This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Parish for proclamation on Sunday 21st May 2017, the sixth Sunday in Easter, year A. I had just returned to Lakes Entrance after a week in Adelaide where I received my Master of Theological Studies degree at a service of celebration at Adelaide College of Divinity.
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20.
Well there he is: as promised I have produced a photograph of me from the service of celebration I attended at Adelaide College of Divinity on May 8th this year. So yes, there’s me in my flat hat and Geneva gown, wearing the hood of a Master of Theological Studies in the Flinders University tradition. You can’t see it very well there but my hood is blue, with a pale blue lining of satin and edged with a ribbon of violet. This degree in no way makes me “official”, other than as a graduate of Flinders University. A degree in ministry or theology, and I now have one of each, (plus degrees in Education and Arts) does not confer ordination upon anyone, that’s a separate process. A degree in ministry or theology does not make anyone any more or any less a minister; I was commissioned for ministry at my baptism, as were you. Does this outfit make me a scholar? Arguably if I weren’t a scholar I’d not have made it so far as to wear this particular outfit, but I’d suggest having completed the path leading to my graduation that the outfit indicates that I once was a student. I should hope that even though I am now finished with formal education for at least twenty years that I shall continue to learn and study, so maybe I’ll always be a student.
In our reading from Acts this morning we eavesdropped into Paul’s address to the Areopagus on the topic of an unknown god. Paul is both a scholar and a student, he has credentials from the Pharisees and rabbis he studied Jewish Law with and he remains open to the Holy Spirit to teach him further. The men to whom Paul is speaking are Greeks, not Jews, but they too are masters and students of philosophy and theology, so Paul addresses his remarks in the style of a scholar. Paul, in this place of the study of gods, speaks of the God to whom he belongs as the sole creator who exists beyond temples such as these. The God of Paul created humankind and needs nothing from us in the way of resources as offerings. The God of Paul is the bringer and sustainer of life, and this God created the world with order and structure, God made place within space, and such order makes it possible for God to be found in the pursuit of order and study. You’re on a right track Paul might have said, God can be found through reflective study. Paul speaks of all men and women deriving from one nation established by God, a lone source. This means that all people are the offspring of God exactly as the philosopher Aratus said in the 200s BCE, and that it is indeed in God in whom we exist and function as Epimenides said in the 500s BCE. Paul then uses the words of the Greek philosophers to point to where their pursuit of the rational God has fallen off course, because if humankind have been made by God and from God then it follows that God cannot be made from gold or stone. So, what’s with all these statues and temples as objects of worship? Once, Paul says, God allowed us our human ignorance but now God is calling us to repent and to see the truth revealed in the man sent by God to show us the way to God. If you want to know God then you need to pay attention to the real world of created things, not manufactured ones. Gold cannot tell you about God, only a man can do that since men (and women) are made by God but idols are made by men. But, says Paul, there is good news. God has sent such a man with the gospel that God is waiting to be found and wanting to be found. God, in the spoken revelation of the one who came from God enjoins you to the undertake the chase through repentance from ignorance and trust in the revelation of God.
So, this speech has a context, it is addressed to academics in an academic place. Paul is philosophising with the philosophers in the philosophy club, that’s where he is. I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t actually say very much about Jesus, or the message that Jesus proclaimed other than to say that God is accessible through any concerted, well-directed effort to find God. Paul’s message to the Areopagus is not Jesus Christ band him crucified as it was to the Jews, but God the rational and personal essence which both transcends and engages with the physical “real” world.
During my studies, I undertook a unit in The Acts of the Apostles in 2015, and during that series of lectures I heard that this passage is set piece speech on how to proclaim the story of God to pagans. My lecturer and his commentators understood that this speech is not the exact words of Paul, rather it was drafted by the writer of Acts as one of five key speeches which form a framework for the whole book. Whether it really was Paul’s word reported back to the writer, or whether it is a literary invention conceived by the author of Acts to make a point is not the point here, but it’s still good to know. These are not random words spoken off the cuff, there is intent and thought gone into this speech. We hear Paul speaking to a pagan audience at the Areopagus of Athens about how Jesus does not need a temple or priesthood to be set up in his honour since God acts in the world. This is a counter-argument to the interpretations of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and indeed the idea that the “unknown god” needs an altar to his honour lest he be offended by the oversight. If anything, God is dishonoured by the plinth, since its presence limits the creator’s influence to this one small place. Jesus is the evidence of what God is doing, and he is attested to by his being raised from the grace by the power of the creator.
We can draw four messages from this.
- God loves and wants to be reconciled with the academics and with all pagan leaders, as well as the worshippers and all Jewish priests, Levites, and Israelites.
- God’s means of outreach can be culturally specific so as to be inclusive. An Areopagus message would sound like useless wordy worldliness to the Sanhedrin, and a Sanhedrin message would sound like ethereal superstitious babble to the Areopagus. There is only one God, and only one way to God, but there are countless ways of speaking of God so as to elicit a response from the hearer of the news of salvation.
- The gospel stands up to academic scrutiny, even in the presence of the most learned of learned men.
- God was doing the work through the Jews before God was doing it through the Christians. Paul has not discovered a new thing about God, and Paul has not invented cross-cultural; evangelism.
Bless our God, O peoples says the NRSV, on page 459 of the Bible in front of you. The NKJV says “Gentiles” which makes it even more obvious what is going on. The Hebrews are calling the world to bless the God of the Hebrews (Psalm 66:8). God established [each living thing] in life according to Psalm 66:9, just as the Greek philosopher Epimenides said. The nations have tried to destroy us says the Psalmist; in other words, God may be not made of gold and stone but the people of God have been refined and refreshed as if we are, (Psalm 66:10), but we have come through because of our God’s faithfulness. So now, says the Psalmist, I (singular) will worship with Hebrew worship, and I call upon you all now to listen to my story of what God has done for me. And what has God done for me? Well God heard my prayer. Now I call upon the world to come and hear (Psalm 66:16) me say that when I cried out to God, God came and heard (Psalm 66:19).
The messages of the Psalmist and of Paul are not entirely the same, but there is a common theme. The God of the Israelites is the God of the world, and the only true God. The One for whom the entire world is searching can be found amongst the Israelites in the personal testimony of individual Jews and in the disciplined and applied study of the Jewish cultural traditions. Whatever your way of searching for meaning is, however it is that you bet understand your need for something greater than yourself, God has provided a way in Jesus Christ.
So how does this apply to you or me? Some of us fit into both models, even if it does require some stretching. I was raised in a Christian home so, like Paul and the Psalmist, I learned the stories of God as a child from my parents and many of the other adults in my life at church and school. I am not a Jew, but I am a Christian, and so I know about God from inside the culture of God’s own people.
But, like Paul and the Psalmist I am also a student. I don’t like being thought of as a scholar or an academic since my desire is to be approachable in ministry. I am clever and well read, I have degrees in Arts, Education, Ministry and Theology, but I hope I’m not lofty. I can debate with other university graduates, but I’d rather sit and listen to people living daily lives and I hope I never become too grandiose to do that, even if I do use words like “grandiose” in my preaching.
The gospel speaks to the ordinary person who just wants to thank God for what God has done, and to the no-less ordinary person who enjoys a well-written book and relates to a God of crosswords and sudoku. If finding God is a puzzle to be mastered for you, a journey to be walked by you, a lover to be wooed for you, a parent to be rediscovered in your adulthood, or any other image there is room in God for all those ways to lead to satisfaction.
My job, all our jobs, as ministers is to make sure that the Church does this too.
I have now completed all the formal study I want to do, and at the end of my studies in theology, ministry, leadership, and scripture I am more in love and awe of God, and more in love and awe of the Church. I did not lose my faith in learning about other ways of approaching God, in fact when I read all the books and articles, and distilled the information into essays and seminars, I discovered a real God who expresses real love through the real man Jesus Christ and the Church which carries his name. Tertiary studies might not be your path further into God, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for anyone else.
So, whether you meet God and go deeper with God in books, gardens, or solitary or with your beloved walks along the beach; whether in singing in the car or at church, in hanging out with Christian friends on Sunday mornings or Tuesday afternoons, I encourage you to do more of it. Continue to pursue God, continue to go deeper into your relationship and God’s love. Whatever it is that you do to know God more is what God has set before you entirely for that purpose. So, go on, keep going on, and be ignorant of the depth of love no more.