Monday, May 22, 2017

Playing To A Tough Crowd

"Playing To A Tough Crowd"
Acts 17:16-34

During my first year of college, there were a lot of experiences that blew me away.  I suppose it happens to most first year college students.  I went to a community college in the Seattle area and played basketball my first year.  Most of the players were using some kind of drug recreationally, which made practices unbelievable.  Some of the players were playing other games with the cheerleaders on road trips, and that was sickening, since a couple of the girls ended up pregnant.  Two of the players robbed a taxi cab driver right in front of their apartment, which was undeniably stupid.  And on and on.

But one of the things I didn't expect, that first year of college, was to have my Christian faith attacked in the classroom.  One of the classes was Introduction to Philosophy.  The class was taught by a guy who was a Hindu, and he hated Christianity in general, and Christians in particular.  He wasn't Middle Eastern.  He didn't wear a turban.  He was just this short, dark-haired, scruffily bearded guy, who was intense almost to the point of hyper-activity.

His Christianity bashing started early in the quarter.  I remember sitting there thinking, "How can this guy get away with all this crap, attacking my faith—the faith that I one day hoped to be a minister of?"  So I'd go home, and instead of studying like I should, I'd study the Bible, getting ready to do battle.  I would come to class the next time ready to make my counter-points.

What I found out was, he didn't care much about the Bible either.  "Don't come at me with all that Bible stuff," he'd say mockingly.  "It's full of inconsistencies and contradictions.  You have this vengeful God in the Old Testament who wants everybody dead.  But in the New Testament there's a guy who says he's God who is all about peace and love.  Are there two Gods?  Which is it?"  Then I'd go back home, read my Bible and commentaries, and figure out what I had to say to that guy.

Every point I tried to make, he would challenge.  When we began talking about evil in the class, and I brought up the devil, he said something like, "If you Christians believe in a devil, then you don't believe in one God.  You've set up two Gods—one evil and one good.  So is Christianity monotheistic (that is, having only one God) or dualistic (having two Gods)?"  Back home I'd go, studying more in my Bible, trying to come up with an answer that would make some inroad with that instructor.

I never did read very much of my philosophy text book, which is what I should have been reading to get a better grade than I got out of the class.  I understood all the content of what we were learning, but man that guy irritated me.  I was totally outmatched.  He seemed to have an answer for everything, and I would be sent home packing.

I went on to a Presbyterian Christian college after that—much like where David is going up at Hastings.  I wanted to learn how to think and how to reason like that guy did.  I didn't like being on the defensive all the time.  I learned a lot about philosophy at the Christian college, because I was a philosophy major.  But you know what?  I grew more in my faith, sitting in that one philosophy class at a community college, taught by a Hindu instructor.

It was probably the closest I have come to Paul's experience in Athens.  Although I'm sure Paul didn't feel outmatched like I did.  Paul knew what to say, and wasn't timid about saying it.  They didn't try to rebut Paul; they just laughed at him.

Philosophers are a tough crowd to play to.  Paul's crowd was made up of Epicureans and Stoics.  In the Epicurean's way of thinking, everything happens by chance.  No one is in control, especially any gods.  There are gods, according to this philosophy, but they are off in the heavens and don't care what happens in our world.  So the best thing a person can do is get the most pleasure you can out of life, since when you die, that's it.  Eat, drink, and fool around, for tomorrow you may be dead.

The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that everything was God and that God was in everything.  Humans were the playthings of fate; and fate was the same as the will of God.  Everything was the will of God, both good and evil.  Therefore, the main task of being human was to accept fate without emotions or feelings.  Then you will be at peace.  Don't let what happens to you control your emotions.  Don't feel.  Don't react.  Just accept.  Go with the flow.

There's a lot from these two ancient philosophies that is still alive in our American culture.  Old philosophies don't die; they just keep getting reincarnated in a new time with slightly different twists.

Some people may not have or hold to a religion.  They may not have any spiritual beliefs.  But I think everyone has some kind of philosophy about life.  They have an approach to life.  They have a way of dealing with the questions that every thinking person asks themselves:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is life?  What's the best way to live my life?  A lot of us find the answers to these questions within the context of our religious and spiritual beliefs.  Without religion, a person is left to find answers in philosophy.

When Paul walked in to Athens he saw monuments that had been built to every God or philosophy by which people thought they had found answers to their life questions.  From Apollo to Zeus, they were all there.  There was even an empty monument, just in case they had ignorantly left one out.  If someone came into Athens and said, "Hey, you forgot a monument," the Athenians would say, "No we didn't; it's over there in the 'etc.' area."

Once Paul had been in Athens for a while, gawking at everything like the tourist he was, the more upset he became.  You might say that Paul felt a lot of bad juju in Athens.  There were two main reasons Paul was upset.

The first reason was because of all the monuments and altars that had been built to every known god and philosophy.  By outward appearances, the people of Athens were very religious.  What else would explain all the monuments?  But there is a point where you have so much religion, you actually have no religion at all.  It all blends into nothingness.

The other problem, which is one of our problems in modern culture is political correctness.  What Paul ran into in Athens was an early version of political correctness.  We don't want to offend anybody about what they choose to believe or not believe, so we make room for everyone's beliefs, right or wrong.  Whatever you want to believe is fine.  Just let us know and we'll make sure to build a shrine to it—even if it's a religion you just made up.  It's hard to talk to a crowd where the religion is not the main thing, but political correctness about religion is actually the main religion.

But in Paul's mind, as he began discussing with the people, believing in everything, or making allowances for every kind of belief actually means believing in nothing.  When Paul started his speech to the philosophers, he said, "I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious."  The old King James Version of the Bible uses, instead of the word religious, the word, superstitious.  That catches the tone of Paul's opening statement, because he's not complimenting the Athenians—he's being sarcastic.  A lot of the time, being religious and being superstitious are the same thing.

Being superstitious means attempting to cover all the bases just in case.  But the more you try to adopt, the more diluted any of those beliefs become.  What Paul tried to get across to the philosophers of Athens was that true religion, true belief, concentrates itself on that which it believes in.  For Christians, we focus on our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior to the exclusion of all else.  It is that focus and concentration that empowers us with the knowledge of who we truly are, and what our purpose is.

You can try to have a cafeteria religiosity, like the Athenians were trying to do. (Or what American culture is trying to do.) You can go down the line with your tray in hand, take a scoop of pleasure from the Epicureans, have a slab of intellectual stimulation with a side of truth, and then get a wedge of chocolate covered fate for dessert.  But all you end up with is a stomach ache.  You reach for the pepto to deal with the consequences of your cafeteria approach to religion.

Or, as Paul preached, you can go to the Jesus Christ Cafe and get a balanced, very particular meal, excluding all the stuff you don't need, and walk out satisfied.

The other thing that made Paul mad, as he walked around Athens, was that no one seemed to be challenging the believe-in-everything spirituality.  There was a small synagogue of Jewish believers there, and there were some Gentile converts there.  After Paul had seen enough, he went right to the synagogue and "held discussions."

I'm sure part of the discussion had to do with Jesus Christ and believing in him as God's Lord and Messiah.  But I get the idea that Paul was discussing with them about why they weren't out there trying to set the Athenian people right.  Why weren't they out there trying to confront the hokey philosophies of the day, and the cafeteria approach to religion?  If they believed in the one, true God, why weren't they out there proclaiming the message?

Paul's first tough crowd was not the Athenians.  It was the believers.  I can imagine their answers—can't you?  "That's just the way things are—you have to accept it."  Or, "How can we be expected to change a society's whole way of being?  That's too big of a thing to ask."  Or, "We're just a few.  How can you expect this handful of people to have any impact."  Or, "We're doing the best we can just trying to protect ourselves from all that stuff out there.  We just don't have any energy left to confront and take the offensive."  Sounds like what Christians say today.  That was a tough crowd of believers Paul had to talk to.

The great preacher and evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, was once asked, "Do you believe that those who have never heard the gospel are really saved?"  In response, Spurgeon said, "Do you believe those who have heard the gospel and never shared it are really saved?"  What Spurgeon did was to focus the responsibility where it really lies: not on the person who hasn't heard, but on the believer who refuses to share what he or she has come to believe about Jesus Christ.

So Paul went out of the synagogue and modeled for the believers what they should have been doing all along—without excuses or fear, he took the Message to the marketplace.  In the end he mostly got laughed at.  It was his second toughest crowd of the day, after having talked to the believers.

Some have said, because Paul was only able to gain a couple of converts, that this was his least "successful" preaching stop.  But that all depends on how you define success.  Paul mostly defined success by whether he was faithful to his calling, faithful in sharing what he believed—not in the numbers he may have brought to Christ.

That is the only way to measure success when you are playing to tough crowds:  was I faithful to what Jesus has asked me to do?

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