Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the One who is over all of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, and is not served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because God has fixed a day on which God will have the world judged in righteousness by one whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Creator, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees God nor knows God. You know God, because God abides with you, and will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Will you pray with and for me? God of Grace, pour out your blessings on this time; give us all the wisdom and courage to speak and hear and share and be your truth and love for us. Give us hope and strength as we seek your justice for all your people. In all your names, amen.
Paul was a traveller—a travelling evangelist, actually. Here he is in Athens, one of the cultural capitols of the day—something like New York or Vancouver or Los Angeles—where new thoughts are thought and new religions born and creativity allowed to flourish. The Areopagus was both a place and a group—an elder’s council, named for the place where it met, Ares’ Hill. They didn't have legislative power—they made no laws and didn't govern Athens—but this was the place where new ideas were shared and tested. Sort of a Speaker’s Corner, if you are familiar with that spot in London where anyone can speak on anything. Paul points out a curious thing—among all the gods and goddesses and demi-gods and goddesses worshipped in Athens with statues and temples, there is one quiet pedestal that is empty, with no statue. The dedication is to “The Unknown God.” Paul seems to think that the Athenians are covering their bases, just in case, but I think there is more to it than that.
The Athenians are recognising that there is more to divinity, to being God, than humans can grasp, and so while they worship specific gods for specific things, they know that there is divinity that is all-encompassing, not linked to only women, or only warriors or rulers or the home. This is the Unknown God. Paul does approve their worship, but he says that the Unknown God is not unknown at all, but is the one God he worships. He points out that the Greek poets had known there was but one God, and that humans longed for union with that one God—In God we live and move and have our being.
When we look at what the writer we know as John is saying, though, he seems to be at odds with Paul’s statement. He says that the ones who keep God’s commandments are the ones God loves, but Paul says that everyone is close to God.
To understand this, we have to look at the historical context. Acts was written before the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem—the most devastating event in Jewish history, and surely the signal, people of the time thought, for the return of Jesus. The setting in Acts, then, is one of anticipation—Christ will come back and judge the nations, just any day now! Thus the sense of urgency for Paul, to tell all the people he could about Christ, the appointed and anointed one.
The gospel of John, however, was written in a different time, when the temple had been destroyed and Christians were facing persecution and division, being barred from synagogues for heresy, and fearing for their very lives. They have been expecting Christ to return any time, to no avail—not even the destruction of the Temple brought his return—and they are afraid and discouraged. What is left for them? What are they supposed to do? How long are they expected to wait for Christ to return? Now what? So in John, it is vitally important to claim only one God, and to encourage the people who are fearful, discouraged and uncertain by reminding them that they have a unique knowledge of God, and that God is with them always, even in the midst of this persecution and strife, even when God cannot be seen. It is a different perspective, a new way of understanding Christ as having returned in a different way than what was expected. No, Christ didn't come back in a thunderclap, or as a baby, or as an avenger. Christ—or God, for they are the same—is present with us as Spirit, the Spirit of God, always present, always loving.
And this is the commonality between Paul and Acts—God is with us, God loves us. We may not always recognise God’s presence, we may call God by another name, even—that Unknown God—but God does not leave us. We are not orphaned—we have a loving Parent who is present with us even when life is difficult and painful and more than we can bear. God is with us in those dark hours, although we might not believe it. Because we love God, and God loves us, we are never alone. This is not a Hallmark card love, either—puppies and hearts and lace. This love is the love that stands strong through hurricanes of despair, through the gut-wrenching pain of betrayal, the soul-numbing grief of loss, and the dark night of fear. This love can bear us up through all of this, strengthened by the strife and horror and uncertainty.
God is with us always—known or unknown, in fear and in hope, God’s love surrounds us, holds us up. Even when we can’t see God’s presence, or even name God, we are not alone.
No matter how difficult your road becomes, in spite of uncertainty, of fear, of loss, know that God walks that road with you and loves you. No matter who you are, where you are, what you fear, remember this. God loves you, God loves you, God loves you.
In all God’s many names, amen.