(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 17:16-34
We’re approaching the end of our journey through Acts (next week will be the final instalment before we start our journey through Advent), so we’re going to check in on the Jones family for one final time…
The Jones family, who we have encountered in Suffolk and the Cotswolds and can now recognise a Norma and Norman Jones at about ten paces, are to be found in every town and city. Toss a pebble into any crowd and you’ll be likely to irritate a Jones; just like the rest of us, they don’t take kindly to having pebbles lobbed at them.
There are Joneses who run shops and homes, work in factories, schools and hospitals; there are Joneses who claim Universal Credit and there are Joneses who bank at Coutts. There is a rich tapestry of Joneses to be found in all walks of life, just as there are Smiths, Johnsons and Patels. And for the most part, you wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from anyone else.
Except for one thing. And it’s quite a major thing, when you think about it.
Each and every Jones loves jargon. There’s nothing a Jones likes more than discovering a new and complex piece of terminology to explain something everyday and mundane and then adopt it as part of their standard vernacular. Take, for example, bellringing. Most people are aware of bellringing and bellringers, they may even know about Tower Captains. But a Jones will revel in terms such as campanology, tintinnalogia and Grandsire Bob. And for those of us who don’t know their headstock from their gudgeon, this can get a bit wearing.
Equally, there is nothing worse than inviting a Jones to a cheese and wine party (or cheese technology and oenology evening) as they will bang on about grapes, rind, and so on to such an extent that you will be tempted to stuff Stinking Bishop into your ears just to block out the sound. It’s not that they’re not interesting subjects, it’s just that the average Jones has an unenviable technique of making the most fascinating of subjects (i.e. cheese) into a total bore-fest.
And they never listen. Ask a Jones to bring their vocabulary down to a level that your average human being can understand and you will be forced to hear a lecture on the etymology and evolution of language from the Babylonians to Twitter. After about three sentences, none of which contain a word less than 3 syllables in length, you regret saying anything, start to make your excuses and make a swift exit.
Not that it seems to matter to your average Jones; after all, they’re hardly likely to be offended when they’ve had generations of identical responses to their linguistic legerdemain. It doesn’t make it any less annoying…
Aren’t you glad that the Apostle Paul isn’t a Jones? True, once you get down to reading his letters, there’s plenty in there that needs a certain amount of explaining and some of his more convoluted metaphors need interpreting, but that’s as much down to the distance between his culture and time and ours as anything else. After all, why not write about athletics when one is writing to one of the centres of sports in the ancient world (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)? It seems only when we see the world through Paul’s eyes do we get to see what he was really on about (though we’re still trying to work out precisely what or who was his “thorn”– 2 Corinthians 12:7).
And seeing the world through Paul’s eyes is precisely why today’s reading is so key to realising the frustration that I feel with the Joneses (and their ilk). Paul’s message for the Greeks didn’t change the essence of the Good News, but he certainly put it in terms that your average Athenian philosopher could relate to.
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t mention Jesus by name. He also doesn’t mention his own testimony, which has featured heavily in previous exchanges. This time, he’s speaking much more in the abstract; creation and creator are mentioned, and the whole course of human history is distilled down to a simple formula: God creates, humanity procreates, God recreates and will do so again. Even death is no obstacle.
This is philosophical Christianity, not a personal Gospel, nor one that sees a radical call to changed lives and living in a way that sees entire communities transformed. In response to this, your Greek philosopher can go “Well, at least they’re no longer an Unknown God” and get on with the daily grind of debating whether Aristotle or Socrates had the better dress sense. Those who wanted to find out more of what the “babbler” was saying would be able to while away the hours debating the possibility of resurrection (or not) with Paul until he upped sticks again for Corinth.
Such was life in Athens, where it is little wonder that the vacuum cleaner or games console wasn’t invented – both activities would have distracted from the love of wordplay and navel-gazing. So, Paul enters into this world, speaks their language, unpacks enough of the Gospel to make it palatable (or not – some Greeks are tough to satisfy) and then clears off for pastures new.
And here we have an early example of Gospel contextualisation (see, I can do big words as well). To fit the mood and culture of the society in which Paul found himself, he used words, images and phrases that resonated with those who listened. Of course, it was no guarantee of success, but it would have gone down a whole lot worse if Gentile ears had been assailed with stories from the annals of Jewish history and the promised Messiah (all true, but hardly relevant to those with a different story to tell).
There’s a fascinating book written by Father Vincent Donovan about his mission to the Masai during the 1960s and 70s, where he realises that in order for that tribe to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, he needs to understand how they see the world and for them to find the Gospel in their everyday. A key lesson for Father Donovan was in understanding the importance of stories to the tribe, taking the parables of Jesus and transferring them to the arid plains of eastern Africa. At the back of the book is a reimagining of the ancient Creeds of the church, using references that made absolute sense to the Masai:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.
Questions to ponder (and a challenge to consider)
- What do you understand is the core of the Christian faith?
- What words (including those in the Masai Creed) do we use in church but aren’t in common use beyond its walls?
- How important are they and how can we explain them if they can’t be left out?
- Big challenge – write a parable/story/creed using the world as you see it today (pandemic and all)
 Corinth was very close to the venue for the Isthmian Games, a biannual sporting event, second only in size to the Olympics in Athens.
 Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan (London: SCM Press [1978/1987]). I have a copy if someone wants to borrow it.
 Ibid. p200