Paul and the Intellectuals

Acts 17:29-34

Fellowship of Christians Biophysicists, San Antonio, TX, 4 March 2003

Hans-Jürgen Apell

I remember very well the first time I put a Christian poster on the wall above my desk in the lab shortly after I became a Christian. On this poster was a scenic river with trees against the sunset and it had a prayer printed on it which is said to be from Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me a tool of your peace.” I guess you will not believe how heavy such a poster can be if you want to move it from your home to the lab! I remembered well how I previously sneered at those “religious fools” and I was convinced that this was going to happen to me when I would bring that poster. Well, I cannot stand mocking when I am the target! But one day I gathered all my courage, went half-an-hour earlier to the lab when nobody would be there, took a couple of thumbtacks and posted that poster. And then I sat beneath the proclamation (“make me a tool of your peace”), ready to launch vitriolic verbal attacks against anybody who would dare to mock me.

I think that the Lord and his angels had a lot of fun watching me, because - do you know what happened? Nothing, absolutely nothing! People came in and either they did not realize that “obstacle” or they did not care or, maybe, they saw that little explosive mine sitting there ready to detonate. Anyway, all my fears of tribulation were completely in vain.

A few days later I noticed my colleagues looking at the poster, but when they saw me watching them they immediately focused on something else. That made me more bold, but if I remember correctly, quite a number of weeks went by, before I got the first chance to talk to somebody about the message of this poster.

During the next years I made a couple of interesting observations. First of all I realized that in Germany it is almost a taboo to talk about your faith and especially about Jesus among well-educated and intellectual people. You have to introduce that topic really skillfully not to trigger embarrassment in your listeners.

And if you succeed to make your faith the topic you almost can bet that the other person tries to exalt the talk up to a level of dignified philosophy or abstract theology where there is no need to reveal ones personal beliefs. I found that here in the States it is by orders of mag­nitude easier to witness your faith. You can talk about Jesus as you talk about the weather, but many times you will get indeed the same attention for both topics. But I appreciate it very much that I also met many people who were really interested in what I witnessed, although they were not Christians.

How can we understand what’s going on when we talk about our faith and about our Lord to people in academic institutions? Three weeks ago I had to think again about a chapter in the book of Acts, and that part helped me to understand quite a lot about a number of aspects of the interaction between believers and unbelieving intellectuals.

It’s in Acts, chapter 17, when Paul came to Athens. I could talk now all morning on what I understood, but I will restrict it to the three most important insights for me.

Probably most of you know what happened when Paul was in Athens, how he was deeply distressed to see the countless places of worship for the idols. He started talking to the citizens about Jesus and the resurrection. They thought he was proclaiming two new gods. This is an interesting point: “resurrection” is ”anastasis” in Greek. And the idea that a person should come back to life, and even to eternal life, was so way off for them that they could take this word “anastasis” only as the name of a goddess.

But since Paul was well-educated, intelligent and an eloquent person they realized that they had to check him out and so they brought him to the Areopagus where a board of wise old men would listen, inquire and make a decision whether this person and his talking has to be taken seriously (a kind of antique OSI).

Of course, Paul made good use of his chance to have all folks listening with full atten­tion. And the speech he delivered was really a masterpiece of talking to people about the true God! He met them in their real-life situation. He referred to what everybody saw and knew. And before my inner eyes I can see these old guys sitting on their high chairs, holding their chins and nodding approvingly to what they heard. I am sure that hardly anyone could object to Paul’s words. I guess they would have loved to listen to this learned man forever. But in this situation Paul had to change gears. And so I read to you how he did this.

Acts 17, 29-34

"29 Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the worldjudged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." 32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this." 33So Paul left them.34 But some of them joined him and became believ­ers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Don’t get on their nerves?

When I read the whole section on Paul’s stay in Athens (v. 16-34) I realized the striking similarity between that event almost 2000 years ago and what is happening in our academic society today: (v. 18) "And some of those who were supporters of the ‘mainstream philoso­phies’, had a meeting with him. And some said: What will this babbler say?" (v.21): "For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.

Sounds somehow familiar, doesn’t it? There are well accepted concepts of understand­ing of "life, universe and everything" and a lot of space in between to maintain your individuality, and, as long as you stay in that framework, everything is fine.

But watch out if you dare to criticize the established concept of understanding!

We had once an assistant professor on our faculty who was a creationist. As a decent member of this movement, he argued very carefully, making his claims only in the field of his expertise. But you should have heard the comments of our developmental biologists. That was almost a quote from v. 20: "May we know what this new teaching is which you present? For you bring some strange things to our ears..."

Not to agree in the field of the conception of the world rises in many people the feeling of a challenge against them. So, if you are a person loving harmony, you have to carry a motto in your mind or soul: "Don’t get on their nerves! "

But Paul gives us a first take-home message from that scripture: Don’t take care about their nerves, care about their lives!

He was ready to be pushed onto the Areopagus and our fate today wouldn’t be, by far, that bad. Well, they may ridicule you behind your back. So far I do not know one person who tried to do this in front of me. You may think that I am overbearing, but it is true: They are afraid! Because, and that I promise to you, if you are dedicated to honor God and not yourself, then the Lord takes care of your honor. Try it!

Don’t stay noncommittal!

You heard the verses I read from chapter 17. After Paul had spent enough words to show

them that he was familiar with their concepts of thinking, that he had read their books and could cite sayings of their thinkers, he took the next step. He chose an excellent way by just demonstrating to them that their own thoughts prompt the next step as soon as it becomes obvious.

When I reflect on my discussions with some colleagues then I have to confess that we had a lot of good conversations but there was never progress of the kind Jesus would love to see. And the reason? Maybe, I did not care, or I was a coward, or I was afraid that this shift would end the pleasant small talks we had.

I became aware of that problem (kind of painfully) when the Lord stopped me once in a kind of home run. At that time we lived in the same apartment block together with another biophysicist from our department. He was a hobby photographer, and I knew that he was looking for a specific zoom lens for his camera.

One night I read the newspaper and found an ad of a photo shop offering this lens at a terrific discount price. Since I knew that he did not read this newspaper I clipped out this ad and was on my way three floors up to his apartment. When I put my hand onto the door handle of our apartment, the Lord spoke to me. "Hans-Jürgen, it is almost 9 pm." "That’s right, Lord!" "Don’t you think it is too late to stir him up?" "No, he can save 50 bucks!" - "Well, when do you think, would be the right time to save his life?" That really smashed me! I turned around, went back to my chair and cried.

I am - and I think - we all are in a terrible danger to exchange numberless pleasantries with other people, and fail to understand that they may well lose their lives.

Paul’s second take-home message from Athens is: Don’t stay noncommittal! You may loose the sympathies of some people but you may help to save a life.

The Lord honored me by leading a technician in our department to Christ. That was the consequence of accepting the obligation to talk about Jesus. And even if this one person remains the only visible fruit of my being in our lab, it was and is worth all of the other trials.

The threefold reaction

When Paul went this one step further in his talk, and that happened when he came back to the main point, which these enlightened men in Athens weren’t prepared to accept, namely the resurrection of the dead, then a division happened. You can tell people for a long time what you believe about God and there is no problem, and then you come to one point (and you must!) where there is a challenge for them to rethink their own position, and immediately you will provoke exactly the same response that Luke reports in these verses.

That response happened already when Jesus was in Jerusalem. People liked the way he talked, they appreciated his wonders, they could imagine experiencing these wonders every day, but they did not necessarily change their minds. So Jesus provoked them (John 6,53): "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." And only a few verses later we read about the consequences: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him."

Here in our text we read: "32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this." 33 So Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers."

Some scoffed. - These are the people who sense exactly the challenge in their hearts, but they do not want to face the consequences, which probably will be uncomfortable in the view of their life so far. At the same time they do not want to lose face. So, the easiest way out is to scoff. Then I am fine and the other person will lose face. This is the first response to the Good News about Jesus.

The second group said: "We will hear you again about this." I tell you what: that is the same reaction in a polite form. Those people were not at all interested to change their mind. They sensed that there is something that would require a response but they were not willing to change. They want to keep some options open but remain without obligation. When I came in contact with such people they really said: "That’s interesting what you told me. I’m hearing it for the first time this way and I would love to talk to you again. But for today my time is up, I’m sorry." The next few times I met them they were a bit embarrassed, but after a few weeks the impetus was out of the whole affair and the contacts ‘normalized’ again.

But thanks to the Lord, there are also others! V. 34: "But some of them joined him and became believers." These are the people who form the third group. You see, they were not convinced and converted after that first part of Paul's message was delivered. Maybe, they were touched and worrying like the others, however, they wanted to know, and they found out.

"But some of them ..." In my case it is already one person in the university, the technician I already mentioned. So, it is worth telling them, challenging or luring them to take one step forward. Maybe, next week another person is ready, and I don’t want to miss that opportunity.

We have to realize that there are three types of responses, and a positive response was rare even when Paul tried, so don’t worry when your experience is not different.

33 So Paul left them.

Now I have one last, short thought. How do you feel when you talk with your colleagues, and they do not appreciate when you share from what is so precious to you? Do you feel bad? Or are you frustrated? Do you stick with them to reformulate your witness to convince them in the second, third or nth attempt?

I learned something very important from Paul. When you read the passage about Paul in Athens you can feel the excitement in the description, this being upset in this or that way. And then there is this single short verse 33 in which the stormy sea is completely calm, all is stilled: "So Paul left them." He had done what was his task, well, he had done it as far as they let him do it. And then he was assured in his heart that Jesus said: "It’s okay, the rest is their and my business, leave them behind!" And that was what he did.

When I understood this truth that was such a relief! So often I had the impression that I dropped the ball and had to try to get it back. And Jesus says: "Stop that! You did a good job. The only request I still have is that you repudiate your irritation and that you become ready for witnessing the next time."

Paul was under no pressure to succeed. He knew that the Lord had provided a chance, to him and to the people of Athens. He took advantage of it, and the rest was not his responsibility.

Success or failure?

Of course we want to be successful, and believe me, that is what Paul wanted, too. And suc­cess among intellectuals is not easy, just look at Paul in Athens! Therefore, we have to refer to the same basic principles the Apostle bore in his mind.

One is: In the eyes of the Lord the difference between success and failure is only whether you spoke or answered truthfully or not. Whether or not people accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior is not success, that is fruit! And it is not us who grow it.

And the other principle: Jesus loves all people, of course. But he is especially interested in the intellectuals, because among them there are more leaders, teachers and multipliers than elsewhere. And very often he has nobody else to reach out for them than you or me. So, if we want to please Jesus then there is no better way than to try to make contacts between him and them. And that’s our task and nothing else.

Hans-Jürgen Apell