by Eric Elnes
I. Close Connections
“You have a close connection?” asked my seat-mate as I stepped out of my aisle seat on yesterday’s United Airlines flight from Harrisburg, PA, that had just pulled into the gate at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
“No, I’m good,” I said. I was heading home after speaking at the Penn Central Conference UCC Annual Meeting. I had a full 40 minutes to board my flight to Omaha. “You want to go ahead of me?” I asked.
“No, we’re fine, thanks,” the man said, as I stepped back to grab the copy of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine from the seatback pocket. I was acting on the faint intuition that I had left something important behind, and quietly congratulating myself when I saw the magazine in the pocket and remembered I’d wanted to take it with me.
In flight, I’d been finishing this sermon on my iPad when the attendant’s voice came over the loudspeaker that it was time to turn off all portable electronic devices, put our seats into the upright position, and prepare for landing. I exchanged my iPad for the copy of Hemispheres. Turning to the table of contents, I noticed an interesting article on the music scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Since I’d spent time there, I was curious to read it. Before getting to the article, though, my eyes stopped on a two page advertisement depicting a secluded tropical villa with an azure-green swimming pool set beside a large patio surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. In large capital letters the caption read, “WE ARE NOT FOR EVERYONE. AND THEREIN LIES THE BEAUTY.” I thought to myself, “What do you mean, “not for everyone? I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to stay there!” The ad continued (in smaller print), “Anyone can go on vacation, but you are not anyone.”
I wondered how the marketing people were able to recognize that I, a lowly traveler sitting in Economy Class on a crowded United Airlines flight, was not actually one of the unwashed masses. They made me out to be a someone – a someone who would appreciate being called out as a someone based merely on my attraction to something anyone would be attracted to.
It must have been my lucky day. Before boarding my flight out of Pennsylvania, I had been reading an article making reference to a survey that rates how Christian you are. The organization claimed to be able to discern if you are “Far from Christ,” “A Worldly Christian,” a “Good Christian,” or a “Mature Christian” – in just ten simple questions. I took the poll. Much to my surprise, I was judged a “Good Christian” – as opposed to a heretic pagan. Out of curiosity, I went back and changed my response to a couple questions about my behavior and how I would react to a homosexual friend. After hitting “submit,” they immediately recalculated my standing before the Lord, bestowing their highest rating upon me: “Mature Christian.”
I had to wonder how any group could consider itself competent enough to assess people’s level of Christian maturity when they think they can do it in a ten-question online survey! It’s kind of like a greasy spoon awarding Michelin stars to restuarants.
Nevertheless, yesterday I figured I’d accept both proclamations made about me by others: the one from ChangingTheFaceOfChristianity.com separating me as “Good Christian” sheep from the “Worldly Christian” goats AND Hemisphere magazine’s assessment that I am a someone.
My self-esteem could use the uplift in light of what happened next.
I walked all the way from Gate B9 to C31, the furthest outpost C Councourse, about two-thirds of a mile away. With twenty minutes to spare, I was waiting for a cappuccino at Starbucks when I suddenly realized I’d made a big mistake. It was not the Hemispheres magazine I needed to remember (though I meant to take it). It was my iPad!
Racing to the C31 gate agent, I told her what had happened. The agent picked up the phone, confirmed that they’d found my iPad, and warned that my flight would be closing the gate ten minutes before departure – no exceptions granted for people running frantically with iPads.
Gritting my teeth, I took off through the crowded airport as fast as I could run. I ran down the moving walkways – the ones that actually worked (three that were broken). I ran down the escalators and huffed and puffed my way up them. Arriving back at B9, I panted for air as I answered the attendant’s questions proving that the iPad was indeed mine. Then I made the run all over again, back to C31.
Fifty yards from the gate, a display showed it was 10 minutes before departure. They’d be shutting the door any second! Spotting one of those electric carts they use to take disabled people around the airport, I pleaded, “Can you get me to Gate C31? They’re about to shut the door!”
The driver put the pedal to the metal. I arrived just as they were closing the door. “Mr. Elnes, I presume?” asked the gate agent.
I felt like I’d just won a gold medal in the Special Olympics. Seeing no medal in the gate agent’s hands, I handed her my ticket and stumbled aboard the plane, apologizing to my new seat-mate for dripping sweat on him. I had just become everyone’s worst nightmare of a seat-mate!
But I was happy. Sure, it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, leaving my iPad on a plane. But then again, that same day I had been pronounced a “Good Christian” by ChangingTheFaceOfChristianity.com, and Hemispheres magazine had pronounced that I was a someone. And now I had proven that I was a someone by running a 10-minute mile-and-a-third through a crowded airport wearing dress slacks and a blazer, towing a roller-board carry-on behind me … with a little help from moving walkways and a disabled person’s tram.
II. Why did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road … with Paul?
Last Sunday we featured my friend, Brian McLaren, on Darkwood Brew. Brian is a former-evangelical-pastor-turned-progressive-Christian-leader who is coming out with a very interesting new book in the fall with the provocative title, Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammad Cross the Road? This may sound like the beginning of a joke, but as Brian puts it, it is actually the beginning of one of the most important conversations we can have in the world today. As the world becomes increasingly smaller, and our ability to destroy one another becomes increasingly greater, it is now increasingly important for the world’s largest faiths to learn to walk together. Yet, as Brian and the rest of us readily recognize, that’s easier said than done.
Says Brian, the difficulty of this feat is compounded by the fact that Christians who tend to have the strongest identity as Christians also tend to be the most strongly intolerant of others who don’t act or believe like they do – even other Christians. In this vein, ChangingTheFaceOfChristianity.com had boosted my rating from “Good Christian” to “Mature Christian” once I changed my responses to reflect less acceptance of people who are different than me (though to be fair, they also lowered my score if I indicated belligerence toward others). Conversely, notes Brian, Christians who embrace tolerance of others most fully tend to do so by weakening their Christian identity – thorugh emphasizing their commonalities with others and ignoring their differences. Christian faith thereby devolves into amorphous generalities and sentimental fluff.
When I asked Brian how he proposes moving from fluff toward a more robust articulation of faith, one of the responses I liked best was his suggestion that we enter interfaith dialog by asking to share what they love best about their faith rather than asking for a list of beliefs and doctrines. By focusing on what we love best, we develop relationships with each other based on our highest common denominators, not our lowest.
Funny he should say that. For this is exactly what the apostle Paul is doing in our text from Acts 17 as he stands before a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on top of the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens.
I’ve had my troubles with Paul over the years, but mostly I’m a big fan. Sometimes I think his grace-filled, buoyant joy gets caught in the gravitational pull of that part of him that still remembers that he was an angry Pharisee that fit Brian McLaren’s paradigm – strongly asserting his faith, showing strong intolerance of others who didn’t believe the same way. But in Acts 17, Paul is shining brightly. I’d give him the gold medal in the Olympics of interfaith dialogue for what he does here.
Put yourself in Paul’s sandals for a moment. Imagine you have been invited to share your faith with a group of people who know nothing about Christianity. They’ve never attended a church or synagogue, never heard of Jesus, and never read so much as a verse from the Christian or Jewish scriptures.
As you stand on top of the Areopagus, you have a 360 degree view of Athens in all its splendor: giant government and commercial buildings and temples supported by enormous marble columns. You see memorials celebrating great military victories, opulent sculptures, and other pieces of public art. As you turn to face your audience, you face the ultimate reminder of Athens’ political, military, religious, and economic glory: the Parthenon itself, closer to you than Gate C31 is from B9 at O’Hare airport.
How will you as a poor rabbi from a tiny, distant country conquered long ago, representing a religion whose founder died on a cross as an enemy of the state convince these people that you have anything worthwhile to say? How will you convince them that Christianity is anything more than a backwater belief system of a highly optimistic, but powerless people?
You’d have to offer something pretty powerful – even extravagant and bombastic – just to get their attention, let alone convert someone. But what Paul does is spend most of his time telling his audience how much he agrees with their own beliefs, not telling them how far superior his faith is to theirs!
For instance, Paul has found the one altar in all of Athens that he can stand behind and worship at with them – one with an inscription that reads, “to an Unknown God.” Paul is saying, “At this altar, we worship the same God.”
Then Paul starts reciting beliefs that his audience of Epicureans and Stoics would specifically hold common with him. He tells them that that the God of his experience doesn’t dwell in temples and can’t be trapped in the form of an idol. They didn’t believe in such a god either. Then Paul starts quoting scripture to them. But guess what? The scriptures he quotes are not his own, but theirs (he quotes from Aratus and Epimenides). He says:
26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being” [Epimenides] as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring. [Aratus].”
I find it suggestive that Paul spends three quarters of his time talking about the faith he shares in common with his audience, not about what separates them. It is only after finding substantial common ground has been established that Paul identifies something truly distinctive about his faith.
III. A Faith To Move Us Forward
What makes his faith distinct in Paul’s eyes is the last thing his audience ever would have guessed. Paul doesn’t promise them any cosmic superhero who will make them more successful than anyone in Athens. He does not claim that life will only be sunny and bright if you just accept Jesus into your life. He tells them about Jesus, but Jesus as the Savior who dies on a cross; who redeems our lives by showing us that God is present and able to act transformatively not simply in the best of times, but in their very worst.
As Paul would later write to the Corinthian community, in a manner reflecting his approach with the Athenians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-2)
What Paul loves best about his faith is not how it can get you ahead in this world – bestowing upon a believer wealth, power, and success greater than what the Athenians or Corinthians ever dreamed of. What Paul loves best is that the God of his experience is present not only in success, but in failure; not simply when you sit in high and lofty places, but when you have been cast down to the ground. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” says God, according to Paul.
Paul’s God is one who loves and seeks to be in relationship with you, helps you not simply when you have been pronounced to be a “Good Christian” but when you are pronounced to be “Far from Christ” – and are. Paul’s God is proud to be your God not just when you are a “someone,” but when you are “no one,” whether you make your plane home or miss it entirely.
That day on the Areopagus hill, Paul convinced only two of the crowd to follow this God who is present in weakness – a pretty weak result by most of the world’s standards. And he didn’t try to push is faith on those who turned away. He simply moved on, happy to have found two who appreciate this kind of God. Likely these were folks who were more of life’s underbelly than the others. Incidentally, one was a woman named Damaris, who was important enough to be invited to hear Paul even at an even which was likely for men only. The other was a man known as Dionysus the Areopagite. He is best known in our tradition for inspiring one of the greatest treatises on the spiritual life ever penned, which was later attributed to him.
If Paul were to answer Brian McLaren’s question about how a Christian can assert a strong identity and simultaneously be tolerant of others, I think Paul would say that we should proclaim our weakness as strongly as our strengths. We should share our love of a God who not only sits high on the throne of glory but comes under us, in the form of a servant, asking us to become servants of others as well. We should joyfully bear witness to a God who blesses the poor as readily as the wealthy; who, like Jesus, may be found in the presence of the sick more readily than with those who consider themselves healthy.
By proclaiming a God who is there for us in our weaknesses, who loves us when we are no-ones, who walks beside us even when we are “far from Christ,” we proclaim a God who is far stronger than any god who only shows up when there’s a party going on. This is a faith that keeps us humble as we engage with others who do not believe as we do. This is the kind of God and faith that will take us from the age of the Areopagus through the age of Aerospace and beyond.
For Further Exploration:
If you would like to explore this theme further, you may watch the 6/3/12 episode of Darkwood Brew, featuring Brain McLaren as Skype Guest. Small groups may wish to use the small group video resource from this episode. You may also wish to consider the following questions:
1. What makes a person more, or less, Christian in your view?
2. Both Brian McLaren and Eric Elnes agree that finding ways for the world’s great faiths to get along and appreciate each other is one of the most important tasks we face. What do you make of this claim?
3. What do you love best about your faith?
4. An underlying premise to this reflection is that our identity as Christians grows stronger the more we find in common with others. How is what is being asserted different from Brian McLaren’s idea that many Christians weaken their identity by de-emphasizing differences and focusing only on what is held in common between Christianity and other faiths?
5. How does a God who loves, connects, guides, and supports us in our weakness increase the common ground we share with people?
 Biblical scholars will note that there were no tape recorders present on the Areopagus that day, nor was Luke likely to have been a first-hand witness. Thus, it is unlikely we are overhearing Paul’s exact words. Furthermore, some scholars question whether Paul ever stood on the Areopagus at all, speculating that Luke fabricated the whole story. However, even if this later scenario is true (and I find no convincing evidence to suggest it is), this only heightens its importance for understanding Paul and his ministry. Why would Luke tell such a story? There is little reason to do so other than to provide a representative example of Paul’s general approach to evangelism when talking to people who shared no background in the Jewish faith. Thus, whether or not Paul’s speech at the Areopagus happened exactly as Luke reports, what we likely have before us is an account that serves as a summary of many speeches Paul has made in a similar vein throughout the Mediterranean, reflecting the relative time spent in each mode of speech.