THE UNKNOWN GOD
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
(Acts 17:22-31, NRSV)
My wife, Colleen, and I have known one another for 30 years as of this past January. We first got to know one another in the most romantic of settings, the basement of a seminary library during a world religions class—talk about a passionate environment! While getting to know Colleen was hands down more important than anything I learned in the class, I did learn some important things.
The class was taught by a wonderful professor, John Jonsson, a white South African whose Scandinavian
parents were missionaries to the Zulu. He was a brilliant man who spoke 6 languages and read New Testament Greek. Dr. Jonsson “Actively protested apartheid and ran for South African Parliament on that platform [losing by less than a thousand votes]…In 1985, he was the only Baptist minister to sign the Kairos Document, which called on all churches to demand that the government give equal rights to all South Africans. As a result, the government took away his passport, and from 1985 to 1989, he was not allowed to enter South Africa. In 1989, he was one of the few white citizens of South Africa to be invited to attend the first Conference for a Democratic Future in South Africa, resulting in [Nelson Mandela’s]…release from prison.”
Once a student asked Dr. Jonsson if we would see Mahatma Gandhi in heaven. Dr. Jonsson puzzled the student at first when he answered, “I don’t think so.” Then continued, “I don’t think we’ll see Gandhi in heaven; he’ll be so far ahead of us, we’ll never catch up.”
Dr. Jonsson was perfect for our world religions class because he brought with him a significantly broader worldview than any other professor at our seminary. He had a great sense of humor and a warmth that proved reassuring as he challenged our narrow and provincial ways of thinking. I had only one semester of seminary under my belt when I took his intensive 3 week January course. I entered the class with my hardcore Evangelical views on world religions intact—Christianity was the only true religion and all the rest were misguided at best, taking their adherents straight to hell at worst. After 3 weeks I had learned that Christianity did not have the corner on the market of truth and that other world religions had some truths of their own. I finished the course believing that Christianity had Truth with a capital T while the other religions had truth with a lower case t. I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that the other religions had their own Truth with a capital T, but I would get there soon enough. World religions scholar par excellence, Huston Smith, puts it this way, “[For Christians,] God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.”
In today’s scripture lesson, the Apostle Paul is in Athens impatiently waiting for Timothy and Silas to show up. As he walked around the city he was taken aback at the plethora of statues dedicated to the Greek gods and goddesses, worthless idols in Paul’s mind. Yet before the story ends, Paul has found some common ground with the polytheistic Greeks, albeit a stepping stone to challenge them with his views on Christ.
The CEV translates the story nicely (Acts 17:16-34a). 16 While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17 He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18 Some of them were Epicureans [who taught that happiness should be the main goal in life] and some were Stoics [who taught that people should learn self-control and be guided by their consciences] and they started arguing with him. People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?” Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about foreign gods! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from [the dead].” 19 They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20 We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.” 21 More than anything else the people of Athens...loved to hear and to talk about anything new. 22 So Paul stood up in front of the council and said: People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. 23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don’t really know [this God]. So I want to tell you…[what I know]. 24 This God made the world and everything in it. God is…[over] heaven and earth, and…doesn’t live in temples built by human hands…. [God] gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26 From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and…decided when and where every nation would be. 27 God has done all this, so that we will look for [God] and reach out and find [God who]…isn’t far from any of us, 28 and [God] gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are [God’s] children,” just as some of your poets have said. 29 Since we are God’s children, we must not think that [God] is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. [God] isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30 In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now [God] says that everyone everywhere must turn to [God who]… 31has set a day…[to] judge the world’s people with fairness. And [God] has chosen the man Jesus to do the judging…God has given proof of this to all of us by raising Jesus from [the dead]. 32 As soon as the people heard Paul say that a man had been raised from [the dead], some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” 33 When Paul left the council meeting, 34 some of the [people] put their faith in…[God] and went with Paul.
The common ground that Paul found was the altar to an Unknown God. It’s as if the Greeks were saying, “Okay, we’ve got statues and altars for our 12 major gods and goddesses, but we’ll put up an altar to an Unknown God to cover all our bases in case we missed one.” Paul used the altar to an Unknown God to introduce the one and only God of the Jews and the Christians—Yahweh in Hebrew, Jehovah in Latin. Today, most of us simply use the word God with a capital G. The Greeks and the Romans had their gods and goddesses with a lower case g. While the ancients believed in a king of the gods, Zeus to the Greeks and Jupiter to the Romans, neither of them come close to the God Paul was introducing. Paul’s language in describing the Judeo-Christian God to the Greeks is beautiful and remains entirely positive until near the end, which is where he lost most of them. He lost them when he told them they needed to repent because they would be judged by Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.
Of course, Paul’s goal here was not interfaith dialogue. His goal was to tell them his Truth with a capital T, the Truth that there was only one true God and judgement day was just around the corner. In an open minded 21st century church like ours, we would not presume to tell people that their religious beliefs are wrong and they should convert to our Truth with a capital T. Huston Smith says it beautifully, “God has to speak to each person in their own language, in their own idioms. Take Spanish [or] Chinese. You can express the same thought, but to different people you have to use a different language. It’s the same in religion.”
Are there any criteria for judging religions or cults, or is it anything goes? Are Buddhism and Hinduism on par with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana where 918 people died in 1978 as a result of mass murder or suicide depending on how you look at it? Clearly not. For Christians, our yardstick is the love of God as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. In any religion, if love is the basis, love for the divine, however it is understood, and love for other people, then the Spirit of God is present. Huston Smith writes, “Walnuts have a shell, and they have a kernel. Religions are the same. They have an essence, but then they have a protective coating…So the kernels are the same. However, the shells are different.” For me, the common kernel is love.
I like the way Australian minister and college professor, Bill Loader, puts it. “It is by Jesus that we can recognize the footprints of the Spirit. It is the love he made known which helps us discover its past victories and its defeats in the cultures of the world. This is not a Jesus imperialism of the kind that declared the world abandoned by the Spirit and claimed a monopoly for the Church on the truth. Such Christianity repeats all the arrogance of religious colonialism. [On the contrary,] the Spirit is none other than the Spirit who came upon Jesus of Galilee…The music of the Spirit is heard in the groaning of creation for renewal, for peace, for justice. For the Spirit breathes wherever...lungs are open, wherever the heart pounds for…love.”
Looking at ancient Athens through Paul’s eyes, Loader writes, “In [their] culture, 300 years ago, the truth about God was expressed. The Spirit of God was there before us. The sense of the divine which…produced this wild array of [statues] also came to expression in the poets. They told of the one who is not far from each of us; these pagan poets knew we belong to God and we belong to a family; we are God’s family…The Spirit was also speaking 200, 300, 30000, 40000 years ago [to the Aboriginal people in Australia]. The same Spirit brooded in the Indian subcontinent, in Arabia, and the same Spirit speaks in the language of the poets and the artists, the novelists and the playwrights…The Spirit is free and our calling is to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit. We need to...listen for the voice of the one who is not far away, who is the ground of all life and [all] being.”
When we begin to see the world as immersed in the Spirit, we will start seeing God’s fingerprints almost everywhere. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
February 19, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York
God of many names, God of many hues, we approach you as sisters and brothers created in the wonder of your image. Help us in our striving, as people of many nations and as people with disparate vocabularies of faith, to feel the healing touch and know the restoring power of your grace. As you are many and yet you are one, let us labor to know the oneness we can realize, even in the midst of the realities that define our differences and in the presence of our united hopes and faithful dreams.
Make us one, O God, as you intended from the beginning. AMEN.
Portions of this prayer were adapted from a prayer written by Rev. Dr. Mark P. Jensen, Hymns for a Pilgrim People, #13.