Have you heard the one about the extraterrestrial visitor who landed in one of our cities? They saw the shopping malls crowded and the churches empty and reported back to the mother ship that the shopping malls housed the object of worship for our species. Well, today both the malls and the churches are empty, and an extraterrestrial visitor would have a hard time finding a crowd anywhere.
But we can imagine the apostle Paul arriving in Athens, the intellectual capital of his world, as a first-time visitor from a faraway place, noticing the statues and shrines on every street corner, and quickly figuring out what was important to the locals. It was evident to Paul that the Athenians believed in God – in many gods. The Greek pantheon comprised some 25 major gods and goddesses. Each one had his or her own portfolio: Poseidon oversaw the oceans, Athena was the patron of wisdom and strategy, Ares was the god of war and Aphrodite the goddess of beauty, love, and desire; and so on. They all had some things in common: they lived within the created order, not above or beyond it; they exhibited all the qualities, good and bad, of humanity; and they seemed to regard human beings as playthings, to be used or discarded at will. Athenians would make offerings to the altar of the god who seemed most likely to solve a particular problem; so sailors would pray to Poseidon, lovers to Aphrodite.
And then there were the shrines to the Unknown God: this was a kind of religious insurance in case there was a deity out there who wasn’t getting his or her due. The gods could be petty and vindictive, and you didn’t want to offend them. You might know that feeling, when you start to thank a list of people and then you forget that one person who gets so offended that they were left out. That’s what the Greek gods were like.
So Paul, as a brilliant evangelist, starts his speech where the Athenians already are: I see that you are very religious with all your gods; I see that you even acknowledge the existence of a God whom you don’t yet know. Paul builds on the faith the Athenians already have, and then he invites them to expand that faith, to make their notion of God bigger, more cosmic, more embracing – less … human. God isn’t a marble statue, God isn’t the emperor, God isn’t a mischievous sprite: God is something greater than we can even imagine, in whom we live and move and have our being. God is continuously revealing new aspects of God’s self to us, continuously calling us to new creation, new life. And this God, this mighty, cosmic, creator God, loves us human beings as a mother loves her children. This God has no portfolio and no agenda except to love us and to love the whole creation.
And that’s what Jesus is all about. If you love me, he says. If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments. And do you remember what his new commandment was? To love each other as he has loved us. As our presiding bishop likes to say, if it’s not about love, it’s not about Jesus. Everything we do as followers of Jesus should be fueled by love: how we relate to each other, how we read the news, how we observe social distancing, how we spend our money, how we will use our new building. I’ve recently had the blessing of conversations with parishioners who shared their stories, witnessing to their own vulnerability and their willingness to be transformed by love. That’s what it means to be part of the Jesus movement: a willingness to be transformed by love. Jesus says that if we love as he has loved us, the Holy Spirit will abide in us, not just in each of us individually but in the midst of our community of love. The disciples don’t understand, of course: the Advocate, the one whom God sends to abide in them, is a new revelation of God, named by Jesus just as the Unknown God was named by Paul. There is no unknown God when we know the God of love. There are different faces of God: the loving parent, the obedient and self-giving Son, the fiery Spirit, all one God, the God who made heaven and earth, and who is with us now.
We have a lot in common with those ancient Athenians. We are well-educated and intellectual; we seek and grope for God in any number of places; and we have our many idols. I wonder, what are your street-corner gods? What are the fickle deities that you are afraid to offend? Maybe the god of financial security. Maybe the god of family harmony. Maybe the god of expectations, or of professional achievement, or of youth. When you hear Paul naming the unknown God as the God of love who created all things and loves all things into being, are you able to turn away from those smaller gods and follow where Jesus leads us? And are you able to embrace the new ways in which God is being revealed to us in this particular time? We are not alone on this journey to abundant life: the Holy Spirit, comforter and guide, abides among us. In this unsettling and anxious moment, with conflicting messages and little clarity about the way ahead for our world, we can let go of our fears and rest in God’s unfailing love. Remember what we heard in the Psalm? “Bless our God, you peoples, make the voice of God’s praise to be heard; who holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip.”
May 17, 2020: the Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges