Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21
The Knowledge of the One God
The scripture lessons designated for this Lord’s Day concern the knowledge of God. It is an appropriate time for us to consider this theme. After all, it’s Eastertide, when we not only contemplate the mystery of God in the person of the resurrected Christ, but also seek to proclaim him to the world. For in him are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Col. 2:3).
The gospel lesson brings us back to the scene we visited last week. We find Jesus again in the upper room with his disciples. He shares intimate conversation with them. He brings them into his confidence. They are his friends, whom he loves. For this reason, he opens up his very heart to them, as we do to those we love. In his case that means imparting to them spiritual truths of which he gave only hints earlier. He has chosen this time to lead them to an intimate knowledge of God.
The Apostle Paul is also concerned with imparting spiritual truth. He also wants to lead people to a knowledge of God. Only it’s not to his fellow disciples that he addresses his words, but to his contemporaries who know nothing yet about the message he wishes to announce to them.
Accordingly, we can distinguish our two lessons by means of an image drawn from geometry. On the one hand, there is an inner circle. Within it are Jesus’ disciples. They’re the small group of followers who are close to their teacher and Lord. We find them in our Gospel lesson. On the other hand, there is an outer circle. Within it are the people who do not yet or no longer know God. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them (Eph. 4:18). We find them in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.
Now throughout the ages the church been under a mandate. And that mandate is simple: to invite those who exist in the outer circle to come and join those in the inner circle. Those who enjoy their standing there are not jealous of the privilege. On the contrary, they cannot help but speak about what they have seen and heard (cf. Acts 4:20). They cannot be content until all creation hears and receives the good news about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s why they feel compelled to go out and share with others the knowledge of God disclosed to them in the gospel.
Today we will move in this same direction. We count ourselves as those privileged to belong to the inner circle. That is to say, God has rescued us from the domain of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col. 1:13), so that we might proclaim him and all he has done to those in the outer circle. For this purpose, we shall use the Apostle Paul as our guide, as we find him in our lesson today. Let us then devote our attention in these next several minutes to see what unfolds there and how it applies to us and our situation today.
The apostle Paul is an evangelist. That is, he is a herald and messenger of good news. He is an also an apostle. That is, he is one who has been sent. That means he must go wherever the Spirit of God sends him to proclaim this good news. What is this good news? That will become clear as this scene unfolds.
Paul’s in Athens. To be more precise, he’s at the Areopagus. We can compare the Areopagus to a public court. It was where all the most important matters of the state were debated by the leading citizens. Not too long ago, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was summoned to appear before the United States congress. He was subpoenaed to testify about the data sharing scandal in which his company was embroiled. Perhaps there is an analogy here. Paul is at the Areopagus by summons. Only he’s there to testify about God.
Paul regards Athens as ripe for the good news he has come to bring. “Ripe” is not a word found in the text, but it’s an appropriate word nonetheless, because it conjures up the image of harvest. The image occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion. Then he said: “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest” (9:38). Paul is such a worker, and he expects a harvest of souls as a result of his preaching. But what is it that he saw upon his arrival that led him to this expectation?
He saw altars to gods everywhere around him. That means the people are religious. For that reason, he expects them to be receptive to his message about God. He sees an opening when he notices an altar to the unknown god. The God of whom they are ignorant he is about to proclaim to them.
Let’s pause to reflect on what’s happening here. To people who acknowledged many gods, Paul was about to proclaim the one God. Those who believe in many gods are called polytheists. But Paul is a monotheist, which means he believes in one God. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” according to the Jewish shema (Deut. 6:4), which the devout Jew recites every morning. Paul stands squarely in this Jewish tradition. For him too “there is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). The one true God is to be distinguished from the many false gods. The one true way, notwithstanding its diversity of expressions, is to be distinguished from the many false ways.
Is this a relevant point to stress in our time? It most certainly is. To be sure, there are probably fewer polytheists among us than in Paul’s time. But is our time any less pluralistic than his? Today there is on offer a wide assortment of perspectives on truth. Nor does our culture tend to see these as competing or in conflict with one another. They can all stand side by side, of equal value. One perspective may be true or good for me, but need not be true or good for you or someone else. And if it is true or good for me today, it may not be so tomorrow.
But Paul is making a very different claim. There is one God, and there is one whom he has appointed as Lord and Judge of all, which he has demonstrated by raising him from the dead. This is a very definite message he is inviting people to accept. To be neutral towards it is not an option.
No doubt many people today find this to be too closed-minded, too intolerant of other perspectives. But there is a loss incurred in giving up the commitment to the oneness of God, to the unity of truth. What do we mean here?
The theologian Miroslav Volf points out that the singleness of the Christian vision corresponds to what we are increasingly learning about our world from the natural sciences. All human beings and all life on the planet are interdependent. All ecosystems are interlocking. For one person to truly flourish, the whole world must flourish. Conversely, for the whole world to flourish, every person and every living thing in it must flourish. Behind all the diversity there is a deeper unity, without which it would not be even possible.
The Christian vision embraces every person, every living thing, and the entire world. The one God is the abiding source of all creatures and therefore the God of every human being and of the entire world. Correspondingly, the divine Word, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, enlightens every person, and as the Lamb of God that same incarnate Word bears the sin of the whole world (John 1:9, 29). Jesus Christ, as we learned in last week’s gospel lesson, is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). One way of life is true for all, even if each person walks in it in his or her own way. This same Jesus goes and prepares a place for his followers. The destination is one, even though there are many dwelling places in it (14:2), as we also learned. The goal of all creation is perfect fulfillment in the presence of the one life-giving God.
This beautiful vision is on offer to all. It is not theory. It is immensely practical, affecting all that we think and say and do. But it does not force itself on anyone. Paul wants his message received, but he’s not going to twist anyone’s arm. Volf again reminds us that the call to believe assumes that the person who hears it is free to respond to it or not. One believes with the heart, which is to say, not by outward conformity to expectations or by outside dictates backed by force. Belief in God comes from the very core of one’s being. Behind this emphasis on the freedom of belief lies the conviction that every person is responsible for the basic direction of his or her life. We affirm this conviction. We respect this freedom, even as we hope that the person will use it to come and join us in the inner circle.
Paul invites the Athenians to know God. This corresponds to something remarkable. God wants to be known! Paul insists that the times and places in which each of us lives are not by chance. That conviction is certainly contrary to the spirit of the age. The famous twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger used the word “throw” in describing our existence in the world. It suggests we are here in this time and place by a “throw of the dice.” But for Paul there is a purpose. That purpose is that in our times and places, in the unique possibilities they afford, each of us may reach out to God, connect with God, and know God. The purpose for which we live in Michigan, in the 21st century, is that we may find God. That mankind hasn’t managed that very well is evidenced by all the altars, including the one to the unknown God. Those altars and that unknown god are known by different names today, but they are everywhere around us all the same, just as they were for Paul.
In the past, God overlooked the times of our ignorance. But in Jesus Christ God makes himself known. And he has given to us the Spirit of truth, as we learn in our gospel lesson today. Later Jesus will explain that this Spirit will guide us into all truth. We are not left on our own, groping blindly in the dark. For God has rescued us from this darkness, placed us in the inner circle, and given us the Holy Spirit. And he wants to do this for all who are not yet here with us. Let us therefore not cease praying for them. Let us not be fearful in sharing the good news with them when they ask us about the reason for the hope that we have within us. Amen.