In the unknown God
We have seen the Lord.
Over the past few weeks we’ve explored the ways in which the early Church saw the Lord, encountered, or experienced, the reality of the risen Jesus.
We began in the quite literal encounter of Thomas, and moved from there into other, more figurative ways of understanding that phrase; ways that perhaps are more true to our experience. Two followers of Jesus who encountered him as they walked away, giving up; and who didn’t know, at least at first, who it was that they were listening to.
Others who encountered Jesus as the radical grace and generosity and hospitality of the early Church made him known, by making the love and welcome of Jesus, and given in the name of Jesus, so real, so tangible, so undeniably powerful.
And then last week, Stephen, appointed to serve, to help ensure that those in need had those needs provided for, and in the process argued the case for Jesus so compellingly and so persistently that he was killed for his efforts, but not before having a vision of the risen Lord in glory, at God’s right hand.
Today we take another step along that path, for we have the story of those who encountered Jesus without ever knowing who it was. And unlike those two on the Emmaus Road, these were people who never met Jesus, had never even heard his name, and yet, we are told, were already worshipping him.
They had seen the Lord, but had not known it, seeing the one true God in one they simply named “An Unknown God”.
The setting is Athens, and the Areopagus. While Rome was the undoubted military and political heart of the empire, Athens could certainly lay claim to being its intellectual core. It’s been said that the Greek Empire, founded by Alexander the Great, had, two centuries later, conquered Rome by being defeated. The Romans had certainly won, but Greek thought spread throughout the empire; Latin might be the language of law and civil society, but Greek was the language of thought, of ideas.
But the intellectuals of Athens also knew that there was more. They recognised that all they knew, or thought they knew, of the Gods, was incomplete. There was still the unknown. And this was Paul’s starting point.
“You,” he declared, “have already encountered the God that I have come to declare to you. What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim.”
“You have already seen the Lord.”
And if we stopped there, this would be a comfortable message. Those who worship in other ways, those who are spiritual but not religious, they, we might conclude, are worshipping the same God as us, but they just don’t know it. Paul didn’t condemn them (as he had previously condemned those in the synagogue – those who ought to have known better) for the worship of idols.
Instead, he praises them for their spirituality, and says “we’re basically all worshipping the same God anyway. You have seen the same Lord as I have”.
That would, as I say, be a comfortable message.
But of course, Paul didn’t stop there.
“What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim”.
We’re not so good at that bit, are we. The proclaim bit.
But I reckon that the story of Paul in Athens points us to a way of sharing the news of the risen Jesus that maybe isn’t so alien to us, isn’t so threatening.
Mike Frost, the Baptist Minister, says that when people find out that he is a minister, the most common response is “oh, I’m not religious”. I’m sure you’ve heard the same. He answers with a question: “you’ve never had any sort of spiritual experience?”.
And then he listens to their story. It might be a story of ghosts, or of dreams, or of premonitions, or of a feeling of the grandeur of creation, or of unimaginable beauty, or an inexplicable sense of the numinous. Or it might be a sense of values, of what matters, of justice or family or environmentalism or community or progress or creativity in music or art.
As Paul wandered around Athens, learning about the people, learning the words of their poets and the inscription on their altars, so our proclamation begins with genuine listening.
And I reckon that failure to do that lies behind much of what makes us uncomfortable with the ‘evangelism’ that is so sure it knows all the answers that it has no interest in other points of view.
Let’s face it, we don’t know all the answers. We don’t even know most the questions.
And listening and understanding leads into affirming the spirituality of those to whom he is speaking. “I see how religious you are in every way,” he declares.
Whatever expression of spirituality you find in another, I suspect you can take a positive lead out of it. A story of ghosts or premonitions points to a sense that there is more to life than this physical world. An experience of majesty or the numinous points to the wonder of creation. The desire for justice reflects the yearning of God for all God’s people to be treated right. I doubt there is anything that someone can tell you they value or feel or experience out of which you cannot find a thread that lies in common with the Christian story – for they too are made in the image of God, with the instinct for the divine.
When we listen without prejudice, we can genuinely value those things that point to an instinct of spirituality in others.
And then – and this is probably the bit we are worst at, offer what we have to add.
What Paul did was to identify, in the philosophies and spirituality of those with whom he was in conversation, those threads of thought and understanding that pointed beyond where they were towards something else. For the Athenians it was firstly the shrine to the unknown God – a recognition that there was more to the divine than they yet knew, a power greater than that of the Gods they named. To that he added the observation of their poets that God was somehow beyond the idols and temples that they worshiped at: “in him we live and move and have our being… for we too are his offspring”.
Paul took the insights that the people had of God, and he built on them, as if to say “Your best and truest religious experience, your best and truest philosophy: they point you to something else. And I think I have the next piece, I think I know something of God that your truth is pointing you towards, and I’d like to tell you about it. I’d like to connect your story of the spiritual with my story, with the Jesus story.”
You have a passion for justice? The God of justice is the unknown God that has called you and empowered you.
You give your energy to protect the environment? The creator of this world is the unknown God you are working alongside.
Your love of science? The one who set the rules to bring order out of chaos is the unknown God whose thoughts you are thinking after.
The value you place on community, on family, on love? The God whose very nature is love is the unknown God who creates communities, places us in families.
Your creativity in art, music, invention? You are a co-creator with the unknown God who has never stopped making something new.
Your experience of the numinous, your awe in the natural world? You know already that there is so much more to life than meets the eye.
The Athenians had already seen the Lord; Paul named him for them. Here’s a model for sharing the news of the risen Jesus I can at least imagine being part of.
Genuinely listening to others.
Hearing and affirming their spiritual instincts.
And then connecting them to the Jesus story.
The first step, I reckon many of us love to do already. Whenever you hear that a group is welcoming – as does get said about us here at Roseville – you can be sure that those saying it felt listened to.
The second step, too, I think we are comfortable with – finding what is good in the spirituality of another. Maybe we just need to be more aware of it, more deliberate about listening for it.
The hardest bit is connecting their story to ours, to the Jesus story. That’s where we need practice.
Back before COVID many of us started “Makes You Wonder” – a course which is all about knowing our own story and learning to make connection. Those who came absolutely loved it – but it didn’t work online, so it stopped.
I think it’s time to start it again. So if you only take one thing from today, let it be this: come to Makes You Wonder when it start.