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Christ & Culture
a sermon based on Acts 17:22-31
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Fifty years ago a professor stood behind a lectern to deliver a talk. While some lectures offer seminarians a great opportunity for power naps, this one shook Christian leaders to the core. This was one of those rare moments that define people and events. The words were prophetic and the work was considered a classic, according to historian Martin E. Marty, "a work of genius that later culture must take into account."

H. Richard Niebuhr described in fresh categories the way Christians and the Church react toward culture. His book , Christ and Culture still mirrors much of how we react or respond to culture around us. Let me draw from the overview of his book.

Niebuhr describes five reactions/responses that Christiandom has historically taken toward culture. One of the reactions he calls, "Christ against Culture." That’s the either/or view. We just draw a line around the church to mark the "us" and the "them." Haven’t we encountered that mindset?

"Yeah, I can’t wait for all that stuff to happen that Tim LaHaye talks about in his books; I know I’m ready to go." "All of my kids go to a Christian school-why I wouldn’t send my kids to a public school if they paid me a million dollars." Christians like these listen to Christian music, support Christian businesses, read Christian books, and participate in Christian activities. It’s the choose ye this day mentality. We’re all too familiar with that version of Christian reaction.

Niebuhr, however, goes on to suggest several other possibilities that include such responses as the Christ of Culture, the Christ above Culture, and Christ in tension with Culture. In his final category-Christ the transformer of Culture-he suggests that some Christians become cultural Christians; they’re more positive and hopeful toward culture-such Christians can affirm creation yet have the conviction we need redeeming; they they can embrace a view of history that includes an interaction between God and humanity.

Throughout his work, Niebuhr continually raises the question that we must increasingly ask: how well are we engaging our friends outside the Church? How well do we interact with the culture around us? How culturally relevant are we?

In Acts 17, we’re back in the lecture hall sitting among Athen’s noble thinkers and philosophers. Luke makes it a point to tell us where we are so that we are keenly aware that we’re any place but in church. "You’re out there in culture," he might have quipped, "away from the preludes and Gloria Patris." So here we are this morning among people who frame life much differently many of whom honestly seek for truth and salvation. The place is Athens, the philosophy capital of the ancient world and the exact lecture room is the Areopagus better known as "Mar’s Hill."

These pre-Christians-including Stoics and Epicureans-have invited Paul to tell of his philosophic system called "Christian." We’re not sure whether Paul actually wrote this sermon-maybe he hocked it off the internet-but don’t be concerned about authorship. What’s really important is that we have in our hands evidence of how Christians engaged the culture around them.

What would you have done in this situation? What if you’d come to Athens for one of those Christian conferences mixed with sightseeing and the next thing you know, someone is introducing you as a "spokesperson for this new philosophy called Christianity." How would you begin? (About that time, you might kick yourself for having slept through most of Philosophy 101 and taking Racketball instead of World Religions.) Your task: to present the Christian faith in culturally appropriate words that pre-Christian people will understand.

What’s amazing to me is what Paul doesn’t include. We have a Jewish man immersed in Jewish culture, speaking the Jewish language, an expert in Jewish Law, someone with a history of intolerance to any deviation of Jewish beliefs suddenly sounding cosmopolitan and Gentile!

Remember the "Where’s Waldo" series? Well, applied to Paul’s sermon we might ask where’s the usual Hebrew quotations from the Psalms or Isaiah? He doesn’t use a single biblical quotation! And where’s the Hebrew titles for Jesus, say, Messiah or God’s Son, or Lord? It’s not there! And what about the proof texts-the "this is that" stuff that corroborates Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection with fulfillment passages? They’re missing too.

Equally amazing is what Paul does include. What’s in: quotations from the Greek poets. Paul quotes from their literature: "For in you we live and move and have our being" (Epimenides) ". . . for we are his offspring" (Aratus). Paul also begins the homily with a felt need: ("I see how extremely religious you are . . .") and then he moves from felt need to the gospel ("what you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you . . . ")

Richard Niebuhr reminds us that there is a culture out there very different from our faith culture and Paul reminds us that our mission as Christians is to engage that culture in a way that enables people to understand and be saved by the Good News.

"Well, we preach the gospel every Sunday so what’s the problem?" Our problem may be that we’ve forgotten how to engage the Mar’s Hill crowd-like Dave and Jennifer. They’re sitting home one night and suddenly Dave says, "Hey Jen, let’s go to church tomorrow, okay?" "Sure," she says. She thinks, "Oh, Dave’s on one of his find-something-worth-living-for quests." He had tried football, the wild side of life, astrology, New Age and nude therapy. Every idol had promised more than it delivered. Somewhere in his head, he’d heard something like, "if you’ve tried everything else, try God." So where else to try God than in church on a Sunday.

So Jennifer and Dave thumb through the yellow pages amazed at the options.

The experienced of _______ service was bizarre. The music, the liturgy, the language, and the whole ethos reeked of the 1950s-an era when kids entered yo-yo tournaments, when Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball dominated America’s black-and-white television sets, when people drove Studebakers . . . . and the Volkswagen Beetle was new in America. Jennifer noted the coats, but no Bibles.

Dave and Jennifer pursue their look-for-God-in-church search through half a dozen churches, but in the end what they experience is "culture-barrier."

There are traditional churches around the country that have kept much of their European Christian worship and are thriving. But the number crunchers and reports tell us that they are the exceptions, not the rule. So while Hunter may be caricaturing traditional worship styles, forms, and liturgy, behind his critique is a deep and passionate charge to congregations to evaluate how their worship impacts the pre-Christian culture. And he’s not alone.

Walt Kalestad, pastor of The Community of Joy Lutheran Church also shares a growing concern for traditional churches to "exegete" their culture so that they can better connect pre-Christian persons to God. In 1990 he wrote, "It is time for the Christian church to become serious about penetrating the heart of the culture with the heart of the gospel . . . Sure, much of our traditional heritage has meaning and value-but only to those have been indoctrinated to it." Remarkably, this community of faith in the past decade has continued to lower the "cringe factor" and now offer their community a variety of worship services including-two traditional, one "country," and two "adult contemporary." More importantly, this congregation doesn’t just show big numbers for Sunday morning worship, but now have over 1,200 people show up to pray during the week-many of whom were pre-Christians out there, outside, and away from church.

Luke throughout the book of Acts reminds us that our mission must include two parts-to communicate the Christian faith to the swelling numbers of people who do not yet believe or follow Christ and then to offer ways in which they can become established and grow in their faith. But how?

There are probably as many answers as there are churches. In fact, maybe there are too many answers, too many seminars, and too many books and too many "success" churches quite willing to sell their success. But we all know deep down inside the difference between technique and the basics of our Christian life. The answers may be no further than the Christian disciplines that have nourished people throughout the ages: honest, soul-searching prayer, fervent fasting until we do gain a renewed passion for pre-Christian people; Scripture, hospitality, and to add Luke’s "answer"-to exegete the culture around us as Paul demonstrates in Acts 17. Know thyself. Know thy God. Know thy culture.

Let me turn the tables and allow our culture to exegete we Christians and congregations for a moment. Remember that one scene from Sister Act? Whoopie Goldberg is a nightclub performer hiding out in convent, disguised as a nun. She’s the new choir director and is about to direct the choir for the first time. The priest intones, "We are a small congregation this morning. Too many mornings. Something has gone terribly wrong. Where is faith? Where is celebration? Where is everyone?

As though an answer to the priest’s plea, Whoopi directs the choir of nuns in the most jazzed up version of "Hail, Holy Queen" this side of heaven. With this new energy and style and spontaneity people in the street hear the music and come into the church. Not only that but the nuns have a baptism into their culture; they now seek to serve the people outside their congregation, so they develop a day care center, a food kitchen, and talk and laugh and pray with the culture around them.

In perhaps the most poignant moment in the movie, there is an exchange between Whoopi and Mother Superior following the first service that Whoopi serves as choir director.

Mother Superior: "Boogie Woogie on the piano? What were you thinking?"

Whoopi: "I was thinking more like Vegas; you know, get some butts in the seats."

Mother Superior: "And what next? Popcorn? Curtain calls? This is not a theater or a casino."

Whoopi: "Yeah, but that’s the problem see. People like going to theaters, and they like going to casinos. But they don’t like coming to church. Why Because it’s a drag. But we could change all that see. We could pack this joint."

Mother Superior: "Through blasphemy? You have corrupted the entire choir!"

The priest overhearing the conversation draws deep from his own pastoral politics: Reverend Mother, I just wanted to congratulate you. I haven’t enjoyed mass this much in years. What a marvelous program-innovative, inspiring-you are to be commended. I can’t wait until next Sunday when the choir performs again. Did you see the people walk right in from the street? That music, that heavenly music! Reverend Mother, it called to them."

She replies: "It . . . . it did?" Amen.