What do you make of Christ and of Christianity – honestly, when you’re alone with your own thoughts? The distinguished journalist and one time editor of Punch, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote this in his old age:
For myself, as I approach my end, I find Jesus' outrageous claim [to be God made man] ever more captivating and meaningful. Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do … I see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter … Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of gray, I hear those words [of Jesus]: “I am the resurrection, and the life”, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.
After many years of hard bitten cynicism, Malcolm Muggeridge became convinced fairly late in life that the Christian faith was true, and that he had no option but to become a believer.
Nowadays people come at Christianity from many different starting points. Just as they did when another one-time sceptic turned believer, the apostle Paul, found himself at a loose end in Athens – a couple of thousand years before the Eurozone crisis put Athens in the news for other reasons. This was just a few years after Jesus had been tortured and executed on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We heard the Bible’s account of this encounter between the apostle Paul and the urbane Athenians earlier. It’s in Acts chapter 17, from verse 16 to the end of the chapter. It’s headed “In Athens”.
Verse 16 sets the scene for us:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (v16)
Why is he kicking his heels alone in Athens? He’d had to make a tactical retreat from a place called Berea. Riots had been brewing because of his presence there. What had he been saying to them?
He’d been persuading people that Jesus who died on the cross has been raised from the dead and what is more he’s ruling the world from behind the scenes. So it’s very important to get right with him, or we’re in deep trouble. The death of Jesus was all part of God’s plan. On the cross Jesus had paid the penalty due to rebels against God, before they’d even given up their rebellion. As a result there’s an amnesty for the guilty. Rebels against the true God who come clean and surrender are treated as if they had never rebelled.
This was not a popular message. Hence the threatened riots.
Now if you’d known Paul when you were undergraduates together in Tarsus, or while he was doing post-graduate study in Jerusalem, you’d have been amazed at the change in him.
Paul had at one time gone way beyond mere scepticism in his attitude to Jesus. He hated him with a vengeance. He hated all those who believed in him. Later, he told how he stood by as one bold disciple of Jesus called Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob. And Paul liked what he saw. He even acted as a kind of living coat rack for those who were throwing the stones, I suppose to give them extra freedom of movement with their throwing arms.
After that he took up Christian bashing as a professional occupation. As far as he was concerned, people who were on the side of Jesus should be in one of three places: under torture; in prison; or in the grave. It was all out war.
What changed his mind? He met Jesus, risen from the dead. He was heading towards Damascus to flush out another nasty nest of Christians and there on the road he met Jesus. And he changed sides. Quite a shock to his friends. Even more of a shock to his enemies. But in time, the total transformation in Paul became undeniable. And he ended up spearheading the Christian campaign to call on everyone to lay down their arms and come over to the side of Jesus.
So he finds himself in Athens, waiting for his friends to join him. He sees a city full of idols. It distresses him. We might expect him to be impressed by the great Athens. This is a city which wants to see itself as a centre for the arts. Great architecture. A great historic legacy. Great universities. Packed with students. A regional capital. In the centre of the city a great edifice with massive terraces towering up on all four sides. Sounds familiar! A premiership city if ever there was one.
But Paul is not impressed. He sees a city full of people in open rebellion against the true God. He’s distressed for the sake of all these people who he knows are in serious danger of missing out on the abundant life that only Jesus can give. He’s distressed for the sake of Christ who gave his life for these people and whose glory was being trodden underfoot in the dusty streets.
So what did he do about it? His campaigning strategy had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus. No more violence. His strategy now was simply to tell the truth to anyone who would listen. And that’s what he did. Verses 17 and 18 give us the picture:
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. (v17-18)
There are actually five different groups of people mentioned there. They all heard something of what Paul had to say. There were: the Jews; the God-fearing Greeks (in other words people who were not born Jews but who’d taken on board Jewish religion); those who just happened to be there (walking back from Eldon Square); Epicurean philosophers; and Stoic philosophers.
Over the centuries and across continents the trappings of culture vary enormously. But people remain basically the same. Maybe you’d belong to one of those five groups. Let me redefine them for today.
There are those who might say:
My parents believed in God and so do I. I always have. That was how I was brought up. I have high moral standards. I do my best to keep them. I may not be perfect. Nobody is. But I live a decent life. I do nobody any harm.
There are those who might say:
My parents didn’t take me to church or anything. They weren’t the religious type. They wanted me to make up my own mind. But I’ve got more interested in religion as I’ve got older. I do believe in God. I do try to live a moral life. The lack of standards nowadays frightens me. But I cannot see how Jesus fits in to all this.
Others might say:
I’m really not quite sure why I’m here. It somehow happened without any planning on my part. I don’t really know what to make of it. The music’s good – though some parts are more my style than others. Maybe I’ll just slip away and not come back. Or maybe I’ll stick around for a while and try to figure out what this is all about.
The Epicureans amongst us would be inclined to say:
I’m an agnostic. I don’t know what to believe about God. In fact I’m pretty convinced that we can’t know anything much. I don’t have much time for religious mumbo-jumbo. Life is to be enjoyed. Not that I’m silly about it. You can have too much of a good thing. But I do try to make the most of life. What else is it for? If I took Jesus seriously, I’d have to stop doing some of the things I like. And that would be ridiculous.
The Stoics don’t find themselves able to be quite so positive. They might think:
Life is pretty hard going. God may be out there somewhere. I believe in some kind of life-force. But it’s not much help to me. I believe in being independent. I stand on my own two feet. At times it’s tough. But that’s life isn’t it? I don’t need God. Christianity has always seemed to me to be a crutch for the weak. I can cope.
Maybe one of those perspectives is a pretty good match for you own. Or maybe you’re more ready to take seriously the teaching of the apostle Paul. Certainly there was a wide range of responses to what Paul had to say in Athens. Just as Paul spoke to five groups of people, there were also five initial reactions to what he said. We might sum up those reactions in this way: it’s babble; it’s foreign; it’s new; it’s strange; it’s interesting.
It’s babble. Verse 18:
“What is this babbler trying to say?” (v18)
The word refers for instance to birds that just pick up whatever scraps they can find. Paul is here being accused of concocting his own nonsense out of rubbish.
Or it’s foreign. Verse 18:
“He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” (v18)
It’s alien to my world. It’s not my culture. It’s not where I’m at, so it’s nothing to do with me. It’s fine for the religious types. But not me.
Or it’s new. Verse 19:
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” (v19)
Today I suppose that would apply especially to those who’ve grown up with little or no contact with the Christian faith or knowledge of the Bible - an increasingly large proportion of us. “I just don’t know what he’s on about” would be the cry.
Or it’s strange. Verse 20:
“You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears.” (v20)
All this talk of Jesus being the Son of God, dying for our sins, being raised from the dead, ruling as King - I hear it. But it seems to me to be seriously weird. Are you really saying it’s true? I can see you believe it. But it’s pretty random, isn’t it?
Or it’s interesting. Second half of verse 20:
“We want to know what they [these ideas] mean” (v20)
Babble, foreign, new, strange – maybe. But strangely fascinating as well. Strangely compelling. I want to know more.
And Paul was never one to pass up an opportunity. So, verses 22 and 23:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” (v22-23)
We need to understand just how much Paul is claiming here. We miss the point if we think he just wants to share another opinion to liven up the discussion. He’s claiming to speak a message direct from God. It is, as verse 18 puts it:
... the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. (v18)
So it’s either the truth, or Paul has got more than one screw loose. And then everything he says, and indeed the whole of Biblical Christianity has to be put out with the garbage.
Please don’t patronise Paul by telling him that he’s got some good ideas but they could do with a bit of reworking to bring them into line with modern thinking. What he’s saying is this:
“The risen Jesus told me to tell you these things. Listen hard. Your life depends on it.”
So what does he say to the Athenians? You can read it for yourself in verses 22 to 31. But maybe you stand, as it were, in the shoes of the Athenians. In some ways you’re like them. If so, what Paul said to them applies to you too. So let me sum up what he says to you like this.
You believe in a spiritual dimension to life. But you yourselves acknowledge that you don’t really know God. I’m going to tell you about him.
The truth is this. God made everything. God rules over everything. Don’t imagine that he lives in religious buildings. And don’t imagine he needs you. He doesn’t. But you need him. Everything we have including life itself comes from him.
And this one God rules all the nations, cultures and races of the earth.
Now God wants us to seek him and find him, but that doesn’t involve some long religious quest. He’s not a distant and inaccessible God. The trouble is that we’ve turned our backs on him, even though we belong to him and are utterly dependent on him. We’ve preferred to create our own man-made gods - things more important to us than God himself.
In the past God’s been patient with us and our so-called agnosticism, even though in fact we’ve wilfully shut our eyes to the truth. But now, with the coming of Jesus, things have changed. We live in a new age. And God is commanding every single one of us to acknowledge how wrong we’ve been.
Because the fact is there is a Day of Judgement up ahead. There’s no way of avoiding it. Only if we stop rebelling will we avoid condemnation.
And God has appointed someone to be the judge on that day. He’s demonstrated this unmistakably by raising him from the dead. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead proves that he’s all he claimed to be.
So turn back to God. Stop your rebellion. Believe in Jesus.
Such is Paul’s message about the crucified and risen Christ.
In 1815 the French, under the command of Napoleon, were fighting the Allies, under the command of Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo. In England, news of the battle depended on a system of signals. Apparently one of these signal stations was on the tower of Winchester Cathedral.
Late in the day it flashed the signal, letter by letter:
“W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N- - - D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D- -.”
Then the fog rolled in just at that moment and made it impossible to read anything further. News of defeat quickly spread throughout the city and the surrounding countryside. But then the fog lifted, and the remainder of the message could be read. The message had four words, not two. The complete message was this:
“W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N- - -D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D- - T-H-E- - -E-N-E-M-Y!”
In a few minutes the good news had spread. Sorrow and fear were turned into joy and victory.
It was rather like that when Jesus died. Hope seemed to die with him on the cross. Evil seemed to be triumphant. But the Message wasn’t yet complete. It looked like:
But three days later Jesus was raised from the dead. God’s message was completed:
“Jesus defeated the enemy.”
Such was the substance of Paul’s message from God to the Athenians. What happened then? How did they respond? Verse 32:
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. (v32)
Some of them sneered. They decided that Paul was an idiot talking nonsense. That’s an option that is open to all of us. At least it’s more honest than having a vague belief in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, without working through what all the consequences of that are if it’s true. If it is true, of course, writing it off as rubbish won’t make it any less true, nor the judgement before Jesus any less real.
Some of them wanted to hear more. Maybe some of them had no real intention of ever making up their minds on the central question: Was Paul speaking the truth? But some, it seems, just didn’t think they understood enough. They had genuine questions that needed an answer. If that’s roughly where you are, let me make a suggestion.
There is a need for an opportunity to consider carefully the claims of Christ. That’s why we run a short course called Christianity Explored. That’s for those who want to find out what it is that Christians believe, why they believe it, and what difference it makes. We’ll be starting that again after Easter. Pick up a leaflet, and come along.
So, some of them sneered. Some of them wanted to know more. But there was also a third group. There were those who, as verse 34 puts it:
…became followers of Paul and believed. (v34)
That is, they knew in their hearts that what Paul said was true. They wanted him to teach them more, so they went with him. And they believed in Jesus. They began to trust Jesus with their lives. They stopped rebelling.
It may be that you know you’ve reached that point yourself. You find that you’re sure this is all true. You know that you’ve been rebelling against God, and it’s time to stop. You know that you can’t put it off any longer. You know that it’s time for Jesus to be in the driving seat of your life.
If that is roughly where you are, then do as those few Athenians did. We even have a couple of their names – Dionysius, Damaris, and there were a number of others who believed. Be like them. Don’t put it off any longer. Very simply, in the silence of your own heart, turn your life over to Jesus, and begin trusting him.