Scripture Reading: Acts 17:22-31
Does anyone recognize these two men? (image of two men sitting at a table) I’m quite confident that you don’t know them for one simple reason: they’ve never been a part of your lives. They’re not related to any of you. They don’t live in Adrian. They don’t work at any of the places we work. They don’t go to church here. They’re not friends of a friend of yours whom you met at a party out on Devils Lake last summer. You don’t know them because you’ve never met them or been introduced to them.
But someone knows them. They’re someone’s sons and brothers and fathers. They’re someone’s friends and co-workers. You may not know them, but that doesn’t mean they’re unknown. Someone in their worlds knows them. And that someone is me.
These are my cousins, Bob and Jim Wilson. Now, would it possible for you to come to know Bob and Jim? Certainly!= All it would take is an introduction. Were they to visit Adrian, I who know them could easily introduce them to you, and then you’d know them, too! It’s quite simple, actually.
If you think about, introductions are a vital part of human existence and interaction. We don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t only interact with people we know personally. In fact, we interact with people we don’t know all the time. The checkout person at the grocery store, the person who hands you your food at the drive-thru window, your bank teller, the Comcast customer service representative you talk to when your internet isn’t working, and so on.
But there are times when we need to move beyond just interacting with someone, and get to know them a bit more personally. And that’s when an introduction will take place. Often it’s a self-introduction. “Hi, I’m Drew Hart.” At other times a third party does the introduction. “I’d like you to meet my friend, Jenny. Jenny, this is my realtor, Joe.” It doesn’t matter who does it, just as long as introductions get done.
Why? Because human beings are designed to be in relationship with one another. We thrive when we’re in relationship with others. Being known by someone, and knowing someone else well is so important to our emotional and spiritual well-being. It has a major impact on our experience of life.
For example, many years ago my friend Brad and I made plan to spend a day at a nearby 6 Flags amusement park. At the last minute he got called into work.
But since I had the day off, and Caroline was going to work, I decided to go by myself. Big mistake! That’s the last time I’ll do that! I hit all the fun rides and roller coasters, but I had a terrible time. I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, and not a single one knew me. And I knew none of them. And my fun day ended up being a huge dud! Oh, the difference it makes being with someone you know.
For just a moment I’d like you to imagine that this church is like the 6 Flags park I attended. Every week most of you show up with someone you know – a spouse, child, or a friend. If you come alone, you’re probably sure that you’ll see someone you know when you get here. And so most of you sit with someone you know. And being here with someone you know – family or friend – makes the time spent here enjoyable and meaningful. Because there’s something about sharing a common experience with someone you know.
But put yourself in the shoes of someone who shows up here on a Sunday and doesn’t know anyone. Like me at 6 Flags. And just like I went on all the rides just like everyone else in the park, our guests also participate in the service alongside everyone else. They hear the announcements, sing the songs, pray the prayers, listen to the sermon, maybe even have coffee and cookies. On the surface, they’ve done the same thing the rest of us have done. But what do you suppose there experience will probably be if by the time they leave here they haven’t gotten to know a single person beyond a handshake and a friendly “good morning”? What if in the hour they’re here an introduction never takes place? Do you think they will leave here having enjoyed themselves like the rest of us? Do you think there’s much of a chance they’ll venture back the following week and give us another try?
Yesterday I attended a family wedding in Hudson. It was at a church where the narthex (that gathering area in the back of the sanctuary) can hold about 8 people. So we were lining up outside to come in and be escorted to our seats. As I was standing there I overheard the conversation of some young people right behind me. The groom’s name is Burke. One of the guys behind me, who I assume is a friend of Burke’s, asked a companion, “Is Burke religious?” To which one of them immediately responded, “Is anyone our age religious?” Hmmm, I thought, and continued my evesdropping. At some point in the short conversation the young woman in the group responded that she herself goes to church every week, but that she didn’t consider herself “religious.” Hmmm, I thought, I wonder what she means by that?
I know what I think when I hear the term “religious.” When I think about what it means to be “religious,” I think rules and regulations. Thou shalt’s and thou shalt not’s. In the church we’ve often called this “works righteousness.” Which means trying to be righteous, or holy, in God’s eyes by doing good things…by keeping all the rules. It’s an earned piety. And more often than not it results in become self-righteous.
Now, it may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that there’s no such thing as a self-righteous Christian. In fact, you can keep all the churchy rules you want, but that won’t make you a Christian any more than a pile of wood is a house. And that’s because the heart of Christianity is not rules, but relationship.
In fact, one might even argue that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. To be a Christian is to be in relationship with God in Jesus Christ. And to be in relationship means 1) being known by another and 2) knowing the other. Being known by God and knowing God.
Now, let’s apply this line of thinking to church life. Contrary to popular thinking, the church is not a building or place. The term “church” actually indicates a gathered group of people. In the NT, the English word “Church” is “ekklesia” in the Greek. Ekklesia means “assembly.” Church, then, is the assembled people. To say, “I’m going to church” really means “I’m going to meet up with a bunch of other Christians.” So, to be a part of the church really has nothing to do with membership in a particular denomination. It’s about being in relationship with other followers of Christ.
One of my favorite sayings is “there’s no such thing as a Christian in isolation.” By definition, a Christian is one’s who’s a part of the Body of Christ, the Church. You can practice your Christian acts of charity apart from other Christians, but in the truest sense of the word, you can’t BE a follower of Christ apart from being part of other followers of Christ. All this is to say – to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, means being in relationship with God and with other people.
In today’s reading from the book of Acts, Paul has been traveling throughout the countryside, and now finds himself in Athens. He notices that Athens is full of various idols dedicated to various religious gods. In fact, in a verse prior to our reading, Luke tells us that Paul was deeply troubled by the sheer number idols throughout the city.
After he’s been in the city for some days, teaching in their synagogues, he’s invited to address the city elders, all of whom are very open-minded about all things religious. They want to hear what he has to say about his god.
And so he begins: “People of Athens, I see that you are religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’” And then boldly proclaims, “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you,” and then goes on to tell them about God Almighty and eventually tells them about Jesus Christ, including his death and resurrection.
When he finished, some laughed, some scoffed, but some wanted to hear more. And then we read this in vs. 34: “But some joined him and became believers.”
This is no small thing. Paul introduced these people to their “unknown god” and made him known. And as a result, some of them came to faith in Jesus Christ. All because he took the time to do two important things:
- He developed new relationships with the people of Athens, people he didn’t know prior to arriving there.
- He introduced them to the God of Hebrew Scriptures, and to Jesus Christ.
In short, he introduced himself to them, and he introduced them to the true and living God.
In a very real sense, this is what our Sunday morning experience should look like. From the moment we arrive in this place we ought to be looking for opportunities to build relationships, and especially with those we don’t know. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
Here’s something each one of can do. If you’re standing in the narthex talking with a friend, and you happen to see someone you don’t recognize, assume they’re a guest here, politely break from your friends and go and introduce yourself to them. Then – and this is taking it to the next level – introduce them to someone else. You don’t have to fawn all over them, but it is very much in line with what our Christian faith is all about to take the time to get to know them a little bit.
The title of this sermon is “Who Do You Know and What Do You Believe.” My guess is that you’ve already connected the dots regarding the first part of the title, who do you know? You understand the intent of that question. But the second half – what do you believe? – may be a bit obscure. So let me make the connection for you: Do you believe that what I’ve been talking about is important to the well-being of our church? Do you believe that relationships are at the root of what it means to be and do church? What do you believe?
Friends, how can we introduce people to our God if we can’t introduce ourselves to other people? Being a Christian is all about being in relationship with Jesus Christ. Church – the gathered people – is all about being in relationship with each other. Let’s commit ourselves to doing everything within our power to make sure that no one who decides to give us a try has the same experience I did at 6 Flags. Let’s do what we can to make sure that no one leaves here on a Sunday remaining unknown by us, and instead, leaves here knowing a few new people and known a little bit by those same people.
And let’s do this starting . . . today!