Ancient Athens is shimmering on the plain of Attica, all white under a hot Mediterranean summer sun, as it has done for millennia. Too bright for some. 'Could someone turn down the brightness', one traveler was heard to remark. Land of everything dramatic and democratic, of Pericles and Socrates, this week Greece faces the 'heat' of its European creditors. Greek mythology describes how Poseidon fought with Athene over the patronage of the city. The battle for Greece still rages, only now not with tridents but with taxes. Just as the Apostle Paul entered Athens when the city was in the late afternoon of her glory - the gods largely abandoned and the population reduced to a mere ten thousand - likewise we arrived in an Athens that by its graffitied buildings, begging citizenry and desperate protests, reveals the catastrophic pain of an economic emergency. Here we breathe the atmosphere of antiquity and austerity.
There is much to admire in Athens. The marbled Parthenon is pristine, the stately agora market and the welcoming people. A Christian however can never only be a tourist! When Paul walked around Athens and looked carefully at some of the thirty thousand statues lining the streets and filling the Parthenon dedicated to the goddess Athene, the world's greatest missionary in the capital of philosophy was greatly distressed by the idolatry. Behind the incredible artistry of scupltors like Phidias and the sophistry of her scholars, Paul detected spiritual ignorance. The Athenians were very religious but that is no virtue, for, Paul said, 'you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.' The Epicurean (eat, drink and be merry) and Stoic (self-sufficient) philosophers whom Paul met on Mars Hill needed that light Paul had seen blazing 'brighter than the sun' on the Damascus Road.
How to communicate Christ to skeptical intellectuals? The poet Emily Dickinson suggests,
'Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm Delight,
The Truth's superb surprise.'
Paul took Greece's brightest minds back to the beginning - to God the Creator and Sustainer, the Sovereign Seeker of sinners. With a mind tuned to Greek thought, Paul turned the poetry of Epimenides and Aratus to the advantage of Christian theology, respectfully exposing ancient deism and racism. Then came his punch line. New Testament preachers didn't hesitate to proclaim that the resurrection of Jesus proves that the Creator of all is also the Judge of all. Some sneered at these new ideas of resurrection and retribution. Others had their interest piqued to learn more from Paul. A few, like Dionysis and Damaris, repented and believed. And a few is never a failure in the kingdom of God.
Greece has a debt of 352 billion Euros. It can't pay. It won't be paid. Like Paul, Christians have a debt of love which must be paid. We can pay! Will we?
'I am in debt both to Greeks and non-Greeks..to the wise and the foolish. I am so eager to preach the gospel...I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile..' Romans 1:14-16