The Unknown God, May 25, 2014
There’s a remake of a familiar Christmas story where a man is put on trial for claiming to be the real Santa Claus. The gist of the story is a man who fills in as Santa Claus at Macy’s during the Christmas season, actually believes himself to be the one and only Santa Claus. What is interesting is the media interest in this story and a campaign that was begun to drum up sympathy for the defendant. The campaign simply stated, “Do you believe?” Significant citizens went on record stating their belief not only in the idea of a Santa Claus, but that this particular person on trial was the one.
At times we are asked to believe some pretty amazing things sometimes. I recently received a photo on the internet of a kayaker in a small cove just paddling along only to find himself in the jaws of a large whale coming up for a bit of krill.
As real as the picture appeared, when you visit the photographer’s webpage, you see the same whale photo but the kayaker is distinctly absent. We can create all kinds of images and scenes that appear so real, we are tempted to believe. Advertisers work hard to make us believe that if we use the right shampoo or skin care product that we too can be a 20-something fashion model. Our God-given logic often stops us from making huge mistakes by believing in something that is not true.
It seems our apostle Paul was faced with the task of introducing a completely bizarre concept to a group of learned scholars in Athens. Paul goes to the heart of learning in the city known for its philosophers and master thinkers of the day. He also appears in front of the Aeropagus, which was the place where trials were heard and the highest court convened, similar to our Supreme Court. Notice that Paul does not begin by
condoning people of the city for their worship of other gods. In fact, Paul compliments their passion for religion. Statues and idols of numerous gods were strewn all around the city. It seems the Athenians were hedging their bets by even including a statue to ‘the unknown god.’ All bases were clearly covered, yet Paul does not force their beliefs aside but works with these beliefs to introduce these people to the God of creation.
At times in our Christian history, believers of Christ were often a bit too zealous in trying to convert folks to Christianity. In this country our target was Native Americans as we saw their worship practices as heathen and found little reason to honor them. Instead, we used force to ‘convert’ people to the ways of the Western world including a belief in Christ. Don’t get me wrong – I do believe we need to share our gift of God’s love through Jesus Christ at every given opportunity. But I also
believe that we can do this in harmony with other viewpoints instead of being in opposition by resorting to forced conversion.
Paul models this with his relationship with those in Athens who believed in multiply gods to a fault. In order to avoid the risk of insulting any god, they erected a statue to what they labeled ‘the unknown god.’ Yet instead of brushing aside their beliefs, Paul used their statue to the unknown god as a way of entering into conversation about the one true God, maker of heaven and earth.
During annual conference a few years ago I was given this cross. It is not an ordinary cross but a Celtic cross. What makes this a Celtic cross is this ring around the back of the cross. This represents the sun god, one of the multiple gods worshipped by Celts. I am sure I mentioned St. Patrick whom we recognize on St. Patrick’s Day. One would think Patrick was an Irishman but
he was in fact born in England, captured and taken prisoner in Ireland where he spend 6 years in captivity. He managed to escape and return to England only to hear the calling to ministry as a missionary to none other than Ireland. It has often been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross, to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun. [Source: Wikipedia.com] It is thought he used this to segue into witnessing about Christ who was crucified, dead, buried, and risen again. This is central to our Christian beliefs – our most important story. It is a belief steeped in unity – between God and humankind, and all of us together as one body of Christ.
We use the theme of unity a lot in the church. Paul used this theme many times when writing to the churches about the body of Christ – many parts but one whole being with Christ as the head. Last week we talked about the chief cornerstone as Christ from which all the other stones are directed. The stones are not all the same but put together to create a functioning entity. I often think of a quilt when this theme of unity is mentioned. I wanted to show you this quilt which clearly I have yet to finish. Consider the colors used in this pattern. There are colors next to each other that for all intents and purposes should clash. They simply do not blend well and yet when you see them as part of an overall tapestry, somehow the color scheme works. Very different pieces often come together to enrich the whole. When you are actually working on something like this, I find that the close view is sometimes difficult to follow and often confusing. Yet when the pieces come together, the pattern appears looking just as it was intended.
Maybe that was part of the message Paul was presenting by honoring a peoples’ traditions and culture while introducing them to the One who authors the pattern of all peoples coming together to worship the one true God. This same challenge is presented to the church today. Are we willing to seek out those who are different from us and finally desegregate the Sunday morning worship hour? It is easier to relate to those who look like us – cut from the same cloth so to speak. Yet the rich beauty of the pattern is only visible when differences are knit together in a way the honors individuality while enhancing unity.
I attended the pre-conference session for clergy last week and there was much discussion over what is referred to as non-religious and nominally religious people and how best to introduce the message of salvation and Christian love to these groups. There was some confusion over what ‘nominally religious’ means. Think about some of the criticisms of the church that you have heard. ‘Everyone who attends church is a hypocrite.’ ‘The services are boring.’ ‘All the church wants is your money.’ I find a common comment today of ‘I’m not very religious, but I am very spiritual.’ Folks are seeking peace of mind through yoga techniques instead of prayer, and often feel closer to God when they are actually reaching out to help others as opposed to attending worship services.
It is interesting that often our children rebel against us by turning away from our religious practice – I can speak to this from personal experience. Are we interested in reaching out to those who see no need for Christ or the church? Perhaps as a starting point we find a common ground such as struggles we all face as human beings – lost loved ones, a desire to fit in and have a purpose, tangible struggles of lost income or health. Then perhaps we can honor our differences and work together – only then will some be willing to listen to our witness of Christ in our lives.
This is what Jesus modeled for us when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. This is what Paul refers to when he points out and recognizes the Athenians interest in religion while sharing the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection as the ultimate proof of God’s uncompromising love for all God’s people. Christ instituted the church when he singled out Peter, calling him the rock on which He would build His church. We are the church of today and we have work to do. But like any good quilter will tell you, the pattern comes together one stitch at a time, one piece at a time, one square at a time.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause for a brief moment to remember those who gave all to defend our country. I’m told there are no atheists in a foxhole, as in times of severe trial we look to God for strength and courage. The one true God does not need to be unknown any longer. The one true God can be worshipped together as a unified body of Christ, recognizing and celebrating our diverse gifts and stories. Let us worship God through our emphasis on love for one another and unity within diversity. Amen.