A sermon drawn from Acts 17:16-31
The Athenians sure had a lot to learn about God!
Of course, we Christians think all their ideas about God – or rather, gods – were completely wrong. They thought there were lots of gods, for one thing, different gods for different areas of life, different occupations, different major emotions. They thought the gods looked like people, only better – with undying bodies. They didn’t think of the gods as particularly moral, either. The Greek gods had superhuman powers, but they didn’t always use them for good, according to the stories that were told about them.
We usually read the story of the Apostle Paul’s famous sermon on “Mars Hill” as Paul really telling those Athenians “what for.” Really telling them all about the one true God. The God Paul loved and served. The God we love and serve.
And we’re not all wrong about that. Paul has told the Athenians something of vital importance. He’s made clear that God – whom Paul himself knows to be the God of Israel, the God of the Scriptures and the covenant with Israel, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ – is the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.
And he has told them that God is the creator of humanity, in God’s image and likeness, in particular. Which makes God the supreme judge of all humanity – the One who sets every ultimate standard of adequacy and performance.
Furthermore, God has announced that coming judgement in the person of Jesus Christ. At least – we know that Paul is talking about Jesus when he says God has appointed a man to judge the world in righteousness, and has identified him “by raising him from the dead.” The Athenians may still have needed to learn that. If they had asked “What man is that?” Paul would have been happy to tell them.
Most important, the God who fits that description cannot possibly – obviously, to Paul’s way of thinking, which is to say the Jewish way of thinking, which is to say, by extension, the early Christian way of thinking – be captured in an image, an idol. A static concoction of the human imagination, frozen in place in gold or silver, or carved in stone.
The Living God, the One who spoke to Moses out of a burning bush and who told Moses that an acceptable name for God would be “I AM BECOMING WHOEVER I AM BECOMING” (one way to translate God’s word to Moses in Exodus 3:14; “I AM” for short), could never be summed up once and for all in such a limited way! Obviously.
That is a lot to learn about God. If we were the Athenians, with ideas as wrong as theirs, learning that would require a complete change of mind. Not only about God, but also about the world and everything in it, and of our own place in it, in light of this new learning.
So it’s understandable that we Christians ourselves, over the centuries that we’ve had this Scripture, have often thought of it as a story about how Paul “tells the Athenians who God really is.” And Paul’s famous description of God here as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” has become a treasured Christian description of God. [Maybe a particularly appropriate one to recall on Mother’s Day.]
On the other hand … Paul has not exactly cleared up all the questions people might have about God with this sermon.
Certainly he has not cleared them all up the way a philosopher would. And he has met a number of philosophers in Athens – we know this from the first part of the story (Acts 17:18). So he probably knows that philosophers like to proceed by establishing first premises, by defining terms, by reasoning deductively from those premises and definitions; by being able to say, precisely and with a high degree of certainty, what they know. That is not what Paul has done at all.
Instead, he has told the Athenians what God has done, as Paul knows from what God has revealed to humanity through the medium of God’s word. The word of Scripture, Torah, that Paul had spent so much time studying. And then, the Word in Jesus Christ, as that Word had encountered Paul on the road to Damascus (a story I’m assuming everyone knows, but if I’m wrong about that, it’s told in Acts 9), and who Paul had, we think, continued to learn more about from others.
And Paul has even gone a bit beyond that, using what he knows from his own relationship with God. Paul hadn’t read that famously beautiful description of God in a book anywhere, that was his own – with help from the Holy Spirit, we think.
But Paul has given us far less than the kind of “clear and distinct idea” of God that a western rationalist philosopher like Descartes might ask for. Paul hasn’t specified what God “is,” “essentially,” in God’s very being. Paul hasn’t proved deductively that God not only must exist, but how God must exist, and what specific and certain properties God must have, given that God does exist. [He left that up to Thomas Aquinas.] He hasn’t even named the key foundational properties of God that we could derive from a reading of Scripture. [He left that exercise up to the authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.] He hasn’t even tried to do anything like that.
For good reason. Because Paul is not a philosopher. And because the living God Paul knows through Jesus Christ is not the God of the philosophers.
The God Paul knows, personally, and humanly, is far greater than that.
Greater, in fact, from what we can tell, in a particular kind of way. In a way that makes clear to us that God, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” is the transcendent Source of the finite human existence that is the very possibility of all our human knowledge.
That is a way that makes that philosophical exercise, of trying to know God by pinning God down like a specimen in a case or a sample under a microscope, very much beside the point.
A little sadly for us, maybe, because the kind of knowledge we are most confident about is that kind of knowledge. The kind we can have of things we can know “from the outside.” Things we can look at, examine, control, experiment on, draw pictures of, get to know that way.
Even better for us humans, with our human minds, if the things we want to know will stay still – like those idols made of gold or silver or stone. Then we can really get to know all about them, and what we know about them will not change; it will stay put; we can feel very certain about knowing what we know. We seem to like that.
Unfortunately for us, even then, as we also know, we keep learning new things about that kind of reality. I gather that all of the science I learned in school – that is, 50 years ago or so – is now obsolete. I tried to look up some statistics about that, and all I was able to find was a quote by Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist, who said “I think it’s safe to say that no one really understands quantum mechanics.” But that seems to have been in the late 1980s. Things may have changed.
The point is that, if God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being, then God far surpasses our human ability to know God “from the outside.”
We are more in the position of the little fish, in the familiar story, who asks her mother “Mom, what’s water?” and the mother fish looks around and says “This is water.”
Which is, in a way, no answer at all.
Because knowing what we – humans, now, not fish – know about water, from the outside, we know that there is much, much more to know about water than that little fish can ever possibly know from her experience from the inside.
And we even know that there are some experiences of water, and therefore some knowledge of water, that it would be nicer for her never to have. If she’s a trout, for instance, we know it will be healthier for her to stay in her nice, fresh-water river, than to try to find out more about water by swimming to the ocean. To name one of many examples we could think of.
All of which is to say that, even though we sometimes think we know all about God, as we rattle off the words of the Apostles’ Creed – “God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth,” – or even the right answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question “What is God?” – “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” – we are more like the Athenians, with their “Unknown God,” than we sometimes recognize.
Our best human thoughts, and our very best human words, only reach so far.
Even words like Spirit, Goodness, Love. [A word I could not help noticing does not appear in the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to the question “What is God?” in spite of 1 John 4:8.]
Because our understanding of what those words mean keeps growing, and deepening, over the course of our lives as we practice living according to the leading of the Spirit we receive in baptism, and endeavoring to keep Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us. Some words we never seem to get to the end of.
Just as our appreciation of what it means that Jesus was who he was, did what he did, and finally, knowingly, graciously, “laid down his life for his friends,” and said to God, in the face of death on a Roman cross, “your will, not mine, be done,” keeps growing and deepening over time, as well, as we face the demands and challenges of our own small, personal efforts to live as Christ’s followers. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, I think it’s safe to say that no one really understands Jesus.
We even know, or at least entertain the possibility, having read some things about the Living God in Scripture, that there might be some experiences of God it would be nicer for people never to have.
But we surely know that the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” is the very Source of what we know as “existence.” So that our limited human efforts to confine God’s “existence” and “attributes” and “qualities” and so on in images formed by the art and imagination of mortals – even when those mortals are philosophers, or theologians, or saints – are ultimately laughable. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, “God is in heaven, and you upon the earth. Therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
It’s easy to understand why we wouldn’t want to recognize our kinship with the Athenians, though. Because “an Unknown God” is a very scary thing. The word Paul uses to describe those “devout” Athenians, with their “let’s just be on the safe side” altar to that Unknown deity, is a word that in Greek literally means “dreading the spirits.”
A radically unknown God is a God from whom we never know what to expect. And when that God is, as far as we know, the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, the very source of existence itself, and of us, what we don’t know enough to expect could come with a lot of power. And might be one of those things it would be nicer never to know.
So if we are going to have to be like that little fish – as it seems we are – it is a good thing for us that we do know this: that God loves us little fish. Or rather, God loves us little humans, having made us in God’s image and likeness, to live and move and have our being in God. Loves us enough to do the best a God like that can do to communicate the Love that God is – as we say. Communicate that Love by putting it into human words – or rather, into the Word of a human life, Christ’s life. The Word who could show, as well as tell, as much of the Truth and the Way of that Living Love as a human life can hold.
Which is, we believe, why that Life could defeat death.
I think it’s safe to say that no one understands that. But we do get to trust it. With our own lives. Which we do at least know are gracious gifts from this God, whom we know and see, as we live and move and have our being, only in part – but better than not at all. Truly, even if “dimly,” “as in a mirror.”
The same Apostle Paul who proclaimed this known but still unknown, ever living God to those Athenians was fairly clear and distinct about that, too. In a letter to some other Greeks (the Corinthians), in which he tried to explain that word Love to them a little better. Since that is one of those words that we never seem to get to the end of. Now we see in a mirror, dimly. But one of these days, face to face, when we will know fully, or at least more fully, even as we are now fully known. And loved.
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.1 John 3:2
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons