A Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter (17/05/20): Making the Unknown God Known

Making the Unknown God Known
Acts 17:17-31

Athens is the most challenging place Paul has ever preached. He has been brought here, having left Thessalonica in a hurry. There his preaching had found considerable success in the synagogue and among those Greeks who were already attracted to the God of Israel. But his success had provoked the jealousy of the synagogue’s leaders. So Paul’s friends have spirited him away. And now he is in Athens. If Rome is the seat of power in the Empire, then Athens (along with Alexandria) is its intellectual engine. Athens is the capital of the mind. Athens had been the home of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. It is the home of the schools that they and other great philosophers had founded. Every new idea is tested and discussed among these intellectuals and the population at large. It is a place of curiosity and learning and debate. If Paul and his message can make it here, he and the gospel can make it anywhere. If Paul can convince the Athenians it will become a springboard for the gospel, today Athens, tomorrow the world!


Paul’s first encounter with the Athenians has not been promising. He has been out every day, debating in the marketplace. At best he has provoked a puzzled curiosity among the city’s philosophers:
“What does this babbler want to say” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”
Nonetheless he has piqued their interest, and Paul is taken to the Areopagus. The “Hill of Ares” is a rocky outcrop to the northwest of the Acropolis. It was where the great and the good of the city gathered for discussion. This was a kind of cross between a law court, the city council and a debating society. Paul has his opportunity to preach to the most influential people in Athens. He carefully tailors his message to his hearers. He adopts a classical rhetorical strategy. He starts by flattering his listeners:
“Athenians, I see how very religious you are in every way.”
The first thing Paul had done when he had come to town was take a tour of the city’s sights. What catches his eye is that Athens is full of temples and statues. He is impressed, even if with his Jewish monotheistic heritage it has turned his stomach. Setting his prejudice aside, he sees this as the opening that he needs to convince his listeners. Idolaters they may be, but at least they are searching. Their impulse to worship is right, even if the objects of their worship are completely wrong. Paul takes the view that their religious yearning is the inarticulate and uninformed yearning of the pagans for the true and living God. There is a God shaped hole in all of their lives and Paul has what he knows can satisfy their longing.

One thing we would almost certainly not say of people and of the world now, is that our times are “very religious in every way.” We wouldn’t say that, and perhaps therefore we would fail to recognise the similarities between the Athenians and people around us. The objects of desire and worship have changed but the impulse remains the same. Human beings are animals who want to make sense of things. Something drives us to try and understand. We want to understand the world around us. And more importantly we want to understand our place in that world. What we use to make this meaning has changed over time. But the same impulse is still there, we are meaning seeking and making creatures.
The Athenians found their meaning in philosophy and/or pagan religion. Whilst the parallels are not perfect, perhaps it could be said now that people find or make their meaning out of science and popular culture. We live in an age that has an essentially scientific view of the world. It is possible to observe how the world works, at the grandest scale and the tiniest detail. From the universe and the movements of planets, stars and galaxies to the inner working of the tiniest atoms that make up everything. From the movement of whole nations and societies to the smallest functions of an individual’s mind. Science provides at least some explanation of everything we could observe. But most of us also engage in the culture that surrounds us, the language we speak, the stories we tell and listen to and about ourselves in books and on television, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, all of it shapes us, or we use it to shape ourselves. Of course everyone is different, the forces of science and popular culture influence us differently. We all take different things from what surrounds us to shape our understanding of ourselves and of the world. For some this plays out as a rigorously logical view of a world driven by laws and the inevitability of history. For others it might be pastiche, a ragbag of superstitions, conspiracy theory and fancifulness. Perhaps for most it’s not that self-aware, simply going with the flow, being carried where life is taking them.
But with all this there often goes a sense of unease. There is for many, even most, a sense of dissatisfaction. Something is missing. Those explanations of the world, that way of constructing ourselves in the world, promises much but always delivers less than it promises. For many people there is a longing, which our society tries to satisfy with ever more objects and ever more distractions none of which in the end removes that sense of longing. As we are beginning to find, in this world, too much is never enough. There is a thirst, which for the Athenians was a thirst for knowledge, and which for our contemporaries is harder to identify, which is not quenched. A little later than Paul, St. Augustine said: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you..” When we share Paul’s rhetorical strategy in announcing the gospel we tell ourselves that we need to start where people are. Where people are, for the most part is living lives shaped by popular culture, backed up to a greater or less degree by a scientific understanding of the way the world works.

Paul begins to try and build a ramp between where his Athenian listeners are and the faith in God he wants to share with them. Paul offers to the Athenians something that comes very close to what is called Natural Theology. That is, he starts with what is known or observable about the world and tries to work back from there to an understanding of God. It is an argument that perhaps we find ourselves accepting or even making. We look at the world and tell ourselves there must be some reason behind it. There must be a first cause that begins the sequence of events that leads to where we all are. We see the beauty and order of everything that surrounds it and conclude some mind must lie behind it. It is the human response to the longing for God which already exists in every human heart, which was placed there by God:
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.
This is the ramp that leads us up to God. Paul sees that the Athenians have been on this journey as well. He identifies this as the source of their great religiosity. But he also identifies that this argument is fundamentally flawed, it will never lead anyone to the true and living God. He also observes that his Athenian listeners probably already sense that this is the case. No one is foolish enough to believe that statues are really gods or that a real god could actually live inside a temple:
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 . . . 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.  
The movement from what we can see and know cannot take us all the way to God. As high as that ramp might take us there is always going to be a gap at the top between ourselves and God. Perhaps some of the Athenians had already sensed this. Perhaps this was what lay behind one of the things Paul had seen in his tour around Athens:
I found an altar with inscription, “To an unknown God”
There is something fundamentally unknowable about God. Human beings cannot find God by infinitely reaching up and out from what they already know. We have a hymn: “Can we by searching find out God?” The short answer to that question is “No.”

Eventually revelation must be invoked and the scandal of faith to reason and experience made plain. Paul cannot convert pagan Athenians, or anyone else for that matter, by appealing to what they already know and reasoning them into faith from there. Natural Theology, or examining where people are and what they already believe is hardly more than a preliminary exercise. Revelation must take us where Natural Theology cannot go. Paul mentions the Resurrection as a fact, a fact which is contrary to observation of the way the world works, it stands outside of science or even of culture. Paul concludes his speech to the Athenians by saying:
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.
The truth is Natural Theology doesn’t work. The truth is we cannot build a ramp from ourselves to God. The truth is that the ramp has already been built in the opposite direction, from God to us.
Jesus Christ is the one appointed by God to give us knowledge of God. In Paul’s argument the Resurrection is our absolute assurance of this. Only God can make God known. And this is what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other true source of knowledge about God. Without God’s gracious action, an altar to an unknown god is the place where the human search for God always ends up. That God-shaped hole in the Athenian’s lives and in our lives and those of our neighbours can only be filled by what God shows us in Jesus.

Paul’s preaching in Athens had relatively limited to success. To the Greeks his message of the Resurrection seemed foolishness, even whilst it prompted curiosity among some others:
Some scoffed; but others said “We will hear you again about this.”
Christian proclamation should never be judged solely by its success in persuading all of those who hear it. Wherever the message of the Resurrection is faithfully preached some will believe but some will mock. Even the rhetorical skill of someone like Paul cannot remove the scandal of the gospel. Indeed skilful preaching can only draw attention to the gap between human knowing and what God reveals of himself. After Athens Paul moves swiftly on, in Corinth he finds a very different place and decides on a rather different rhetorical strategy. Since we cannot build the ramp from ourselves to God, Paul concludes, it is better to start as God does from the other end.
Looking back on his ministry in Corinth he recalled: For I decided to know nothing among you [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) That is the way that an unknown and unknowable God makes himself known.
Amen.

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Making the Unknown God Known by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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