February 27, 2011
While Paul was waiting for [his companions] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
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.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you...” (Acts 17:23)
My text for today comes from the book of Acts, chapter seventeen, verse twenty-three. Today we find the apostle Paul cooling his heels in Athens, waiting for some friends. Earlier in the chapter we are told that he had not intended, at least at this point, to be in Athens at all. Paul has had an unexpected re-routing of his evangelistic flight plan—his preaching of Christ crucified has nearly gotten him stoned in Thessalonica, and the enraged crowd has attempted to follow him to his next stop in Beroea with the intention of starting a riot or two. Consequently, his traveling companions have deposited him in Greece, in the relatively tolerant city of Athens, for safekeeping.
Because he is part of the small group preaching the new ideas of Christ, and because he has nothing else to do, Paul takes the opportunity to do a little field research and strolls around the city to take a gander at the religious practices there.
He is, we are told, not pleased with what he finds. In fact, he is “deeply distressed that the city is full of idols.” And because he is in the business of evangelism, and because he is Paul—Paul has distinct opinions and beliefs—he takes up the issue with anyone who will listen, in both the synagogue and the marketplace.
He must have made a fair amount of interesting noise, because he attracts the attention of both the Epicureans and the Stoics, two of the most influential and well-established schools of philosophy in the ancient world. They find his remarks somewhat incomprehensible—“What is this babbler trying to say?” they ask. Nevertheless, his arguments and his point about this Jesus figure are sufficiently intriguing, and they invite him to speak at the Areopagus, the marvelous Areopagus in Athens, the hill where the great Athenian council met, the hill dedicated to the Greek war god Ares.
Paul proceeds to make what must, from the Athenians’ point of view, have been a fantastically arrogant claim. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” I know this unknown God, he says. Or, as Peter Gomes puts it, “That which you in ignorance worship, let me now tell you what it is all about.”
Paul does not get the best response. At the mention of such a cheap parlor trick as resurrection from the dead, a number of the people scoff. A few answer his altar call—and I do wonder about Dionysius the Areopagite (a member of that great political council, notice) and the woman named Damaris—but not many seem to be terribly or definitively moved. And so Paul leaves Athens.
So what are we to make of this very well-constructed but deeply underappreciated stump sermon that Paul makes?
What Paul is saying, and what disgusts the rationalists in the crowd at the Areopagus, is that in the end, everything he says, all those grand and beautiful proclamations about the Lord of heaven and earth and the oneness of humanity and the one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” comes down to incarnation, to physical existence—something a person can get her hands on and take hold of and look at. “Where there is Reality, there is Presence,” says Swedenborg—where something exists, it takes form. What is unknown only touches us, only unifies itself with us, insofar as we can get a handle on it. There is no way to “grope for” something, as Paul puts it, unless it exists to be groped after.
This idea was not generally appealing to an intellectual of the Greek school. And it seems counterintuitive to us, as well. But having a physical concept of an infinite reality is in fact necessary, and not counter to the task of understanding that infinity. Here’s what Swedenborg has to say:
“Divine Good, like the fire of the sun, is unapproachable; but Divine Truth, which is like the light from the sun, is approachable. It provides a person’s inner eye—the eye of faith—with a means and access to Divine Good…
“People cannot think about the Divine in itself except by setting up some concept of a divine person. It is even less possible to be united to the Divine in itself by love without some such concept. If we think about the Divine within itself without some concept of a divine person, we think without boundaries, and a concept without boundaries is no concept at all.
“Intellectuals in this world distance themselves from any personal concept of God, so there is no mediation between their minds and the Divine, which brings darkness on their understanding and their love. But intellectuals in heaven have a concept of the Divine in a human; so the Lord [Jesus Christ] serves as their mediator and is, therefore, a light for their minds.”
Paul arrived in Athens and invited the Athenians to look beyond the altar. It is worth remembering that Athens was a city of intellectuals of a high order, of great philosophers—and, I am sure, also of opinionated crackpots. In short, the Athens of Paul’s day bears a strong resemblance to Cambridge, seething as it is with up-and-coming Harvard students and MIT students and shouters from street corners. Athenians were acquainted with the idea that there could be something divine beyond their knowledge. Paul had observed that they had erected an altar “to an unknown god.” But Paul also suspected that they had missed the point, taking “unknown” to mean “unknowable”—using the altar to an unknown God not as a window onto the infinite, but as a placeholder with which to cover their sacrificial bases and hedge their religious bets.
And, if this was the case, who can blame them? “The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know,” as the saying goes. The future is enough of an unknown for most of us, and even that we do our best to control—think of horoscopes, our culture’s obsession with world apocalypse, and diversified investment portfolios. As for the nature of the god in charge of that future— well, just put up the altar and keep it well-tended. And as for what that altar might stand for, never you mind.
Paul might just as easily have been speaking to us as to the Athenians of two thousand years ago. It is easier for us, as it was for the Athenians, to have our divinity safely packaged. It is easier to build lovely shrines and marvelous buildings and ornate altars, and park an idea of God there and visit that idea periodically at our convenience. It is much easier—and pretty effortless, actually—to reduce God to “gold or silver or stone,” or a set of values or a particular political party or income bracket or skin color or what have you. It is easier to squash the divine into containers of our own construction. And it is very tempting to prefer that the world and the people in it be that way, too—safely packaged in assumptions, prejudices, and systems of our own construction, even if we are fond of attributing those constructions to God.
The problem with idolatry is not that the object of worship takes a form. For, after all, “where there is reality, there is presence,” and for something to really be it has to have some kind of way of being, some kind of appearance. No, the problem with idolatry is that it limits, and in the process misses entirely, the intended object of worship. Idolatry tries to cut God down to size, or cut him into conveniently sized pieces. In the process, God disappears altogether. Idolatry involves getting distracted by defining the thing in front of us, finding and marking its limits and boundaries.
But Paul will have none of it. He introduces the Athenians to a God that can be known, but not quantified—the God who cannot be constrained by any construct of human making, whether shrine or prejudice. The point here is not so much that Paul exhorts the Athenians to trade the gods they know for the God he knows. The point is that he asks them to trade the gods they can quantify for the God who can be known.
There is a difference. Knowing is not the same as pinning down. The Information Age, with its iPads and BlackBerries and Google search engines, may lead us to believe that we can define the parameters of all that is, but there is still one thing, at least, that we cannot, and that is God.
God, who defines what it means to be human, who in fact encompasses all that it means to be human, who sets the boundaries for sky and earth and sea, does not fit on an altar—any altar. But we can know God. This is not to say that we can define God precisely, any more than we can ever claim complete understanding of a dear friend or a lover—or even ourselves. In every relationship, there are spiritual distances to be crossed between people. From cracks to chasms, every soul must journey to find union or companionship with another soul. So it is with God, to an infinite degree. We trace the contours of his infinity in all their mystery precisely because he took human form and became one with our own experience—in fact, he redeemed our own experience of humanity so that we might have it in freedom.
I love liturgy. I take Sunday morning worship very seriously, and I revel in it—in its beauty, in the richness of the language, in the repetition that burnishes words and gives them new layers of meaning week after week. And because I love and value liturgy so highly, I choose the hymns for Sunday morning with great— some might say obsessive—care.
You might notice that of the hymns we are singing this morning, the first and last speak of the Lord in majesty: “O tell of his might, O sing of his grace, Whose throne is the light, whose canopy, space.” But the hymn before the sermon, you may have noticed, speaks of the Lord in much more intimate terms: “Jesus is my best of friends.”
People have opinions about hymns, and I have been an eavesdropping preacher’s kid long enough to know that sometimes these kinds of contrasts—the majestic with the personal, the mysterious with the embodied, the “dignified with the cuddly” (as one of my father’s parishioners rather tartly put it)—these kinds of contrasts in hymns seem odd. How can such different visions of God abide in the same service? Do we not, as
with all else in life, ultimately have to discern a single correct vision of God?
Of course hymns are a relatively trifling example of this conundrum, this great decision of choosing which God one will serve. But the three we are singing today express the heart of the point fairly acutely. They may be different—attributing different names, different powers, different relationships to God—but all three have in common a profound confidence in God’s care for us, on every level of existence. We know the God who is “pavilioned in splendor,” who is the “Ancient of Days,” not only because he shapes and rules over creation, but also because he is our “best of friends,” because we abide in his “well-proved love.”
The great scholar of the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer, was fortunate (and a bit unusual in his field) never to have lost his sense of the God in the man named Jesus. He had this to say about the paradox that we all encounter in our journey to God’s altar:
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
God does not live in temples made by human hands. He is not, in his deepest reality, “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
He is too great—and too near to us—for that.
God lives in temples formed by his own hand, temples spacious enough to contain him and radiant enough to reflect his majesty, which is clothed in light like a garment.
He makes his home in all that is. And in the divine humanity of Jesus Christ, he makes his home in our souls, in our daily living and breathing, in our birth and our death. We say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” but in fact he is already here, is always here, is continually on his way. Alleluia! Amen.
Leah G. Goodwin