Paul’s Education on the Reality of God
A sermon based on Acts 17:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, OH on May 24, 2017*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I read some interesting theological perspectives expressed by young children in letters to God. Here three of my favorites:
Dear God: Where does yesterday go? Do you have it? Stanley
Dear God: There was no clouds Saturday so I think I saw your feet. Did I really? Kenny.
Dear God: How come you only have ten rules and our school has millions? Joy 1
Adults can be funny about God too, like when columnist Art Hoppe asked: “If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex in the box?”
Adults can be funny about God in other ways too, like stuck on keeping God in the boxes they construct. I know that the scripture lesson I chose for this morning may seem odd on a Sunday celebrating education, but it is not only a Lectionary reading for today, it also serendipitiously has education layered into it. I consider that a Spirit driven happenstance so I went with it. The education part is there because Paul is in Athens at the very heart of the ancient world’s wisdom and education, schools and universities . . . and well . . . thinking. He stands before the Areopagus (air ee op a gus), a giant rock outcrop in Athens, and using the logic of the most educated of his day Paul demonstrates the nature of God. Paul’s lessons – his educating ancient thinkers on the realities of God– still apply. The simplest lesson being that all of the milestones and advancements in secular and religious education back then and those we are celebrating this morning, need not lead us away from understandings of God, but can – and should– lead us to greater understandings.
Not surprising, like most readings we do on Sundays, this lesson is about God. And it is one of my favorite and one you hear me often refer to. It’s simple and straight forward and very educational. What makes it likable and simple and straight forward is how Paul describes God in a poetic-cosmic-all-encompassing-everywhere- kind-of-way. God is not simply out there, but right here. God is not separate from creation but soaking it. Simply put God is the reality we exist in.
Paul even quotes Greek poetry about this nature of God. The Message paraphrases the poem “We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! But, the New Revised Standard Version has the translation of the poem I most often use “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” God’s what we exist in, move in, live in. It’s a simple lesson that children, youth and adults can all take in. God is all this reality. This universe we wake up to is all God. We are swimming in the divine. Like that old Palmolive commercial saying goes “You’re soaking in it.”
The beauty of this simple reality about the nature of God is that when we understand God as Paul does, as being what we “live and move in” then no argument can prove God does not exist, because existence is God. Certainly some may claim they do not name existence “God,” but that’s an argument based on words. It’s semantics, because existence cannot be denied. But it can be named and characterized. Which is where both religious and secular arguments come in in education at church and in schools.
Perhaps that sounds esoteric it need not. The simple child, youth and adult friendly lesson is that God is everything, all that is seen and unseen. In short, “we live and move and have our being” in God. God soaks us. God is all this is-ness we swim about it. That is fathomable.
What is unfathomable is that means God is as vast as all that is, What we know and what we don’t know. That’s huge. That’s ginormous! God’s here, out there, everywhere. Known and unknown. And the more education we have, the more we learn that there is vastly more unknown about the universe and our existence, than is known. Consequently the only way humans can accurately describe God – beyond being al of existence itself– is metaphorically and poetically.
And it is very important that we understand that the metaphor and the poetry is not God, only attempted descriptions of God with our little bits of human understanding. See when we get right down to it, our words about the full nature of God at best are metaphors of what is impossible to fully imagine, let alone describe. We cannot actually fathom or put into words or images God. God cannot be capture in statues or pictures or idols or words or other boxes adults construct. At best we can only say what our experiences of God are in-part likened to. As Paul puts it in our lesson:
“One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?”
Humans cannot come remotely close to fully representing our maker – God– in what we ourselves make whether it be art, music, science, education, or any other set of words or images– which means even poetry falls short. We ought not to think that anything mortals describe fully captures God. God cannot be boxed up in or between the leafs of pages – or in our education in church or in schools.
This includes not just classrooms but sermons and, I must add, the words of the Bible. The Bible contains some beautiful human expressions– a thousands of years old poem (if you will)– by multiple authors trying to verbalize God through description of divine experiences; but it is not and never was meant to be considered God. Nor was it ever intended to be considered the literal words of God or a graven image of God. What it is, is words of humans over time telling us as best they could how they felt experiences of God. Those metaphoric and poetic words can help us a bunch in our quest to understand and experience God, but the Bible is plainly not God.
See, in the end Paul is right, God cannot be put in any human box, be it art or science or words.
At the end of the day God is beyond our comprehension and ability to define. God is what God is.
The name given by God to Moses in the Book of Exodus is the best description of God that I know of. God in that story claims the name “I Am That I Am.” (Ex 3: 14). To those of us who claim to believe in God, that name is about the best that can actually be claimed about God as a whole. It’s as close to naming all of God as one can get. “I Am That I Am.” God will be what God will be. And we cannot do anything about it.
I find great joy in knowing that God is what God is and that humans have no control over it. No dictator, legislative body, politician, pastor, theologian or Bibilical author gets to decide what God is. There’s a lot of hope in that. No one can change the real nature of God. Not one bit. People try to rename and shape – change God– in classes at churches, in schools and in other educational settings.
We all know instances of those who make claims about knowing exactly what God is and what God wants. They invariably describe God in a box that fits their desires, their prejudices, their way of seeing things. So , the descriptions will vary. Some are simple, others complex, some interesting or moving and others quite sophisticated. Some we may like, others we may not.
In the May newsletter I wrote a note challenging notions about God in a book called The God Delusion, by an atheist Richard Dawkins. You can read my detailed comments in the newsletter, but I want to emphasize that I am not opposed to atheists per se. I believe that God simply desires us to believe in love and to love, and religion is a great and time honored way to lead us to do that– and I think it may be the best way for almost all humans. I base this on the empirical evidence that what is best for humans as we live and move and have our being in God is . . . love. If someone finds they can bring love into existence by not believing or naming reality as God, I do not think God’s concerned about it. God’s got no ego invested, God just wants love to prevail in our lives. God wants what is best for existence.
Conversely if reality– this existence– is what we are calling God, as Paul certainly seems to do, then no atheistic argument can make God go away for us. God is this is-ness we are in, and we are in it regardless of what we or anyone else names it. Jesus’ teachings support this . He clearly indicates that people get to the Reign of God by letting love prevail. For Jesus it is not about believing doctrines, but about loving others and being compassionate toward them.
Jesus’ teachings are ultimately about God’s pervasive all encompassing love prevailing in this existence. God reigns not by getting beliefs and doctrines right, but by fulfilling God’s desire for us to love all that is within God’s being, that is all of creation.
As I’ve pointed out before, the secular education notions of Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection can be understood as a part of that call to the love and bestness, because love is how humans best relate and survive. Humans do feel a call to be our best and to love. We can name that call as a part of living . . . a part of God. It’s God calling us to love. And it is answering that call, in relation to God in creation and others, that this religion, Christianity, and other religions too, are about.
Christianity can help – and has helped– humans get to love and our best in relationships. That is why I am a pastor, that is probably why most of us are here. That is why we bring our children and youth and ourselves to church to learn how to best relate to others and creation, to this reality that we live and move and have our being in . . .The reality we name God.
* Based in part of a sermon I wrote in 2011.
1. Hodgen, Michael, 1001 More Humorous Illustrations, p. 148
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