Pray for those who persecute you

Acts 7. 55-60

In our text last week, we saw the amazing love of Christ exhibited in Stephen as he prayed for forgiveness for the people who were killing him. We saw the seeds of love planted in a young man named Saul, a young man who was dedicating his life to rounding up Christians to be jailed at best and executed at worst. That seed that was planted in Saul’s heart grew slowly opening Saul’s heart so that as he walked one day on the road to Damascus, Saul had an encounter with Christ and was saved – was born again, was made whole. The encounter with Christ caused that seed to bloom and bear fruit, the fruit of the spirit, the fruit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Saul’s name was changed to Paul and he became an Apostle of Jesus Christ, he became a teacher and preacher, he became an evangelist.

After his encounter with Christ, he spent time learning from the 12 Apostles in Jerusalem, and then he set out to the area now known as Turkey and Greece. He traveled first with Barnabas, then Silas and then with Timothy. When he entered each new town, he went first to the synagogue to be with people who shared his faith history and faith language. He worshipped and talked and debated and he shared the gospel with them – he told them about Christ. Some listened and became followers and helped to start churches but always, the leaders would be threatened and told Paul to be on his way. And so he would move about the town and mingle with the Gentiles and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul was a traveling missionary. He traveled extensively planting seeds and starting churches in each new town he visited. On the missionary tour that included our text today, Silas and Paul visited Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Phrygie, Galatia, Troas, Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi where they were beaten and imprisoned. They then passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia on their way to Thessalonica where they were run out of town. They moved on to Beroea where many people became believers and all seemed to be going well until some angry people from Thessalonica caught up to them forcing Paul to quickly flee to Athens where he waited alone for Silas and Timothy to join him.

In our text today Paul is speaking to a crowd in Athens – the center of culture and learning; the place where great thinkers debate – a place that Paul describes as “extremely religious.” He is at the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill, which is located on the top of a hill that overlooks the agora of Athens. The agora was the center of town, where people would gather, it housed the marketplace where all the goods were sold as well as the judicial and political offices.

Standing on Mars Hill would be similar to standing on a hill that overlooks Nicholasville. You can see all the comings and goings of the town. You see people shopping. You see people going in and out of the court house. You see people gathered together to visit and talk and you see many different places of worship, someone unfamiliar with Nicholasville might conclude that these people are “extremely religious.”

Before coming to stand on Mars Hill, Paul had walked around downtown Athens. As was his custom, he sought out the synagogue. He visited the synagogue and debated with his Jewish brothers there. He told them that Jesus was the Messiah they had all been waiting for. He also walked around the marketplace and talked about Christ to anyone who would listen.

But as he walked around downtown Athens he became deeply distressed because everywhere he went he saw idols. The city of Athens was full of idols. There were idols to every god imaginable; Paul even found one idol devoted to “an unknown god.” It seems the Athenians were so religious; they did not want to leave any base uncovered so they dedicated one idol to the unknown god – the one that they did not know.

It reminds me of the feeling I had when I visited India. While I don’t think anyone has ever actually counted, it is said that Hinduism has 330 million gods. As I walked around the streets of the city, there seemed to be a shrine or small temple on every street. At each small temple or shrine there would be people removing their shoes as they entered to worship. They would offer fruits and money to these statues of the deities. At each idol there were candles, flowers and fruits all around and people were praying. At the temples there would be a priest leading prayers to the god as well as blessings those who came to worship. The people worshipping these idols were reverent and respectful. They were not simply paying respects in an obligatory way. They were serious and dedicated to their worship and prayers. You might say that the people in Bangalore were extremely religious people.

While I did not see one, I would not have been surprised to see an idol dedicated to “the unknown god.” For Hindu’s Brahma is the name for the supreme God on high. But each Hindu idol represents some form or aspect that Brahma has taken. Each god they worship is the god of a characteristic of Brahma. Vishnu is The Protector, Shiva is the Destroyer, Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity and Saraswati the goddess of music. Hindus don’t worship or even know all the gods, they primarily worship one of the gods. Each town has one god that is like the mascot deity of the town. Each family has a particular god they worship which is often the deity of their hometown. Each family has a shrine in their home with a statue of the deity and candles and flowers. People consult a priest to figure out which deity they should honor and worship. The Hindu people are extremely religious people!

A situation similar to what I experienced in India is how I imagine Paul’s experience to have been. Paul had been a devout Jew growing up and now he was on fire for Christ. While he had definitely been exposed to pagan gods, his experience in Athens was different a different world. He had not experienced this much idol worship in other towns or cities and it disturbed him.

Paul was a monotheist; he had always worshipped one God. He worshipped the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator of the world. And seeing all these idols broke his heart for the people. It seemed that Judaism had no impact in Athens. Athens was a new situation, a new place, a new culture and Paul was all alone. He had had some bad luck in recent places he had visited, he needed to be careful, but he could not keep the message he was carrying in his heart a secret.

While WE know that Paul was troubled by many idols he saw, the Athenians did not have this information.  Paul used their religiosity as a way to connect with them, as an entry point for telling them about God through Christ. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul said to them. And then he referred to the idol to the unknown god, as a place to begin to teach them about the one true KNOWN God.

“What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: the God who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in shrines.” Paul told them that their searching was natural but God was near them all the time.

Paul quoted from Greek poetry and philosophers to hold their attention, “For in God we live and move and have our being. We too are his offspring.” The god they worshipped as unknown was the very God that gave them life and continued to sustain it. Paul told them that worshipping idols was inconsistent to the character of God’s relationship with humankind. Praying to inanimate objects for a God who created the world and all that is in it makes no sense.

We find ourselves in a similar situation today, don’t we? Our cities may be full of church buildings but most of them are rarely full. We, like the Athenians, worship idols in the shape of cars and homes, athletes and celebrities, websites and tv shows. If Paul were to walk around any American city or town, he would be deeply grieved to see us spending our days worshipping our idols and looking to celebrities on how to dress, behave and live.

My husband and I now have many friends who do not ever go to church and quite a few who are professed atheists. I would guess that all of us have people in our lives who struggle between belief and unbelief; faith and atheism.

Paul provides for us a great model of how to respond. First we stand WITH people where they are with understanding and compassion. We acknowledge their struggles with faith, we acknowledge their searching, and we acknowledge the fact that God is present with them in their searching.

And at the end of the day, in our situation as with Paul’s, we have to hand over the salvation of the people we meet to God. In our passage, some of the Athenians scoffed. I have two atheists friends who are not open to anything I have to say about faith. But after I wrote my niece a long letter about my own faith journey and belief, she cried. I planted the seeds and will get out of the way for God to work through other people and other experiences. My cousin who claims to be an atheist loves to talk about all things faith and will read any book I suggest to him. I plant the seeds and even water them and then get out of God’s way. Some of the Athenians who heard Paul speak said, “We will hear you again about this” and some of those people joined Paul and became believers.

We live in a time and place very similar to the Athens of Paul’s time. We may have many church buildings and religious holidays, but when we step back we see the idols. As people of faith and as followers of Christ we have the obligation to share the message of Jesus Christ to all who do not know him and to those who have rejected him knowing that we plant seeds that we may never see grow.

We plant the seeds of faith and then in prayer, place God’s people in God’s hands. We are not responsible for saving the world, but doing nothing is not an option either. Following Christ is not easy and requires that all other competing loyalties and practices take the back seat.

Many people will not ever become people of faith. Many people are not willing to change their way of life, they are not willing to stop worshipping idols.  But if we are sincere, if we are true to ourselves and God, people will be touched by the love of Christ we carry through our words and actions, by the love of Christ we carry in our hearts. That little seed may be all it takes.