Pope Francis has again done something that is both very smart and very faithful to the Gospel. On his trip to Jordan, the Palestinian territory, and Israel, he is taking along two longtime friends from Argentina: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud, a Jew and a Muslim. These are not people that the Vatican’s public relations department found for him. In fact, the official word out of the Vatican sounds a little embarrassed by the Pope’s ability to complicate things, to do things differently, and even to expose Christianity to others—even others who may find primary truth and meaning elsewhere. But the Pope is following St. Paul, who of course, is simply following the way of Jesus.
Paul is preaching in today’s Epistle, but the context for his message is as important as the message. He’s at Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill), in Athens. It was a great place of meeting. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another.
Many different gods, many different philosophies, all came together there. But notice how Paul preaches. It’s very unlike most of his preaching elsewhere. In other places, Paul draws on the long tradition of Judaism, showing how Jesus fulfills the traditions and hopes of Judaism. But he knows this won’t play well in Greece. There in Athens, while people might know a good bit about Judaism, it isn’t infused into their lives the way it might be elsewhere. Here, Paul needs to speak in a way that is more familiar and accessible to his audience.
To vastly oversimplify what Paul is doing, we could say that he does at least three things: he listens, he looks, and he loves. He listens to those in front of him, he looks for connections, and he loves them as children of God.
Paul listens. He listens enough to know what people believe. He admires their religious beliefs. He notices that they had a shrine to an unknown god. And though many people feel as though Paul is making fun of them here, I wonder. I wonder if he isn’t simply engaging them and inviting them to see his point of view.
Paul looks for connections and finds them in the beliefs they can all hold in common, in their questioning, in their seeking the truth and looking for God.
Paul loves his audience. Having listened to the Athenians, and having made some connections with them, Paul moves on to be able to offer them his own understanding of the love of God. Still showing them respect, resisting the urge to belittle or discredit the beliefs they already hold, Paul uses what they believe to link them to the love of God. It’s not a mushy, personal affection that Paul feels with the individuals there. Instead, it’s a realization that each one is made in the image of God, and God loves each person as God’s very own daughter or son. And so Paul offers them the sense he has of God’s love and presence. And in the presence of God’s love, there is room to grow.
This threefold way of relating to people is something we all might try from time to time, not only with those who are different from us, but perhaps and even especially with those who are similar but with whom we have trouble communicating or relating.
First there is the opportunity for listening. Listening means not talking, not judging, not assuming we know the mind and heart of the other, but really allowing there to be space. Had Paul approached the Athenians with his own agenda, assuming that they were hell-bound pagans who didn’t have much of a belief system at all, his audience would have sense this, and they would not have listened.
Second, there’s the chance for looking. In her book, An Altar in the Word: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “Many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do” (p. 6). We can look for connections, for something in common. We can do this even when we are angry with another person or disagree in an almost violent way. If we’re able truly to listen, surely there is something we can find in common, something we share, something we understand in a similar way.
And finally, even when we’re sitting across from someone we genuinely may not like, or not understand; we can envision that person in the presence of God. We can ask God to love this person, even when we’re unable to.
This is hard stuff, this relating to others as though they really are children of God, but it’s what we’re all called to do, not just famous Christians like apostles and popes, but each one of us.
Christ promises us help. “If you love me,” he says, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Jesus knows that it’s hard work listening to others, looking for what’s in common, and really loving others as children of God, but Christ promises we’re not on our own in this. He is with us- through the power of the Holy Spirit, who encourages, strengthens, and fills us with all spiritual gifts.
Saint Paul had a dramatic setting for engaging people who were different from himself. For most of us, that setting is less dramatic though just as difficult. It involves our family, our coworkers, and our fellow parishioners. As we move toward the Feast of Pentecost, may we be open to this Spirit of Christ to help us listen, connect and love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.