16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
I have come to realize that I push back at many of Paul’s teachings to the church because I see so much of it emanating from distress – the distress described here at the start of today’s reading from Acts. Paul is forever distressed it seems to me and along with it, or perhaps the reasons for the distress, is a sense of urgency that final judgment was moments away.
I feel so little joy from him when he is proclaiming from the street corner. His way of proclaiming the good news reminds me of the negative coach – the coach that insists it is only by tearing down the player that he will be able to motivate them to greatness; that it is actually his responsibility to instill fear in the player and that this will tap into the player’s potential. The coaching method of a Bobby Knight vs a John Wooden, who couldn’t have approached his responsibility and coaching a player and team to greatness more differently.
In today’s reading Paul just sort of gives up on these educated folks and offers them his summary judgment that if they don’t repent, well, they will be sorry. A scare tactic, that’s what I so often feel from Paul.
In truth, it is not often that I end a scriptural reading from one of his teachings to the church – and he wrote primarily to the church, not individuals – without sifting it through his contextual lens. A lens that in the early years of his ministry was grounded in the belief that the end was at hand – literally within his lifetime.
I know better. I know that the Holy Spirit infused Paul’s ministry and his letters then and now. Just as I know the Holy Spirit is in the the historical novella, Esther, from which we read today; a fictional story within a historical framework intended to evidence the need for the oppressed to act shrewdly and boldly for justice to prevail. A story, mind you, that never mentions God. Hmm.
But I also believe it matters that Paul’s particularity – his lens – his context, even his theology, his coaching style, if you will, – is considered if we are to truly hear what the Spirit is saying to us and to God’s church.
This is the rub when it comes to many of Paul’s teachings. Most were directed to the church, not individuals, but today are held up as literal standards for individual Christian identity. And those, like today’s, that appeal to individuals are done so in the Bobby Knight way – you’re a wretch, you’re no good, you better turn to the God I know now or you’ll perish. The Wooden way was so very different.
And though nothing of what Paul judges of the Athenians, nor says to them is untrue, it’s a distressed, not joyful message that I would have had trouble responding to.
I suppose there is merit and intention in both ways – a Bobby Knight and a John Wooden, but under Bobby Knight I never would have found Jesus.