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MISSIONARY PREACHING IN THE CITY
ACTS 17:10-34

3rd April 2002

OPENING ADDRESS AT THE INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS ON PREACHING,
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY APRIL 2002

We sit in one of the great historic buildings of the nineteenth century, in one of the greatest universities of the then British Empire. The thinkers, philosophers, theologians, teachers and scientists this University of Edinburgh produced, read like a history of the civilization of the world. The sons of daughters of Scotland took their learning, culture and insights into the furthermost corners of the world. Theirs was an immigration from this city to grow new cities with the fruits of the Enlightenment.

Today the greatest movement in the world is into the cities of every inhabited continent. One hundred years ago in 1900, only 8% of the people of the world lived in large cities. Most people lived in villages in rural areas. In spite of the growth of industries, 92% of people were still engaged in agriculture.

But two world wars, transportation, and a growing population able to be sustained in a city, saw, within one hundred years, more than half the people on earth living in cities. Over three billion people now live in large cities. Urbanization has been the greatest story of the twentieth century. We have a missionary gospel to spread into the cities of the world.

Yet many church denominational leaders still behave as if nothing has changed. They still organise the life of the church based upon state lines and a village parish system. The denominations have not learned how to use the media to penetrate the city and possess no strategy to penetrate the security of high-rise apartment blocks. They give token support to developing multicultural congregations and have no policy for influencing the social, political and economic systems of our modern community.

Yet the city is the most important factor impinging upon the future of the church. In the next ten years we will add another billion people to the planet and most will live in our cities. Christianity will be successful only if it learns to capture the cities of the world.


1. THE NECESSITY OF CAPTURING THE CITY.

Nations are changed by people who capture the streets of the city. The ideology of globalisation is today being fought in the streets of large cities. The people of Manilla overthrew the Marcos regime from the streets. The people of Selma, Jackson and Washington marched behind Martin Luther King Jr. The people of India filled the streets of Calcutta behind Mahatma Gandhi. The people of Paris overran the Bastille. The people of Beijing crowded Tienamen Square. So on throughout history. You can change history by changing the minds of people in the streets.

Only after His death and resurrection did the people of Jerusalem realize that Jesus was the Messiah of God, an ideal King, a victorious conqueror, a humble hero, and a suffering servant.

He had come, not to bring political victory, but a reign of peace and righteousness with justice for the poor and humble. How they wished they had greeted Him with more commitment! I have always been captured by a line in the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." The Palm Sunday crowd is singing "Hosanna" and waving to Jesus and as Jesus passed by they called out "Christ, you know I loved you. Did you see I waved?"

Many in the crowded city that day waved. But Jesus wanted devotion not greetings, commitment of the heart not waving of the hand. Even those who wept for Him later that Holy Week, were told not to weep for Him but for themselves. Jesus did not want tears of sorrow, but the toil of discipleship of those who would follow Him. The crowd needs to be confronted with the accurate picture of who Jesus is, if their waving is to be turned to commitment. The missionary gospel has tough demands.

That is why the church where I have ministered for nearly a quarter of a century, Wesley Mission Sydney, enters our city at every available point through the secret accesses of radio as people listen in their bath or bed, their car or campervan. Every day. Every week.

Through television we enter every city and town in our nation, into lounge rooms and kitchens, bedrooms and classrooms. Every week. Through our magazines we enter the waiting rooms of doctors, dentists and lawyers. In our books we enter the libraries and homes to sit upon shelves and beside beds. Through our videos we stay by the video machines in the schools and homes. We preach in eight languages every week to reach the major ethnic groups.

Through our 56 church worship services we conduct each week in our central church we challenge the people of our city by lifting high Jesus Christ and saying: "Who is this?" I am never proud of the fact that across our land I am listened to by more people than any other preacher in our nation. That is not a matter for pride: Jesus has entered many cities on the back of a donkey! But even a donkey can be used to take the Master into the city! We spend ourselves to bring Christ to the city so that people will say: "Who is this?" Then seek the answer.

Modern people in many of our cities accept Christianity, but they do not become members of the church. We have to convert believers into belongers! But some people who belong to the church are not really committed. We have to convert these belongers to believers! Jesus Christ does not ask for your admiration. He wants your commitment! Jesus does not ask for acknowledgment. He wants your commitment. Do not say: "Christ, you know I loved you. Did you see I waved?" Say instead: "Jesus Christ, my Master, I'll take up my Cross and follow wherever you lead me." And join the crowd that follow Him.

A wave changes nothing. Jesus wants to make disciples who will be committed to turning the world upside down. He wants our city confronted, changed, turned around, converted! That means you! Turn to Him now! Stop waving. Start following!

2. LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE CITY.

Churches have to learn to speak the language of its own city. We have to listen to what the streets are saying, and learn to communicate with people our message in the language they understand. Too often the church talks to itself in its own language, and the people outside in the city do not understand.

Paul communicated the Gospel intelligently when he entered the great cities of the Mediterranean world in the first century. He spoke to the citizens of each city in their own culture.

At the time of Paul's visit, Athens was in the twilight of the Greek civilization. She would never recover her glory. Athens has been continuously inhabited for 3000 years, but it was in the centuries before the Roman Empire that Athens reached her height.

In the 5th century BC, the days of the marvellous buildings of Pericles, Athens became the mistress of the world and the mother of Democracy. Great writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, joined with historians like Heroditus and Thucydides, and thinkers like Plato and Socrates. Their Classical Greek is acknowledged as the world's most perfect expression of human speech in all history.

Great art, sculpture and architecture flourished. The Parthenon, commenced in 447BC, even to this day, remains one of the world's most pleasing buildings. All about were other temples, theatres, the agora or marketplaces, and the magnificent colonnades of the Stoa of Attulus.


It is probable that Paul walked through these columns debating with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as was typical of the teaching method of the time.

He certainly climbed nearby Mar's Hill, and spoke to the Aeropagus Council. In great cities of the world we copy the architecture of Athens, and many of our public buildings reflect those of Athens; we lecture on Greek philosophy, and Classical Greek, unspoken for 2000 years by any community, is still taught in some of our colleges and universities.

3. SPEAK TO THE CITY ON ITS OWN TERMS:

If you examine the sermon of Paul to the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia, you would find that Paul starts with the history of the Jews in Egypt, covers their development as a nation, their expectation of the Messiah, and points to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our need to repent and believe.

Yet when Paul entered Athens his approach was totally different from that at Antioch in Pisidia. He appreciated their culture and spoke their language. He marched to the beat of their drum.

v16-17. He first spoke to Jews and Greeks who worshipped God. Paul commenced with those who would give him a favourable hearing. v18a He joined the philosophers in their debates and with people who just passed by. In the time of Paul there were two schools of philosophy: the Epicureans and Stoics. They debated him. The Stoics' aim was to attain personal supremacy over all areas of life and to control human passions. The Epicureans' aim was pleasure, the happiness the mind finds in freedom from physical excesses.
The Stoics and Epicureans, walked through the Stoa of Attulus, arguing with each other, for the benefit of crowds of people who followed them to hear some word of insight. Paul was not afraid to talk about his beliefs in the context of other philosophies and faiths.

v18b-21 He indicated up front his own religious beliefs. He preached "about Jesus and the resurrection." As the philosophers debated Paul, v19 "some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" The word for babbler is spermologos. It means a picker-up of scraps, a gutter-sparrow that picks up little bits of rubbish or seeds. They said Paul picked up bits of wisdom, scraps of thoughts from here and there. The philosophers despised him because he did not argue in the conventional form.

v22-23 Paul acknowledged their religious attitudes. He was not flattering them, but was stating a fact about Athenian life, dominated as it was by so many beautiful temples to many gods. v22"I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious." He indicated the statues dedicated to gods. v23 "As I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written "To an Unknown God." That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you."

Several such altars have been discovered although the inscription is usually in the plural "To the Unknown Gods". Epimenides, who lived in Athens in the sixth century, urged the building of such an altar so as to include any god not honoured with a Temple to avoid any calamity from a wrathful god. Paul said the god they did not know, was known to Him as the father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul started with what they knew.

v24-27 Paul preached from a point of agreement. The city fathers nodded in agreement. Every city alderman likes to be told that he has a fine respectable city. All of the Athenians would accept that God was the Lord of heaven and earth as the Stoics argued and that such a God did not live in the beautiful temples surrounding them, as the Epicureans argued. Paul went on, "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else."

This pleased the Stoics. Paul said God created the world. That refuted the Epicureans who declared that the universe came by chance. Paul also agreed with Plato that God is a spirit. But then Paul went on with the devastating words "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us."


v28-30 He moves from local interests to the everlasting God. The Creator and ever-present provider for them all, demands from us righteous living and has fixed a day of judgement for us all, calling upon us to turn from our wicked ways. Paul is now at the crunch of the gospel but to show them how close God is to them he does not quote Old Testament poets. Greek city councillors are not going to listen to Hebrew poets.

When he spoke to Jews he quoted Hebrew poets, but when he spoke to Greek city aldermen he quoted Greek poets. v28"For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."' He quotes two poets including Aratus who came from the same area of the Empire as did Paul.

v29-31"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." Resurrection! That shocked them.

That is the heart of the gospel: God made us, loves us, redeems us, and will judge us by Jesus Christ, the same Jesus slain upon the Cross, but now raised from the dead. The Greeks had argued about resurrection. Aeschylus said when a man dies, his blood seeps into the ground, and there is no resurrection of the body. They believed in the immortality of the soul, but not the resurrection of the body. Christianity is based upon resurrection, not immortality. God gives a new life and a new body, incorruptible and eternal in the heavens.

v32-34 He found a typical response. Some scoffed, some wanted to hear more, and some believed in Jesus Christ. It is ironic, that of all the famous philosophers and debaters in the Royal Stoa that day, only three names are known in history and they were the three believers in Jesus Christ: Among them is Paul, "Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others."
Dionysius became the first bishop of Athens. Damaris became a Christian. Their names are remembered while the names of the philosophers are forgotten. For all their wisdom the Greeks had not found God. Paul's teaching survived while the philosophers were picking up crumbs of human wisdom. We all will be judged by Christ. We all can be saved through faith.

How wise of Paul, to adapt his message to the city in which he was speaking; to direct his address to the mind-set and philosophy of his hearers; to scratch them where they were itching. That is why he was successful. Paul taught us to be relevant to our own city's culture and to speak to it the Gospel.


4. THE CITY CULTURE CAN CONFUSE CHRISTIANS..

We are all influenced by our culture. That cultural influence impacts even our Christian faith unknown to most of us. Some cultural influences today are setting the tone for our community values and political policies.

We are dominated more by economic policies than anything else. For the last two decades the defining principle in our culture has been that we improve our quality of life by improving our standard of living. Our focus has been on material benefit, and expecting from Governments policies that would deliver us a better standard of life. Governments hold as a top priority improvement of economic standards. Yet people say their top priorities are not prosperity but quality of family life, security of employment, and personal care when in ill-health. Culture tells us there is an economic solution to our problems.
Experience tells us the supposed solution is actually the problem. Some cultural influences in the Church today are more insidious.

I listen carefully to Church leaders. Some refer to cultural mores being essential Christianity rather than to Biblical mores. Recently I heard two leaders speaking not of Christianity but spirituality. That is a cultural expression that has become political correct. They were promoting spirituality not Christianity, Jesus not the church. These church leaders are speaking as if we can divide spirituality from Christianity and Jesus from the church. They obviously have not thought through their statements.

Jesus did not come to improve the quality of our spirituality. This is new age philosophy. God was not incarnate among us to improve our spirituality, but to save us from our sins. He incorporates us into His body, the Church. You cannot have Him without His body the Church, and spirituality, without Christianity, is an empty shell.

I have heard one deriding those who stress the uniqueness of our faith saying we should accept the beliefs of all people as being equally valid. This is pluralism. But pluralism is the enemy of Christianity. It denies the words of Jesus John 14:6 "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It denies the truth of the Apostles who said, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."

It denies the significance of the Cross and His shed blood for the sins of the world. It denies the authority of Scripture.

All religions are not equal. We do not all worship the same God and we are all not heading for the same destination. You cannot be a Christian and a pluralist at the same time. But this is a culturally accepted concept. These viewpoints are opposed to traditional Christian faith.

I heard another say the church needs to be inclusive of all people and their behaviour. One person said we have to accept, within church leadership, people regardless of their culture, behaviour, whether they were gay or straight, immoral or people with HIV-Aids. Everyone agrees that such people are welcome in the church.

But they want to welcome into church leadership such people without any changes in their behaviour. The whole Biblical concept of being born again, of being saved from sin and of living a life of holiness, was ignored.

I have heard our culture is one of whatever anyone thinks or feels is valid for that person regardless of the Body of Christ as a community of faith. Their philosophy of individualism denies the discipline of the community and promotes as true whatever an individual may think or feel.

One church leader said we must accept the life-stories of people as basic for the way our church is ordered. What was important was their experience should be heard and become the basis of our church order. But the church's order and faith is under the authority, not of people's feelings and experience, but of Scripture.

There is a need today for Christians to stress Christianity as our key commitment not spirituality. We need to stress the uniqueness of our faith rather than the pluralism of others' beliefs.
We need to stress our openness to all other people without the acceptance of their standards of behaviour. We need to stress the sense of the church as a community rather than the priority of individualism. We need to stress the authority of Scripture rather than the authority of a life-story.


5. PROCLAIM THE FAITH OVER OUR CULTURE.

We come from distinctive cultural backgrounds and we must learn the difference between what stems from our cultural heritage and what is essential to our faith. What is essential will abide, and what is cultural may change. You may have grown up at a time when it was said you could not be saved unless you abstained from using make-up, avoided picture theatres, ball-room dancing and billiards! Other people add their own cultural ideas.

But there is a difference between faith and culture. We need to learn that lesson. We Christianise our culture. We take our behaviour patterns and baptise them, saying, "That is Christian." But there is a difference between what is essential to the faith and what is simply cultural.

When Paul entered the great cities of the Mediterranean world in the first century, he spoke to the citizens of each city understanding their culture. The early church faced the issue constantly as the Jewish culture tried to contaminate the essence of Christianity. They insisted Jewish cultural traditions had to be observed by Christians. This included having all baby boys circumcised, not eating shellfish and pork, and having all food kosher killed. When Christianity spread into the areas we today call Turkey, Greece and Rome it faced a new set of cultural demands.
This included the acceptance of slavery, Emperor worship and oaths of loyalty to the state. Paul had a clarity of vision when it came to seeing what was essentially Christian and what was merely a reflection of the culture of the times. We need Paul's clarity of vision today.

How wise of Paul, to adapt his message to the city in which he was speaking; to direct his address to the mind-set and philosophy of his hearers; to scratch them where they were itching. How much wiser is he than some contemporary church leaders! He refused to dilute the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the cultural traditions and standards of his day. He did not give away the essence of the Christian faith in the hope that compromise and change would increase their spirituality. Instead Paul stressed Jesus and the resurrection - the missionary gospel.

We must hold to the cohesion of Christian culture rather than dilute the faith with the passing trends of modern culture. We understand our culture and to speak to it. Like the Athenians, some will scoff at us; some will want to hear us some more; and some will believe. That's the response in the volatile city. But we have communicated the missionary Gospel to the city.

When I was a small child, my elderly grandmother lived with us. She lived in one room and my mother and we four children had the rest of the very small house. My father had died. I loved to go into my grandmother's room. All her photographs were on the wall. All the treasures she possessed were around her. There was a tiny fireplace and a rocking chair! She would sit and look into the fire. Over the fireplace there was an enormous portrait of Robert Burns.

A piece of heather stuck in the top of the fireplace had come from Scotland. There were pictures of moors and glens and heather-clad hills. There were stories about Edinburgh and its castle on the rock. I would crawl on to her knee and she would recite Scottish poetry. She longed for her home country, and for the heather hills. As she rocked with me she would say,

"Till all the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun,
I will love you yet, my dear,
While the sands of life do run."

It was forty years before I visited Scotland. But when I got out of the train at Edinburgh Railway Station, I knew it. I knew the sound of it, the colour of it, and the smell of it. As I stepped onto Edinburgh Railway Station, I knew where the stairs were, and what I would see when I walked into the open air. I knew where to look for the Castle, and for the Sir Walter Scott memorial. I knew where I could find a good hotel where my grandmother had stayed on her honeymoon with my grandfather. I felt I was at home.

I have never felt alone in the streets of the city. Jesus Christ has been there before me and He has made the city my home. He loves the city. He wept for the city. The missionary gospel to the city is of Jesus and His resurrection. I must take that message to the people of the city.

Wesley Mission, Sydney.