The Unknown God Is Known
A sermon based on Acts 17:22-31
Given at Mount Vernon Ohio on May 17, 2020*
By Rev. Scott Elliott
One of the first words in today’s Lectionary reading from Acts is Areopagus. A word that is easy to stumble on. It’s the name of an open air place just outside of Athens where a local council heard debates and issued verdicts. Paul was there to argue that the Christian teachings he brought to Athens were grounded in intellectual concepts and authority. In the Greek tradition of validating religious claims in such a debate Paul needed to demonstrate (1) that he represented a deity, (2) that the deity wished to reside in Athens and (3) that the deity’s residence in Athens would benefit Athenians. The Lectionary starts today’s reading with Paul making this demonstration. Paul starts by cleverly introducing himself as an authorized representative of a deity the council had already heard of, and even had a shrine to in Athens, “the unknown God.”
Paul asserted he could make “the unknown God” known to them; that the unknown God is the One who made all of creation; and that this God transcended residence in shrines like those in Athens and therefore required no Athenian residence. Paul also pointed out that this deity was not seeking admission into the Pantheon –because this God was already everywhere. Paul notes that what this One God sought, was for humanity to seek God– this One God who was as close as wherever a person could be. Like the Greek poets had claimed, Paul pointed out that in God “we live and move and have our being,” AND that not only was God as close as where every person was, but, that every person was God’s very own offspring!
The Lectionary cutting ends with Paul claiming God wanted humans to change their ways – to repent– so that they could be judged in righteousness through the one whom God raised from the dead . . . meaning, of course, Jesus the Christ. 1 If we read past the Lectionary cutting on to verses 32 to 34 we learn that the debate ends with some of the council scoffing at Paul and the resurrection of the dead; some wishing to hear more; and some who “joined [Paul] and became believers.”
I have to confess that I used to not like Paul. I was a modern day scoffer. I heard – out-of-context– Paul’s letters, mostly those falsely attributed to him, and considered him to be very sexist and homophobic and so unjust and unloving. I thought of him as a zealous narrow-minded Christian, someone I was sure I would never have anything in common with, let alone like. However, I must confess today that I am no longer a scoffer of Paul. I understand him now to be a good man and a good and faithful servant to God and Christ, and to humanity. I like Paul a lot these days.
One of the verses in the Bible that Paul wrote has even become for me a shorthand for what Jesus’ Way leads to– and frankly what every church should be aiming toward. The verse is Galatians 3:28 where Paul describes the heart of what loving your neighbor looks like. I think of it as, the “Equal Rights Christian Mantra.” Paul proclaims in no uncertain terms that: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Even before I became a Christian, I was for such equality, to me it epitomizes justice and kindness. Now as a Christian, and as clergy, Galatians 3:28 succinctly describes for me the goal of the words of Micah the Old Testament on our sanctuary walls, “seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God.” In New Testament phrasing the equality in Galatians sets out the ends reached through the means of fully obeying Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and neighbors as we love our self.
Even as I deeply appreciate Paul’s equality text in Galatians, the text that probably resonates the most for me is his physical description of God. As many of you might guess, is in our lesson today. See Paul understood God not to be just out there, up in heaven and inaccessible to creation, but, to simultaneous be “Lord of heaven and earth . . .” Paul understood God to transcend creation while at the same time being “not far from each of us.” Immanent in our existence. God is so close, so much a part of existence, that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” Everywhere we go . . . there is God. . . there is Christ – the name Christians give to God incarnate.
I have come to understand God in this way too. I do not imagine God just up there somewhere reaching in to stir an earthen pot when petitioned for help or when God wants to otherwise interact with creation. Rather God is always in the here and now soaking us through-and-through like water surrounding and saturating a sponge. I take great comfort in knowing that God soaks us all; that God IS what we move around in . . . what we live in . . . where we have our being.
To use Paul’s imagery from the reading, all we have to do is grope in front, or behind, or to the side, or even inside ourselves and there is God. God permeates all of existence. And that God is NOT in any way limited by human confinement in religions. As Paul pointed out, God is not bound by shrines. God is not attended to, nor made, by human hands. God is not “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” God is boundless, every-where. Ubiquitous. Not controlled by us!
The equality of oneness in Christ, and Christ being God’s boundless incarnation that we exist in, are the the intellectual . . . the theological . . . the thinking side . . . of spirituality that I find myself in accord with Paul. And there is more to Paul’s understanding of God than abstract ideals of love played out to create equality and put us on a saving path to right behavior. And Paul’s understanding is also more than his intellectual theological descriptions of God.
See Paul first and foremost arrived at what we now call Christianity through a deeply personal, profound, mystical and spiritual experience. As a young man he had persecuted followers of Jesus. As Acts 9 tells it, Paul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Then “a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard [Jesus’ voice asking him why he was persecuting Jesus and then told Paul what he was to do].” Paul was blinded by the light for three days and eventually his sight was restored and he was baptized and became a Jesus Follower, and an apostle. And Paul went on to become the greatest missionary of all time. The abstract ideals and theological descriptions and the whole of Paul’s ministry were lifelong responses to his spiritual experience with Christ.
It is common nowadays for many modern Americans to say they are spiritual, but not religious. I suspect many that say that (I was one) do not want to claim they are religious – thinking religions must entail too dogmatic an approach to God. Which is a bit ironic, since the word spiritual by definition means a relationship to religion or religious belief. In fairness though much of religion in our media does not appear to be very nice – the religion that’s hijacked our airwaves can be, or seems to be, self -centered, lack-love and ungodly and it does not connect us to the Sacred. Religious folks in our lives can also appear this way too. The not very nice religious, actually can, and do, shoo people away from religion. As a consequence many of us choose to reject all religion and so we name as spiritual our encounters with the Scared, God soaking creation.
Unlike the religion we may encounter in the media or even from angry religious folks we know, those real connections to God fill us with awe and wonder and love, which gives us well being and hope and causes us to seek and provide well being and hope for others too. So I actually take heart knowing that many people who are claiming to reject religion, are claiming to be spiritual, not understanding perhaps that they are intertwined. But still seeking awe and wonder and love which connections–to the Sacred– God– provides.
What matters is not the nomenclature but the connection to God, and by whatever name– or no name at all, like . . . “the unknown God.” Groping for and finding and grabbing the Scared – God– soaking creation is what matters. Making a connection to God fills us with awe and wonder and love. It helps us have well being and hope. And it causes us to give well being and hope to others too.
In this time of great upheaval and unknown with the corona virus pandemic, such connections and responses are very important. We need as many people as possible experiencing and working toward well being across the world. We need as much hope as we can get and give.
We can find the Sacred that leads us there right where we are. Throughout Paul’s letters he signs off with the salutation “in Christ.” That is true for everyone, we are all in Christ, in God incarnate. Which fits with Paul’s assertion at the Areopagus that we live and move and have our being in God. Working toward well being needs to continue to include work for the well being of all– like most of us are doing in this pandemic!
In 2 Philippians (2:1-5) Paul explains how following Jesus leads Christians to do this global care work. He wrote:
If . . . there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .”
As we live and move and have our being in God incarnate – whom Christians name Christ Jesus– let us continue to strive to be of the mind and nature of Christ Jesus. Let us have the same love, doing nothing from ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves and look not just to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let us strive to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in this very difficult time . . and all the time.
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008
1. The paragraphs of this sermon outlining the Acts 17:22-31 pericope are based on a general descriptions of Acts 17 found in the New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X at p 244-246.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2020