How are we supposed to understand God? How do we see God, especially in relation to us? Do we see God as kind and benevolent, or angry and harsh, or somewhere in between? How does the way we see the world and other people influence all of this?
I’m thinking deeply with you today as I try to understand the Athenians. Paul has arrived there in Athens—a hotbed of philosophy and thought—and is dumbfounded by the number of idols he found there and the altars created for the deities they represent. Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, declares that Paul is “deeply distressed” by it all. He’s trying to grapple with how these deep thinkers got to this point. So he begins having conversations and asking questions, and argues with the Jewish worshippers in the synagogues and the Stoic philosophers out in the city. Finally, they want to know what this babbler—that’s actually what they call him, a babbler—has to say. “May we know this new teaching that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Paul had been teaching about Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection, so the people of Athens are trying to get a handle on it. Besides, Luke tells us, “they would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” They wanted to know what this was all about.
And that’s when Paul clues us in on the Athenians and the way they think about the divine. He begins his Ancient Near East Ted Talk in this way: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Before we get to the rest of his sermon, let’s pause right here. The Athenians—deeply religious as they are—want to make sure every possible base is covered, and so in the midst of dozens upon dozens of altars, worship sites, and statues of idols, they erect a simple stone altar for the “unknown god.”
And the only reason you’d want to do that as far as I can tell is so you can appease that unknown deity. The one who might be thinking he got left out in the cold as all the other gods are getting prayed to and having things placed on their altars. Perhaps the Athenians think this unknown god isn’t so nice—I mean, the gods of the Greek stories could be a bit fickle, Poseidon was known to destroy entire fleets of ships out on the sea if he was having a bad day. And so after making the run of the religious circuit doing your spiritual duty, why not stop by the altar dedicated to the unidentified god just to be sure everything is in the clear between the two of you before heading home? What could it hurt?
Because they thought the gods were more or less like us. We get moody and fickle. We have our feelings hurt when we’re forgotten by others, and get upset. We try to make it up when things go south, so we buy flowers or chocolates and apologize. The deities in their pantheon were more or less the same. You had to go out of your way to stay on their good side.
Back then to Paul’s sermon at the Areopogus: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Paul then tells them that God isn’ some idol carved from stone or silver, but living and moving just like us. And God doesn’t want us to remain ignorant in our knowledge of God, but to turn around and come to our senses and follow the one whom God has raised from the dead.
Luke tells us that some scoffed, others wanted to hear all of that again, and some of them believed and joined with Paul in following Jesus. And I suspect the Athenians who didn’t believe that day might have got hung up where many of us do too. We can’t imagine a deity—the Creator of the very universe—offering to love us without anything in return. God wants us to search to know God fully, but it’s simply so we can be in relationship with God. It’s all just pure grace. Pure gift. For us. No strings attached. And we have a hard time imagining that because we know nothing in life is free. And yet there it is.
Author and theologian Frederick Buechner describes it all this way: “A crucial eccentricity,”—I love that ‘ecentricitcy’!—“of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.’ There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
Accepting that gift of grace means accepting love. That’s what Jesus is getting at, by the way, in his conversation with his disciples. “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.” The commandments he gives them are these: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. And that new one of his, the one he gives just prior to our reading in John: “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”
And that’s precisely how we are to understand God. I’m not sure there’s a harder thing to do in this life. We’re so used to the model we’ve been handed that we need to earn love like the way we had to earn grades from our teachers. We had to be on our best behavior and do the right things. And so we go on keeping score in our heads like the Athenians making sure we’re checking off all the right boxes to appease God and maybe then God will think we’re not half bad some of the time.
Yet God says, “I love you.” That’s it. Over and over again. “I love you, just because. I made you, and I know you better than anyone else ever will. I love you.” How often we forget. How often we imagine God as fickle and moody as us, suspecting that the thing we did the other day that now embarrasses us has made God’s anger rise. God simply asks us to turn around and change our direction and receive the gift of love. The gift of grace. The gift of life. Perhaps “being able to reach out and take it” really is a gift too. Let’s reach out today and bask in the unbelievable love God has for us.