Given in response to Acts 17: 22-31.
I’ve been meaning to tell you a story about my friend Paul. Paul and I have a conflicted relationship but I still count him a friend, and sometimes Paul passes along some pretty good stories. Well, one time Paul—I mean the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, the preacher who dictated all of those letters that later became part of our New Testament—one time Paul was speaking to a group of believers and it started to get late. He’d been talking all evening and it was already midnight. There was a young man sitting in a window, on the second floor where they were gathered, and the young man gets tired as Paul talks on and on with no end in sight. The young man dozes off and falls out of the window, at which time everyone lets out a horrified gasp and then rushes to the outside of the building, finding that the young man has died from the fall. Well Paul is taken aback, suddenly struck with an unspeakable grief because, you see, Paul wasn’t quite done speaking and the whole meeting was getting a bit sidetracked. So Paul rushes downstairs, resuscitates the young man, brings him back from the dead, and then Paul speaks until the crack of dawn. So that’s my friend Paul. I’m not sure if that one shows up in the lectionary but it’s in the 20th chapter of Acts.
And if you rewind just a little bit, flip back a few pages, you’ll find today’s reading in the 17th chapter. Paul has been running his mouth off again—preaching, proselytizing, picking arguments with whatever audience he can find. He’s in Athens, in Greece. Athens wasn’t originally a scheduled stop until Paul got run out of town elsewhere, on account of the fact that he wouldn’t shut up already. So Paul is in Athens, sitting at a place called the areopagus, debating some greek philosophers.
The word Areopagus is sometimes Romanized and rendered as “Mars Hill.” That’s another name for the same place. Areopagus and Mars Hill. And in recent years a lot of new churches have taken the name Mars Hill. Partially because Mars Hill has a better ring to it than Areopagus, but more so because of this story. A lot of new churches read the story of Paul at Mars Hill and they see a mission statement.
Here’s why: Paul is evangelizing, as he always does, but he’s evangelizing in a very particular way. Paul’s doing what we now call apologetics. He’s offering an explanation of Christianity, a defense of Christianity over against Greek beliefs. That’s apologetics—a reasoned argument in defense of a belief system. Now, if you want to be successful at apologetics you need to take a cue from Paul. Notice Paul’s argument. He doesn’t just speak his own beliefs and concepts. He also engages with the ideas that his conversation partners already hold. And he says, like any good apologist, you all are on to something and its not that we’re in disagreement, but let me tell you why my beliefs are actually more complete than yours. Let me tell you why my truth actually speaks your own truth, only better.
Paul says, look, you already believe in something you call an Unknown God. And your own poets have spoken of a deity, they’ve spoken of beings in whom we live and move and have our being, and they’ve said that we’re all that deity’s offspring. And all of that’s true, you’re right, but your Unknown God can now be known. Not through idols or anything that people have built but rather through the work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Paul says, God gave you your belief in an unknown God so that you might search for the God of Jesus, and now I’m here to make the unknown known to you.
So this story of Paul at Mars Hill becomes something of a template for churches that want to make the case for Christianity to people who don’t necessarily know anything about Christianity. And sometimes it works. Our reading says that a couple of people believed and some other folks were at least interested enough that they said, “alright, we’ll talk more later.” Apologetics will sometimes win over converts. It worked for Paul and it works for the Mars Hill churches.
But here’s another thing you need to know about apologetics: apologetics may be directed at outsiders but apologetics is very rarely for outsiders. Do you read many open letters? Around this time of year you can read a lot of open letters that are addressed to new graduates, but some of these letters are not for graduates, graduates are not the intended audience. When you read a letter that’s addressed to recent graduates and the central message seems to be “let me tell you why your generation is the worst generation and why you’ll be the ones to ruin everything if you don’t get off of my generation’s lawn immediately” then it can be safely assumed that the open letter is not actually intended for recent graduates. Well, anyhow, apologetics is sort of like that. It’s addressed to outsiders but it’s meant for insiders. The purpose of apologetics is most often to circle the bandwagons, to essentially guard insiders from outside arguments by misrepresenting outside arguments and then defeating them. Apologetics are spoken as if the purpose is to win over outsiders, but the purpose is usually to make insiders feel good about themselves.
There’s a man named Ken Ham who runs an organization called Answers in Genesis. Ken Ham’s mission is to defend young earth creationism. So scientists will find dinosaur bones and say “we’re pretty sure these are 60 million years old” and Ken Ham will say, “No, they’re 4,000 years old.” So scientists and Ken Ham have a difference of opinion. But you won’t hear Ken Ham say that science is wrong. He’ll say actually the scientists are wrong about science. Science supports my position, in fact. Of course you have to badly mangle science to say something like that, but then again the target audience isn’t scientists.
There is an audience, though, and part of the reason that Ken Ham can find an audience is that no one wants to think that they are wrong, or that their deeply held beliefs might be disreputable by the standards of others. And what you find in the world of apologetics is that if outsiders disagree with you then you can always misrepresent the views of outsiders, with the end result being that insiders consider themselves to be intellectually rigorous and very much respectable according to (what they think are) scientific standards of belief.
But those are other people’s apologetics. We do apologetics, too. I realized, as I was preparing that elegant take down of Ken Ham, that I couldn’t let myself off of the apologetic hook either. Because I’m a Christian but I’m also someone who’s at times very much concerned with the way in which I’m perceived by outsiders. Sometimes I really want to be respectable on other people’s terms. I’ll be out and about somewhere, talking with new acquaintances, and at some point they get around to asking me what I do. I’ll say, “I’m a minister” and then very soon after want to add, “but it’s not what you’re thinking.” Or I’ll very quickly try to bring up some sort of reading that I’d done recently—some book that you wouldn’t expect a minister to read. Or, sometimes, this is fun, I’ll try to say something unbefitting of a minister–something profane or sort of off-beat. It’s fun to see the reaction. But you see it’s important that I’m not viewed as a Ken Ham sort of Christian. That would make me disreputable.
And so, as is often the case, this week it was very troubling for me to remember the Gospel. Especially as it occurred to me all at once that if the Gospel isn’t in some disreputable then it probably isn’t Gospel at all. And I don’t mean we have to reject science and throw in our hats with Ken Ham, but there is something at the heart of Christianity that has always been disreputable.
Some time ago I learned that the very term “Christian” was originally meant as an insult. People who followed Jesus eventually started to call themselves Christians, but Christian was a dirty word at first. It meant, basically, “fanatical.” Christians were people who were pre-occupied with the coming of a Messianic kingdom—selling all of their stuff, forming new communities that provided medical care to outcasts, and just generally going overboard as they acted as if some sort of utopia had arrived.
And my friend the Apostle Paul, who spoke quite a bit, probably too much and yet sometimes really got things right, Paul one time told me that God has a special preference for those who lack prestige, for those who lack standing, for those who reject power and refuse to act in their own interest, for all those who are disreputable by the worlds standards. Paul told the early church members at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to confound the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things.”
I’ve not yet seen those words in a church’s mission statement—not a fundie church or a conservative church or a liberal church. It’s not the stuff of strong apologetics, either.
And yet this is the Gospel: God chooses those who are considered disreputable by the world’s standards. God has a special love and even a preference for all those who are stripped of influence. And God is building, even right now, an upside down Kingdom with the help of all those who are holy enough to be disreputable.
Make that your prayer sometime this week: God, make me holy enough to be disreputable.