And perhaps grope

So Paul was invited to the great public convocation in the nation’s capital, where the rich and powerful were found, where they and ordinary citizens spoke their minds and hearts and listened to each other. He observed their search for value and meaning in public life, their interest in new ideas that might shape and enrich the life of the nation. And he stood before those leaders, and he began to speak.

That’s the setting Luke paints (Acts 17:22-31). The Areopagus, where this meeting took place, was a small hill near the Acropolis in Athens. It was also a group of people, the most important council of elders in the history of that city, perhaps in the history of the world (so named because they met on that hill) – a meeting of elder statesmen dating back to the sixth and fifth centuries BCE who guided Greece in the creative transition from monarchy to democracy – a forum where thoughtful people listened to each other deeply and where issues of law, philosophy, and politics were discussed and decided.

There’s no place like it in our society today, really no place in the world – TV talk show, university, courtroom, legislature, all rolled into one – but we have questions like those they debated. We still search for value and meaning in our personal and public lives. We still search for new ideas that might shape and enrich our life together. The question is: Would Paul still have a voice in the dialogue? Does the church still have a voice among the movers and shakers and shapers of public life?

There’s evidence that we in the church have lost our voice in the public square, that we have isolated ourselves from the public forum, that we have become too inward-looking and self-absorbed. Research has revealed a growing public perception that Christians are “boring, unintelligent, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality.” One young person said, “Christians enjoy being in their own community. The more they seclude themselves, the less they can function in the real world. So many Christians are caught in the Christian ‘bubble.’”1

When asked to describe their images of Christianity, people outside the church used terms like these: “the Titanic – a ship about to sink but unaware of its fate; a powerful amplifier being undermined by poor wiring and weak speakers; a pack of domesticated cats that look like they are thinking deep thoughts but are just waiting for their next meal; an ostrich with its head in the sand; a hobby that diverts people’s attention.”2

It’s no coincidence and should be no surprise that the mainstream church in this part of the world is declining in membership and in vitality at the same time it has lost its voice and public influence. Can we find our voice again? Can we not only regain our vitality as the body of Christ; can we also contribute something essential to the vitality of the city, of the nation? I believe we can, and there are two ways we can regain the credibility to be heard and taken seriously.

First, we’ve got to take seriously the importance and necessity of having differences and disagreements. We disagree not because one side is right and the other sides are wrong. It’s not a contest to see which side prevails. We differ because our differences help us find a truth that transcends our individual insights.

Here’s how Thomas Frank paraphrased what Paul said in his speech at the Areopagus. (At the time, Frank was an associate professor at Candler School of Theology.) “Our places are a gift from God so that we will have a means for seeking God among us. God’s presence comes at the places in which our lives meet in community with others and with God.”3

Our differences are gifts from God that lead us to seek and find God among us. We mustn’t seek to eliminate our differences. We mustn’t expect that one view will prevail over others. We should celebrate our differences as a rich field in which our relationship with each other and with God grows and flowers and bears fruit.

And the second thing we need to do is like the first. We need to learn to love each other with all our differences, because of our differences. To love someone is to value that person. It’s to recognize that the other person has an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation and that without that person God’s creation would be incomplete. It’s to realize that without that other person, and all of that person’s differences, my own life would be essentially diminished. And it’s to act toward that person accordingly.

Perhaps the greatest challenge The United Methodist Church faces is that we have so many differences of opinion about our faith. It has been a critical strain as we wrestle with questions of sexuality in ordination and church life, and sooner or later – many think sooner – it may cause schism in our denomination.

But that same great diversity of opinion has been one of the richest blessings I have known in the household of God. It has caused me to wrestle deeply and earnestly with critical issues of faith and life. It has helped define who I am. And because of that wrestling, my faith has grown and my relationship with God has deepened.

God doesn’t need our sanctuaries. God has heaven and earth for a sanctuary, the spinning of galaxies and planets for music, the breath of creation for a choir. We need our diverse communities as places where we will have a place and a way to search for God, and perhaps grope for God, and find God (Acts 17:24-27). The city and nation, in searching for value and meaning, in their efforts to enrich the lives of the people, need the church’s voice to be part of the public dialogue. Those who search for a reason to hope need us to account for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).

 

Notes: 1. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 121. ▪ 2. Ibid., 122. ▪ 3. Thomas Edward Frank, The Soul of the Congregation: An Invitation to Congregational Reflection (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 42.

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