Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To an Unknown God

Acts 17: 16-34

16While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-Worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, "What an amateur! What's he trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods." (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. "What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean." (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown God.' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands, 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, 'We are his offspring."
29Therefore, as God's offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead."

32When they heard about this resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, "We'll hear from you about this again." 33At that, Paul left the council. 34Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

The close of the Easter Season and the close of the Academic year often parallel each other, and this year is no exception. Around the country institutions of learning are celebrating the accomplishments of their graduates, faculty are awaiting their sabbatical leave even as they reach back to grade last term's papers and exams, and newly christened alumni listen with mildly bored expressions to commencement speakers who try in vain to teach one final lesson through the words of this poet or that philosopher.

And Paul, waiting for his companions, is deeply distressed to find the city of Athens flooded with idols.

Auditoriums swell with parental pride as the parade of graduates passes by to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." Churches hold special rituals to recognize the transitions that their youth are making from Youth Groups into whatever may be next. Students compare notes and final grades, celebrating triumph or commiserating about the teacher who "just didn't like me."

Paul talks to some philosophers who happen to be in the Athenian marketplace one day. They are unimpressed with his public speaking abilities, snickering to themselves even before he leaves earshot.

This time of year we see celebrations of graduations, as our brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, and sometimes parents and grandparents, are honored as learned ones. This amazing mind which God has given us allows us to stretch ourselves and discover more of the world around us, reaching for new understandings of creation, and seeking to know more about its creator.

Paul is taken into custody and brought to the council on Mars Hill. He's interrogated about this new teaching. They've surmised he is a proclaimer of foreign gods, telling him "You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean."

The philosophers of Athens are the height of pluralism, and our scripture passage points to why: they were after the newest thing. Their learnedness stemmed not from a quest for truth, but from wanting to push the boundaries of what the next big thought might be.

But no matter how big the newest trend might be, God is still bigger, and for all their philosophy and culture, the Athenians don't have a handle on the one true God.

It's human nature to try and make sense of the world. Though we catch glimpses of God's activity in creation, or in a still small voice, we cannot truly know the God whom we seek by our own insight. Since we cannot hold onto the vast greatness of God we carve him up into little earthly tokens, grasping only what pieces appeal to us, making idolatry out of God's glory. Or, as Anne Lamott put it, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do."

Once you've made that leap, as those who built the temples and idols that flooded the city of Athens, you're left with plenty of opportunities to pat yourself on the back for choosing the right combination of little gods. Then you can judge those who don't have their lives as together as you do. When they fail and you succeed, you can congratulate yourself for being so enlightened.

But Paul seems to have a different take on their broad swaths of enlightenment: "Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, 'People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an Unknown God,' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.'"

Perhaps this altar to an unknown God was meant to be an expression of hospitality, inviting those whose worship practices were not represented elsewhere in the town. Perhaps it was a sign that their pantheon was constantly expanding, an adoptive tolerance of all new things. I tend to think it was a confession that for all their being "very religious in every way" something was still missing which their wisdom and philosophy could not fill. There's innate human desire to seek our creator, and Paul points out that "God made the nations so they would seek him," even though we are stumbling around in the dark on our own. The Athenians sense that their pantheon is just a bundle of idols, leaving them unsatisfied because it lacks truth.

Their quest for novelty thinly veils their longing for truth, as though their whole culture is saying "perhaps the next new thing will bring us wholeness." It's easy, in such an unfocused world as first-century Athens, to lose trust when each new "truth" fails in turn.

After all, in a universe that is constantly expanding, how can we really know anything? Science empirically describes the laws of nature with a little more precision each day, Arts intersect with the human experience in a few more places each moment, but they just give us facts and shadows, which can only give us passing excitement, rather than assure us of truth. In a world like first-century Athens, we can recognize the tendency toward abandoning the trust in an absolute truth. Perhaps there is only "talking about or listening to the newest thing." Are the objects of worship in the Athenian Pantheon, or even all the world's religions just different paths toward the same spiritual goal? Some universally accessible unknown god?


This stranger, amateur, proclaimer-of-foreign-gods named Paul speaks into the maelstrom of our moral relativism with conviction that can only come with personal experiences of God: "What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you."

Because although humanity cannot grasp our infinite God on our own, God reveals himself to us. Scripture is one such revelation, preserved by the Holy Spirit in a form that is meant to be a unique and authoritative witness, through which God is revealed. The way we truly know God, though, is through Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

The place where we know Jesus best is in the crucifixion and resurrection. At the crucifixion, God shows us that death, even death on a cross, is not enough to separate us from the God who loves us. Jesus Christ descends into total separation from God, crying out "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" But such a separation cannot stand, and the power of sin and death is defeated for all time. Nothing will separate God from those whom he loves, and "God has given proof of this to everyone," Paul says, "by raising [Jesus] from the dead." No matter what else may happen, we trust that God has us firmly in hand, and will not let us go.

In a world that is so frequently unfocused as our own, where science and art redefine the boundaries of human thought daily, it is a great comfort to me to know that God is wholly reliable. The truth of God is certain, even if our perception of the world is not.

Paul frames his testimony of the risen Christ as a call to repent, to "change our hearts and lives" in this translation. But when the truth is revealed, how can we not turn away from the idol distractions of the marketplaces of Athens and dedicate our lives to glorifying God and enjoying him forever? Christ has established a new model for what it means to be a human being, one grounded in obedient faith and relentless love for God and our fellow humans.

That's the next new thing that Paul offers Athens: a life liberated from slavery to sin, an opportunity to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, and the assurance that we are redeemed by a God who loves us. It's a new life, but an ancient truth that was established from before the foundations of the world. It also means leaving behind the habits we built in "our ignorance of these things in times past." That's a tough thing for those who have benefited from those old habits to do. Chasing each new thing has made them famous, or wealthy, or powerful, the truth of God promises none of these things. As one commentator put it, "Novelty attracts their attention more quickly than truth."

While we are pursuing the new and shiny, the truth of God pursued us and claimed us as precious, and honored in God's sight. Where Paul saw an altar to an unknown God, we have come to know God through Christ. We can walk, therefore, in newness of life, instead of just chasing novelty.

So, in that newness of life, let us establish a pluralism that isn't based on the newest thing, but is grounded in truth. Let us build a tolerance that isn't based on permissiveness, but which flows through righteousness. We have a God who is known to us, we know that "In God we live, move, and exist", and we live in a world that is seeking God. If that's not a call to service, I don't know what is.

But something seems to be stopping us. It's possible that we don't entirely trust this new opportunity to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we are afraid that like Paul, we'll be mocked. Perhaps we're worried that if we share too much of this news we'll have to change ourselves. Compared to the cost of discipleship, it's certainly easier to dismiss others while celebrating our own achievement.

There's a lot of self-congratulation among the Athenian Philosophers who mock Paul for his simple mannerisms and strange ideas, and I think that is a temptation for the church as well. When we look at ourselves as the enlightened ones we look down on the "others," whomever they may be. Occasionally that means non-believers, but usually it means people whom we have decided worship in the wrong way, or who do church differently than we do. It's easy to say that this group is too quick to follow the new and trendy, or to say that group is too slow and stuck in their ways. Either way, we take a moment to celebrate that we are wiser and more aware of the "real world" than they.

By judging ourselves as superior to those on whom we shower our disdain, we are supplanting the true Judge - our Lord Jesus Christ - of whom we are called to be servants. Our task is not to judge the "unenlightened," but to love them, just as Christ first loved us.

Paul states that "God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed." But that should not give us anxiety. The man whom God has appointed to judge the world justly is Christ, who died for us, who rose for us, who reigns in power over us, and who prays for us.

The same one who judges us is also the one in whom we have our redemption. Though it will not make sense to any of our philosophies born of human observation, Christ's resurrection shows the truth of who God is.

Because the truth of God cannot be contained. The Roman Empire tried to crucify the truth, but Christ lives through the resurrection. "When the council of Mars Hill heard about this resurrection from the dead, some of them began to ridiculed Paul", and Lord knows God's petty people have found innumerable ways to misrepresent the truth over our history. But we know God is still active in the world, sometimes through us, sometimes in spite of us. Through all the hurt in our world and in our church, we do not seek "an unknown god." We pray to the God who is revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost is almost upon us, Easter season is coming to a close. Like the graduates commencing with the next chapter of their lives, we have been given the knowledge we need to begin. The only degree we need was conferred at our baptism. We are called to serve not because it's the next new thing but because it's who we are. Our identity is deeply rooted in the identity of Jesus Christ, who shows us what it means to be a human being. It's not enough to just say it in our buildings, we've got to get out and listen to the ways that our people are seeking God, and to find ways tell to them the truth that has set us free.

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