Encountering the Unknown God
A Meditation on Acts 17:22-31
Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
Aston Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2020
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.””
I wonder if he felt nervous. I wonder if he was even a little bit afraid. In this seventeenth chapter of Acts, Luke tells us about Paul preaching at Areopagus. Now at first glance, Areopagus might seem to be “just another stop” on Paul’s journey…..another place name that we might stumble over as we pronounce it and search for on images of maps of ancient biblical times. Until we read it here, it is quite possibly a name that you’d never heard before, although history tells us that it was a place of great importance to the ancient Greeks.
Areopagus—still existing today—is set in a rocky hill just below the Parthenon in Athens. The ruins of this pagan temple remain, allowing modern-day sojourners to imagine what it might have been like in its time….when it was the seat of intelligentsia for all of Athens and beyond.
This was the gathering place of the elite—the great philosophers and religious thinkers of the time spent their hours reflecting on the great and pressing issues of the day, there upon those rocky hills. This was not just a gathering of “smart people”—-this was a gathering of THE “smart people”….the most important, learned, and respected minds of the time.
Now I say this not to diminish Paul’s intelligence or oratory skill in the slightest, but I know that if I were Paul in this situation, I would have been rather terrified at the prospect of speaking to this gathering. These were philosophers, after all, and Greek philosophers at that—-they likely would have had very little interest in hearing about bodily resurrection. Immortality of the spirit? Perhaps that would have caught their ear, but the resurrection of Jesus would have presented quite a challenge. This was a pretty tough crowd, in that respect.
And thus it is interesting to see that Paul approaches them, not with the resurrection—not even with quotes from Scripture!—but with a general reference to religion. “People of Athens!”, he calls, “I see in every way that you are very religious!”, he tells them. Paul seeks to IDENTIFY with the people to whom he is speaking. He wants to find that common ground upon which they all stand. Now, as an aside, it is humorous—and quite Pauline—that the word he uses, “deisidaimonesterous” means “fearing the gods.” In Greek, this word has a dual meaning of sorts. It can be interpreted in a positive light, used to commend believers on their piety. But it can also be used in a more negative connotation, assessing one as superstitious. Although I read it as Paul being genuine—and for sure the Athenian intelligentsia would have interpreted it as a recognition of their pious natures—it could be read as Paul gently jabbing at them for their idolatry. But whatever the case, there he was, seeming to search for common ground with which to identify his listeners.
Now Paul, having recently arrived from Thessalonica, had spent some time walking around Athens and getting to know the city a bit before arriving at Areopagus as his destination. He had seen that the Athenian people were a very religious people. He knew that he was not going to bring the message of Christ to a people who hadn’t thought about gods before. He knew he was not walking into a group of people hungry for his word or likely to be easily swayed by what he was to tell them. Athens was a cultured and vibrant city, drawing the great thinkers from all around to come and ponder the issues of the day together. Paul knew he had his work cut out for him. And so, on his journey around town, I imagine that he was both surprised and overjoyed to have seen the altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Maybe the Athenians didn’t know who that was…..but Paul DID.
So as he climbed up the rocky steps to take his place as one of the speakers of the day, I wonder if his heart was pounding in his chest. I wonder if he was filled with excitement and fear and the exhilaration of speaking known to unknown and finding unknown in the known. There was so much promise and opportunity and surely, emotion, wrapped up in just a few sentences of the sermon he was to give.
And with that, he was off—ready to proclaim to them about that very God. The God who was and is. Quickly and concisely, Paul makes his points. God is the creator of the universe. He is the Lord who made heaven and earth. God is the sustainer of life. He gives to all their breath and all they need. God is the ruler of the nations. He has created every nation and is never far from any of us. God is the Father of humankind. It is in him that we live, move, and have our very being. And God is the Judge of the world. He calls us to repentance and to follow Him. “We are his offspring”, Paul tells the Athenian people, quoting from their own philosophers as he connects with their commonality.
It must have been amazing to share, and even more amazing to hear—Paul, impassioned and erudite, speaking truth on an ancient hilltop surrounded by the intelligentsia of the land. I wonder what he thought might come of it. I wonder if he expected praise and accolades. I wonder if he thought his message would move them. I wonder if he anticipated masses of converts. I wonder if he thought the resurrection would speak for itself or if he thought he’d face neutrality at best, derision at worst. I wonder what he thought of what came.
We know what biblical scholars think—they are generally known as people prepared to share their opinions —and what the critics of Paul’s sermon say is that he didn’t quote scripture effectively or make reference to the Cross. That he compromised his message—indulging an intellectual audience, many of whom scoffed and mocked him. We know that the scholars feel that this “great sermon at Aeropagus”—-this awesome chance for Paul to speak to the decision-makers of the time—wasn’t as fantastic as it could be, bringing only two people, Dionysys and Damaris, to the fold.
But what gets me thinking—-thousands of years after the moment of which we speak today—what gets me thinking are all the unknown pieces of the story. The Bible is an astounding book—we are given this treasure of all of these stories passed on, generation over generation. But even with all we know and all we study, there is so much unknown. We don’t know the people who were there that day. We are only told that “many” scoffed and that two joined the cause and followed Paul, but there are numbers upon numbers that we know nothing about. We don’t know how the Word was heard or interpreted except in the few lines that tell us part of the story. We don’t know.
And so, for all the story tells us about the unbelievers and the scholars tell us about the apparent “lack of success” of the mission—we are still left with all that unseen, unknown, beautiful possibility. We don’t know the true impact the Word had. We don’t know the true effect that the story of—no, the PROMISE of—-the resurrection had on the people.
We live in that same world today. And of course, we are not preaching from a rocky outcropping there adjacent to an ancient temple. We are not always invited to share our story, nor are we always surrounded by the most intelligent minds of the day….but that doesn’t change the call of God upon our hearts. That doesn’t change the TRUTH—that God is the creator of our world; the sustainer of all life; the rulers of all nations; the Father of humankind; the great Judge of the world. That we have not been invited to offer an exalted and noble word to the great thinkers of our day does not change the fact that we are called to continue to witness. “Preach the gospel”, we are told, “If necessary, use words.”
A dear friend of mine who is a health and wellness coach once told me that people need to hear something seven times before they fully understand and commit. SEVEN TIMES. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of speaking and hearing and sharing and understanding and telling and re-telling of a story. And that is what we are called on to believe and do every day. Sharing the Word of God is not a once-and-done-event, any more that it is a once-and-done-event for we who believe. The scriptures show the way. The miracles speak. The Cross stands in its agony, its grace, its redemption before us every day. We live the resurrection every time the name Jesus is shared from our lips. We live the Gospel, we don’t just speak it. Seven times—or seventy times seven—people are looking to us to be living witnesses to our faith.
As Paul likely found out, it is affirming to have people agree with you, and no doubt he was heartened to see the reactions of Dionysus and Damaris. And along our own journeys, we will see our own versions of Dionysus and Damaris as we spread the word on our heart. But there will be countless other ways that what we speak and live touches people and we will never hear about it. Someone is listening to you who needs to know a God of mercy. Someone is watching you who needs to know a God of love. Someone is following you who needs to know a God of mission and grace. Someone needs you to make their “unknown God” known.
We won’t convince them by speaking louder; or by acting smarter; or by pretending that we are more pious than we really are. No, the truth will breathe forth from us in a thousand little moments, when what we say and do points back, again and again, to the message of the Cross. When we show forgiveness; mercy; love; patience; kindness; perseverance….when we offer the message again and again in just being who we are. Real and relatable disciples of a living God.
I don’t have an Areopagus in my landscape, and I imagine that neither do you. I will meet with reluctance and rejection, no doubt, as we all do. But we don’t need a lofty forum to share our witness. The truth of what we speak doesn’t need fanfare or invitation. It just needs us, in our wholeness and in our brokenness, willing to go again and again urged on by little more than that still, small voice and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are our witness. And sometimes our witness meets with acceptance and encouragement and sometimes our witness meets with aversion and refusal. But that doesn’t mean that the gospel isn’t still moving on….God is still speaking. God is still speaking through the embodiment of your mission and God’s unyielding grace as you reflect the face of Christ to those in your midst. Someone is looking to you to make the Unknown God, KNOWN. May we live our witness, every day. Amen.