Studying this week I wanted to remember a bit of Paul’s wider story and the events leading up to this rather popular bit Acts we reference when we say “Mars Hill”.
So Paul used to be called Saul, more than likely named after the 1st King of Israel, who was also from the Tribe of Benjamin. Paul was a unique fellow in that scripture shows he was a Powerful and devout Jew, a pharisee, but he was also a Roman citizen.
During the early years of the christian church Paul went around hunting Christians, like rooting them out of their homes and putting them to death via public stoning and other lovely methods of eradicating a people group that you fear will upset your power.
At the time Rome was spreading out and taking over the known world but allowing local customs to rule; under Roman Rule. Just pay Caesar. So you have this half-Roman half-Jew in a governmental position in Jerusalem where the government and religion are sort of one thing summed up in “the Law of Moses”, which the Romans are fine with even unto allowing people be put to death for new ideas that challenge that Law.
So Saul/Paul, is out on a which hunt on the road to Damascus from Jerusalem and encounters a bright light which the disputed author of Acts & Luke tells us is actually Jesus manifest and theres a period of blindness and a Name change occurs. Believe what you want about that sort of legendary fantastical moment in the text but what is clear historically as well as here in the scripture a true transformation took place in this man.
From this moment on the #1 witch hunter supreme, virtually becomes “the head of the local coven” and subsequently begins walking about the known world proclaiming that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God and saying things like “gentiles are welcome to God too, the jews don’t have exclusive access anymore.” Which was pretty upsetting to the Hebrew people in power; under the Romans. Anyway, so that’s the Sunday School synopsis of Paul: roughly Half the book of Acts is about his story …and roughly half the rest of the new testament is supposed to have been written by him.
So (if you were to be looking at a map: here’s the Mediterranean, here’s Jerusalem) during our story, Paul is on his first trip around the North shore of the Mediterranean which is pretty much the major part of the known world at the time. Anyway to kinda put this in perspective if you were to start in Jerusalem as Paul did, and walk for 8 hours a day every day it would take you roughly 74 days to get to Athens where this story takes place.
Its roughly 2800 miles, nearly the same distance as if you were to walk from here, ACCROS OUR ENTIRE CONTINENT, to Manhattan.
So Paul is committed to this thing and he’s far from home and pretty much causing trouble wherever he goes. He’s been recently kicked out of another town and smuggled to Athens, narrowly escaping the religious leaders and getting separated from his buddies. So he sends a text message to his fellow apostles, “Hey guys I’m gonna chill in Athens for a few days and see the sights. Let me know when you get here, I’ll try to stay out of trouble. (hashtag)#psyche.”
(Psyche is a greek word so its kinda a joke that probably only Paul would get.)
Anyway so he goes to see the sights…and at the time Athens is still the capitol of the thinking/learning educated-person’s world even though it is also now under roman rule. Just last year Rebecca and I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Athens in Greece and we spent a few days within walking distance of all this stuff Paul was seeing 2000 years ago, (although I have to admit there was never a point when I was like “the apostle Paul stood here”, which feels strange now…i was thinking mostly about Pythagorus because I love triangles).
Anyway most of this stuff is still standing now, albeit rather runiny. The Acropolis is kind of the centerpiece of Athens being this kind of high hill – you can see from anywhere surrounding. Its fortified with hundreds of feet of stone block walls making it a plateau to put your temples and idol-gardens and philosophy clubhouses on.
Theres a few amphitheaters and a temple to Athena (the goddess the city is named for), a shrine to Dionissus. South west theres a colosseum about Zeus and theres this kind of greek and roman hybrid war of the God’s-names going on and surrounding everything there are markets and shops…
AND just to the north-west of the acropolis there is a little outcropping of raw marble about halfway up the hill and there is a shrine to Ares called the “areopageous” which the romans decided was dedicated to Mars, their god of war since I think Ares is the greek god of war. Sooooo we have “Mars Hill”.
During Paul’s time its suggested that Mars Hill was where they held murder trials but when it wasn’t being used for that the Athenians gathered here to swap new philosophy and collect new stories. The Acropolis was already 500 years old by the time Paul arrived in Athens….to put that in perspective english speaking folk in the USA do not have any buildings or structures that are 500 years old.
Let me say that again, by the time Paul got to Athens, the acropolis had been already standing longer than white people have been in America.
SO….Paul gets to Athens…he’s sight seeing and the scripture says he is very provoked by all the idols…. so he goes to the market and starts talking about Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. Its this resurrection idea specifically that gets the attention of the local story traders exploring new ideas in religion and philosophy and they invite him to the areopageous to hear about it.
Having been invited (which is important to me) Paul compliments their devotion, speaks of the unknown God, suggests that there is a maker of all things that wants to be “grasped” and known by mortals and proceeds to quote some of their poetry and question if they have put their faith in the working of their own hands… (beautiful and noteworthy as they may be).
.….thus creating this incredible nugget of witnessing style that inspired every youth pastor I’ve ever had to to try to use Kid Rock lyrics and metaphors from The Matrix trilogy to get me to behave myself and you know, not try meditating to yoga or something.
The difference between the modern culturally appropriative apologetics youth pastor and this text, for me, is that Paul believed in a breaking-all-the-rules and radical-systems-altering Jesus. Paul had to believe in a Jesus that had the power to transform a person from “hyper religious fascist government executioner” to a “wandering by skin-of-his-teeth, counter culture revolutionary”. …that being the transformation that he himself experienced.
I believe in that Jesus. My encounter on my road to Damascus was no less vivid, and I desperately needed the transformational power only a true encounter with my maker could offer.
I was transformed. I was saved from hate and death and shame and offered life and grace and love. I know not everyone’s faith gets to be that dramatic… but mine was, and I too am provoked sometimes when I see the way our culture clings to all of the ways that we may be saved by the working of our own hands. Philosophy and Psychology can’t save us. Technology can’t save us. Democracy can’t save us. Religion can’t save us. Following all the Youth Pastors Rules can’t save us. Rock and Roll and Hip Hop can not save us…nor art or science or any thing that we have discovered….because WE CANNOT SAVE OURSELVES. I believe Paul when he says that we were made to need God, to have an innate incompleteness…that we might reach out and attempt to grasp God.
In these trying times, when I feel so threatened…I want to remember not to turn to my devices, or to the creations and systems of finite humanity. Instead I want to turn to the only true transformative power I have ever experienced:
That being a relationship with a resurrected Jesus and a life lived in surrender wandering about being provoked and inspired by the Holy Spirit. When I can live that way not only am I happy and full of peace and joy, but I am doing God’s work to save the world, often using art and technology and democracy and science…
but it is not the system
nor the tool
nor I who wields
that has power