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.)

Ascension: En Absentia

FootprintsFIRST LESSON:  Acts 1: 1-11

This passage begins with the first major issue:  Who will do it now?  Who will restore the Kingdom of Israel and restore God’s Kingdom?  But there is an underlying clear assumption that what Jesus began his successors will continue.  The assumption has nothing to do with duty or responsibility, but with sincere devotion to the truth that Jesus conveyed and the deepest desire for that truth to continue being spread throughout the world.  This assumption plays heavily into the way that the Book of Acts is constructed.  It has to do with the way the church and the people of the church pattern their lives after the life of Jesus Christ.

The phrases “through the Holy Spirit” and “the apostles whom Jesus had chosen” introduce that continuity and also introduces a partnership, a community if you will, that is being formed.  The Book of Acts begins with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the Gospel of Christ and with Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection.  The Resurrection of Jesus is a theme of enormous importance for this book.  It testifies to Jesus’ faithfulness to God and confirms him as Lord and Christ.  Acts simply says that Jesus “appeared” to his disciples over an extended period of “forty days”.  There are differing opinions as to what these “forty days” represent.  It may have been a way to fill out the calendar between Easter and the Ascension.  In Old Testament writings, forty often refers to a period of preparation (such as forty years) during which God fully instructs people for their future work.  Essentially, Jesus gathers his followers after Easter to prepare them for their future without him.  His leaving is not abrupt; he has prepared them for his departure.

What we are told here is that waiting for God to act is an individual’s project, but it is also a community project.  Waiting with others is an act of solidarity.  They were joined together in a specific place to await God’s action.  But waiting on the Lord to act is not a passive activity.  They waited by praying, studying together.  Prayers are not offered to solicit God’s benefaction, which they have already experienced, nor to ensure that God would fulfill what is promised them.  Praying demonstrates the importance of unity and the resolve in accomplishing that to which God calls us to accomplish.

When we proclaim the Ascension as part of the Gospel, we are not, as Ronald Cole-Turner says in Feasting on the Word, saying that we believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch.  It is, rather, a belief that Jesus Christ ascended to glory.  It is inextricably linked with the Resurrection.  As Jurgen Moltmann put it, “Jesus is risen into the coming Kingdom of God.”  He is raised in power and in glory.  The Ascension is the gathering up of all who are in the Presence of God.  Our lives are suddenly swept into something larger than anything we can possibly imagine.  No longer is Jesus our personal teacher or our private tutor or just our personal savior.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And through faith, we, too, are made whole.  The absence of the earthly Jesus leads us to search for a God who is present in the world.

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does it mean to speak of the “absence” of Jesus and the idea that that leads us to search for God?

3)      Where do you find yourself in this story?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Ephesians 1: 15-23

This passage and the verses that precede it begin with sort of a thanksgiving prayer report.  But lest we spend too much time breathing our collective sighs of relief and thanksgiving, the author (possibly, but not definitely Paul for most scholars) claims that all this would not be successful if the church does not become known to others as a place of faith and mutual love.

This is sort of interesting—the letter begs the question as to how our churches become known for their faith in Jesus.  Is it a matter of reputation or a matter of publicity?  The phrase “with the eyes of your heart enlightened” describes the result of wisdom.  During this time, baptism was typically described as “enlightenment”.  In essence, it is a way of seeing God’s light through the darkness of the world.  But the letter warns its readers not to return to that state of darkness.

The concluding section of this passage is often recognized as the development of a creedal formula.  The audience already knows that Christ serves to mediate God’s gracious blessings from heaven.  Ephesians treats this exaltation of Jesus rather than the cross as the focus of God’s saving and redemptive power.  Ephesians probably does this to drive home a more permanent victory in Christ.

This idea of enlightenment is an interesting one when we think about The Ascension.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tries to explain it in this way:  imagine what it is like when you first wake up in the morning.  When you put on the light, all you are conscious of is the brightness of the light itself.  Only gradually do your eyes adjust sufficiently to the light that you are able to make out other objects.  After a few moments, however, you cease to be conscious of the light itself, and start to see what else is in the room, as it is illumined by the light.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, says Williams, show him to have been like that initial morning light; at first Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of him.  The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world.  (From Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009, “Ascension of the Lord: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Theological Perspective”, by Joseph H. Britton, p. 510-512.)

The whole Resurrection is a restatement of authority, a revisioning of power.  It changes everything.

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the idea of “the eyes of your heart” being enlightened mean for you?

3)      What message do you think this holds not just for us as individuals but for our churches today?

 GOSPEL:  Luke 24: 44-53

In this passage, the verb for “opened” is the same that was used in the Emmaus story when their eyes were “opened” and the Scriptures were “opened” to them.  But the message of the Scriptures is, of course, not self-evident.  Here, Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.  Here, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins is opened to all—to all nations.  The mission, then, will begin in Jerusalem and extend to all nations.  Jerusalem has up until now been the center and focus of the Gospel.

The Lukan Gospel is the only one that chronicles the departure of Jesus.  The Ascension both closes the period of Jesus’ ministry and opens the period of the church’s mission.  The final words of the Gospel lead us to an appropriate response to the gospel of the one who saves, sends, and blesses us.  The disciples received Jesus’ blessing with great joy, they worshiped him and praised God, and they began immediately to do what he had instructed them to do.  Here, then, is the completion of the Gospel drama, the narration of what God has done for us, the challenge of Jesus’ teachings, and the model of those who made a faithful and joyful response.  It is our new beginning.  It is our turn.  Essentially, Jesus has given us the “footprints” in which to walk.  It is not about legislation or rules or “what would Jesus do”; it is about incarnation, about becoming the embodiment of Christ.

Thomas R. Hawkins says it like this:

 For forty days after the resurrection, Jesus remained among the disciples.  He taught, encouraged, and patiently prepared them for what was to come.  “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24: 50-51)  Suddenly, the disciples were without their guide, their teacher, and their leader.  They no longer had an authority figure in their midst to tell them what to do.  Someone “at the top” no longer could explain everything to them…

They experience an expansion of being, an empowerment.  This empowerment authorizes them for ministry and mission.  They preach the gospel to every race, nation, and tongue already assembled in Jerusalem for the pilgrim feast of Pentecost.  It is an empowerment sparked by acts of inclusion rather than exclusion…Mutuality rather than subordination is the mark of the spirit’s empowerment…

When I was about 13 or 14, my father asked me to ride along with him as he cultivated a field of corn.  It was a tricky job.  The sharp blades of the cultivator had to pass between the rows of corn.  If we had veered a few inches to the left or to the right, we would have plowed out four rows of tender young corn plants.  The John Deere Model 70 did not have power steering, so holding the tractor and cultivator in a straight path was not always easy. 

After a few rounds down the 20-acre field, my father asked me if I would like to try driving.  Reluctantly, I sat down behind the steering wheel, popped the clutch, and took off down the field.  Steering was harder than it looked.  Forty feet of corn, in a four-row swath, were plowed out before I had driven five minutes.  My father gently gave me a few suggestions as I went awkwardly—and destructively—down the field and back.  After a few more rounds, my father asked me to stop the tractor.  I thought he had endured all the pain he could.  The carnage in the corn field was overwhelming.  He would tell me to stop.  I obviously was not controlling the tractor and cultivator.

Instead, my father dropped to the ground and said he had some chores to do in the barn.  I was to finish the field and then come in for lunch.  All morning long, in my father’s absence, I plied my way back and forth across the corn field.  Huge sections of corn were torn out, roots exposed to the drying sun, and stalks prematurely sliced down.  But by noon I learned to handled the tractor and the cultivator.

My father’s absence was a sign to me that he trusted himself and what he taught me.  It also signaled that he trusted me.  His absence was empowering rather than disabling.  It authorized me to trust myself and trust what he had taught me.  I would never have learned to cultivate corn had I worked anxiously under his critical eye, hanging on his every gesture and comment.

That is the meaning of Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus’ withdrawal becomes an empowering absence.  It is a sign that he trusts what he has taught us enough to set us free.  He refuses to allow us to depend upon him.  We cannot cling to him but must learn to discover his authority among ourselves.  Thus, he tells Mary not to cling to him but to return to the community of his disciples. (John 20:17).  This sense of empowerment and authorization is exhilarating.  It is like tongues of fire.  We name that experience the Spirit of the Living God.

We honor Jesus’ absence when we refuse to become little authorities, trying to fill up Jesus’ absence.  We honor Jesus’ absence when we help others experience the Holy Spirit through mutual collaboration rather than by making them passive, dependent, or subservient to our authority. (From Building God’s People:  A Workbook for Empowering Servant Leaders, by Thomas R. Hawkins, (Nashville, TN:  Discipleship Resources, 1990), 7-9)   

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “Holy Absence” mean for you?

3)      Why is that difficult for us to grasp?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The noblest prayer is when [one] who prays is inwardly transformed into what [one] kneels before. (Angelus Silesius, 17th century)

 

The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when God created it. (Harold Kushner)

 

As Annie Dillard once put it, “We’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build our wings on the way down.”…I don’t think transformation of any kind at all happens in this world of ours without some effort, some cost, and the willingness to leave something behind…But I think that when we begin to build our wings, it makes a difference in the world around us not because we seem dramatically other than who we once were, but because what we begin to offer back to the world is a little closer to what the world actually needs. (Kathleen McTigue, from “Build Your Wings on the Way Down”, 2006)

  Closing

 Let me bathe in your words.

Let me soak up your silence.

Let me hear your voice.

Let me enter your quiet.

Let me tell out your stories.

Let me enclose them within me.

Let me be the spaces between phrases where you make your home.

Amen.

(Jan L. Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, p. 96)