Acts 17:15, 22-18:1
Psalm 148:1-2, 11-14
The sermon recorded today in the first reading is beautifully crafted. St. Paul makes his point so cogently. It is one of St. Paul’s greatest failures. In Athens, the birthplace of philosophy, Paul is unable to make much of an impression. Some laugh at him openly; others tell him to be quiet in a more polite fashion. Only a handful are converted.
After this sermon in Athens, the height of intellectual culture, Paul went to Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world. After failing with this sermon filled with wisdom, Paul claims that he resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. After very little success in Athens, Paul converts crowds in Corinth.
From the Athenians today we learn that sometimes wisdom can stand in the way of learning. So long as Paul spoke in a way that fit with Greek philosophy, the Athenians continue listening. As soon as he mentions an idea that Greek philosophy rejects, the resurrection from the dead, they decide that he is not worth listening to. In other words, the philosophers are glad to have Paul tell them what they already know, but as soon as their philosophy is challenged they are no longer interested.
How similar to modern religion, where we keep whatever parts of our religion seem right to us and reject what seems wrong! This is judging the Gospel rather than learning from it. Whichever teaching of Christianity is most opposed to what we already know is precisely the teaching we have the most to learn from. If we believe in the 90% of Christianity that we would have believed anyway, and reject the 10% which contradicts the wisdom of this world, we are not Christians. Christianity cannot be judged according to what we already know, what everybody already knows; our standard must be Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Which brings us to the other lesson we can learn from Paul’s experience in Athens. Apologetics is the art of expressing the faith in terms that the world can understand, but conversion comes by the power of the Holy Spirit. Apologetics can be useful after conversion, to help new Christians understand the faith, but conversion happens best when we preach nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.