Easter 6A: Imagining an Unknown God

Unknown GodOLD TESTAMENT:  Acts 17:22-31

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

This passage is known as Paul’s “Aeropagus Speech”.  The Aeropagus is a hill of rock northwest of the Acropolis in the city of Athens.  It was essentially a sort of city-state within Athens that in the 5th century before the common era functioned as the place of the council of elders, essentially the Roman senate.  It later acquired the function of the investigation of corruption, even though the conviction powers remained with the ancient city of Athens itself.  It was the center of logic, reality, and belief.  It was the center of what was known and even what was unknown.  It continued to function during these Roman times in which Paul lived and it was from this site that Paul is supposed to have delivered his famous speech.

The writer of the Book of Acts cues the speech as if he or she were writing a play:  “Then Paul stood in front of the Aeropagus and addressed his audience by name—Athenians.”  He addresses them as a religious audience and notes an altar inscription that he had found near the Aeropagus:  “To an unknown God.”  Well, of course, he is being sarcastic.  He is claiming that these so-called well-learned, poetry-reading, literature-versed, theater-loving, religious people worship gods they do not even know!  Conversely, Paul proclaims, his God is “the God”, not dependent on anything else, transcendent, and all-encompassing.  Paul explains that, essentially, this God that IS God is the source of all there is and cannot be domesticated or limited by any creature.  In other words, God is not contained in shrines or offerings.  God is creator of all and the source of all being.  And then he goes on…not only is God the creator of all but God has created us such that we desire to search for God.  In effect, God has created us so that we are not either compelled or satisfied worshipping an unknown God.

Paul’s speech exposed the shortcomings of a religion that places value solely in inanimate objects themselves—in rocks or shrines.  Paul’s proclamation was that God was a living God, fully engaged in human life and so entrenched that God would bring about the recreation of all of Creation.  The point, for Paul, was that, when it is all said and done, there is no need for an Aeropagus.  In essence, Paul is proclaiming God’s “knowability” even in the face of what is sometimes human ignorance, even in the face of our missing what God has shown us, even when we fall short of imagining this unknown God.   Paul is not pitting his God against their God.  He is not claiming to be on the winning team.  He is claiming that we are all the same—just trying to make our way toward a God who cannot be fully known.  God cannot be proven.  God is God; we are not.

Now don’t take Paul’s berating of the rock so literally that you become willing to throw away centuries of icons and articles of worship, including many of our own churches and everything they contains. D. Stephenson Bond reminds us that, “one minute it was a rock and the next a talisman, a charm, a fetish, a relic.  It then became a stone made sacred by human imagination.”  In other words, a rock is just a rock until one imagines it to be something else, until one imagines it to be a threshold from which one can connect with God.  We, of course, do not worship the rock; we worship God.  But, with our imagination, the rock can help guide our way.

It has to do with a sort of “sacred imagination”.  We cannot fully know God.  I think Paul probably believed that.  It is not that Paul thought that we could fully know God; the point is that God desires to be known by us.  Where we fall short is cultivating our “sacred imaginations.”  Einstein once said that “your imagination is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not he”, and everything in it said the same. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things and they answered, “We are not your God: Look higher”. I asked the moving air, and the air and everything in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong. I am not God”. I asked the heavens, the sun and moon and stars, and they said, “We are not the God you are looking for either”. Then I said to all the things that pressed upon my senses, “You have told me that you are not my God. Tell me something about him”. And they cried out with a great voice, “He made us”. I had questioned them with my thoughts and they answered with their beauty (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10).

Ossip Gabrilowitsch was a Russian-born American pianist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century.  He was one of the first pianists to record music via a reproducing piano and, as an aside, was married to Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens. Walter Russell once sculpted a bust of Gabrilowitsch.  He claimed that when he began, Gabrilowitsch looked no more like a musician than a colonel in the army, or a lawyer.  After half an hour of work, [Russell] said to him, “I want to see you as a musician.  I want to see music in your eyes.  I want to see the very soul of music in you because that is what you are.  I do not want to do a bust of you just as an ordinary human being.” “What shall I do? [Gabrilowitsch] asked.  Russell told him to “Go to the piano and play.” “I cannot play for an audience of one, he responded.  I could play for an audience of a thousand, but not for one.”  “Yes, you can,” Russell told him, “you just play and forget me and I will take care of my part.”  Gabrilowitsch played for an hour or two at a time for sixteen hours.  Russell said that it was only then that he was able to interpret him as a musician. He claimed that the sculpture was one of his best works, because it portrays a man actually inspired by thinking music.

Imagine what we would be like if we thought God (not LIKE God, but God).  Envision what you would be if you truly lived and moved and had your being in God.  I don’t really think that Jesus walked this earth and taught what he taught to give us a book of doctrine or a list of what we should be doing as Christians.  I also don’t think we were ever intended to be handed a full and complete picture of who God is. What we were given in Jesus’ life was something much more profound, something much more valuable.  We were given the gift of having our imaginations opened enough for God to fill them.  Jesus did just enough to peak our imaginations about God so that we would continue to imagine God on our own.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does God’s “knowability” mean for you?
  3. How much does sacred imagination have to do with our faith?
  4. Do you really want a God that is fully revealed?  What would that leave for you to discover?
  5. What does that mean to you to “imagine God”?


 NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Peter 3:13-22

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage’s theme of Christ’s victory over suffering and evil makes it very appropriate for this season of Eastertide.  Here, in the light of Christ’s triumph, Christians can stand fast in the face of opposition or adversity.  (This also fits in with the Acts passage that we read.)  The writer tells the reader to always be ready to defend his or her beliefs and, in essence, not worry about what others are doing.  Just do right.  Just be who you are.  Verse 18 (For Christ suffered…) presents the underlying grounding for the blessedness of Christian suffering.

The understanding of the meaning of baptism in 1 Peter is that the waters have symbolic or sacramental power.  But that power is confirmed through the conscience or intention of the believer.  It does not work superficially, like washing your hands, but it works to bring the whole person into a lasting relationship with God.

I don’t like the idea of suffering being the “purpose” of faith, as if we all live to be martyrs in a world of partyers.  Maybe suffering for us means something other than being persecuted (which few of us really are.)  Maybe suffering means taking on the injustices of the world—immigration, medical care, sexism, economic disparity—you know, all those things that are “hot-button topics”, all those things that get you accused of being unrealistic or unpatriotic or un-something else.  Maybe today’s Christian is called to suffer the realism of standing up against a world that has settled into the naïve oblivion that God is going to fix it if we will only trust in God.  After all, doesn’t our baptism call us to be something more?


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “suffering for what is right” mean for you in your life?
  3. Do we do that?
  4. What would change if we did?


GOSPEL:  John 14: 15-21

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These verses describe two dimensions of the believer’s relationship with Jesus:  (1) The inseparability of one’s love of Jesus and the keeping of his commandments and (2) The abiding and the indwelling of the presence of God for those who love him.  The words also point to the ways in which the disciple’s love and obedience to Jesus determine their relationship with God.

This is the first time that the Spirit (parakletos) appears in The Gospel According to John.  The noun form here can mean “the one who exhorts” or “the one who comforts” or “the one who helps”.  The NRSV translates it as “Advocate”, but it is really a broader meaning than that.  The promise of Jesus’ return is invoked and the phrase “in a little while” sort of kicks off the interim period before the time of eschatological fulfillment. (or “on that day”)

All of Jesus’ words address the shape of the community’s life after the events of Jesus’ hour and farewell.  It needs to be understood in the context of the “farewell situation” Essentially, can the disciples still love him when he is gone?  And even more, can the next generation love him, without having had a personal relationship with him? So the question begs, can WE love him, really, really love him in the depth of our being?  These verses present love as the sign of fidelity to Jesus and the way to communion with God.

At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something. “I am the vine,” he says, sitting down again, “and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.” But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.

Years ago I read something rather odd: “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” Whoever said that was playing with us a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there’s another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that-doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy. Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we’re tied together like branches on the vine-or like climbers tied to the rope-tied together by the Spirit, to trust in one who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” (From “I Will Not Leave You Orphaned”, by Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, available at http://day1.org/936-i_will_not_leave_you_orphaned, accessed 25 May, 2011.)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What impact does the question of whether or not we can have a relationship with Jesus without knowing him have on you?
  3. What, for you assures that relationship?
  4. What gets in the way of it?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 I shut my eyes in order to see. (Paul Gauguin)

Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with world affairs.  He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives…He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities…Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change in contacts, or even a change of pace.  He speaks about a change of heart. (Henri Nouwen) 

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman) 




Let us pray:  What truth does our worship reveal? (time of silence)

Living God, forgive us when our worship reveals other than the centrality of Jesus Christ in whom we meet you.  Retrieve our wandering minds and fix them on the wonder and holiness of the divine clothed in human flesh. Holy God, inspire and renew our worship with the Spirit of truth.

What truth do our lives reveal? (time of silence)

Eternal God, forgive us when we worship idols of our own making – gods fashioned for our own selfish ends. Merciful God, bless and renew our lives with the Spirit of truth.

What truths do our communities reveal? (time of silence)

Loving God, forgive us when we ignore the pain and hopelessness of so many people – young and old – in our communities and so deny Christ’s commandment to love one another in suffering, self-giving ways. Compassionate God, inflame and renew our love with the Spirit of truth.

What truths does our world reveal?   (time of silence)

Creator God, forgive us when our desire to maintain our standard of living contributes to the poverty of life experienced by countless people and to the  growing environmental problems throughout this world. God of all righteousness, restore and renew our sense of justice with the Spirit of truth.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen. 

( From “Liturgies Online”, by Rev. Moira Laidlaw, Uniting Church of Australia , available at http://www.liturgiesonline.com.au/liturgies/main/index.php?ch_table=link6&PID=22&SID=&year=A, accessed 25 May, 2011.)

Easter 5A: Come, This Way

Come, This WayOLD TESTAMENT: Acts 7:55-60

To read the Lectionary Acts passage, click here

This is, to put it lightly, a disconcerting passage. We don’t read the preface to these verses (what prompted the stoning itself). Stephen had been openly criticizing opponents of the faith. But Stephen’s stoning and martyrdom confirms what Acts had hinted at earlier—that all who share in the faith of Jesus Christ will also in some way share in the same suffering that Christ endured. So, in his death, Stephen exemplifies Christian discipleship. He is killed because of the “shocking” things that he said to an unrepentant (and not ready-to-change) society. In essence, Stephen has boldly continued what Jesus had started.

Stephen’s response to his death is Spirit-filled. He accepts his fate as the prophets before him. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” designates him as one who is empowered by the Spirit to give bold and radical witness to the Risen Christ. In this way, his is portrayed with a likeness to Jesus. Stephen’s death marks a radical turning point for the Christian community and their mission as depicted in the Book of Acts. Clearly, things are different now. And so the evangelistic mission at this point moves beyond Jerusalem.

We don’t really do well with the image of martyrdom. In fact, sometimes that word today depicts a sort of self-serving. self- effacing way of living out one’s faith—a way of living that is directed toward the self rather than the story that we are called to tell. But Stephen did not set out to be martyred for a cause; rather, he just felt called and compelled to share the good news that he so believed. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on this text, says this:

When you put [Stephen] and Jesus together, it is pretty hard to deny that this is what Christian success looks like: not converting other people to our way of thinking; not having the oldest, prettiest church in town; not even going out of our ways to be kind and generous, but telling the truth so clearly that some people want to kill us for it.

There are problems with that, of course. In the first place, there is Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” And in the second place, most of us have known people who believe they are being martyrs when all they are really being is obnoxious. They are the ones who harass you about your faith until you finally tell them please to get lost and then they start moaning about how hard it is to serve the Lord.

Only I do not think real martyrdom works that way. I do not think you can seek it anymore than you can avoid it. I think it just happens sometimes, when people get so wrapped up in living God’s life that they forget to protect themselves. They forget to look out for danger, and the next thing they know it is raining rocks. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blood of the Martyrs”, in Home By Another Way, p. 125-126) 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does Stephen’s responsiveness point to our own calling?
  3. What does the depiction of Stephen having a “likeness” to Christ mean for you?
  4. What does “martyrdom” mean to you in light of this Scripture?
  5. Are there more “modern-day” martyrs? What makes them a “martyr” in your understanding?


NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 2:2-10

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage from 1 Peter continues the writer’s calling to responsible living in light of the good news of the Messiah. It is an excursus on how to be God’s holy people. Like much of 1 Peter, it posts contrasts between the old and the new. It recalls the Christian’s baptism and what that means, a reminder that now we are called to live different lives than the one that we left behind. Unlike Paul’s reference, here the “milk” of the newborn [Christian] is not intended to be inferior to solid food that one receives in maturity. Here, milk implies gift and grace received as one begins this new life in Christ.

The image of Christ as the stone is often used—here, a great foundation on which one can build this new life. (The “rejection” of the stone is, of course, those who have refused to listen to the message that Christ brought, the message of this limitless, unfathomable God.) Through Christ, believers are called to be a new people—God’s people, God’s household, God’s new priesthood chosen by God. (I don’t think this should be intended to imply some sort of elitist order, but rather the recognition of a calling that one receives at one’s baptism and to which one responds in faith.) This, then, is how the “honor” and mercy are bestowed—through Christ.

Now this probably is meant by the writer to be as exclusive as it sounds: Christians as “God’s people” and “the chosen priesthood”. But keep in mind the context. These people were “nobody’s” who were being told that they were “God’s people” and “the chosen priesthood”. They were suffering and yet being told that they were “holy”.

The Christian identity at this point was the one that paid attention to what Jesus had said about God. And this identity IS our identity to which we relate. I personally don’t think in the broader context it has to be the ONLY identity associated with God—just the one to which we respond. But, in this context, the believers WERE the Christians. So, that’s my take…

But we can call ourselves distinctive and not consider ourselves exclusive. What is it that makes us distinctive? Could someone tell the difference between our church and our culture? In what ways are they different? In what ways are they both called to affect and feed each other? In what ways are we leading the charge toward justice and righteousness and in what ways are we lagging behind even the prevailing culture?


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What, for you, does this “Christian” identity mean in our world context today?
  3. How would that change were we not the “majority” religion in our society?
  4. What does it mean to call yourself “Christian” today?

GOSPEL: John 14: 1-14

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This text is sort of the center point of what is usually called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” in The Gospel According to John. Essentially, Jesus is saying, “don’t worry…I will not leave you orphaned and alone.” In the first verse, “troubled” probably means more general distress, disheartenment, or just out and out fear over what may happen. It is not just sadness.

The words “in my Father’s house” are not intended to imply heaven or some domain of the afterlife. It is, rather, the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus into which we are invited now. Throughout this gospel, location is often a symbol not for specific residence but for relationship. (And in this relationship are “many rooms”.)

Jesus’ “I am the Way” statement is in line with lots of different cultures and religious traditions. The background of it here is found in Judaism. Within Jewish wisdom tradition, “The Way” (derek) denotes the lifestyles of the wise (those who lived in accordance with the teachings of the sages). It suggests a pathway that is worn by constant use. The implication is that “The Way” involves patterns of behavior, ways of living and being, rather than isolated acts. In the Psalms, “The Way” is used to describe the living within the will and desire of God. So, here, it means ones faithful unity with God. (Marcus Borg described as describing Jesus not as the “route to God” but as the embodiment, the incarnation, of the very pathway to God.)

Sometimes it is helpful to consider our own understandings in light of other traditions. Consider these writings from other traditions:


  • From first-century Palestinian wisdom literature: “Better is Torah for the one who attends to it than the fruits of the tree of life: Torah which the Word of the Lord has prepared in order that it may be kept, so that man may live and walk by the paths of the way of the life of the world to come.”
  • From the Bhagava-Gita of Hinduism, Lord Krishna proclaims, “Whatever path men travel is My path; no matter where they walk it leads to me.”
  • From Japanese wisdom: Although the paths to the summit may differ, from the top one sees the same moon.


Jesus is “The Way” because he has shown us access to God’s promise of life. (This does not mean, for me, that it has to mean that Jesus is the only access point. I am clear that there are God-loving, God-worshipping people all over the globe. But, for me, as a Christian, this is the one that works. Jesus is the one that makes the Presence of God real for me. Jesus is the one that, for me, defines The Way.)

Rudolf Schnackenburg identified John 14:6-7 as “the high point of Johannine theology.” These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words express the Fourth Evangelist’s unshakable belief that the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, decisively altered the relationship between God and humanity. These words affirm that Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world and that God the Father can be known only through that incarnate presence that is depicted and made known in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Humanity’s encounter with Jesus the Son makes possible a new experience of God as the Father. This IS The Way.

Alyce McKenzie contends that “Jesus is saying to his disciples then and now, “Come on, now. You know this. I’ve taught you this. We’ve been through this before, you and I. Hold onto this promise. It won’t let you down now: ‘I am the Way.’ In me you see God. In me you meet and will meet God. My teachings will guide your feet. My presence will sustain your spirit. In all the twists and turns your future path may take, ‘I am the Way.‘”” (Alyce McKenzie, “I Am the Way”, May 15, 2011, available at       http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/I-Am-the-Way-Alyce-McKenzie-05-16-2011.html, accessed 18 May, 2011.)

The point is that it’s not about us. It’s not really about mansions or “stuff” or what we think has been promised us or those things to which we think we’re entitled. It’s about God. It’s about God’s house. It’s about finding our way to where we belong and to who we’re called to be, for “once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people.”


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does “the Way” mean for you?
  3. What does “the Way” mean in our broader pluralistic world context?
  4. What does the world’s growing pluralism mean for your own faith and for your own Christian identity?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 It is more difficult, and it calls for higher energies of soul, to live a martyr than to die one. (Horace Mann, 1796-1859)

 We are summoned, we feel, because something in the universe says, “You have hero material in you!” A summons, we believe, asks us to go on a quest. It places us in a mystic context. (David Spangler, The Call)

The analogy of the building of an interior temple, a temple of the heart, as a house for the Divine is a useful description of the work involved in creating the inner life, a living spiritual life. (Regina Sara Ryan, Praying Dangerously)



Come, My Way, My Truth, my Life: such a way as gives us breath, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life as killeth death.


Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: such a light as shows a feast, such a feast as mends in length, such a strength as makes his guest.


Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: such a joy as none can move, such a love as none can part, such a heart as joys in love.


(Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life”, UMH # 164 (Words by George Herbert, 1633)