Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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. The 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, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From 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, so 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. For “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.”
Since 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because 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.’
8 Who holds our souls in life •
and suffers not our feet to slip.
9 For you, O God, have proved us; •
you have tried us as silver is tried.
10 You brought us into the snare; •
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.
11 You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; •
but you brought us out into a place of liberty.
12 I will come into your house with burnt offerings
and will pay you my vows, •
which my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
13 I will offer you fat burnt sacrifices
with the smoke of rams; •
I will sacrifice oxen and goats.
14 Come and listen, all you who fear God, •
and I will tell you what he has done for my soul.
15 I called out to him with my mouth •
and his praise was on my tongue.
16 If I had nursed evil in my heart, •
the Lord would not have heard me,
17 But in truth God has heard me; •
he has heeded the voice of my prayer.
18 Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, •
nor withheld his loving mercy from me.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
Sermon on the Sixth Sunday after Easter
I wonder if we think people in the Bible are so very different to ourselves. There are things they do that we certainly don’t. Don’t we say to ourselves that we cannot be thinking of God all the time? Do we really pray without ceasing as Paul says he does? What do we really do in the “religious” sphere? – I ask these questions because our reading from Acts this morning places Paul in the great marketplace of Athens, the Areopagus, and recounts the words of his address to the people of the city gathered there. Let’s consider whether we act like the ancient Athenians just to see whether we can understand this Bible of ours.
The inhabitants of Athens go about their business in the marketplace, much in the same way we do, except our places of commerce have become more and more extended. When I first came to this country, the “High Street” was the place to go to shop. Small businesses were there, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick- maker. I could get all I needed by walking down the road and popping in to the greengrocer and the haberdasher.
Times change and so do our habits. The rise of the motor-car brought about the out-of-town shopping centres and the demise of the railways. The large stores and shopping centres allowed “one-stop shopping”. We still were able to do all our shopping in one place, but everyone had to travel away from the town to do so. We just have to look at Gloucester to see this development, don’t we? First of all everything was near the cathedral, then the shops gathered themselves on the ring road.
Today I don’t have to leave my front room, because of the internet.
The pattern of shopping has changed with technology, and there is such a great distance between the buyer and the seller. However, commerce still goes on and we can still hear the voice of Paul echoed on the internet, in the blog pages of ever so many evangelists – whatever their god.
Just like in Paul’s time, there are people who ignore “god-talk”, and devote all their energy to work and its rewards. Others just pass by even though matters of ultimate concern are being discussed by that fellow on the step. Today we are much more discreet as the street-corner evangelist – the prophet of doom – is a figure of ridicule, and no one wants that stigma attached to themselves. However, some do stop and listen – for a moment.
So, I hope we can see that we are not so very different to Paul and his audience. All of us go to public places. We gather to talk – which can be gossip, chattering, networking, bonding, information- gathering, lecturing, enlightening. We still open our eyes and ears to things round about us. So I don’t think we would miss a Paul amongst us, do you?
Let’s use our imagination and see ourselves in the Areopagus with that first crowd. Imagine hearing “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” What would you think? Would you be surprised? Well, I certainly would be. My religion is very private – I don’t wear a cross, I do go to the pub, I have let the expletive escape my lips, I certainly don’t see that my behaviour reveals me as a religious man at all, let alone being “extremely religious in every way.”
I imagine that the people in the marketplace that day must have felt the same way, and they must have given a pause for thought. Wouldn’t you stop short if you were described as “extremely religious in every way”? Well, I certainly would – perhaps I might have even listened further.
Then to hear Paul speak about the object of my devotion as “an unknown god” would have extremely perplexed me. However, I would have been very happy to be enlightened, so I would stop and listen even harder. How can he tell me about an “unknown god” – a god unknown to me? How does he know about such a god?
Paul speaks of this unknown god as the subject of his experience. Instead of speaking of the mystical (which Paul talks about at length, but we can hear about them at another time – just not in this marketplace today. We could be in Corinth, Ephesus or Galatia – or at home, as we read the letters Paul wrote to the young churches).
Paul speaks of this unknown god in terms everyone can understand – he speaks of the creation, the miracle of everything ’round about him, the wherein he moves and has his being. This unknown god is neither this nor that. This unknown god must be discovered for ourselves and this god can be recognised by each and every one of us.
This unknown god somehow manifests its divinity in our lives – we just have to open ourselves to the experience. We are just like the Athenians Paul addressed so long ago, aren’t we? – I would like to go further and suggest, as Paul did so long ago, that this unknown god is the God we can know …. Everyone who speaks of God uses a name for God, don’t they? Right from the beginning of our tradition we have had the name above every name, Jesus. His name clears all obstacles from our paths, if we but believe.
There is a tradition within the Church which asks us to strip the names away from our god, so that we can discover the essence of divinity – it is part of the mystical tradition. A teacher once said that if we can name a god, it is still not the final name. So by taking away every name, by finally getting to silence, the void, that edge of the precipice which the philosopher spoke about – at that point we understand without words, without sight. At that point – we leap into silence with faith. At that point, we begin to build up a new world – we see the creation just as clearly as Paul did when he spoke to the Athenians and as he speaks to us in our public places where we so often stand so very alone, perhaps even on the brink of a personal precipice. We need to hear that word of Paul and understand that the unknown god is the god we really want to worship, but words fail us, our experience is inadequate and everyone around me is just not interested in the problem I am having with meaning and my ultimate concern. I wonder whether they are listening to the chattering masses. I wonder whether they are looking for the next big thing which will make their fortune. I wonder why I do not appear on their screens. I look for that unknown god because I want that ultimate meaning in my life, a meaning which Paul assures the Athenians amongst us is there if only we would have faith in that unknown god.