Monday, January 18, 2010

The Acropolis and the Mission of the Church

Yeah, I know, weird title. A few months ago - early September 2009, to be exact - I finally got to study for a while in Greece. I remember seeing Athens for the first time, walking through the streets of such a famous historical city. I can't remember, though, whether it was that day or the next or the one after that, but I'm pretty sure I remember when I first saw it. The sight everybody wants to see when they go there. The Acropolis. I stopped there on the sidewalk, gazed at it for a while, took a picture or two, I think. I mean, there it was. The Acropolis. And as I stood there thinking about it, a familiar sentence floated across my mind...

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden."

It's from Matthew 5:14, of course. Jesus was giving his famous Sermon on the Mount. He was talking to his followers, his disciples, about the role he wanted them to play, as his people, in society, no matter where they went. All that stuff about salt and light, and a city on a hilltop.

Back in those times, people were pretty picky about where they wanted to build cities. Many ancient cities were situated on one or more hills, so that they'd be higher in elevation than the surrounding area. Jerusalem was built that way; that's why the Bible talks so much about "Mount Zion". And that's no doubt the image that Jesus wanted his followers to get. When he talked about a city on a hilltop, that was the one they'd be most familiar with. But other cities were built like that, too. The word "acropolis" literally means "city on the edge", more or less, but it was used to refer to the original part of the city that was especially high, the "highest city". Athens is built that way. So is Corinth, for that matter. I remember standing on the Acrocorinth, looking for miles across both land and sea. In Italy, Rome was famously built on seven hills, so it isn't just a Greek and Jewish thing.

But Greece is where I got to experience living in the shadow of a place like that. The Athenian acropolis is the one I got to know. And I learned a lot from it. Here's one of those pictures I mentioned:

For starters, the Acropolis is a major landmark. It's not just a landmark, it's basically the landmark. (Well, alright, Mt. Lycabettus has some claim to that, too.) And despite all the buildings in Athens, one of the best ways to get your bearings is to catch a glimpse of the Acropolis. Once you've done that, you can find your way around with much greater ease. At night, it can be easy to get disoriented, but fortunately the Acropolis is lit up all throughout the night. I wish I'd thought to take a good picture of it in the dark.

The point, though, is this. If you're lost, you can always look to the Acropolis to help you find your way. It shines in the darkness; no matter how dark things get, there's still light at the Acropolis. It's a beacon to weary, confused travelers. It's stood the test of time and will continue to stand. And - at least before the advent of buildings like we have today - there's no way to hide the Acropolis from view. Look in its direction, and you can't possibly miss it. There's no confusing the Acropolis for another landmark, not when you see its distinguishing marks (e.g., the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, for Athens).

What if the church - you know, we Christian folk - were really like that? What if anyone who were lost could look to us and figure out where they stand? What if we really were a reliable landmark like that? And what if we really did shine brighter and brighter, even in the darkest hour? What if we were as steadfast as the Parthenon? What if there were just no hiding us? What if we couldn't be confused with everything around us? (After all, you can't navigate by landmarks very well if you mix them up! The same seems true in spiritual things.)

We haven't always lived up to that too well. But we were meant to. It's our challenge and our mission. Can we, both as a church and as individual Christians, live like the Acropolis? Will we be the shining city set on a hill that Jesus called us to be? If we've been "rescued [...] from the dominion of darkness" to inherit "the kingdom of light" (Colossians 1:12-13) and are therefore now "children of light" (Ephesians 5:8), why don't we "shine like stars in the world" (Philippians 2:15)? Why aren't we a rock-solid landmark helping people find their way to God?

Well, sometimes we are. Sometimes we do shine, and sometimes we are a good reference point. But we're still frail, still subject to sin, still all over the map. We do ungodly things, go our own way, and just generally mess things up. Still, we also have to confess that we haven't done our best, haven't given this whole 'city-on-a-hill' thing our A-game. I certainly haven't.

But I'm resolving to do better. I'm resolving to do my part, be it meagre or be it large, to live up to Jesus' charge to his followers. That means making myself a walking, living, breathing acropolis--an unhidden, unmistakable, unambiguous landmark to help the lost find their way, even in days of dire darkness.

It won't be easy. I know I'll err, I'll waver, I'll crumble or hide from time to time. The lights will flicker, I'm sure. But if I'm not striving after this 'city-on-a-hill' life, then I'm not being as faithful a disciple as I want to be, need to be.

Will you join me?