At our best, Christians are comfortable living, learning and sharing faith in the market of ideas as well as in the ministry of the church, in boardrooms as well as in basilicas, in university lecture halls as well as in church fellowship halls. In this week's scripture passage, the apostle Paul steps into the public arena in Athens, where philosophers, academicians, and other intelligentsia gathered for argument and debate and speaks of Jesus of Nazareth.
The initial response to Paul was largely negative. They called him a babbler, a bird-brain, a retailer of second-hand scraps of philosophy. Others referred to him as a propagandist for foreign deities. Suffice it to say, many of these cultural elites were not buying what Paul was selling.
Some, however, were impressed enough to invite a second hearing. So, they took Paul to Mars Hill, the place where the Supreme Court of ancient Greece gathered. And there at the place built in honor of the son of Zeus, Paul proclaimed a very different understanding of the Son of God.
In many ways, I think, this is Paul's finest preaching. He had to adapt. He communicated with people who did not share his Bible, his faith perspective, his cultural assumptions. The Bible was not their story. It had no authority for them.
Paul had to find a bridge, a cultural connection to communicate. So what did he do? He used the Athenians' own religious practice as a point of contact.
"Athenians," he says, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way." It's actually an under-handed compliment. Rather than using their idols to beat them up, he used their idols to relate. "I see in your statues and shrines -- your spirituality," he says.
"But as I looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'to an unknown god.' What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." And starting with creation, he tells the Gospel story. He shares his convictions about Jesus in the center of the cultural marketplace.
It's an uncomfortable topic for most of us, living, as we do, in an increasingly pluralistic world. Besides, doesn't the world have enough conflict without positing specific - and potentially divisive - religious belief?
This weekend, we'll explore what it means to live our faith in the public square, especially when odds are our reception will dubious at best. We'll do so respectfully, carefully, and - most importantly - faithful to the gospel witness.
Join us, and bring a friend.