Reflection: by Anne Stewart
(I just want to say that in what follows I have worked hard to limit the use of a particular gender pronoun for God. I know that some find it difficult when God is always, and often unthinkingly, referred to as ‘he’. Particularly when we know God to be beyond the capture of our definitions. At times the lengths I had to go to, to avoid ‘he’ or ‘him’ can leave sentences looking clumsy or ‘dense’. I hope that this effort doesn’t detract from what you are about to read as I know it would for others, if I hadn’t made the effort.)
I wonder if it might be helpful to begin today with a snapshot of the context behind Paul’s words to the people of Athens; some of which we have just read.
Paul is on his second trip to the outlying areas to support the new Christians and the churches as they begin to find their way. In this instance, he is standing on an area known as Mars Hill and he is addressing a crowd of Gentiles. The Areopagus is a hill near the Acropolis where the Athenian Council met. It is a place where the council would deliver its judgements, but it is also a place where Greek philosophers would gather to debate, and where crowds would gather to enjoy the intellectual jousting. The word Areopagus is used to refer to the council as well as the hill. When Luke says that Paul stood in front of the Areopagus, he probably means that he stood before the council.
What is striking about this context is that Paul went to where the people and the powers that be were, and he spoke in the language they understood; in this case, the language of philosophy. His speech was sophisticated, and shows he was alert to his context. But he did this without losing anything of his solid theological Christians beliefs. This way of relating, immersed among the people, speaking in words they could relate to, was to become a hallmark of Paul’s ministry. He adapted his speech so as to be accessible to his audience, and sought to address them in terms that were familiar to them.
Take a moment to imagine the scene. Where would Paul go, to speak in this way, in our context? What might that look and sound like?
There is a lot in this reading but I will fasten on three things that particularly stood out for me.
Worshipping the unknown god.
The first thing that struck me was the idea of worshipping something ‘unknown’. I find that thought quite troubling. To worship something unknown, to me, feels like it could, all too easily, become the worship of a ‘good idea’. I think I would find it difficult to worship, or indeed to submit to any ‘way’, ‘thing’ or ‘one’ that I did not know well. Although I can accept that it is in the act of worshipping that we may well come to know God more fully. Some of us need to take a leap of faith and ‘fake it till we make it’ so to speak. From my own experience, and from what we know of God through the witness of scripture, doesn’t the God we worship constantly seek to engage with us relationally? I can find no evidence of God hiding from us, avoiding us, or being unknowable. God is known and knowable.
Do we find God, or does God find us?
However, God making Godself known to us is not always a popular way to see things these days. Such thoughts are often dismissed as overly ‘supernatural’ or ‘unreal’. Instead, we like to be the starting point, and we tend to struggle with the tension between what we can’t see and what we can. If we can’t see it, some of us say, then it can’t exist. Seeing something confirms for us that it is real. So, if we can’t see God, as such, can’t we just redesign the idea of God according to how we would like God to be? Taking that a bit further, it follows that if we can create our own God then isn’t God simply a figment of our imaginations? God then becomes a creation of something whose existence cannot be proved and is therefore easily dismissed.
But this is not the experience recorded in scripture, and nor is it the experience that many of us are familiar with. To know God at all, we have to be prepared to let God reveal who God is. We have to be open to how and when God comes to us in order to know more of God.
Have a think about how you would describe your experience of God coming to you and being known to you. (It doesn’t have to be a wild revelation, in order to be an experience of value. Remember how Elijah met God in the sound of sheer silence!)
How can we know an unseen God?
So how does God go about making Godself known to us? The classic response is through Creation and, Jesus, Scripture and Tradition. We see the hand of God in the created order that is often beyond our own ability to understand, or describe. In scripture we read in many places that we can and do know God through who Jesus is. For me, it’s a merry old mix of all of these things, often presenting themselves to me as an ‘aha’ moment. A ‘knowing’ that I often find quite challenging to articulate; but a knowing that feeds me deeply, nevertheless.
Have you pondered on how you ‘know’ God? What resonates for you?
Can we keep God in a building?
The second thing that stood out for me is Paul’s statement that, “The God who made the world and everything in it, [God] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…”
We know, don’t we, that God is not contained in the walls of any building even if it is designed and built for the purpose of worship! It is the worship that makes the building sacred not the other way around. It’s the people who do the worshipping who are the church, not the building. We talked a lot about this after the earthquakes shook our old assumptions about what church was.
Yet we also know that where we meet for worship is important to us. These places that we set aside for the purpose of worship take on new significance for us because of those experiences. Because these buildings are important to us, we have, over the centuries, enlisted the help of our best architects and artisans to help us create these purposeful spaces. But even if it the most beautiful of spaces, we still know that God is not contained in it. God is not to be contained! The life of God is in and around us – and free.
The church where Martin ministered in in Dunedin had a sign that greets you as you leave the building. It always intrigued me. It read, ‘You are now entering the mission field.’ While I have to say that the mission field is also within the building, I like the sentiment. It says to me, go out from this building and take the God you have met and known inside the building into the world where God may not be so well known. Whatever the building represents, it does not exist to contain, define or constrain. Instead, don’t we look for signs of God’s presence in every corner and in every part of God’s creation?
Think about the week that has been, where did God meet you during this time?
Does God call us to worship to fulfil God’s needs, or ours?
The third thing that caught my attention was this, “…nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Which brings me back to the idea of worship. We are ‘called’ to worship, yet, says Paul this is not something that God needs. God is not served by human hands, as though God needs anything we can offer, since God is the One who gives to us all life and breath and all things, including our hands. So, if we are not called to worship to satisfy God’s needs then whose needs are being attended to here?
I want to suggest that the call to worship is to satisfy our need, even if we are not aware that we have such a need. In worship we are re-established in our rightful place before God. We are re-formed and re-membered as children of God, as part of the Body of Christ, refitted into the community of saints, and reminded again of our call to serve God by serving one another. But most importantly, we are re-established as being something ‘other’ than God. We are not God. We are not in control! We are not able to contain God and we are certainly not safe when we try to do this. We are God’s – not the other way around!
To finish, I wonder if you might find the video clip below helpful. It’s part of The Garage Series that Darryl Tempero is currently putting together for Alpine Presbytery. In this episode Rev Don Fergus, who is currently helping the parish of St Andrew’s Takaka, talks about some of their learnings from this lockdown period, and cautions about what might be lost in an unthinking return to business as usual. Listen especially for the latter part, where Darryl encourages Don to talk about theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and church buildings, and when they help and when they may hinder.
Go back now and read again what caught your attention when you first read the passage. Were any of these things covered in what I have talked about above?
If not, can you find someone to have a chat about them to? Or you might like to email me, or Dan or Martin with your thoughts or to let us know you would like to chat.