The Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31 | Psalm 66:8-20 | 1 Peter 3:13-22 | John 14:15-21

Jeremy Richards

Years ago I was working for the Forest Service in the fisheries department. A coworker and I were headed deep into Payette National Forest, where we would stay two nights at a ranger camp called Krassel. While we were there we do a number of surveys on the health of the rivers and creeks in the area. I’d been working with this coworker for a while, and had gotten the impression that she was not a fan of religion.

On the drive to Krassel, the Forest Service camp where we’d be staying, she mentioned that she went to Catholic school. I asked her if she was a Christian. “No, no, NO. Definitely not,” she said.

“Oh, I am,” I said.

“You…are?!” she asked, as if she might have heard me wrong. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. “But…but…but…” she was speechless. “But it’s so much…BS!” she said.

I was unprepared for her to have such strong feelings. She told me that she did, indeed believe in a higher power, but she liked to call it the Universe. She told me she didn’t really believe in prayer, but essentially believed in karma. She believed you should send out good vibes to the Universe, and the Universe would return those vibes. You do good things and good things will happen to you.

She said the Universe was much too big and mysterious to be contained in a single human.

“You mean Jesus?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

I think this coworker’s response made a lot of sense. She understood that God, or the Universe in her words, would surely have to be bigger than a single person. The Universe could not be contained. God could not be contained. To worship a person would be almost laughable compared to a God who is as big as – bigger than – the universe. Or, in the words of some of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, it would be blasphemous.

The Athenians seem to understand the unknowability of the Creator as well. Throughout the course of their history they had accumulated gods upon gods, idols upon idols. So many gods that Paul observes that their city is “full of idols.” And yet, they knew that God, or more accurately, the gods, could not be contained, even in a city-full of idols. Surely there was one or more “unknown god.”

The world in all its splendor, blooming trees, supernovas thousands of light-years away, the new life we see in these little ones that run around our sanctuary testifies to someone or something that is beyond us, something unknowable. Some people call it a life-force, or an energy. It’s the very thing in which “we live and move and have our being,” but it’s not a person. How could we live and move and have our being within a single person? Surely it can’t be contained in one person, or one idol. It can’t even be contained in a city full of idols.

So the Greeks, like my old coworker, thought God, or the gods, or the Universe, or the great-life force, or whatever you want to call it must be too great, too awesome, to be known.

And yet…they all want to know it. Paul observes that the Athenians are “extremely religious.” They’ve filled their city with idols, knowing full well that they can’t know the gods completely, but doing their best to know the gods partly.

My old coworker didn’t know what to call God, so she called God the Universe, but still sought some kind of relationship with it, sending it good vibes and hoping to receive good vibes in return.

In the words of Paul, they are searching for God, groping for God in the dark. What a line: “So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for [God] and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”

Paul says that that was God’s plan all along; that God made us to desire God. God made us to grope for God and find God. God made us to find God.

The desire for God is a beautiful thing. The Athenians’ desire for God, my old coworker’s desire for God, your desire for God, my desire for God, this is at the heart of being human. And the thing is, we so often feel that God is “not far from each one of us” and yet out of reach. Unknowable. 

When Paul gets to Athens, he’s distressed by all the idols. He sees all these attempts to find God, to name God, but they miss the mark. They’re made by humans and so they’re limited by what Paul calls “imagination of mortals.”

So when he first gets there, he tries the first century equivalent of street ministry. He’s like the annoying guy with the bull-horn, arguing in the synagogues and temples and marketplaces, and, surprise, it doesn’t go over well. It just leads to arguments and disagreements. And, eventually, the people take him and essentially put him on trial.

It may not be clear to us, but this story from Acts is meant to mirror the trial of Socrates. Both Paul and Socrates speak in the marketplace to anyone who will listen. Both are accused of introducing new gods. Both are taken to stand before a kind of court.

If Paul’s story were to end like Socrates, it would conclude with him drinking hemlock and dying for his crimes, so it’s safe to say that Paul’s initial strategy for evangelism has not gone over well in Athens. He’s on the road to capital punishment. Apparently, shoving Jesus down people’s throats while discounting their beliefs doesn’t make people inclined to follow Jesus.

But Paul shifts his strategy once he’s on trial. Some might think he just gets clever by introducing God to the Athenians by making use of the Athenians idol “To an unknown god,” but I think he’s had a genuine realization. He’s realized that his initial strategy was incomplete, because it assumed that God wasn’t already in Athens, as if God needed Paul to bring God to Athens. Paul realizes how ridiculous that is. God can’t be confined like that. He says to the Athenians,

“The God who made the world and everything in it, [the One] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God is the one who] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:24-25).

Paul realizes that the living God is already in Athens, hidden somewhere in the midst of all those counterfeit gods. Because God is everywhere. God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” God is the God of life, so wherever there is life, God is there. God is love, so wherever love is present, God is there. God is the God of liberation, so wherever people are being set free, God is there. God is the God of inclusion, so wherever people are rejecting individualism and joining their lives with the lives of others, God is there.

Paul knows that God is working, even in Athens, he just has to find God. But he doesn’t confine his search to synagogues or house churches. Like my old coworker, he knows God can’t be confined to one place. He looks for God in an unconventional place: in the very idols that seem to stand in opposition to God.

And he finds God there, in that place.

You’ve probably heard that the Pacific Northwest is one of the most unchurched areas in the nation. Especially in the cities of Portland and Seattle. I’ve met many a church planter from Texas or Arkansas or some other Bible-belt state, who has come to Portland to – more or less – bring Christ to the heathen Northwest.

There’s something fundamentally flawed with the thought that God isn’t somewhere unless we bring God there. I’m not saying all church plants do this. Heck, I was thinking about starting a church plant myself! But there’s a difference between moving to a place to join up with what God is already doing, and thinking that God can’t move on God’s own unless we bring God.

When Paul comes to Athens, Christianity is even newer, even more unknown than it is today. When he first gets there he tries the bullhorn approach, and it doesn’t work.

But then he realizes his job isn’t so much to bring God to this new place, as it is to identify where God already is, and name Christ as God, so that others might know Christ more fully.

He says to the Athenians, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” In essence, you’re already on the road. You’re already groping in the dark, and, indeed, God is not far from you, but now I’m going to turn the light on. I’m going to introduce you to the God you’ve been seeking.

The Good News Paul brings is that the unknowable God has been made knowable in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s not that we worship some normal human who was just like everyone else, but since he had some good teachings and healed people we decided to worship him like a god. It’s that we believe God is our great Parent, who has created us for life in and with God, and out of God’s great love for us became one of us, joining the life of God with the lives of humans, so that we might know God, and so that we might be known by God.

And the God who is revealed in Jesus is a God of life. Human attempts at creating gods might miss the mark. They might think God is angry, or that God is a god of death and destruction, or that God hates certain groups of people, but Jesus shows us that God is the One who breathed life into our bodies, the one who gave us life. Paul says, “We are God’s offspring.” Jesus shows us that God doesn’t want death or any kind of evil for God’s children. God wants the abundant life for all people. That’s what Jesus says.

The resurrection is the part of the Jesus story that everyone has the hardest time believing, from Paul’s day to our own.

But the resurrection, which is what we’re currently celebrating in this season of Easter, is essential. In the resurrection we see the power of the life God breathed into Jesus and breathed into us. It’s a life that can’t be snuffed out by death, at least not permanently.

In the words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “…life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously…” and then he concludes with the great line, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

The resurrected life of Jesus, the life we are baptized into, also “breaks free [from death], expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously,” because God is life, and God always finds a way.

I Peter tells us to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone for the hope that is in you.” That’s essentially what Paul does in our passage from Acts 17. He’s brought before a council and asked what this new teaching is. He’s asked to give an account for the hope that is in him.

Many of us are all too familiar with defending our Christian label, but I think few of us would call that defending our “hope” that is within us. Christianity has taken on such a negative connotation in today’s world that most of our time and energy is spent on describing what we’re not. We’re not like those Christians, or those Christians. And in the end we’ve said so little about our hope.

But maybe that’s because we think our God is more foreign to people than God actually is. We think our Christianity is a product, or a brand. Like Pepsi and Coke, we’re selling one version of faith while others are selling another, when really God is not the soda that someone may or may not drink, but the air they’re already breathing.

I think about some of the different people who meet in our building, like the neighborhood association, and Let’s Talk, and Friends of Trees, the Shukutoku Sugamo school we will be hosting this summer. None of these organizations are religious in anyway, and yet they are doing what I would call Gospel work. They are invested in making our neighborhood a better place. They are giving a voice to marginalized people. They are dismantling prejudices. They are promoting earth care and sustainability. They’re investing in young people and intercultural learning.

Maybe if we didn’t feel like we had to introduce a new god to people, so much as point out where God already is, it’d be easier to give an account for the hope we have within us. Because the thing we hope for is the same thing they also hope for. The difference is that the resurrection assures us that that hope will become a reality, that the resurrected, ascended Christ is working with us. We’re not on our own. That the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, Jesus promised in our Gospel reading will be with us for-ev-er.

I don’t think my old coworker was wrong for thinking God is as big as the universe. But maybe I was wrong for thinking the God I wanted to introduce her to was in competition with her Universe, instead of seeing Jesus as a more complete revelation of the God she was already groping for in the dark. That was an opportunity to tell her that God was not far from her, and she was not far from God. That, yes, God/the Universe, is good, but God is even better than she thinks. Yes, God does want what’s best for her, but what’s best for her is something bigger than what “the imagination of mortals” can come up with. It’s a life lived in communion with God, a life of transformation in which we become more and more, day by day, the people God intended us to be. It’s a life characterized, as 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, by “faith, love, and hope.”

Understanding that God is already moving and active in our communities doesn’t mean that we don’t need to share the Gospel with our friends, family, and neighbors, but I think it reframes how we do so. The threads of hope that are already present in their own lives are windows into the God we’ve encountered in Jesus Christ.

Many in our world are already wading in the waters of hope, but they’re scared to make the plunge.

In John 14, Jesus says that the world will no longer see him, but we will see him. He also says he’s sending the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive because they can’t see the Spirit and don’t know the Spirit, but the disciples do. This isn’t Jesus’ way of saying, “Good for you. Everyone else is out of luck.” It’s Jesus’ explanation of the disciples’, and all Christians’, vocation. When we enter into life with Christ we are given new eyes, so that we can see him everywhere if we will look for him, and yet we continue to live in a world that is blind to him, even though he’s all around. We have the great privilege of holding their hands and pointing Christ out to them, of encouraging them to take the plunge, of placing our heads next to theirs and directing their gaze to the God who has been with them all along, and introducing them to the one they’ve heard so much about but they haven’t yet come to know:

His name is Jesus.

Thanks be to God.