The 2002 film, About A Boy (based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name) features two of the most interesting characters to cross paths. Will, played by Hugh Grant, and Marcus, played by (a young) Nicholas Hoult. Will and Marcus couldn’t be more different. Will is a bachelor living off the royalties of a hit Christmas song that his father wrote. And, Marcus is a young teenage boy living with a single mother whose mental health is an ongoing concern for him—and he’s far from being the most popular kid at school. Will’s whole life is centred around the idea that one can live a life disconnected from others. He openly mocks the John Donne quote, “No man is an island” as he attempts to create the perfect island-living existence. One free from worry. One lived at arm’s length from the rest of the world. The two cross paths when Will attempts to meet a woman while pretending to be a single Dad. When Marcus enters Will’s life it’s like an invasion (or a hostile takeover) of his island-living reality. There’s nothing he can do. The breakthrough moment—where Will steps off the island and enters the real world—comes at the end of the film. Marcus longs to bring happiness to his mother. And so, against all the advice of his peers (and at last minute, backstage warning from Will), he decides to sing his mother’s favourite song at the school talent show—Roberta Flack’s 1970s hit, Killing Me Softly. As Marcus stands on the stage and attempts to perform the tune, his peers begin to heckle him mercilessly. Midway through the song, Will steps out onto the stage with a guitar and begins to accompany him. They sing together and the crowd begins to turn… until Will (in this beautifully ridiculous way) turns the crowd against himself in an effort to make Marcus look better. It’s a beautiful moment—a teachable moment. Nick Hornby’s novel ends in a very different way. But this change for the screenplay is a good one.
When I read the passage from Acts 17, I couldn’t help but think of Will. Will is not the Apostle Paul. He’s kind of the antithesis of Paul. Until that stage moment. Just like Paul took a risk stepping onto the “stage” in Athens—facing an unfamiliar audience—Will chooses to take the risk of facing an unfamiliar crowd that may not have welcomed his presence.
Acts is an interesting book that attempts to tell the story of the early church. In the story, we hear of these encounters between the followers of Jesus and individuals and communities that serve as the audience for the gospel message of Jesus—people who are told about the way of Jesus. In some case, these crowds universally embrace the message and become followers. In other situations, the crowd rejects the message. This story from chapter 17 is one where we see a mixed reaction from the crowd—a few of them embrace Paul’s message and a good number reject it. The background to this story is fascinating. Paul is travelling through Athens—a place known by many as the intellectual centre of the world. He sees all these idols—these mixed and differing philosophies about life and human existence. He just can’t stay silent as he sees the conflicting messages in the city and wants to offer an alternative to the schools of thought found there. And so, he finds himself at the Areopagus (Mars Hill), a meeting place for the elite, educated leaders of the city. There he faces two differing schools of thought.
In the crowd are Epicureans and Stoics. These are the two different philosophical schools of thought that are dominant in Athens. The Epicureans believe that all of reality is made up of atoms. Tiny particles that make up the world around us. Life (existence) is just all these atoms moving around. Even the gods are made of these atoms. And, the gods… well they’re distant. They don’t really care about humankind. In light of all this, there’s really only one point in life—seek pleasure. You seek pleasure by avoiding pain. Many people would suggest that Epicureanism bears a striking resemblance to the modern phenomenon of materialism. Stoics had a different set of beliefs. They believed more in the unity of all the universe. God was not distant for them (like the Epicureans), but instead god was imminent in all things. “Stoics urged living in accord with nature… in order to achieve this goal, they advocated the importance of reason and self-control.”* One does not seek to avoid pain, one should seek to transcend pain—to control the emotions of life. Living a virtuous life, for them, came down to controlling one’s passions.**
And so, when Paul finds himself in the marketplace in Athens, he discovers these schools of thought. He sees all these idols dedicated to all the various gods (gods that for the most part had been forgotten or dismissed). The people of Athens believe that hold all the secrets of life and probably feel pretty confident that they’ve cracked the code of existence. While Paul can relate to some of these things and appreciate the value of some that he sees, he’s not all that impressed. For him, the Way of Jesus (the way that he has come to know) is a way that unlocks the doors to freedom, love, mercy, and so much more. So, when he’s invited to share his strange, foreign philosophy, he jumps at the chance and begins to connect with the people. Much like Marcus (in About A Boy) enters Will’s life and challenges his island-living reality, Paul steps out onto the stage and attempts to tell them that their life matters. There is this moment of worlds colliding.
The way of Jesus is not a way that seeks to simply find pleasure and make that the centre of our being. His way is not a way that attempts to solve all life’s problems by learning to “level out” the existence of life—reducing the up and down moments of existence. God is not only ONE, but God also cares about connection. God cares about our day to day living. Life has meaning and purpose. Paul speaks in the words of Jesus (speaks of the WAY of Jesus) and tells them that God is near. He says, “From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for, and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us—the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
In this passage, we see Paul doing what so many of us are reluctant to do—particularly those of us who identify with the progressive (or liberal) stream of the church. Paul is evangelizing. In doing this work, he’s showing us what it means to move away from the kind of living that seeks to keep our faith on an island. So many of us are reluctant to do evangelism. Why? Because it feels like doing door-to-door sales. We see the negative versions of evangelism (which is often a pushy, aggressive, and judgemental kind of conversion) and assume that that’s the only way to do it. But, look what Paul does. He’s not a greasy salesman in a cheap suit. Nor is he some smooth-talking, well-dressed snake oil salesman. He simply shares the good news with them and invites them to share in this new way of living. He shares the good news that he has discovered. The type of good news that proclaims, “Your life has meaning!” Think about that as a good news message. Paul tells the people at Mars Hill that there is a purpose to life. There is an arc within the universe that bends toward justice and peace—an arc that tells us who God is and what God values. Paul tells the people that there is more to life than living for ourselves or learning to find perfect balance within one’s own being. Just like Will hears that call and begins to realize that there is more to life than island living.
The work of the church is to discover this way and to not keep it contained within the walls of a building… OR isolated to a community of people (of insiders). We need to have the courage to step out onto that stage with Paul (with Jesus) and celebrate the Way of God that has purpose and meaning. We have Good News to share! The kind of good news that brings freedom and peace to creation. The kind of news that lifts up the broken-hearted and reminds them that love is at the centre of the universe. The kind of news that knows no limits and always has room for one more. Now, more than ever, the world is calling on us to share that good news. To offer an alternative to the systems of our world that say “Life is about climbing the ladder” OR “Life is about avoiding pain and seeking pleasure”. Instead, we can proclaim the good news of grace. The good news of equality and justice.
Author Bob Goff once wrote, “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I'm more afraid of succeeding at things that don't matter.” Paul reminds us (Will and Marcus remind us as well) that we need not fear failure. We only need to fear the kind of successes in life that really don’t matter. With love in our hearts—and a reckless commitment to grace and imperfection—let us step out onto that stage of life and sing that song of faith that God has taught us to sing. Amen.
*Harper Collins Study Bible Notes - Acts 17
**Thanks to Ryan Ahlgrim, pastor of First Mennonite Church, Richmond, Virginia for support on this text from ministrymatters.com
***From "Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World" by: Bob Goff (2012, Thomas Nelson)