Tuesday, May 27, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter: The Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

In Acts, St. Paul refers to two Athenian poets but quotes only one directly.  The first "poet" St. Paul refers to is believed to be Epimenides, a 6th-century BC Cretan who was a "semi-mythical" philosopher and poet.  "Semi-mythical" in that he was a real person, but deeds of mythical proportion were attributed to him.  For instance, it was believed Epimenides turned aside a plague that was threatening Athens by appealing to a "god" whom the people (and perhaps he himself) had not known.  It is thought this altar may be dedicated to this "god" known only to them as the "unknown god" - yet known perhaps because this "god" was the first to answer their prayer. 
St. Paul had found an opening familiar to the Athenians that would appeal to the reality of cultural and religious life in Athens.  Rather than insults or belittling comments about their naivet√© or spiritual ignorance or religious gullibility, St. Paul instead appeals to them according to what is apparently important to the "extremely religious" people, quoting yet another of their own poets, Aratus, who wrote, "for we, too, are His offspring". 
This is important to us because reading the Scriptures, especially the Acts of the Apostles, does much more than fill in the blanks of church history.  First trying to understand the passage in its cultural and historical context, we are being given an idea of how we can learn to appeal to our own "pagan" audiences, whoever they may be, without insulting the customs, myths, and legends which have become important to them - perhaps over a span of several generations.  We won't get very far with anyone by insulting their heritage - however inappropriate we may believe them to be.
Also note in Paul's exchange with the Athenians, there is no overtly "Christian" tone - at least not in the beginning.  He has taken time to get to know them, so Paul does not begin his testimony with what he knows and what he thinks they should know; he begins first with what they believe and then shows them how and where YHWH is already present with them and within their own stories.  It is all familiar to them because the terms and phrases and poets Paul used to speak of YHWH connect with their own philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions. 
We can look to such exchanges as these to understand the truly "universal" nature of YHWH and His appeal to all ... often, at least in the beginning, on their own terms, according to their own world views, and in their own language, time, and culture.  This, we Methodists understand as "prevenient grace"; the Lord acting in our lives before we are consciously aware. 
We must not, however, take Paul's statement to be one of a God whose patience has worn thin particularly toward those who previously had not known of Him, and offering only a choice between heaven and hell.  To the contrary, Paul is speaking of a God who, in His infinite mercy and desire to be known even to the Gentiles, has sent him - this same God who sends His Church even today! 
To a people for whom the word "repentance" may have been strange (as in turning away from sin they had not previously known as "sin"), Paul is not threatening them with condemnation.  He is helping them to reorient their "extremely religious" thinking!  "From one ancestor [YHWH] 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 they would search for [YHWH] and perhaps [reach out] for Him and find Him" (Acts 17:26-27).
So Paul holds that we are created in such a way that we can be consciously aware of when we are disconnected from our very source of life and living, when we know something is amiss.  Paul builds into this understanding by quoting the poet in acknowledging humanity as "offspring" of a Divine Source (though, again, the poet referred to "Zeus") - meaning, in their own terms, that since we are His "offspring", this Creator God cannot be made of "gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals" (17:29).  This God is THE source unto Himself; therefore this God cannot be "created" by those who are themselves "created"!
We live in a world in which so many seem willing to go to great lengths to try and deny the reality of such a God, and it is distressing to witness such a world crumbling under the weight of such a crushing burden of believing their grief and pain and bitterness and loneliness and doubt can be assuaged by drugs, alcohol, gambling, consumerism, inappropriate relationships and inadequate expressions of "love", or alternatives outside of Christ our Lord.  But two things have occurred to me in this past week as I was reflecting on what I can offer.
One, TV evangelists are getting rich while neighborhood churches are slowly fading.  There are a number of reasons why this is so, but I think the primary reason these TV preachers do so well is because the many lonely souls who sit at home and send their hard-earned money to these guys are "searching" and "groping" for meaning in their lives - they know something is amiss - but are unable to find such meaning because too many neighborhood churches have become much more concerned about "maintenance" rather than "mission"; self-satisfaction rather than self-sacrifice. 
There is a lot of truth to this because consider how disconnected we truly have become in an age in which conversation has been reduced to text messages and Facebook posts, and evangelism has been redefined as posting something in cyber-land that might be inspiring but misses something altogether because of the lack of intimacy personal  relationships require.  Well, it's the same with TV.  We can "watch" religious programming, but we must also remember that as Jesus finished His Sermon on the Mount, He then set out to change lives by touching lives - with His hands!  Electronic media will never be able to replicate that - though we do seem determined to replace that.
Two, I was searching the web for an idea about perhaps putting a new, more colorful facade on our outdoor sign, perhaps one with a marquee on which to post coming events, etc.  Of course you have seen the clever sayings many churches have posted such as "If you think it's hot now ..." referring to summer's heat but implying hell for those who won't come inside.  Some of these messages make me cringe, but some are good enough to provoke serious thought. 
However, the one saying I had not given much thought to came about in an article I read by a pastor who took exception to one particular quip.  It reads, "Sign broken; come inside for the message".  It is, no doubt, a clever attempt to invite the public to attend worship and hear the Gospel of the Lord, but this particular writer wondered if the sign does not send perhaps the wrong message in suggesting "we will not bring the Gospel to you.  If you want it, you have to come get it."  Then also too much emphasis on the preacher as if the sermon alone defines the life of the Church.
I doubt many of you had given such thought to these clever signs, but this author put a lot of thought into that one.  There is something to be said about a church whose primary mission seems to be "advertising" and then "hoping" they will come.  They won't.  That kind of "ministry" has led to many shuttered churches, and the neighborhoods once served by those churches are the poorer for it.  Even if those churches represented for them "an unknown god", they nevertheless testified to the reality of this God by faithfully attending to worship and Church life.
There is no need to be panicked about the situation at hand, but we must not get lost in our "navel gazing", either.  There is plenty of need for the Church today to speak boldly not about religious philosophy, church dogma, or political issues that only divide us - and certainly not about "hot" futures for those who do not believe as we think they should.  Our God and Father is here and present today, right now, in this place AND in the homes across the streets. 
But if the Gospel is not taken to these souls and they are never shown this reality of YHWH's presence here and now and in their current reality, they may never come to know that the worst kinds of struggles we all face are means to contentedness and peace of mind and soul - IF we "search" and "grope" and soon "find" that our God has been here the whole time (remember "prevenient grace").  This reality requires a daily response.  It is then for the people of the Body of Christ to respond AND THEN make the introduction.

The only "unknown god" which existed then and still exists even today is that "god" or "gods" to which WE give life by our devotion, our covetousness, our religion of consumerism, and our efforts to rewrite or redefine the Scriptures to justify our own choices.  The KNOWN God who revealed Himself in Christ Jesus is the blessed One who gives life - in this world and in the world to come.  This is our mission, for this is our "commission" given us by our God's Messiah, our Lord Jesus.  Let it become for us our true passion.  Amen.

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