Acts 17:16-34; John 10:11-18

4th Sunday of Easter

St Barbara’s; 21.04.2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan


Paul, the philosophers of Athens, and three questions for us (Acts 17:16-34)

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” That was the rather angry question a church
leader asked 1800 years ago, complaining that philosophy was a bad influence on the
faithful. Athens stood for philosophy, Jerusalem for faith, and in his view, they should be
kept apart.

If I could travel through time, I’d want to go back eighteen centuries, and ask Tertullian (for
that’s who it was), “Are you sure that’s right? Aren’t those philosophers ‘sheep of another
fold’, as Jesus might have called them?” And I think Paul as Luke shows him in our Acts
reading today might agree with me. There he is, after all, in Athens, Philosophy HQ as far as
the ancient world was concerned, mixing with the thinkers, doing his best to connect with
their worldviews, and proclaiming among them the good news of God’s loving care for
everyone, everywhere and the resurrection of Jesus.

Now don’t worry. I’m not about to suggest we all sign up for a philosophy evening class. But
I do think Paul’s adventures in Athens suggest three great questions for us to wrestle with,
2000 years on.

When he arrives in the city, time on his hands as he waits for Silas and Timothy to join him,
what does he do? Well, perhaps he prayed this question: “Lord, where are the people in this
city who might call themselves spiritual, if not necessarily religious?” And then he goes to
the places where he will have opportunities to rub shoulders with those people: first to the
synagogue, to meet Jews and other devout people; then to the marketplace, where all sorts,
including those philosophers, hang out. He goes, expecting that God who is constantly
seeking us out will have prepared the way.

So perhaps the first of those three great questions each of us can ask God is like Paul’s
imagined question: “Lord, where are the people I know, perhaps ‘spiritual but not religious’,
who might be open to you?” And we should expect the answers to be as varied as we are.
Maybe they’re members of that community organisation you belong to, or play sport with?
Fellow dog-walkers you chat with? Work, school or college colleagues?

Now for sure, Luke doesn’t seem totally convinced Paul’s got a terribly promising audience.
Athenians, he says, will latch onto anything new that tickles the brain’s taste-buds, so to
speak. And for some of them at least, Paul is simply another, unpersuasive ideas rag-and-
bone man. Or (as Socrates was charged with being, centuries earlier) a proclaimer of foreign
divinities, Jesus and ‘Resurrection’. Just a couple more gods to add to an already crowded

So a second question Paul might have prayed is this: “How do I find common ground with
these people? Where are the points of contact? Where do the circles of our lives overlap?”
If he did pray like that, it seems God answered. Because he does connect. He’s
understandably distressed by the profusion of statues of gods (or idols, as a devout Jew like
Paul would call them), seeing them as inferior substitutes for a relationship with the living

God. But he’s willing to put his discomfort aside and see them as maybe indicating an
openness to exploring faith, hinting that the Athenians may indeed be “extremely religious”.
The Epicurean philosophers of Athens believed the gods were remote from humankind, not
interested in our lives. They would have agreed with Paul that of course the ‘unknown God’
he’s proclaiming doesn’t live in shrines built by human hands. The Stoics believed God was a
sort of world-soul we’re all part of, so would connect with Paul’s view of God as giving “to
all mortals life and breath and all things”. They’d perhaps approve of the way he quotes
even their own poets to support that view.

What about us? We hear other people’s philosophies all the time, don’t we? They may
distress us, seem alien, maybe at times even impress us: “Look after number one”. “You
have to laugh, or else you cry.” “One life, live it.” Whatever our reactions, Paul’s experience
suggests that if we’re looking for those overlaps between circles, those places where our
hearts meet their hearts, we’ll find them. God’s Spirit can arouse curiosity and longing
among those God created, for “in him we live and move and have our being”. There is
always hope that those who reach out will touch and find God.

There’s a third question Paul may well have asked himself, rather than prayed this time. It’s
this: “How big is my God?” After the risen Jesus met him on the road to Damascus, Paul’s
God loomed much larger, more merciful, closer, than before. And that’s why he can’t just
connect with his hearers in Athens, and leave it at that. His unique story, the story only he
can tell, is inextricably bound up with God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus, who’s been
resurrected bodily. So he can’t help but tell the Athenians that how we live, what we do
with our bodies and our minds, matters. For the Epicureans and Stoics, the gods seemed to
make no difference to everyday life; Paul’s God makes all the difference. So he urges them:
turn all that you are over to the God who cares for all, and who will work with you and the
Holy Spirit to shape your lives for the better.

Some are convinced, and become followers of Jesus. Others seem less convinced, perhaps
even affronted at the suggestion their lives need any improvement. Paul’s story, and his
insistence that matter matters, did indeed seem like foolishness to these Greeks. There will
always be that spectrum of reactions to our unique faith story, the story only we can tell.
But that shouldn’t put off telling it. So how big is our God? What’s the passionate heart of
our story? How do we tell it humbly, and humbly live it as a thing not to miss out on?
Before I finish, let me tell you about a couple of ways we at St. Barbara’s are trying to make
those connections. The first is Sue Whorlow’s plan for a prayer tree, which will soon be set
up in the foyer. Sue is going to be asking people out in the community, including Earlsdon’s
shopkeepers, how we can pray for them; their prayer requests will hang on the tree. Do ask
Sue how you might be involved in that. Secondly, Thy Kingdom Come 2024, between
Ascension and Pentecost, is a global time of prayer for people to come to know God. As part
of that, we’ll be prayer walking round the parish. It’s a great way to get to know the parish

as we pray street by street. And a group of people with a map in their hands is a great
conversation-starter, too. Look out for details soon – there will be more on this next week.
Where are the people we know who are open to God? Where do our lives and theirs
overlap? How big is the God of our story? Three questions Paul might have asked God and
himself in Athens. Across the centuries, we can ask them too, and see God answer. For the
same God is at work by the Spirit now, as then, and Jesus is still risen from the dead.