…MORE THAN WE CAN ASK OR IMAGINE
ACTS 17: 22-31
6th Sunday After Easter. May 17, 2020
We are often stymied by basic longings to understand God. We make God in our own image – an entity of human emotion, sometimes vindictive, sometimes laying responsibility on Divine Reality for all manner of evil in the world. We sometimes cry out during life’ journey, “Why does God allow pain and suffering?” Or to quote the title of a well known book, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”
We struggle to conceptualize God – to submit God to the so-called rigours of human reason; and we fail. I think Paul would agree with someone who came some 300 hundred years after him as he puts God in the framework of someone who came 300 years before him while addressing the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill – the University of Athens of its time. So today, I would like us to look some thoughts about God posited some 300 years before Paul that Paul was familiar with, and some insights expressed some 300 years after Paul that built on his legacy. So we have three ‘signposts’, so to speak that will lead us to the present time: The Greek Stoic poet Aratus of Soli whose works Paul knew, Paul himself, and St. Gregory of Nyssa who drew on Paul’s almost song-like description of God in Acts 17.
Although John’s Gospel was not penned until years after Paul’s interaction with the Greek thinkers at the Areopagus described in Acts 17, it reflects the revelation of God in Jesus that is basic to all Paul’s preaching and writing. John 14 is, above all, focussing on the God who is love – love incarnate in the very person of Jesus. For Jesus, the presence of God with us and in us is very simple: love begets love. The evidence of God with us is keeping the commandment to love. The Holy Trinity – what theologians call the “perichoresis” – the dance of God in which we live and move and have our being- is the love that brought forth Creation, the love that visited us in the person Jesus, and the love that sustains and motivates us in the the Holy Spirit’s constant presence with us:
“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21).
This God – the God who is the very essence love itself is the God Paul proclaims to his sophisticated Greek audience. And he builds a bridge of understanding to them, not by condemning their beliefs, by denouncing their current knowledge and experience, but by drawing them into a wider circle.
To do so, Paul appeals to respected Greek philosophical and religious traditions represented by the Stoic, Cynic and Epicurean schools of Greek thought – with which he was obviously very familiar. The much respected Stoic poet Arartus of Soli came from Cilicia in Macedonia close to Paul’s own family origins. Paul would have known his writings well. His great work was a poetic compendium of astronomy called Phaenomena – “The Phenomena”. Aratus celebrates the wonders of the heavens – sun, moon, the constellations, and the Divine Presence that inhabits the universe. Echoing “The Phenomena” , Paul proclaims to his listeners that all humanity dwells in a God who is love. “For we too are his offspring” (vs 28) is a direct quote from Aratus. And in Quoting Aratus, Paul is drawing the Athenian thinkers into that wider circle, taking them beyond the context of Aratus’ poem that proclaims Zeus as the father of humanity. For Paul, Zeus is limited – an idol of the mind. Zeus is an imagined divinity, a god made in the image of humanity with all our emotions and weaknesses. Paul invites his hearers to move beyond such limitation and urges them to see that which he is opening before them – the Unknown God who is infinitely beyond what Zeus is imagined to be. Paul’s idea of “repent” in verse 30 is to ‘turn around…see something more…embrace a more comprehensive truth’ – a truth not based on propositions, but on an all-embracing reality.
So building on the observation that “since we are God’s offspring”, a natural conclusion of the Stoic philosophers who believed “from one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” as Paul says in verse 26, Paul concludes that we need to go beyond gods represented in gold or silver or stone images that are the products of our own imaginations – idols of our mind.
Following the Genesis teaching, Paul proclaims that this God does not dwell in shrines or temples of human devising, but is in and moves through all things. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19, our bodies are the Temple of God; again – “in God we live and move and have our being”.
This God, Paul proclaims, is not a “person” in the conventional sense, but one made known in a person – the person of Jesus. “The world (will be) judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurances to all by raising him from the dead” (vs 31). Such a statement flies in the face of popular Epicurean thought which denied any revelation or theodicy (action of God) in the world. Again, Paul calls his listeners to a higher reality. And what is this judgement brought about in Jesus? It is beautifully summed up by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart who understands God’s judgement as God making all things right. “In the crucifixion and resurrection, all things are judged and all things are redeemed.” This God who is infinite love judges not to condemn, but to bring all things back into God’s own self in a glorious act of universal redemption.
So here is our Easter hope. And we can look 300 years after Paul to Church father, Gregory of Nyssa who definitely sees that Paul has moved beyond conceptual thinking – beyond the idols of our minds – as he challenges his hearers to take that journey beyond speculations and propositions about God, and to experience the God who is unknown, but who can become known:
As Presbyterian pastor Dr. John Lentz writes:
“Concepts create idols; only Wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” (Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395 CE). This is the God whose judgement is love: “No being will remain outside the number of the saved…no being created by God will fall outside the Kingdom of God”. This is our Easter reality. This is the Unknown God known in Christ.
“For in the resurrection we have this amazing invitation that is ours for the taking: that truly nothing separates us from God’s love, that death is not the end, that life is very much worth living, that suffering and the worst that we can experience, and have experienced don’t get the final word, that truly “it ain’t over, till it’s over”. We have let that message get away from us. While Christians argue about who gets into heaven, and what you HAVE to believe, we have become a propositional religion instead of a demonstrative faith, a descriptive faith, an interactive faith, an engaging faith that is not embarrassed or apologetic.”
So yes, ‘bad things do happen to good people’. We struggle to conceptualize God and make God in our human image. We often fail to see beyond that. The Greek scholars of Mars Hill did it, and we have done so throughout human history. But we are called into a greater experience of the God who is with us all through our human journey and calls us into love.
We close today’s thoughts with an observation from that great medieval spiritual classic, “The Cloud of Unknowing”:
“For silence is not God, nor speaking; fasting is not God, nor eating; solitude is not God, nor company; nor any other pair of opposites. God is hidden between them and cannot be found by anything your soul does, but only by the love of your heart. God cannot be known by reason, nor by thought, caught, or sought by understanding. But God can be love and chosen by the true, loving will of your heart”.
And yes – This is definitely more than we can ask or imagine, as we proclaim Sunday by Sunday. It’s living into the Unknown God, made known in Jesus.
HE COMES TO US AS ONE UNKNOWN
He comes to us as one unknown,
a breath unseen, unheard;
as though within a heart of stone,
or shrivelled seed in darkness sown,
a pulse of being stirred.
He comes when souls in silence lie
and thoughts of day depart;
half-seen upon the inward eye,
a falling star across the sky
of night within the heart.
He comes to us in sound of seas,
the ocean’s fume and foam;
yet small and still upon the breeze,
a wind that stirs the tops of trees,
a voice to call us home.
He comes in love as once he came
by flesh and blood and birth;
to bear within our mortal frame
a life, a death, a saving Name,
for every child of earth..
He comes in truth when faith is grown;
believed, obeyed, adored:
the Christ in all the Scriptures shown,
as yet unseen, but not unknown,
our Saviour and our Lord.
Words © 1973 Hope Publishing Company