Paul’s Little Oversight

In the name of the F, S, and HS.  Amen.

Last week, if you will remember we were tracing Paul’s movements during his Second Missionary Journey.  When we left Paul, he was being hustled onto a ship in the dead of night to prevent the Thessalonican Jews from lynching him to avoid any legal proceedings.  The ship was headed 250 miles away (three days by see, twelve by land) to Athens, which is where we pick up the story.

This is THE cultural center of the Mediterranean, nay, the Western world.  This would be like going to New York City nowadays.  This place should be like Disney land for a scholar such as Paul—so many super smart people just hanging around waiting to be engaged by Paul.  You can see Paul just walking around trying to get his bearings and doing a little sightseeing—it is Athens after all.  So off he goes checking out the sites and the more he sees the more sick to his stomach he gets.

 He sees all this knowledge being perverted by all the idol worship going on in the town, so he goes back to what he knows—the synagogue.  Ah the safe haven in the midst of much silliness.  So as he tried to win the city, Paul would begin in the synagogue with the sane people, and then venture out to famous agora—the market place—where Socrates and Plato would hold court to pass on their greatness to listeners. 

 Paul goes there and begins teaching about Jesus Christ.  As he is doing this some professional philosophers happen by and overhear Paul.  As are all philosophers, these men are suckers for a good argument, so they strike up a conversation with him. 

 One of the philosophers leans over to another and begins to mock Paul: “What does this babbler wish to say.”  The definition of babbler in Greek is “a gossiper or one who picks up seeds and trifles as does a bird.  A seed picker—one who picks up scraps of knowledge.”  This man is obviously mocking Paul.  Dr. Bill Creasy (remember, I am mercilessly stealing from him) claims the man is basically saying: “What is this seed picker—this hay seed, saying?”  What is this guy from the sticks saying here?

 The other philosopher says, “I don’t know.  He seems to be preaching some sort of preacher of foreign divinities.”  Basically, the other guy throws up his hands and says, “Who knows, but let’s have a little fun with him.  Let’s invite him to the Areopagus so that we can all make fun of him.  Who knows it might be fun?”  So the make the formal invitation: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  For you bring some strange things to our ears.  We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

 In a city as culturally aware as Athens, apparently one became quite the “it-person” by finding and bringing in a new idea that they may toss around in their culturally aware brains.  These people Dr. Creasy equates to Humanities professors at a large university.  These are the fellows who have no real practical applications outside of academia and so they have nothing better to do that sit around all day and try to find new ideas.  So the philosophers bring Paul to the big leagues and march him into the Aeropagus where they give him his little soapbox and say, “Impress us.” 

 So Paul goes off the top of his head and tries to dazzle them—this is going to be the only way to win these guys over.  “Men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘to the unknown God.’”  Paul has done his homework on his sightseeing.  He has been walking around becoming more and more disgusted, but as he does, he finds his hook—this altar to the unknown God.  So he jumps on it when given the opportunity. 

 “What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temple made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  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, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. “ 

 So far he is doing pretty well.  I’m sure he had their attention, so he switches it into another gear.  He is really going to wow them: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 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.’”  Paul has just quoted a 6th century BC Athenian philosopher named Epimenides and then a 3rd c BC Athenian poet named Aratus. 

 Paul isn’t supposed to know these things.  These things are for the culturally elite—not some seed-picker foreign bumpkin.  It is like hearing someone on one of these redneck reality shows that has a working knowledge of Shakespeare and from which he quotes regularly.  It is not what you would expect and causes you to have immediate respect for said redneck’s intelligence.  (I love seeing stuff like this happen.)

 Now that Paul has their full and undivided attention, he presses on: “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.  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” 

Paul can see it in their eyes; they are putty in his hand.  He has just gotten them to make the journey in their minds from gods whom they worship, to seeing that they are creations of their own imagination made of gold and silver items, to believing these things to be worthless in relation to the one true God, and that God will be merciful to them for their ignorance as he judges them through his appoint man.  This is quite a trip for a really short and off-the-cuff speech by Paul.  Paul is now going to seal the deal and bring the cream of the crop of the intellectuals of the Western World’s most intellectual group into the fold and accept Jesus and make plans to be baptized.  He can just feel it. 

 “And God has given assurance to all by raising him [his appointed man] from the dead.”  And everyone yelled “Amen” and ran for the nearest water source…right?  No, rather than “Amen,” Paul hear the sting of riotous laughter in his ears.  I’m sure he could hear those philosophers from earlier gasping from laughter and saying, “See, I told you we should have brought him here.”  One of them comes up and puts an arm around Paul and escorts him out say, “We will hear about this again,” placating him like some little child.

 In all his excitement, Paul forgot himself and his audience.  These philosophers had no belief in the afterlife, nor did they care about such things.  Paul’s main argument has been lost on them and caused his excellent argument to come crashing down around him—causing them to see him as a mere child among grown men.  Sure he won a few converts, but nothing like he was expecting with such a speech and such an audience.  He was supposed to convert the whole place.

 This affected Paul so much that he changed his entire approach to converting people.  In 1 Corinthians chapter 2 we read: “And when I came to you (Corinth was the next place Paul went after Athens), I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speeches or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Sprit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Paul was humbled that day, and shaken to the core.  He was supposed to be the greatest mind in mind in Judaism, but he forgot that his mind was not enough.  He was to rely on God and the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of the hearers.  Paul learned a great lesson that we too should take to heart, sometimes even the most well-formed argument is not going to convince someone to repent and follow, only the Holy Spirit working through us can do that.  But we are called to try, and to be flexible enough to try a number of different ways, and humble enough to realize that we are not the ones converting their heart, but functioning as a tool of the Holy Spirit which is plenty enough to win the hearts of entire cities.

 In the name of the F, S, and Hs.  Amen.



Story time with Father Stubbs – the Acts of the Apostles

In the name of the F, S, and HS.  Amen.


Disclaimer: In my absence recently, I have stumbled upon a commentary series that I can now highly recommend—the fella’s name is Dr. Bill Creasy and the commentary series is the Logos Bible Study.  I tell you all this because having recently read his commentary on Acts I will be pulling a lot of his material and imagery, and since I am putting this on the blog shortly after this, I feel it is only fair that I give the guy credit before I mercilessly steal from him to pass on the information I am about to give you—which, again, I think is wonderful. 


I was thinking that a good way to ease us back into my sermons, both you hearing them and me giving them is for story time with Fr. Stubbs.  Let’s just look at Acts and see what our Patron saint Paul was dealing with in the very beginning of what becomes to be called Christianity. 


I have missed a lot, so let’s get a running start with Paul.  Saul of Tarsus (also called Paul) is a brilliant man.  He is a man that was trained by the best mind Judaism had to offer at the time, Gamaliel.  This man can be equated to a Nobel Prize winner and Paul is his prize student that is being groomed to replace him when he retires.


This is important because this status as Gamaliel’s prize student is what allows Paul to be able to go into any synagogue he wants.  He needs only to send word ahead and he was guaranteed a spot to preach there when he arrives.   This is Paul’s regular practice as he goes out to spread the Gospel.  He will go and preach Christ crucified to a group of expectant Jews in the synagogue. 


He will preach there one week and thoroughly confuse the people present. The following week he will do the same thing only they will have studied a little bit to figure out what he is saying, and by the third week, he has really upset most of the Jews present.  But by that point, he will also have convinced some, maybe a few, maybe a lot—one of whom is willing to have the group of converts meet in his house, thus forming the church in that city.  This works very well for Paul.


At this point of our Acts reading today, Paul is in his second missionary journey and this has proved to be the tried and true method for him.  The problem is that the Jews he is upsetting are getting more and more frustrated with Paul as he gains notoriety now as a Christian, to the point that he begins to start getting arrested and the Jews are becoming more and more hostile toward him. 


When we encounter Paul today, he has just gotten out of prison in Philippi, where there was an earthquake that shook the prison apart, he converted the jailer there, and then upon being let go, Paul forced the city officials to publically escort him from the city as an apology for having publically beaten a Roman citizen—big no-no at that time. 


Paul leaves Philippi, cruises around the northeast corner of the Aegean Sea, passes through another couple cities until he comes to Thessalonica—where there was again another synagogue, and Paul knows what to do there.   So there Paul goes, opening the Scriptures and showing these Thessalonian Jews that Jesus was the Christ for whom the Jews were looking, and that it was necessary for him to suffer and rise from the dead. 


Here’s there problem: in telling them all these things about Jesus, he also told them that Jesus is the way for salvation.  Yay for them right?  Wrong.  In telling them about their received salvation, Paul also told them that the Law was no longer necessary for salvation.  No matter how good a Jew a given person, that would not get them into heaven.  They could not merit their way into heaven, it was only through Jesus Christ.  And this incensed the Jews. 


Now synagogues were not necessarily places known for death threats, for synagogues are places of study. This comes from the Pharisaic branch of Judaism that came to prevalence during the Babylonian captivity when there was no Temple at which to sacrifice.  Since a temple was the only place where sacrifices could be made and the temple was in ruins and they miles away from it to boot, they decided that they were going to be people of the book, and focus on studying God’s word and the synagogue was where this studying would take place. 


In order to establish a synagogue a group of Jews needed 10 men to form a group and then they could apply to have a place of study, and eventually they would come up with a permanent place, and that would be the synagogue in that city.  When enough funds could be gathered a teacher also called a rabbi would be hired to help facilitate the studying. 


There was a lot of debating about what exactly was believed about Judaism but one thing that was certain was that the Law was essential.   The different sects of Judaism don’t agree on ANYTHING, yet this is the one constant. 


Enter Paul, who says even that is not right.  This is why the Jews in Thessalonica and other cities are so upset—because the one thing they all agree on, Paul says is not salvific.  Perfect obedience will not get you into heaven, only belief in Jesus Christ and baptism into his death and resurrection.  This is why the Thessalonian Jews claim that Paul is turning their world upside down—because he really is. 


So the Jews,(who, if you remember from the Gospels, don’t have the power to put someone to death) try to get the Romans to act against Paul by claiming he sets Jesus up as king over and above Caesar—a capital offense.  Luckily Jason, I’m assuming he is the person whose house the Christians are now meeting, knows how to work the system and bribes the judge (a practice that was not scandalous as we see it today, rather it was just how things work then) and then Paul and Silas head out to the next town Berea.


Berea is a town in which the synagogue is loved by Luke the author of Acts.  This is the example for him of how all churches should work: the priest makes a claim at church and then the people all go home and check to Scriptures to make sure and, finding it to be the truth, they believe it.  A wonderful system indeed, one I’m sure that was super fun and exciting to be a part of—everyone is involved and active and it is no wonder that the church in Berea is so successful.  Every member there was actively learning and then spreading the joy and knowledge to their friends. 


After this goes on for a bit, the upset Jews from Thessalonica show up at Berea, roughly 50 miles away.  This is a little more than walking from Dallas to Fort Worth because the person there upset you so badly.  They were so upset by him and so displeased with the outcome from Thessalonica that they decided to try their luck in Berea.  Man, Paul’s message about the Gospel affected these men so badly that they looked to start chasing him from town to town until they could find someone willing to put Paul to death (which is what the result would have been had he been convicted of treason be asserting Jesus as a king higher than Caesar.) 


The way in which Paul’s message affects these Jews begs us to ask a question of ourselves today here at St. Paul’s: do we personally hold to such a form of Christianity that would cause someone to travel from town to town to prevent you from passing that knowledge on to anyone else because it would turn their world upside down?  If not, why not, and what are you going to do about it? We have to ask ourselves this because this is what God is calling us to, and this is what we believe—we have just been walking upside down so long we have gotten used to it.


In the name of the F, S, and HS.  Amen.