TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: PAUL IN ATHENS, Acts 17:16-34

Just before he ascended into heaven Jesus gave these instructions to his disciples; stay in Jerusalem until you receive the power of the Holy Spirit and then starting in Jerusalem take the gospel to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  The instructions were clear, the excitement was high.  Some ten days later the Holy Spirit fell and the mission of the church was off and running.

 

Peter and the disciples went out into the street and began sharing their faith.  Peter preached, the Holy Spirit said amen, and three thousand people were added to the church that day.  Think of what would happen if next week three thousand people joined St. James Lutheran Church.  I would imagine there would be quite a level of excitement among the membership.

 

The church continues to live out their faith and share the gospel and we are told that the numbers increased daily.  People are getting healed, Peter and John are arrested which just gets everyone energized even more.  Barnabas and others are selling property and giving their money to the church so that the poor and needy are cared for.  Every way you look at it the church is growing, people are being saved it was a booming success.

 

Peter and the other apostles are mono-cultural individuals.  They are Jews ministering among other Jews.  They know the culture, the language and the rituals.  They are in the temple everyday for prayers.  When they speak to the people of the city about Jesus there are many common reference points.  They share the same scriptures, they have the same heritage and the same hope.  The Jews were looking for the messiah and the apostles message to them was, “We have found him and his name is Jesus.” 

 

The Holy Spirit was present moving on the hearts of the people and so we witness a very successful mission.  All is well in Jerusalem.  If I was there I would be awestruck by what was taking place.  Jesus had to be pleased with what was taking place.

 

I come out here to St. James and I am excited by what is happening.  I have looked at your statistics and see that God is at work here.  In the Atlantic District you are one of the larger churches.  The church has been a round for a long time.  Generations have grown up in this place and the Lord has done mighty things among you.  Many have entered the kingdom through the waters of baptism in this very place.  God has been pleased and you should be as well.

 

Think back over Jerusalem we need to think a bit deeper about what was going on.  Many were coming to salvation and that is a good thing.  It is why the church exists; to announce the kingdom and point people to Jesus.  But what were the apostles instructed to do?  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judah, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”  They were doing a good job in Jerusalem and Judah but that was as far as they went.  Jesus was clear, to the ends of the earth.

 

It is so easy to stay put when everything is going well.  The disciples were running a successful ministry in familiar surroundings.  Why leave?  Why focus somewhere else?

 

Jesus meant for the church to go and so he sends persecution after the arrest and execution of Stephen.  Opposition arose against the church and it scattered.  Phillip went to Samaria and ran a successful ministry there.  Samaritans were the almost Jews.  The people who were close to the Jews in their beliefs but not close enough.  They were in bread with other cultures when the Assyrians conquered them.  The Jews hated the Samaritans but Jesus did minister among.  There was some precedent for a Samaritan outreach.  It was uncomfortable to minister in Samaria but at least there were some touch stones.  There were differences in what they believed but the differences were known.  There was a shared history.

 

You probably have some Samaritan outreach here.  People who you contact who are not just like you but close enough.  You reach out to them through the youth group.  Kids are great at bringing people into the church that the adults avoid.  When you build your life around the church after a while your only friends are people in the church.  When you live on Long Island, and I was raised on Long Island, you tend to live in neighborhoods that are made up of people like you.  That’s neither good or bad it just is.  And so like Peter you live and minister among people like yourself; people who share the same values and have a similar set of concerns.  The more adventurous, usually it’s the young people who reach out of their comfort zone to others they meet.  So the church takes on a different feel as it ministers in a changing community.  But Jesus said to the ends of the earth.

 

Some who fled persecution in Jerusalem landed in Antioch and started preaching to gentiles who shared nothing in common with the Jews religiously.  The leaders were baffled as to what to do.  The send Barnabas who was the most cross cultural among them.  He gets there and immediately understands that he needs help and so he sends for Saul later known as Paul.  I’ll refer to him a Paul.  It is at Antioch that Paul who encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and was told he would minister to the Gentiles that he is finally sent out.

 

Paul and Barnabas minister around Asia Minor but this morning I want to take you to Athens.  Athens is the end of the earth.  Athens is the un-Jewish city.  Paul finds himself in a place that has no connection with the faith of Israel.

 

Up until Athens every city that Paul entered he would first scout out the Jews and peach Jesus to them.  After that he would preach to the Gentiles who were drawn to the Jewish faith, the God fearers and then the Gentiles.  He would keep widening his circle making contacts with people in the next ring out.  In Athens things were different.  There were some Jews but only a few.  The majority of the people were more interested in philosophy; they were interested in the latest ideas that were being proposed.

 

Let me tell you about the neighborhood around my church.  There are 35,000 people living in my zip code.  The population density for my part of the city is 60,000 people per square mile.  The population is 3% Christian, people who can articulate their faith and know they are saved and in relationship with God.  The overwhelming majority of people do not share a Christian history.  They didn’t grow up in the church, they don’t know the Bible stories, they don’t understand what we do when we worship.  Some have never been in a church and have no desire to. 

 

Paul could not start up a conversation about the promised messiah who had come and whose name was Jesus because the people of Athens weren’t waiting for a messiah and couldn’t careless about some hope of the Jews.  What did Paul do?

 

Paul, being in unfamiliar territory decided the best thing to do was to walk around and learn what he could about these people.  He found out they liked to talk and he found out they were religious.  He knew they liked to talk because they were always in the market place discussing the latest ideas and he knew they were religious because center of town was filled with altars and statues to every god imaginable.  They even had an altar to the “Unknown God.”

 

People come to Manhattan for the energy.  Many in our neighborhood have come hoping to make it in the arts.  They are musicians, acts and artist.  The come to make it in New York.  They are for the most part young and single.  They are interested in the latest trends, the latest ideas and they are spiritual.  They believe in a higher power or force they just don’t know Jesus.  In fact many have been turned off to Jesus because the Jesus they have heard about has no place for people like them.  The danger of a church being made up of people who are all alike is that those who are different feel they don’t and can’t fit in.

 

In Paul’s discussions in the market place he created and interest in what he had to say.  He presented the faith in a way that sparked their interest to the place that they wanted more.  Our goal is similar to Paul’s.  How do we enter into conversation with people in our community and how do we spark their interest in the gospel and the kingdom of God?

 

At CFAN we have developed two operating principles.  The first is that all evangelism is based on relationships.  Unless I am in a relationship with someone how am I going to share my faith with them? Why would they listen? In a city of over 8 million people the church is just another voice in the crowd.  Before they will listen to what they have to say we need to earn their trust and the right to speak. 

 

Paul went through out the city talking with people.  He spent time in their world.  Face to face encounters are hard for many people today.  We twitter and facebook, IM and text but to sit down with a stranger and have a conversation is not something easily done.  Paul didn’t wait for the Athenians to come to him he went out to them, positioned himself where the people of the city hung out and engaged them in conversation.  If you go to the same place often enough you become a familiar face and eventually someone will strike up a conversation.

 

When you look at what Jesus did you find that his time was spent eating and drinking with sinners.  He is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton.  He is found in the home of tax collectors and sinners.  He lets a prostitute wash his feet and he is not afraid to be caught talking with women.  Jesus moves among the people and in conversation with them speaks the good news.

 

We had to decide that if we were going to reach our neighborhood with the gospel we would have to go where the people are and develop relationships with them so that we can share our faith in a meaningful way.

 

The second mode of operation for us is the idea that the church should be the center of community life.  We envision our church building as the community center to our area of Manhattan.  Growing up for me the church was the center of my social life as well as my spiritual life.  It all centered a round God and it took place at the church.  In Manhattan space is a premium.  We have a building and so we believe that it should serve the community.

 

So here we are in Athens.  There are a few Christians but most of the people have no place for God but they are spiritual.  We know that because they talk about spirituality but we also know that because they are created in the image of God but don’t know it.  We know that they are interested in community because 8 million have gathered in one place to live and work.  New York can be a lonely town but even though they don’t always know how to make it happen people are social being that need to gather together.  Creative people live in and around our building and attend our church.  And we have space.  How does that all come together.

 

We have made our space a gathering place for the community.  We opened the doors and invited the community in.  We rent it to various music groups for rehearsal and performance space.  We hold our own concert series.  A local CSA distributes their food at the church.  A children’s theater school rents the basement.  We have gymnastic program 2 times a week.  There is and international student language program at the church.  I could go on.  Add to this worship and Bible study and you get the idea that we are pretty busy serving the community.  Some of these things are directly church related but many are just community building efforts, we brought the market to us.  That gives us opportunity to build relationship with the people who use our space in order to share with them our faith.  We spend a lot of time and effort bringing the community into our space.

 

We also go out.  Since a focus of the ministry is to musicians we spend a lot of time going out to clubs to hear these people play in other venues.  Musicians want an audience to play for.  If we respect what they do and go to where they play our level of credibility with them goes up and we have a chance to speak to them about things that are important to us.

 

The head of our international and students ministry spends a lot of time going on trips and spending time with international students.  He is becoming part of their community to invite them into ours.

 

Paul went to Athens to speak of Jesus.  He had no times to that community.  He started from scratch.  He went to the market to where the people gathered and joined the conversation.  He earned a listening ear and was invited to speak.

 

In Manhattan we are striving to earn a listening ear.  We are the outsiders.  No one is walking in the door looking for Jesus.  They are lost sheep with out a shepherd.  God has called us to go and make disciples.  We are figuring out how to do that in ways that will open doors for the message of the kingdom.

 

Pray for us.  We are in a learning curve.  Many are gathering around to hear what we have to say.  Somehow we are in their minds different.  We are like Paul in the market with an interesting message.  Like Paul we are waiting for the opportunity to share our faith.  Doors are opening and we are ready.  Come Lord Jesus.

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