Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Almost 20 years ago, the North Dakota native, Wall Street performance coach, theologian and author Sven Erlandson, coined the phrase that has defined a generation, “Spiritual, but not religious.” Reading the story of Paul’s visit to Athens, however, reminds me that there really is nothing new under the sun, and “spiritual, but not religious” is nothing new. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been synonymous, but even in ancient Athens, there were self-described seekers, who were “Spiritual but not religious.” They surrounded Paul seeking answers and possibilities. And we find them all around us today. There’s the middle-aged woman who spends Sunday mornings on a hiking trail, saying, “I’m spiritual … but not religious.” And there’s the young man who says he loves Jesus but hates the church, who responds when questioned, why. “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Books and studies predict the end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening all the time. But guess what? There’s nothing new under the sun.
One thing I have discovered over the past 30 years of ministry is that one cannot be spiritual without being religious. Frankly it’s the opposite. People who are the most active in organized religion are also the most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world. Religion supports spirituality, and it’s hard to have one without the other.
Paul’s sermon in in the Areopagus in Athens offers us a powerful witness to how we are called to speak to the world’s “Spiritual but not religious.” It is an invitation to experience the love of God through religious practice and discipline to deepen one’s spiritual life and convictions. That is the true nature of religion. So let us turn to Paul, to Athens and the Areopagus.
The apostle Paul had escaped from the angry crowds in Thessalonica and was waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive in Athens. While he waited, he walked around the city observing the numerous idols and altars. Paul was shocked and dismayed, but while noting the Greek idols, he noticed an altar dedicated to the “unknown god.” For the polytheistic Greeks, this altar was either intended to honor whichever god or goddess they might have overlooked, or possibly, the unknown God of Judaism for whom there was no idol. Regardless, as Paul taught in the synagogue and in the market place, his teaching drew the curiosity of the Epicureans and Stoics.
The two philosophies had diverging goals. The Epicurean philosophers viewed the sole meaning of life as the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. The Stoic philosophers, on the other hand, believed the goal of life was “to rise above all things” and live nobly regardless of the pain or suffering. These groups and others loved to discuss and debate philosophy and religion, and were intrigued by Paul’s “babblings” about the resurrection of Christ, and his notion that one lived and served not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of the neighbor. They wanted to know more. So they led Paul to the Areopagus where the Athenians and foreigners traditionally “spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing.”
Whether they were fascinated, curious, or offended by Paul, we do not know. That is often how curious seekers’ react to Jesus’ followers today. They question and challenge their neighbors. . Yes, the questions are often raised by those who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious,” but are merely searching for something new. They espouse the confession that all religions, like all the idols and altars of ancient Athens lead you down the same path. Yet, not even the ancient Epicureans and Stoics believed that teaching. Often, it is because they have not dared to be religious, and subsequently, their spirituality is not that deep. And yet, they lead you along, in what you fear may be either be misguided criticism, or at best an innocent but empty question.
It is hard to know what St. Luke intended for us to see in the description of the Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. In ancient Athens, the Areopagus had two meanings. First of all the Areopagus was a rock outcropping near the Acropolis and the Forum. It was known as the Hill of Ares, the Greek name for the god of war, or by his Roman name Mars, hence the common name Mars Hill. According to Greek mythology this hill was the place where Ares stood trial before the other gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son. The Areopagus also served as the meeting place for the highest court in Greece for civil, criminal, and religious matters, the Areopagus Court. Unfortunately, we are not sure whether, St. Luke wanted us to see Paul preaching in a place reserved for the gods, or as a place of judgement before a legal courtroom.
That is what is so intriguing about Paul’s discussion with the two schools of philosophy at the Areopagus, and why it is so illuminating for us in our sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the “Spiritual, but not religious” today. There is nothing new under the sun. But we can find in Paul’s words and actions, the language needed to speak with curious, and not yet fully committed listeners.
Paul, you will notice, didn’t begin with a formulaic, memorized script, nor did he offer words of condemnation. He didn’t begin by calling the Athenians’ gods false, nor did he tell the people they were wrong for their beliefs. Rather, Paul began by lifting up and complimenting them on their spirituality.. He acknowledged that they had many idols to various deities, and then he turned his focus to their “unknown god.” He said, “I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” From that point on, Paul explained the nature of this unknown deity.
Paul was not disrespectful nor patronizing. Instead, he acknowledged their culture, found a common starting place, and then introduced them to the God of the resurrection. Throughout his encounter and the sermon he remained faithful to the truth while respectful of others. He clearly disagreed with them, but he was not disagreeable. The same must be true for our witness- especially with those who are “spiritual, but not- yet- religious.” So let me suggest four lessons for witness to Christ and your neighbor drawn from Paul’s words.
First of all, begin with respect. Remember that people have different opinions and worldviews. Whether talking to someone of a different denomination, a different theological paradigm, or a completely different religion, always respect that person. Whatever their beliefs, that person is made by God in his image. Never presume how they came to their views —remember, ask them. Never assume what they believe or don’t believe — ask them. Furthermore, don’t condemn them for their views. Allow them to say what they believe and why they believe it. Do not judge them, and do not have a knee-jerk reaction to their statements. If you want them to respect your views, respect theirs. If you want to be free to express your views, allow them to freely express theirs.
Second, remember to find common ground. One can always find something in common with another person. A Christian and an atheist may disagree on everything related to God, but they both agree that man exists, that morals exist, and that humans have the capacity to do good things. The same is true for the spiritual but now religious. Start there. If you want to share the gospel with that person, find some sort of starting point, some sort of commonality you share. For Paul it was the Greek’s unknown god. They didn’t know this god, but Paul did.
Third, find ways to build on your common ground. Once that common ground has been identified, use that as your starting place for talking about God. Paul said, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Talk about that common ground, and your common experiences, and how God and the gospel relate to it. The other person may disagree, but that’s okay. If they express disagreement, respect that.
Finally, be bold and truly share the truth of the gospel of Jesus. Paul didn’t water down the truth nor did he try to fit the gospel into the Greek polytheistic religion that all roads lead to a common end. Rather, he boldly spoke the truth. For Paul, it was knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection that had changed the direction of his life. Likewise, we should not shy away from sharing the biblical gospel, but we should always allow the Holy Spirit to speak through us as we tell others about the risen Christ Jesus. But remember my friends, you have to give something to the Holy Spirit to work with.
Nobody’s perfect, and your words will not always change the hearts and minds of everyone you meet. That is the work of the Spirit- through you. Even Paul could not sway all of his listeners. We read that, “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined them and became believers including Dionysus the Areopagite and Damaris. People, you see, turn to Jesus because they have been treated kindly and respectfully by those who offer them an invitation. There really is nothing new under the sun.
According to orthodox tradition, Dionysius was raised and received a classical Greek education in Athens, and was then sent to Egypt, where he studied astronomy at the city of Heliopolis. It was in Heliopolis, where he witnessed the solar eclipse that occurred at the moment of Christ’s death by crucifixion. On that day he said, “Either the Creator of all the world now suffers, or this visible world is coming to an end,” He did not know it was Jesus who had died. Upon his return to Athens from Egypt, he was chosen to be a member of the Areopagus Council. As Paul spoke about the resurrection, and Jesus being raised from the dead, Dionysius finally understood the meaning of the event that had occurred 20 years earlier. After Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus, Dionysius and his Jewish wife Damaris were baptized by the apostle. He stayed with him for three years, and he was later appointed the first bishop of Athens and the church was established. And it all began by speaking openly and respectfully about Jesus with the invitation to live- religiously. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.