I have been sharing a series of thoughts based on the unique address that Paul gave at the Athenian Agora (often referred to by it’s Roman name “Mars Hill”) in Acts 17.16-34. The social location of this encounter has intrigued commentators and theologians over the centuries as much as the content itself.
Athens was a unique melting pot at this point in history, and Luke makes a point to notate how diverse the attendees were from both a religious and cultural standpoint. There were religious insiders, religious outsiders, religious seekers, and religious skeptics. Lifestyle and philosophy also varied. There were “live for the moment” types and there were culturally isolated types. There were great thinkers and philosophers. There were people interested in Paul’s theology, and people who were antagonistic. It was truly a remarkable gathering of people.
That is a big reason why this text has been drawing me in lately as well. I pastor within a church that has its own unique combination of diverse experiences, perspectives, and insights, and it probably goes without saying that these types of environments come with lots of challenges. One of these challenges – and I would suggest that this is a dynamic that is really important for any pastor/theologian in a multicultural environment to wrestle with – is finding a happy balance between being able to articulate transcendent truth that stands on its own, while also acknowledging that we all bring biases to our understanding of that truth. These biases are shaped by dozens of factors… our family of origin, religious upbringing, cultural background, economic status, gender, and level of education are just a few of the social realities that shape how we approach Scripture.
When I look back over my 11+ years of being a pastor at River City, I can see how this has been one of the trickiest dynamics to navigate. On one hand I have no question that truth can and should be known. In John chapter 14, after Thomas acknowledges feeling some spiritual confusion, Jesus replies with these famous words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I love that verse, because it reminds me that “truth” isn’t an abstract set of ideologies or facts (at least according to the Christian understanding). Instead, truth is a person – Jesus is truth itself. So whenever I talk of the pursuit of truth this is what I am describing.
But as clear as my personal conviction is that Jesus is truth embodied – and I am – I also have come to appreciate how strongly our biases form us in the pursuit of that truth. Sometimes these biases are really dangerous, such as when we conflate our desire for comfort, peace, and prosperity with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Sometimes these biases are really helpful, as each of us are at times able to see dimensions of Christ that aren’t as apparent to others.
Here’s just one example.
I remember a season within our church where we were really wrestling with what it meant to be a praying church. We had been inspired by the Jesus’ quotation of the OT prophet Isaiah: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Mark 11.17). We were continuously asking ourselves, what does that actually look like to be a house of prayer?
It was a rich season for us, filled with great conversation, Bible study, and dialogue. It was also a bit of a contentious time… in a good way. Many of us had grown up in churches that emphasized prayer, and there was an assumption that we were all operating off of a similar definition when we used the word. But though we all believed “prayer” was important, we quickly discovered that the word communicated something distinct to each cultural group.
It would take too long to list out all the different perspectives that were revealed, but I will share one that really stuck with me. We were at one of our weekly prayer gatherings, having this exact discussion, and looking for ways in which we could all gain an enhanced vision of prayer through the contributions of brothers and sisters of different backgrounds. Each person in the circle shared what prayer had meant to them growing up, and the last one to share was a woman in our congregation who had lived in extreme financial hardship for most of her life. She caught everyone’s attention when she said, “Wow, middle class people don’t really know how to pray, do they?”
As I write that, I realize it probably sounds more confrontational than it came across as. It was in a spirit of love, and it really resonated when she went on to explain what she meant. “I keep hearing people say that they wish they felt a greater internal awareness of their need for God’s presence and provision. Many of you seem to know at an intellectual level that you are dependent on God, yet you struggle to actually feel that dependence.”
She paused, and then finished her thought. “I know there are areas where I can grow in prayer as well. But as I listen to many of you share, it is helping me to embrace some of the ways hardship in life has actually helped me to understand the need for prayer. There has never been a day in my life when I was unaware of my need for God’s power and presence. There has never been a day in my life when I operated with the assumption that I was fully in control of my own life, or that I needed to remember to invite God into the everyday rhythms. I don’t think that’s due to my spiritual maturity necessarily. I think it’s just a byproduct of not having access to a lot of the same resources that others of you have. That doesn’t make you bad or me good. It’s just a completely different way of living in the world. I’ve never had a choice but to pray desperate prayers.”
That conversation had a real impact on many of us – especially those of us who were economically stable and therefore more able to live with the illusion of self-sufficiency. I remember one of the other women from that prayer time remarking on what she learned that day. “I believe in prayer, and she believes in prayer, but now I realize that we are still talking about two different things. I so long to experience some level of that trust, intensity, and dependence that she has for God.”
The two of them ended striking up a real authentic friendship, and both of them grew in significant ways from their mutual pursuit of God. It became another reminder to me of why it is so valuable to have a diverse group of spiritual sojourners to do life with. Even as we pursue truth, as found in Jesus, we remain in danger of being held back by our own biases and limitations. One of the great gifts that comes from community is seeing Jesus from bigger and broader angles, and therefore experiencing more of that truth in our own life.
Let me try to wrap this up, and to summarize what I am trying to say… especially in regards to where I am trying to go with this blog series on Acts 17.
I love the sermon that Paul gives to this diverse crowd at Mars Hill, and believe it carries particular significance for those who minister in diverse settings. It is clear that the overall theme of Paul’s address revolves around Jesus Christ. He hopes to persuade them that Jesus was real, that he died, that he rose again, and that life, light and truth can be found in him.
As Paul attempts describe the nature of the risen Christ, he carefully chooses a handful of theological foundations to build the platform upon. He roots everything in the doctrine of the Imago Dei (human beings created in the image of God). He talks about the need to worship and encounter the presence God (which I explored here). He talks about the significance of human identity being rooted in being offspring of God. He talks about the centrality of righteousness/justice as part of the character of God.
I am planning on exploring each of these somewhat in-depth. I believe these are essential Biblical truths for everyone. Like the example on prayer above, we may each come to these truths from a different angle. We may come with different questions or even different vantage points, but I believe these remain the foundational elements of understanding the nature of the risen Christ, and of life within him.
I wanted to spend some time in this post acknowledging both the complexity and beauty of approaching these truths in the context of diverse experience. I’m not sure I’ll come back to that explicitly in the future posts, so if you have any agreements/disagreements/questions on the content here, please feel free to fire away.
As I finally finish this up, I’d encourage you to read his whole address again here. I think there is so much important, helpful theology woven together by the Apostle Paul. I’m looking forward to doing further reflection and writing on it.
Until next time!