arrested Jason and some others, and held them until they posted bail. Meanwhile, the believers sent Paul and Silas off to the near-by town of Beroea.

Things were going pretty well in Beroea. Again, Paul went to the synagogue, and there he found a very receptive audience among both Jews and Greeks.  But the Thessalonian bunch heard about it, and they followed Paul to Beroea to stir up trouble there, too. The believers immediately sent Paul on to Athens. Silas and Timothy remined behind, and I always wonder what happened to them when the mob discovered they’d been outwitted again.

In any event, Paul finds himself in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He’s got some time on his hands, so he wanders around the city, taking in the sights. Athens was a city long past its prime, but it was still considered a center of ideas and culture. The Athenians loved to debate various philosophies and were eager to get in on the latest ideas. It was kind of like a “university town.”

It was also a place where many religions were practiced. Athens had a kind of “live and let live” attitude toward religion. There was a formal process you had to go through to get your religion recognized, but if you could do that, you and your beliefs were welcome.

So, as Paul wanders the streets of Athens, he encounters all kinds of shrines and temples—many to the Greek and Roman gods, to be sure, but others as well. This all becomes just too much for Paul. Our translation says he was “deeply distressed.” The author of Acts writes in Greek that Paul’s spirit was provoked; he actually began to burn with anger and scorn.

He just can’t stand it, so he starts arguing with the Jews in the synagogue. Then, he keeps at it in the marketplace, debating with whomever happens to be there. It’s like being in the check-out line at the grocery store (before we had to stay six feet apart), standing behind someone who’s checking out the tabloids and loudly sharing their opinions about what’s happening in Washington and Hollywood.

Paul gets the same kind of reactions the grocery store pundit might get. Some people roll their eyes and dismiss him as a “babbler” or (as the Greek more colorfully puts it) a seed-picker—someone who just picks up odd ideas and throws them around like so much bird seed. Others think he’s peddling some strange, new, confusing religion. Then, there are the philosophers who are perfectly willing to engage in debate with him just for the fun of it—throwing ideas back and forth as though they were playing a game of catch.

Eventually Paul is taken to the Areopagus. This is the both a kind of city council that heard disputes and made judgments, and also the name of the place where they met, on a rocky hill high above the city. Paul’s not under arrest. The idea-loving Athenians just want to find out what the city fathers will think about Paul’s ideas. Does he have some kind of intellectual authority, or is he just a “seed-picker”? Should the new religion he speaks of have a place in the religious life of Athens, or not?

We can imagine Paul standing there, in the shadow of the magnificent Parthenon, dedicated to the Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. He surveys the crowd. He recognizes some them from his debates in the marketplace. There are the Stoics, hard-nosed rationalists who relied on observation and careful reasoning. They believed in human self-sufficiency but also in the importance of living at one with nature and each other, because they believed that God lived in all things. Theirs wasn’t a transcendent God who is over all things.

Over there are the Epicureans. They’re the ones you want if you’re looking for a good time. The ideal life, they believed, was one of pleasure—pain-free, with no anxiety or fear of death. They didn’t like idols any more than Paul did, but only because they thought worshiping idols was a dumb idea.  Human beings existed simply by chance, not because some god had anything to do with it. There might be gods, but they didn’t take any interest in human beings. Worshiping a God who couldn’t or wouldn’t help you be happy was just stupid. Mixed in among the Stoics and Epicureans are some Jews and some Gentile God-fearers, and some who were simply confused about this Jesus and his resurrection.

This is where our passage picks up the story. Paul considers this mixed bag of listeners and begins to speak, following that cardinal rule of sales: know your customer, build rapport, begin on common ground. He tells them about how he’s become familiar with their city—their temples and altars and shrines. Right away, his credibility goes up. True scholars (as the Athenians consider themselves) are known for their powers of careful observation.

He affirms that they are clearly very religious. Heads start to nod; yes, they are a religious people. Then Paul begins to lead them from their common ground into some new territory. “I’ve seen that you even worship an unknown God, and I’m here to tell you about the God you don’t yet know.

For the rest of his speech, Paul uses their common ground as the starting point to tell them about the one true God. “Yes,” he agrees with the Epicureans, “worshiping idols is pointless.” But it’s not because these idols don’t care about human beings. It’s because they’re simply handicrafts, made by people out of stone and silver and gold. The one true God created the world and everything in it. The God of creation is connected to all things, as the Stoics believe, but it’s not because God lives in rocks and trees and people. It’s because God created rocks and trees and people, and God is Lord over it all.

The one true God wasn’t formed by human hands. But human beings are formed by God’s hands. Paul quotes one of the Athenians’ poets, who said that people aren’t an accident of nature; they’re the offspring of a god. But, Paul says, the God who created us isn’t an impersonal god who cares nothing for us. God sets the very boundaries of our existence. God created in us a desire to know God and to seek God. We can find God, because God is indeed close to us, as the Stoics believe. But it’s not because God resides in us. It’s because we reside in God. Paul drives his point home by adapting a line from another one of their poets: “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Because God cares about us, Paul says, God has overlooked the errors that have been made out of human ignorance. But things are different now. God calls the world to repent—to change its ways, because a judge has been appointed. And to affirm the authenticity of this judge, God raised him from the dead.

Some theologians don’t think much of Paul’s speech. They don’t think it had any evangelistic value because Paul never mentions Jesus by name at all, and he only refers to Jesus and the resurrection briefly there at the end. But I think this speech is a pretty good model for how we can share our own faith with others.

Evangelism is something that many of us shy away from. It conjures up images of street corner preachers, like the guy I used to see in downtown Toledo, literally standing on a box, waving his Bible in the air, and shouting at everyone who passed by. Come to think of it, we don’t even want to be like Paul, arguing with strangers in the marketplace. But we can be like Paul at the Areopagus.

Richard Peace wrote a book some years ago called Holy Conversation. In it, he explains how we can talk with people about our faith by beginning on common ground. That begins with understanding that we are all on a spiritual pilgrimage. As Paul said, we all have that innate desire to search for God, although others may describe that as searching for meaning or purpose in their lives. Then, Peace says, we just need to keep our eyes open so that we can recognize common ground when we’re standing on it.

A mother at our tutoring program apologizes for being late to pick up her child. She says she feels overwhelmed by all that’s on her plate. You remember the times that you’ve had that same feeling, and how Jesus’ words about taking one day at a time helped you. “You feel overwhelmed?” you say. “So have I, but here’s how my faith in Jesus helped me cope.

A neighbor tells you he’s lost his job, and now he feels like he’s not worth much of anything. You think of how knowing that you are a beloved child of God gives you a sense of where your value really comes from. “You’re feeling worthless?” you say. “Here’s how my faith helps me see how valuable each of us is.”

A friend experiences a tragic loss. They tell you they’re having trouble believing in a God who would allow such a thing to happen. You think of the times when you’ve felt doubt or anger at God. “I’ve felt the same way,” you say, “but here’s how my faith helped me come to grips with that.”

Will this kind of sharing immediately turn someone to Jesus? It’s likely that we’ll get the same kind of mixed response Paul did. Some people will scoff. Some will need to learn more. And some will believe. Our job isn’t to make people believe. Our job is simply to tell our own story of our life in Jesus, in a way that other people can hear and understand.

We can see from Paul’s message on the Areopagus that the idea of finding common ground with your “customer” isn’t something that was cooked up by modern marketing experts. It isn’t even something Paul came up with. The first one to use common ground as a place where a reluctant people can come to know God was God. Laws weren’t enough. Prophets weren’t enough. So, God decided to create some common ground. God sent Jesus—both a human face we can all recognize and our God, who loves us enough to want to share common ground with us.

Come and plant your feet firmly in the common ground where God meets us. Come to the common ground where you can find the God who created all of heaven and earth and is Lord of all. Come and find the God who lovingly created you and desires only good for you. Come and find the God you search for in the face of Jesus, and then, reach out your hand and invite others into that common ground with you. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young