Scripture: Acts 17:22-31
This scene from Acts makes me think of many classic teaching scenes - with all the teachers in our congregation, I know many of you will appreciate this. (Side note: big shout out and hugs to all our teachers - you are working through some weird times right now.)
The scene goes, though, where a teacher, new to the class (be it the start of a year or a substitute or whatever) starts a lesson. The teacher excitedly puts up notes or charts, jumping right into the lesson….and crickets. Students have confused looks on their faces; they’re looking around at each other with expressions of “who is this person and what strange language are they speaking?” There’s a major disconnect with what the teacher assumed the students knew….and what they actually know.
Time to reset.
In our story from Acts today, that’s a bit what Paul had to do. This is the point in our biblical timeline after Jesus’ death and resurrection; the early church was getting going; and Paul was trying to spread that good news. Here, he finds himself in Athens, not Jerusalem - among Greeks, not Hebrews - in the Areopagus/similar to a court, not a religious temple/synagogue. This is foreign territory. “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore!”
In the verses before our story we know that Paul had been trying to teach in town about Jesus and a bunch of local people were arguing with him, so they brought him to the court, the Areopagus, to ask “what are you talking about? You’re using names for God and other phrases that mean nothing to us.” This was like their town center where all great discussions took place. Their classroom.
Paul, as a good teacher would do, takes a step back, reassesses the situation, takes a deep breath, doesn’t shame the people, finds the common ground, and even uses some of their language (v.28 says “even one of your own poets said...we too are his offspring.”).
He meets the people where they are. From there, he can build the relationship and their understanding of God “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Paul sets a beautiful model for sharing Jesus’ message.
You could argue, though, that really Paul was going off of God’s model. After all, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, what we may know as the Old Testament, God meets the people repeatedly where they are.
“Oh, you operate under tribal laws and royal figures, let’s set some of those up and then build from there.”
“Oh, you’re trying to escape delivering a prophetic message to a town, let’s hide you away in a whale for 3 days, reassess, and then build from there.”
“Oh, you recognize the Divine’s power through nature’s miracles, we can work with some burning bushes and parted seas.”
Repeatedly in the Bible, we see a message of meeting people wherever they are on life’s journey (just like we say at the start of every worship) and then moving toward a closer realization of God’s kingdom. The people aren’t left alone to not change, but there is a recognition of a starting point and an end goal.
God does this for us and so, too, we can do this for others.
God does this for us by meeting us wherever we are on our spiritual journeys. Wherever you are in your journey right now, today, God meets you there. How awesome is that! God doesn’t intend for you to stay there, but there should not be a shame of wherever you are. Depending on personalities, some of us tend to get discouraged not feeling like we are at the end goal...instead, reflect back on how far you have come and celebrate that!
...we can do this for others...Meeting people where they are and then building from there is a model that we can apply, not just in specifically sharing God’s love, but in a whole host of situations. In doing so, we will model sharing God’s love.
What are all the situations where we may find ourselves needing to meet a person where they are at?
Of course, when thinking of talking with a person about spirituality, we need to remember that people are raised in different households and have different life experiences. It’s better to ask them questions so that we have a better understanding of who they are, and I bet there are many things we have in common.
Other situations where we may need to “meet someone where they are”...
How about how a person spends their money? In our Just Faith series that has now ended, it was a revelation to me to realize different cultures and households are taught different mindsets on spending money. Where one person may think “I have $100, I should save this for when I really need it,” another person may think “I have $100, I should spend this now because I might not have it again later.”
How about parents who are home a LOT with young kiddos these days? I had a friend share with me recently how her child was showing some really aggressive behaviors - she met them where they were, talked it out, and found out they were both really stressed due to being so restricted.
How about right now - talking about wearing face masks or wanting businesses, churches, stores to reopen. (I wear a bandana mask when out in public, for others’ safety.) Even in our own congregation we have a wide range of opinions. If you’re getting frustrated in a conversation with someone over this topic, I bet that, in most cases, underneath there is a shared concern for providing for families and/or getting much needed emotional and social support.
We can meet people where they are and try building from there.
The end result of Paul’s teachable moment wasn’t actually a huge success, if you’re counting numbers. (sorry - spoiler alert, a bit anticlimactic) It also wasn’t a failure. The Scripture doesn’t say “and all were amazed at his teaching and immediately followed Jesus’ ways!”
Scripture does say, though, that one prominent man from the court converted, a woman named Damaris, and “others.” So, not all, but some, and that does make a difference.
It didn’t stop Paul from sharing the joy he found in God’s message through Jesus.
It’s easy to get discouraged when we try so hard to share our values or beliefs with others. I know from many, many conversations with people in the congregation that getting frustrated with family members over differing beliefs is common.
I still encourage you, encourage us all, to meet people where they are - understand why they think what they do, and move forward from there. Every encounter won’t be a success, but I do believe it follows the Christ model.