I’m really in awe of the Apostle Paul in the story from Acts 17. He’s in Athens waiting for some friends, but then he sees all the idols and altars the Athenians have made. What he does is look at their culture finding the good qualities. He engages with the culture he sees and uses it as a jumping point to talk about Christ. Rather than saying, “Hey, you need to worship like me, you heathens!” he commends them for their deep spirituality.
So, I’ve been pondering what he might say to us. This sermon is something of an outgrowth of that.
Easter 6A—Acts 17:22-31
Paul does something pretty amazing in the story we heard from Acts this morning. While he’s in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to arrive, he goes wandering around the city. We’re told he’s distressed that there are so many idols. But notice he doesn’t unleash rhetoric on why they are so bad about this or how they are disobeying God’s commands. Rather, he looks for their good qualities—their longings—and seeks to tell them about Christ through what they are already longing for.
He tells them he’s seen this altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” He knows that there are deeply spiritual people, that there is a longing deep within them to connect with the spiritual realm. And so he tells them, I want to introduce you to the Unknown God, who is, in fact, the Creator of the Universe. Paul shares with them the message of creation, how God made us, not how we fashion gods of our own devices. He tells them that the Creator doesn’t live in temples or shrines or other buildings, that God doesn’t need us to wait hand and foot on him, as if God somehow needed us to do that.
But what God does, Paul tells them, is gives us plenty of time and space in order to truly seek after God; more than just groping around blindly in the dark trying to find God. God longs to be known by us in order to bring about a better life for us and in this created world. God desires repentance, true life-change, and God will one day have us give an account of our lives, with Jesus the resurrected one as our judge.
We in this day and age live our lives with great passions as well. While we don’t erect shrines for idols as such—although on the week when the latest American Idol was crowned, it’s a little hard to make this statement—we do build massive stadiums to follow our sports teams—and what a great week it has been for that as well as the Bruins get back to Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in over 20 years and the Red Sox have moved into first place after their ghastly start. We also honor education, and the arts, great food and spending time outdoors doing recreational activities. We do these things because of the longing for joy that we have. We think that if the home town team wins, or we hear a wonderful performance or hike a gorgeous trail or get the elusive degree, if any of those things happen then we will find what we have been searching for. Inner peace. Joy. Wholeness. When that inevitably doesn’t happen—when we didn’t find completeness after the Sox won not just one but two World Series—we go searching for something else. Maybe the answer would be found in weight loss or a new love interest or other pursuits.
But if Paul were here, I’d think he’d tell us that while our longings for some many things is noble—and in fact God-given—that what we don’t recognize is that we are truly longing for God. For God’s unconditional love for us. God’s deep desire to be known by us. God’s longing for us to not just grope around blindly but to truly seek after and find God and the life God always intended for us.
Whenever we talk about God, however, our defenses go up. We say things like, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious.” Which is a code way of saying that we don’t like organized religion (or disorganized religion, for that matter). We don’t care for institutions, or the people who run them, because often such places are full of hypocrites or demand us to give them our money or make us live our lives in a certain way.
Yet, the reality is, that sentiment doesn’t actually make sense. You cannot be spiritual without being religious as well. You might try to have spirituality feed a longing in you, but soon you’ll tire of whatever you are trying and move on to something else. If you are truly spiritual, you’ll recognize that you cannot do that work alone, neither can you do it haphazardly. Being religious—that is, being dutiful in your commitments to the faith you desire—is best done (and I would argue, only done) in community. By connecting with others we can explore the deep longings we all have—seeing them as gifts from God, an innate curiosity to discover the goodness of God and to have fullness of life—and in doing so together, deepen our devotion to God.
In order to satiate our desires, we often pursue things that we think will make us feel fulfilled—we entertain ourselves, seek comforts, look for joy wherever we can find it—but in the end, many of us feel unfulfilled. And so we ask ourselves is this all there is? When we reach something we’ve been longing for and see that it doesn’t bring the serenity, we have deep questions.
I was a big fan of the TV series Lost, a drama that told the stories of the survivors of a plane crash who ended up on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean. We learn along the way that the characters—like Jack, the gifted surgeon with significant issues around his father, and Kate, a fugitive on the run—cannot get away from their pasts even on this island where no one seems to know them. Many of the survivors had achieved something they were longing for in life—a big pay off, the end to problems, marriage, success—yet even when they had, they still longed for something more. They were left searching for something else.
And so they were both literally and figuratively lost. They were searching for meaning, for something else that was more elusive in their life.
So are we. All of the pursuits we have and enjoy, all the hobbies, and the work and the things that delight us and entertain us, and those things that distract us, the addictions, the vices, all of it grows out of deep yearning from within. A profound ache in our souls.
That for which we long is wholeness. To be fully known. To experience true joy.
And that is found in following Christ. The God of Creation—the One who made us—knows our longings and wants to bring us wholeness, reconciliation and healing. God does this when we seek for him, when we turn our full attention to God and God’s work of establishing his kingdom.
It’s important for me to say this, because this is the work that I feel called to do as your priest. In a few days, I will officially be installed as your rector, and I want the focus of my ministry to be on inviting all of us into a more meaningful relationship with Christ, in sharing the good news with our neighbors, and working together in service to the world. I personally know that it is when I do these things that I find myself experiencing great joy in my life. While things I may pursue for myself in the world are fleeting, the things of God are lasting.
So that is why I desire to focus on faith formation for all ages, in outreach, providing opportunities to connect with one another, and above all else to live authentically as disciples of Jesus. I want to point all of us to the one we’ve been longing for, whether we know it or not. The God of the Universe is for many in our society the Unknown God, but that doesn’t stop God from reaching out to us. God is so full of love for us—we heard it again this morning in John’s gospel—and God wants us to become the people God created us to be. Our longings can indeed be satisfied when we actively pursue God through Jesus Christ.
Will we? Will we seek and find the God of Creation? Or will continue to push God aside as we follow after all that is short-lived in our world hoping to find contentment and joy? God longs for us, and whether we know it or not, we long for God too. May we, as we continue our journey forward both find God and be found by God. Amen.