by Linda McMillan
New Traditions for an Old Observance
There is a saying: If you aim your words over people’s heads, it doesn’t prove that you’re smarter than they are. It just proves that you’re a bad shot.
Paul is clever. That’s one of the things we can count on in Acts. Paul really knows how to talk to people, he speaks their language, and he convinces them to follow Jesus.
In this week’s lectionary reading, Paul will be invited to speak to a group of philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens. As background, Paul had gone to Athens, having stirred up trouble in northern Greece, to find a safe haven and wait for his traveling companions, Timothy and Silas. While he was in Athens, Paul saw temples to many different kinds of Gods. Maybe Paul called them “Fake Gods,” we don’t know. But, it troubled him and so Paul went to the synagogue and out into the markets to try and convince people to follow the one God and his messiah, Jesus. The Athenians loved their Gods though and Paul didn’t have much success.
Perhaps, though, he did gain some sympathy because some philosophers invited him to address them at the Rock of Ares, or the Areopagus. This was an open area, well suited for speeches. It was also a place where trials were conducted, so it is hard to tell whether Paul was feted as a guest preacher or on trial for his life. In either case it was an important speech because it was Paul’s opportunity to preach to “another nation,” as he believed part of his mission was to help fulfill the Torah promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations. He chose his words carefully, beginning with some ideas that they could all agree on, and rounding off by quoting one of their own Greek poets. Though he had once called himself “a Jew among Jews,” Paul interestingly didn’t say anything about Torah or it’s teachings. That would not have appealed to his Greek audience
Just earlier, though, in this very chapter, Paul spoke to fellow Jews in Thessalonica and Berea using words from Torah and arguing from Hebrew scriptures. Paul gained quite a few converts from this, mainly Greeks, though, and quite a few women. Of course there was trouble — you know Paul — and he had to make a quick get-away under cover of night. What we can see, though is that Paul knew how to work a crowd. He took people where they were and spoke to them in a way they could understand.
This is brilliant, really. At this time there were beginning to be lots of Christ followers among the Jews and others too. Small groups of people either remaining in their synagogues or forming outside of it. There was most certainly a lot of God-talk, Jesus-talk. I suspect that most people were only talking among themselves, but Paul spoke to everybody. He had a gift of making the life and teaching of Jesus come alive to whoever he met, Hebrew, Greek, men, women, strong, weak… he became all things to all people. His knowledge of different cultures and languages made him a real scholar.
I think this is a good day to recognize the vital ministry of those scholars who enrich our understanding and enliven our knowledge of God. Those of us who love the scriptures are indebted to those who really understand ancient languages, their idiom and nuance. We owe a debt to those who go out into the desert, find the scrolls, open them up, crouch over microscopes, and somehow make sense of long lost languages, cultures, and traditions. There are those whose understanding of other times and places is as easy as the way the rest of us understand here and now. These people are the keepers of a treasure that many would throw away or dismiss as “elite intellectualism.” These keepers of the stories, and poetry, those few who are able to sweep together the tiniest bits of history and lore to weave together a tapestry of understanding are true treasures of our churches, and synagogues, and mosque.
Most especially, those scholars who are able to talk to common people are worthy of our praise. We all know scholars, academics, who are nice people, I am sure, but they really aren’t fit for anything but the academy. God love them. And I am grateful for them. But there are those few rare jewels who, like Paul, can help simple people understand the deep things of God, or enliven some thread of curiosity, or simply help us love better and more fully. These scholars understand that we are all groping toward God, each with different gifts to offer the other, and they bring their gifts of knowledge and understanding. Oh, how grateful I am for such gifts as these!
In Christianity these three days before Ascension are called minor rogation days. We observe other rogation days too. Rogation days are not set in stone, they are as moveable as the time for planting. In fact, they were originally days when people asked God to bless the crops they’d planted. Rogation means “asking.” Not many of us have crops in the ground, though. (Blessings on you, if you do.) But, this is a time when we can ask God to raise up a crop of mighty scholars for us! Never in the history of the world have we needed great scholars of religion, science, and history to help us as we do now. So, in gratitude and in hope, let us give thanks for scholars and let us pray for more.
As a new rogation discipline, I encourage you to write a letter to at least one person, a real scholar, who has helped you on your path. Let’s begin a new rogation tradition of honoring, thanking, and praying for Godly scholars.
Linda McMillan lives in YangZhong, China, home of the Pufferfish.
Image: Wikipedia, fragment of Gospel of John
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Acts was probably written in the early part of the second century. Paul was dead by then, probably killed in 64 CE during a time of persecution. Nero was emperor, and was not a friend to Christians.
Philippians 3:5… [Paul describing himself]… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
It is possible to visit the Aeropagus. Aeropagus, btw, is Greek for Ares Rock… Ares being the God of War. It is sometimes called Mars Hill because Mars is the Roman name for Ares… It is likely that ancient councils were held here, it had a temple, and a court which was later used exclusively for murder trials. You can read about the Aeropagus here.
I Corinthians 9:20ff… [explaining his methods of evangelism]… To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (21) To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. (22) To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
Genesis 12:2…”I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
When I say “the scriptures,” I mean the recognized texts of the monotheistic faiths: Tanakh, the Christian Scriptures, and the Koran. Obviously, there are other writings that can be included, but I reserve the designation “scripture” for just these three. I am sure others handle it differently. That’s OK.