Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Unknown God

Is God unknown to us?

When Paul visited Athens -- a place where every new idea was the latest rage, and yet where the old gods still reigned -- he had what was possibly one of the most intriguing opening lines in a defense.

But first, you have to understand that the Areopagus was not just a soap box for anyone who wanted to talk.  It was court.  Actually, its primary function was to try murder and corruption cases, but it seems also to have been a place for folks to demand an accounting from public speakers.  So court, but not exactly court.

Anyway, Paul was only too happy to speak.  And he started out with flattery.  "My, what religious people you are!"  At first, I thought Paul was being ironic, especially when he said, "You're so religious, you even have an altar to an unknown god."  I figured he was playing on the Athenians' famous penchant for worshiping anything that came along.

But as you look at it, I suspect he was meeting the people where they were, because then he says, in essence, "I'm going to tell you about this god you don't know, and boy is it going to be great."  Paul was not speaking to Jews here -- so his approach fit them beautifully.

But when you thing about it, Paul might use the same line on us -- maybe not here at St. James', but in our world, in our society today.

Because so many don't know God.  They don't hear him speak, don't see him, don't feel his presence and love.  Rather, what they do experience through television or unfortunate encounters with some religious people can make them believe that -- if there is a God, he is certainly choosing to remain unknown.

I confess that as I read today's gospel, I wondered if perhaps THIS Jesus was unknown to me as well.  Think about it:  Here is Jesus nearing the end of his time with the disciples, and what does he say?  "If you love me, you'll do what I want."

I dated a girl once who liked to begin statements with, "If you love me…"  It didn't take me long to run in the opposite direction.  Who wants to be manipulated like that?  Often enough, people use that sort of coercion to control their partners or  force them into things they don't want to do.  No thanks.

But as with Paul, there's a different way of reading this line.  Jesus is not saying, "Do this for me or I won't love you."   As you read it again, you notice that what he's telling his disciples -- those who are preparing to carry on after Jesus leaves -- is, "This is what loving me looks like."  And what does it look like?

Over the course of the gospels, we know that those commandments are very few.  Love God completely.  Love your neighbor as yourself -- which implies loving yourself.  Baptize and break bread together.  That's it.

This is the Christ I know after all.  And in knowing Christ, I know the Father.  God is love, not manipulative but pure and self-giving.

This is the God we seek to make known to the world -- and we do so by being the Body of Christ -- by following his commands.

So, two misunderstood statements -- on my part at least -- lead to a new appreciation of not only who God is, but where God is in our lives today.  May we all look at this troubled world -- it's been troubled always -- and know in our hearts that even if we don't know what God is up to at the moment, God is there.

In our actions, in our hearts, in our desire to meet people where they are and to love them -- as God loves us.  Amen.