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) 

 

Closing

 

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.)

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