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5 December. Acts chapters 17-19
Paul is often held up as the example of a great evangelist, indeed one of the greatest orators, for he was able to be (as he writes elsewhere) “all things to all people”. Among Jews he argued as a rabbi using their scriptures (17:2,11); in the debating place among philosophers he used the dedication of an altar to an “unknown God” to start speaking of the true God who is invisible but knowable (17:23); he could quote secular poetry (17:28) as well as religious texts. Not only was he gifted in public speaking but he could work with individuals too, Romans (18:7) as well as Greeks; he could encourage individuals who only had a limited understanding of the faith but going deeper with them (19:1-7). He could also write complex theology in his letters. If that was not enough, he performed healing miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus, as Jesus had done himself (19:11-12)
But in all this he continued to face opposition from many quarters: from Jews who opposed him as a heretic, from Greeks who scoffed at his illogical claims of resurrection, and from Romans who thought Christianity a dangerous cult. There was opposition too from the idol-makers whose livelihood he had disrupted (19:21-40). These various groups seemed to be able to draw on a “rent-a-mob” who didn’t even know what they were supposed to be demonstrating about (19:32).
If Paul had been around today, I am sure that he would have experienced much the same. Religious conservatives, outspoken humanists and atheists, secular authorities who don’t know what to make of faith communities, powerful lobby groups with financial interests, and crowds of demonstrators – they are all still with us, and the ever-challenging message of the Gospel still attracts opposition from them all.
Paul would also undoubtedly have been a media presence. His Twitter account would have had millions of followers (and attracted trolls too). He would have been delighted to have been able to set down his theology in blog posts followed by thousands rather than letters to be heard by a few dozen. He could have argued with the Corinthians instantly by messenger apps, rather than exchange postal correspondence over a period of months. And no doubt would have been a popular contributor to “thought for the day” on Radio Athens and a controversial guest on chat shows.
But on the other hand, how long would such conversations endure? How much of what is spoken, blogged and tweeted today will be searchable even in ten years, let alone two thousand? The power and longevity of the written word – whether Paul’s letters, or Luke’s record of his travels, has meant that his writings and actions have endured down to this day as an inspiration and a challenge. Let’s hear it for @Paul_Tarsus.