Acts 17: 22-34
I do not know if you noticed it, but I have not preached for the last three Sundays. Maybe some of you hope that these last few weeks refreshed and reenergized me, and even inspired me to write one amazing sermon for this morning. If this is your expectation, you might be disappointed. Do not get me wrong. I worked hard this week to prepare this reflection. It is just that sometimes we tend to build huge expectations for a specific event or day and when the moment comes it is rarely as good as we dreamed. Paris is not as beautiful as we have been told. Your team does not go as far in the playoffs as expected. And if you are like me, you barely remember what happened on your wedding day.
A perfect example of this could be a United Church’s document called Song of Faith. Since the beginning of our denomination, there is an understanding that each generation would be invited to write a text that articulates their faith in their own context. In 1968, A New Creed was issued by our church. So in the 1990s, people believe that time came for a new statement of faith. Committees were formed, consultations were made and in 2003 the church released Song of Faith whose first words are: “God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description”. The response of many was, “Really. We waited 30 years for a text that cannot even offer a simple and clear definition of God.” Most of us has been raised in church contexts that gave us definitions and explanations that resemble to a catechism. Who is God? God is the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things. What is the Church? The Church is the society of the redeemed and was brought into existence by God Himself through the work and risen power of Christ. By the way, these come from the 1940 Statement of Faith. Now we are told that God is some sort of big unknown entity, a holy mystery. Some are still saying, “What a disappointment! What a missed opportunity!”
Somehow this makes me think of today’s text from Acts of the Apostles. After a successful passage in the city Beroea where many came to believe in his message, Paul finally arrived in Athens, the centre of Greek culture. The Athenians were known for their interest in the divine and openness to philosophies and religions. As he did in previous cities, Paul began to preach in the synagogue and the marketplace every day to those who happened to be there. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers noticed him and even if they consider him a babbler, they invited Paul to address the Areopagus, which was a council made up of philosophers and wise men. I know it sounds strange according to today’s standards. Just try to use your imagination. This group asked Paul, “May we know what is this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
Convincing a group of philosophers and individuals known for their wisdom is a big challenge, but if someone can do it, Paul was the man. We can find many examples in our Bibles of his ability to adapt his message and behaviours to meet people where they are. As he stood in front of the Areopagus, Paul did not begin his address by belittling their beliefs, condemning the worship of idols or threatening the Athenians with divine judgment, brimstone and eternal fire. Rather he got them on their good side by complimenting their deep religious convictions. The Athenians had temples and devotions for gods who were overseeing different aspects of their lives: commerce, war, wine, harvest and so on. Paul added, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the object of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god,’” Paul seized this opportunity to proclaim that this unknown god is in reality the Lord of heaven and earth, the god that he worshipped; a god who is the source of all life, not confined to a specific shine made by a human being, depends on nothing and needs no sacrifice to show greatness.
What Paul did that day is very cleaver. He used arguments found in Jewish and Greek culture. He quoted material from an Athenian poet. And then he slipped in the zinger; they were both offspring of this one and only God. As we are reading this today, we can only say that it is brilliant. Nobody could resist to this perfectly crafted argument. Paul must have won many converts on that day. However the text tells us, “But some of them join him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Well, this is not particularly impressive. We might be tempted to say, ‘What a missed opportunity! What a disappointment!’
… or maybe not. Paul’s words at the Areopagus, like those coming from Song of Faith 2,000 years later, have this capacity to bring our faith and spirituality somewhere else. They have the power to free our minds and souls from a narrow understanding of God. They remind us that God cannot be limited to one temple or sanctuary, restricted to specific functions or powers, or even defined by one single specie living on one planet of the universe. God is bigger and greater than everything we can conceive with our human brains. Our God is indeed an unknown god, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.
For us today, Paul’s address to the Athenians is maybe less the perfect template for evangelization and more a solid base to initiate interfaith and interreligious dialogues. I do not think I have to explain to you how our society has changed during the last century and cultural and religious diversity has become a challenge these days. In the interest of peace and harmony some are trying to erase our differences by claiming that all religions and gods are exactly the same. Let us hold hands and sing a hymn that is generic and politically correct. However another path is offered to us, a way that goes beyond platitudes and good feelings. We can build relationships on a common ground which is our quest for the divine in our lives, our search for a reality bigger than us, our desire to be touched a light, our hope to find this something that we call God. We do not have to be exactly identical or belong to the same church to recognize our similarities. We do not have to deny our beliefs or values to acknowledge that we share a common journey. Like an old Japanese proverb says, ‘There are many paths leading to the top of a mountain, but from up there, all look at the same sky.’
If we are ready to conceive that God is bigger than all we can imagine, we cannot expect to be always 100% right about everything. We have to be humble enough to accept that God is also speaking through a member of another faith group or even those who claim there is no such thing as a theistic God ruling over heaven and earth. We have to create opportunities for real and faithful dialogue in order to learn from one another. We have to imagine new ways to express our longings and unfulfilled needs. We have to develop a hunger for different spirituality and transcendent experiences. We have to become searchers and seekers unafraid to ask difficult questions that might not have one clear and simple answer. We have to come together with all our human brothers and sisters and consider ourselves God’s offspring.
Expectations can be very tricky, and they often lead to disappointment. Maybe it depends on the way we look at things. Where some see a failure, others chose to see an opening. Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens, the United Church’s Song of Faith or even this sermon have a point in common. They are not necessarily as good as some initially hoped, but they are still opportunities to wrestle with challenging questions, to open our minds to unexpected realities or to engage honestly our faith and spirituality. The bottom line might be that no matter where we go or what we do, the opportunity is always ours to discover how the unknown God we worship is present and active in those we meet on our journeys. Amen.