Unknown No Longer
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
Acts 17:22-31
May 14, 2023
Main Idea: We live and move and have our being
within the love and grace of God.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

As we enter into this sermon time, I have a few questions for you.
What is the arena in which you spend your days and your thoughts? Where and how do you spend your time and energy? Where do you live and move and have your being? Perhaps if you are an engineer, you live and move in numbers and problem solving. Perhaps if you are a teacher, you live and move in thinking about your students and curricula. Perhaps if you work in the medical field or have health concerns, you live and move in appointments, procedures, and medications. Perhaps if you are a caretaker, you live and move in response to the needs of those for whom you care. Perhaps we live and move in our financial concerns. Do we have enough money to pay our bills and purchase the stuff that we want and think we need? Perhaps we live and move in the enticing digital world of social media and 24/7 news. Are we keeping up with the Joneses, do we know the latest trends? Perhaps we live and move overwhelmed by the crises of the world; homelessness, addiction, gun violence, climate change, bitter partisan divisions.

In this Easter season we are exploring the nature of our risen Christ and our relation to Christ’s world changing reality. Our text for this morning doesn’t mention Jesus by name but in it the Apostle Paul masterfully expresses the reality that Christ reveals. We live and move and have our being within the love and grace and power of God.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Paul is portrayed as a charismatic speaker and evangelist. In our Monday Bible Study we sometimes called Acts, the Perils of Pauline because over and over again Paul arrives at a city, preaches there, gets in trouble with the authorities, is run out of town, or is arrested and jailed, and then miraculously released. For today’s text, Paul is in Athens because he has been driven out of Phillipi, Thessalonica, and Beroea by mobs. He is alone in Athens, waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him.

As he waits, he walks around the city and becomes “deeply distressed to see that the city is full of idols.” So he does what is familiar to him. He goes to the synagogue and the marketplace to tell people the Good News about Jesus Christ. We aren’t told what his reception at the synagogue was like but in the marketplace Epicureans and Stoics call him a babbler and a proclaimer of foreign divinities. Fortunately for Paul, they do not become an angry mob but instead they bring him to the Areopagus which was a gathering place for wisdom and discussion. Athens was a university town, known for its love of learning. They politely ask Paul, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” (17:19b-20) Paul’s response is the text we read today.

Most Athenians practiced a polytheistic religion. There was a Pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses who each had a specific domain and area of concern. We know these deities; Zeus, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, Ares, and on and on. Their faith was transactional. The people made offerings to the deity who could help with what they needed and the deities hopefully showed their favor. But their community was not simplistic or uniform. They questioned and they wondered together. Epicureans, who are mentioned in the text, were materialists who did not believe in the divine. They were harsh critics of idolatry, seeing it a waste of time, resources, and energy. The Stoics, who were also mentioned, believed in the solidarity of the human race and in a deity that was manifest in all things but was not transcendent. As a whole, the Athenian community was open and interested in learning more about spiritual ideas.

In many ways, the Athenian community was much like ours. We too sometimes slip into transactional theology. If we just follow these instructions we will get what we want. If we just pray in the right way, with the right amount of fervor, we will get what we desire. I picture Athens like San Francisco, where everyone is looking for the next great idea. We all know present day Epicureans whose only goal is to enjoy the present day with no thought beyond themselves. We all know folks who are spiritual but not religious like the Stoics. And we all know people, ourselves included, who are searching for deeper meaning, wisdom, and connection. Paul speaks to all of us.

Paul notices that, among the Athenians’ many altars, there was one dedicated to an Unknown God. Maybe that altar was erected just in case they had missed a god or maybe it was created with the understanding that they would never know the full extent of the divine. Either way, Paul declares that this god would be unknown no longer. In fact, this unknown god is “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. (17:24-25) This God created humanity from a common ancestor so that all are related, and God organized creation so that humanity would search for God, and reach for God, and find God, realizing that God is not far from each one of us. Paul quotes Stoic philosophers to connect the reality that he experiences through Christ to the wisdom they had heard expressed long before. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’. And “For we too are his offspring.”

Up to this point, the Athenians would all be nodding in agreement. Nothing thus far would be out of their world view, even when Paul points out that the divine is not like the idols they have crafted out of gold, silver, or stone. But then he introduces the Good News of Jesus. He says that “Up till now, God has been content with your partial understanding but now God’s true heart has been revealed! Everyone is invited to know God through the revelation of Jesus who lived and died and lives again. God is not simply an Unmoved Mover, who set up creation and watches it from afar. God is not simply the stuff of creation that we can use as we choose. God has a purpose, a plan for reconciling all that is broken, righting all that is wrong, infusing all life with beauty and love.

Paul proclaims that God is not far away from us, waiting for us to offer the right prayers or sacrifices. We live within God; within God’s grace, within God’s love, within God’s power. The Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” And all of humanity is included and valued as God’s children. So there is no us versus them. And Jesus reveals God’s vision and dream for each one of us which is vibrant and abundant life.

I invite you to think back to the arenas in which you spend your days and thoughts. How might that time and those experiences change when you rest in the knowledge that you are living within the love and grace and power of God? Our burdens are lifted, yes? We are not alone. We can see others as siblings connected to us and to all of creation. We are supported and encouraged to share this love and grace and power with the world. As you go through your day, I invite you to hold on to this reality. No matter what is going on, through the good, or the bad, or the mundane and boring, at all times you are buoyed and sustained and encouraged by God’s love and grace and power which will never desert you.

And what are the idols that we unconsciously cling to, hoping that they will bring us security and happiness? The illusions of financial security, consumerism, our loyalty to political parties, our nostalgia, or simple apathy. Those idols we can let go, for they are shoddy imitations of the love and grace and power of God made known to us through Jesus our Christ.

As we continue to celebrate the Easter season, let us rejoice in our God who is unknown no longer. May we rest in the love, grace, and power made known to us through Jesus. And may we be energized and empowered to share this Good News with the world.

Let us pray,
God in whom we live and move and have our being, thank you for our very lives. Empower us to rest in you and be energized to work on your behalf making your dream for creation manifest in the world. Amen.