How do you spell God?
Easter 6, Common Lectionary YearÂ A
Acts 17: 21-31
Â©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
So, I have a question for you;Â Â Do you think thisÂ **(photo of the Statue of Liberty with Habs jersey) is a smart way to win friends and influence people in the city of New York tonight, as the Habs play game 4 against the Rangers?
Not so much!!Â Thank goodness itâ€™s just a photo-shopped image, because thatâ€™s the sort of thing that would start an international incident -Â to take such an iconic structure and use it to make your own particular, some would say, sectarian point.
I wonder if this is what Paulâ€™s speech didÂ – if thatâ€™s the impact it had â€“ on some people at least, that day up on Mars Hill, in the Areopagus of Athens?Â ** After all, he basically chose one of their temples, to one of their gods, to make his point, about his god.
Itâ€™s hard to tell whether what Paul did was success or failure, but it was iconic, and it was startling, and it was ground breaking for the new Christian movement, and itâ€™s worthy of our examination, scrutiny and reflection.
Paul had spent a few days in Athens, and Luke tells us he was â€œdeeply distressedâ€ by the plethora of religious iconography all around him, temples, columns, streets, statues, fountains, every one dedicated to a different god in the Greco-Roman pantheon. To a devout Jew, steeped in monotheism, and moreover a belief system that forbade the making of images ofÂ God,Â even forbade the direct utterance of the holiest Name of God, Athens would have been just trop. So when he makes his way up here (screen), and clears his throat, weâ€™d do well to fear whatâ€™s going to come out of his mouthâ€¦.. some diatribe, some Amos or Jeremiah prophetic tantrum that will likely get him kicked out of town â€“ again.
But No. Paul opens with honeyed words. â€œWow, you guys must be uber-spiritual! How many temples can you fit in one town? You must be the most spiritually inquisitive people Iâ€™ve ever met!! Your reputation for religious discourse is world-wide,Â I canâ€™t wait to talk theology with you! In fact Iâ€™ve spent days, studying in minute detail every single niche and altar, listened to the audio guides in every temple, Iâ€™ve learned so much about your incredible pantheon of divinityâ€¦..â€
Well, perhaps I embellish a bit to make the point, which is that Paul actually did know what he was talking about. Heâ€™d done his homework before he opened his mouth. He had taken time to get under the surface of the cultureÂ and the religious and spiritual motivations of these Athenians, found out who they were, what made them tick, what mattered to them, what questions burned within them, what quests and searches occupied the best of their scholars.
And out of his mouth, in short order comes his golden nugget, his bullâ€™s eye, his â€œin.â€ He had found in his searching Â an altar with an inscription â€œTO THE UNKNOWN GOD.â€ Here was his connecting point with this culture, this people. The acknowledgment of a divine mystery beyond knowing or naming, â€¦. he knows that God!
As a Jew, he is the follower of the Unknowable, Unnameable, God, as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, he is privy to the divine mystery called incarnation, the revelation of the Dream of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. Heâ€™s found the point of connection, and heâ€™s off and running!
So beginning where they are, speaking about things that matter most to them, touching with respect one of their sacred objects, he now even uses their own sacred language. Itâ€™s not obvious to us, just looking at English text on a page, but scholarship has shown us that when Paul says describes thisÂ Unknowable, Unnameable God as â€œthis God in whom we live and move and have our being,â€ heâ€™s quotingÂ not his own scriptures, but theirs. Heâ€™s quoting their beloved poet of long-standing repute,Â the 6th Century poet, Epimenides.
Score! Letâ€™s step outside the text for a minute to see why Iâ€™m pumped! Paul meets the Athenians on their own ground, speaks their language, uses their metaphors and media to share Godâ€™s Dream.
Imagine it this way: Paul has landed here in 21st century Montreal, walked the streets, checked out the Malls, the coffee shops, the restaurants, the arenas, museums, and even some of the city churches, – all the temples of our cultureâ€™s gods. Heâ€™s set up his own Facebook account, and perfected his ability to say comme Ã§a, Â â€œYou have this â€œUnknown Godâ€, Baen Mouaiy Luh, je le connais!â€
In fact Iâ€™d go so far as to say that this text is as good a starting place as any to begin to address a question Iâ€™ve heard from many of you in recent weeks and months: Can you help us work out how we can talk about our church and our faith, the open, inviting, fun-filled, graced way we do things, to our non-church-going friends in a way that isnâ€™t freakish or doesnâ€™t confirm their worst suspicions about religion and church?
If we follow Paulâ€™s model here, we get a four point strategy thatâ€™s worth trying: First:Â find out enough about the way those friends of yours tick. Learn what their hopes for their children and grandchildren are. What matters to them? What are their spiritual questions? Are those spiritual questions hidden in language about values, authenticity, integrity, fulfilment? Well, learn their language. You probably already speak it.
Second: Look to what matters to you about your faith, this place, this thing you do on Sunday,Â and during the week,Â the way this faith of yours shapes parts, or even all of your decisions, your choices, your life. Find what matters most to you, and stick to that. Donâ€™t get sidetracked by the details.
Then: put the two in conversation, and find the places of connection, intersection.
Third: And get this! Do what Paul did when it comes to quoting scripture and doctrine to tell about God , about Jesus, about how this faith changes the direction of your lifeâ€¦.
He didnâ€™t! He didnâ€™t quote his own scripture. Instead he used the language, the metaphors, the values of their own culture. Because the Dream of God is too big to be contained in one box, one book, one language. (You donâ€™t have to quote Scripture!)
Fourth: Perhaps the hardest thing for us to do. It may take some practice, it will probably cause us some grief along the way, as it did for him. He didnâ€™t apologize for God, for Jesus, and he didnâ€™t dilute the Gospel. Using their own poetâ€™s words, he boiled it down to this â€œWe are offspring of the divine, and that changes everything.â€ He wasnâ€™t ashamed, and he didnâ€™t shame them either.
So, please, donâ€™t ever be ashamed of all that feeds you here, donâ€™t be timid about the sense of purpose it gives you, donâ€™t be reticent toÂ invite and welcome others to discoverÂ the â€˜homeâ€™ that youâ€™ve found in this corner of Godâ€™sÂ world, Godâ€™s grace,Â Godâ€™s blessing and purpose. Thatâ€™s too good a Gospel to keep to yourself.