A Place Called Athens (6/28/15)

The Apostle Paul visited Athens and shared the good news that God has been made known through the person of Jesus Christ. What does it mean for our church to share this good news with the people of this placed called Athens?

Today’s reading comes from the book of Acts 17: 16-34.



I need to say straight up that normally I like to use the lectionary, which includes appointed scripture readings for each Sunday of the year, but today’s lectionary readings were just awful, to be quite honest.

The Old Testament reading was about a funeral song that David wrote about Saul and Jonathon. Cross that off.

The epistle reading was about money and giving. I think that one can wait.

And that left the Gospel reading that talked about people who were sick and hemorrhaging. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t feel the Lord leading me to any of these scriptures for my first Sunday with you.

So then I had to come up with my own scripture reading for this first Sunday. And that’s when I thought about this scripture from Acts 17, the scripture about the time when the Apostle Paul first arrived in Athens during one of his missionary journeys. Actually, Laura preached on this same text a couple of weeks ago, so maybe the Lord is trying to tell us something!

We’re told that Paul was alone when he arrived in Athens. He didn’t have the luxury of a caring congregation waiting to greet him. He didn’t have a beautiful church building that seats eight hundred people that would serve as his home base. He didn’t have a District Superintendent sending him encouraging text messages for his first sermon there. He didn’t have a loving wife by his side or a cute little dog named, Lulu.

No, it was just Paul all alone in this incredible place called Athens. Athens, the placed that was known as the greatest of all the city states. Athens had a reputation for having the best literature, the best poetry, the best drama, and the best schools. All the other city-states wanted to be like Athens.

Athens had the Acropolis, which included the famous Parthenon that served as the Temple of the goddess Athena. It was a very impressive place.

So I think it’s interesting that our scripture reading tells us that as Paul was there in the city, he became distressed. How could you be distressed in a city that offered so much culture, so much to do, and so many impressive places to see?

We’re told that Paul was distressed because there was also an emptiness in that great city. And Paul knew that it was an emptiness that could only be filled by the same God who had filled the emptiness in his own life.

It wasn’t until Paul had encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus, that he was able to realize what he had been missing. He had been missing out on the gift of true life that is offered to us through Jesus Christ.

This is why Paul was on a mission. This is why Paul arrived at a place called Athens. He wanted them to know that the God who they thought was unknown could be known in a personal way and was much closer to them than they had ever imagined.

I think that Paul’s reason for being in Athens might be the same reason we are in this city of Athens, Ohio. God has placed us in this unique and beautiful setting for an incredible purpose. We are here to share God’s love in this university community.

Penny and I met at Temple University in Philadelphia. We were in the same dorm building. She was on the second floor and my room was on the first floor by the stairwell.

Here’s how we met. Instead of opening the stairwell door one day, she opened my dorm room door by mistake. She still says that it was an accident, but I think she knew what she was doing.

So we ended up having a conversation there in my room and as we talked, we found out that we were both United Methodist. I told her about my church and she told me about her church. And from that point on, she fell madly in love with me and she has been adoring me ever since.

When we were at Temple, we got involved in a student ministry on campus and on Sundays, we attended a Presbyterian Church that was known for their outreach to the college students of the Philadelphia area.

Over a hundred of us would meet every week for Sunday School in the church basement known as the Catacombs and then we would go to the late worship service and sit as a group. It was wonderful to have that kind of Christian connection while we were away from our home churches. And it was through the encouragement of people in that college outreach that led me to respond to a calling to enter the pastoral ministry.

To make a long story short, Penny and I got married, moved to Ohio so that I could attend seminary, and we have served churches in Ohio ever since. Earlier this month, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.

Coming to Athens is bringing back all of these memories of when Penny and I met through that college ministry so many years ago. We have felt God’s guiding hand throughout this time of transition in our lives in moving from Lancaster to Athens. Here’s a quick list of some of these little signs from God.

This past January, we drove to Athens for the introduction meeting with the Leadership Team which was the same day as my birthday.

When we went to look at the parsonage, we noticed that it is located on a road named after the county where I grew up. And if that wasn’t enough, that road leads to a road named after my wife’s first name.

Another fun little coincidence is that we moved to Athens on June 8th which was on our 30th wedding anniversary.

So there you have it. God has led us to this place called Athens, and has given us all of these fun little signs along the way.

Paul was in Athens because he wanted the people of that city to know about a God who became known through the person of Jesus Christ. This was a God of resurrection and new life.  And we are here in this city of Athens to proclaim this same message of hope and good news.

Today happens to be a special anniversary day. Today is our daughter and son-in-law’s first wedding anniversary. They were married in my previous church. I didn’t have to officiate. I was able to enjoy being the father of the bride.

Two United Methodist pastors led the service. The one pastor was on staff with me at a previous church and so his family and our family became really good friends during those years. The other pastor was our son-in-law’s pastor when he was in High School.

During the wedding service, these two pastors offered a very creative combined sermon. The pastor who knew our daughter offered words of affirmation about her. And the pastor who knew our son-in-law offered words of affirmation about him. Each pastor took about five to seven minutes in sharing words of affirmation about the one that they knew.

I could tell it was meaningful because my niece who had traveled from out of state was sitting behind me and she was sobbing uncontrollably. Penny who was next to me kept grabbing her tissues.  I kept removing my glasses to wipe away the tears.

It was the most genuine and beautiful wedding sermon that I have ever heard. It was beautiful because both pastors knew the couple in a very personal way. They knew Naomi and Aaron’s unique gifts, strengths, passions, and idiosyncrasies. They also shared funny stories about them.

God is like that. God knows everything about us. God created us and is always seeking to be in a relationship with us. And God is always reaching out to affirm us and remind us of our gifts, our strengths, and our passions, and yes even the funny things that we have done.

This was Paul’s message to the people of Athens. God knows you. God loves you. God wants to be in a relationship with you. God is not far from you. God is closer than you think.

Today is also a special anniversary for another reason. Today is the birthday anniversary of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who was born in 1703. John Wesley believed that in any given moment you can have an assurance that you belong to God.

John Wesley is probably best known for his heart-warming experience when he was at a prayer meeting in London, England. It was during a time when Wesley was really struggling in his faith. But it was at that prayer meeting where he felt his heart strangely warmed and he was given an assurance that Christ had died for him.

We Methodists are known for our warm heart faith thanks to John Wesley. A warm heart faith reminds us that God loves us and knows us by name. God even knows that I go by “Robert” and not “Bob.”

This is what Paul wanted the people of Athens to know. He wanted them to know that there was a God who loved them and knows us by name. This was a God who had been made known to them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was a God who has been revealed to us in a personal way.

Actually, there are a lot of places like Athens where there are people whose best description of God is “unknown.”

Before we moved here, I was reading up on some demographic information about Athens. One of the statistics that really stood out for me was that only 22% of people have a religious affiliation. Just 22%! The national average is 50%.

That’s a lot of people in our community who are not part of a church family. This also means that there are a lot of opportunities for us to make connections with people in our community who presently don’t have a church home.

Brayden with Pastor Robert on the day of his Baptism.

Brayden with Pastor Robert on the day of his Baptism.

Four years ago, a church member called me to see if I could come and baptize Brayden, a seven year old boy in our community who she had been tutoring at his home. They didn’t have any church connection.

He was living with his grandmother who had primary custody because his mother was in jail for drug related issues and I’m still not sure whatever happened to his father.

Brayden had terminal cancer. And he knew that he was going to die.

Brayden told his family that he wanted to be baptized because in his words, if he was going to die, he wanted to know for sure that he would go to heaven.  And so I went to Brayden’s house.

Brayden was playing a video game when I arrived.  I could tell he was a little unsure of who this strange man was who came to visit him.  Even after I explained that I was a pastor of a United Methodist Church there in town and came to get to know him, he seemed a little cautious of me at first.

But all of that changed quickly when he started putting a puzzle together right there on his small living room floor.  Brandon surprised me by asking, “Hey, do you want to help me with this Spiderman puzzle?” After one puzzle, we began work on another one.

Family and friends had moved into the living room where we were working on the puzzle. Someone had filled a baking bowl with warm water. They brought the bowl over to me.

And I asked Brayden if he was ready to be baptized. All of the sudden, this talkative, quick-humored seven year old was speechless. A serious look came to his face and he nodded his head in agreement. Yes, he was ready. Oh, how he was ready!
I told Brayden a little about Jesus, how he had lived on this earth a long time ago calling people to follow him and how he helped people come to know God. And I said that he then died on a cross so that we can live with God forever and three days later God helped him to become alive again. I concluded the briefest sermon I have probably ever preached by saying that Jesus is alive and is present with us wherever we are.
     “Brayden, the reason we use this water for baptism, is to remind you that just as water helps us to get clean in a bath, God cleans us so that we can be with him forever.” After this brief baptism instruction, I felt ready to ask Brayden the big question,“Do you have any questions you want to ask me?” 
By the way he was concentrating on my every word and knowing that he was very smart for his age, I had a hunch that he probably had something to tell me. As he looked intently into my eyes for the next few seconds, he finally said to me, “I have to pee, first.”
I didn’t expect that particular comment in that sacred moment but that’s just who Brayden was.  Brayden was beyond his years. He knew to cut to the chase and how to dispense with long conversations. When he said he needed something, he just said it.
Brayden came back from the bathroom with a family member guiding him and after stumbling to the floor since he had some paralysis on one side, he sat back down and said, “I’m ready.”
     “Brayden, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  We all laid hands on young Brayden and I offered a prayer that he would always know that Jesus loved him and will always be there for him.
For the rest of my time in Brayden’s home, he stared intently at his lit baptism candle which included his name on it. He then spent time looking at a large cross which was another gift that our church had provided.

And then he sat on my lap and we continued to talk and celebrate his baptism. The next time I visited Brayden, his grandmother told me how much that baptism meant to him and how it had given him a sense of peace.

Brayden passed away four months after I had baptized him.  I officiated at his funeral service which was held at the church.  The day of his funeral marked the four-month anniversary of when I had first met Brayden and baptized him at his home.

The day before the funeral, I went to the visitation calling hours.  And next to his casket and proudly displayed on the wall was his baptism certificate.

Brayden and his family had no connection to any church, but we became his church. Brayden was able to know of a God who loved him and who would be with him forever. This made all the difference in the world for him.

Brayden’s story always reminds me of the main mission of the church. We are called to reach out to those who do not know of God’s love. We are called to share the good news of our faith.  We are called to be the church right here, in this place called Athens.


What a privilege it is for Penny and me to begin this new journey with you!