Tag Archives: Paul

The Unknown God and the God who knows

Acts 17:22-31
It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans. 

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.  

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples. 

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,  

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.
These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.   

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism. Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are. 

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluralism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity. 

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself, 

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?
What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too. 
In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians: 

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known. 

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us. 

The who God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees. 

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears. 

This God who knows us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition. 

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour. 

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 

Amen. 

Advertisements

Two weeks after the empty tomb – What now?

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

My first day of being a pastor was a Sunday. There was a big celebratory service with special music, excited friends and family to cheer me on and a happy congregation. The day before I had been ordained, another big celebratory service with special music and crowds of family and friends. I took Monday as my day off. And then on Tuesday morning, with nothing in my schedule and as the only employee, I wandered over to the church building. I stood in my office wondering, “Okay, now what do I do?”

The third Sunday of Easter is a bit like that moment. Two weeks ago was the big service and celebration with special music and crowds. Last Sunday things died down, but it was still the after-party with Jesus appearing to the disciples and then to Thomas. But today, while resurrection is still heavy on our minds, we are left wondering now what?

John’s gospel tells us about the disciples who were in the same boat… literally. The disciples to whom Jesus has appeared to twice in the span of a week and empowered them for the ministry of the kingdom decide that fishing is the obvious next step. Peter, to be precise decides that now after following Jesus around for 3 years, witnessing miracles and teachings, the triumphal entry, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb that going back to what he knows is best. And few of the others agree, James and John sons of Zebedee, along with of all people scholars Thomas and Nathanael.

On the other hand, in Acts we hear about Saul on the road to Damascus. He is not two week removed from the resurrection, but about 10 years. Yet, the events of Easter have inspired him to zealously and murderously persecute Christians. And Ananias, the fearful follower of the way is hiding in fear, precisely of people like Paul.

All of these disciples, or soon-to-be followers of Jesus, have been affected by the events of Easter differently. They all make different choices in how to react to the resurrection, but they also share a similar experience. They are struggling to make sense of what the Risen Christ means for them and for their world. They have heard the Easter stories, they have lived them in fact, but they are as lost as anyone in how to move on from that world changing moment.

This odd collection of followers of the way of Jesus, are just like any group of people who gather to become the church. They are just like us. Perhaps we are like Peter, bold to risk it all in one moment, and then timidly back to business as usual in the next. Perhaps we are like Paul, concerned that everyone around keep the rules just as we do. Perhaps were are like Ananias, faithful yet fearful of showing that faith. Perhaps we are like James and John, Thomas and Nathanael, interested and engaged, but easy influenced to try the next thing that comes along.

Like those varied disciples, often the only thing that binds us all together as followers of the way, as the body of Christ gathered here, is our common belief in the Christ and the resurrection. Follow by our shared struggled with just what to do with this good news.

The early church called themselves followers of the way rather than Christians. They wanted to emphasize that they followed the way of a living person, which is not always easy or clear. Kind of like following someone in a busy crowd, it easy to get jostled and shoved about, to lose sight of the one we are following.

Today, two weeks out from Easter, the reality of the Risen Christ is a confusing struggle. It was all a big party on that Easter morning, but today we are left to sort out just what happens next. And considering pillars of the faith like Peter and Paul, James and John, Ananias, Thomas and Nathanael struggled to sort it out… what chance do we have? Are we supposed to go knock on doors to ask people if they have heard the good news? Should we all find ten friends to bring to church? Do we need to pray in public more often? Should we be preachy and pious like Christians on TV?

Being followers of the way is not easy two weeks out from Easter.

As Saul marched down the road to Damascus, on his way to enforce the rules he thought were right, Jesus met Saul where he was.  Jesus didn’t just meet Saul, but Jesus blindsided him, blinded him literally. Jesus met him on the way and redirected his path. The encounter with Jesus changed the course of Saul’s life. Saul became Paul.

As Ananias hid away in fear, Jesus met Ananias where he was and encouraged him to go despite his fears. Jesus called Ananias to be the hands and feet of Christ, to help Saul become Paul, to welcome Paul into the body of Christ. Ananias’s life was changed.

As Peter returned to the fishing boat not knowing what to do next after the resurrection, Jesus called to him from the shore. Jesus met Peter where he was.  Jesus asked him to feed my sheep. Jesus reminded Peter what it means to tend to the body of Christ, that Peter couldn’t walk away from it all. Peter’s life was now forever tied to the fortunes of the followers of the way.

As James and John, Thomas and Nathanael shrugged their shoulders and follow Peter to go fishing, Jesus met them where they were. He showed them that he was still the one to follow, still they who knew where to cast their nets for fish, and where to cast their nets in fishing for people.

Jesus meets each of his followers as they struggle with how to proceed, with how to make sense of the Risen Christ. Jesus finds them in their Easter confusion, and gives them what they need. He makes them blind, he encourages, he has hard conversations he shows them abundance. Jesus meets them and points them back to the way. He points them to the way he showed them before Easter and reminds them that they are still followers of the way afterwards.

And in the same way Jesus meets us. Jesus meet us as we struggled with how to proceed, Jesus meets us in our diversity of struggles whether we are like Paul, like Peter, like Ananias, like Thomas and Nathanael, like Jame and John. Whether we are unsure, afraid, bold one moment timid the next, whether we just go along to get along, whether we are confused and struggling. Jesus meets is here.

Jesus meets us in all the other struggling and confused sisters and brothers in faith that gather here week after week.

Jesus meets us in the word of God. In the stories of faith of all those disciples and followers who have struggled before us along the way. In the stories of faith and life that we share with each other, around cups of coffee here, at the water cooler at work, over backyard fences with neighbours, at kitchen tables with family and friends. Jesus meets us in the words we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in the waters of baptism. In the forgiveness, life and salvation that we hear every time we confesses our sins and receive forgiveness, every time we welcome and new member into the body of Christ, every time we gather on the banks of Red, the banks of the Mississipi, the Amazon, the Nile and anywhere God’s people are together, being washed in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus meets in the water we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in Bread and Wine. In the meal of life where we gather at God’s table, where we are nourished in faith. Jesus meets in the Body of Christ we are given to eat, Jesus makes the Body of Christ the Church, Jesus sends us to the Body of Christ, food for the world. Jesus meets us in the meal we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us wherever, whenever, whomever we are.

And at this point in the sermon, it would be easy at this point to tell you now that Jesus meets you, go and bring ten people to church, go and convert your neighbour, pray on the street corner, be pious and rule followers, evangelize whenever you get the opportunity.

But that isn’t the good news, and that is not what Jesus is telling the disciples, Peter, Paul and the others.

The Good News is simply that Jesus comes to meet us. That Jesus finds us and meets us and shows us the way. That no matter how much we struggle with what comes next, no matter how fearful, or uncertain, or wishy washy, or ardent we are. The Good News is that Jesus is the one coming to us.

That we are followers of the way, because Jesus shows us the way.