It was probably near the Acropolis, on the Areopagus, the rocky outcrop opposite the beautiful Parthenon building, which was originally the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, that Paul gave his speech to the people of Athens.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” Acts 17. 22-23.
I visited this site in 1996 and walking around the Acropolis, I had these words of St Paul ringing in my ears. And, whilst this sermon of St Paul is nearly 2000 years old now, it struck me at the time, and still does, that it is one of Paul’s sermons which speaks to us in a number of very profound ways today.
The first thing to notice is that Paul doesn’t go in saying that the Athenians are heathens who are damned. No, he begins by recognizing that these people are religious. They have a real desire to worship, and recognizing this desire for worship in the Athenians is the point of connection that Paul uses to speak of the worship of the God of Jesus Christ.
Human beings are fundamentally made to worship, as well as to think and to do. We are, as the great orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann says, primarily, Homo Adorans, a worshipping creature. If we do not worship God, we will end up worshipping ourselves, money, pleasure, power, or the many other false gods that there are to worship. So, if St Paul were to walk around the shopping areas of San Pedro and Sotogrande today, he would probably say, ‘People of Malaga and Cádiz Provinces, I see that you are very religious, you have many altars to Gucci, the town councils, and the sports centres…..’. He would probably also notice all the different types of churches and say, ‘oh my goodness, you twenty-first century people are even more quarrelsome than those over in Corinth!’
So, our first take home lesson from this missionary sermon of St Paul is for us to realize that in our engagements with others it is good to begin by acknowledging that people are by nature religious and are worshipping someone or something in their lives and our first task, as Christian missionaries in the Malaga and Cádiz Provinces, and that is what we are as Christians, is to understand how this desire for worship is working in those whom we are amongst. Recognizing this fundamental desire for worship, allows us, like St Paul, to respectfully engage in a dialogue about how Jesus Christ is the ‘real deal’. He is the ‘real deal’, of course, in a way which allows all our activities to be under his guidance. In all our deep desires, we are ultimately dealing with patterns of worship, about who or what it is that our desires are oriented towards. And, as our second reading from 1 Peter tells us, we are to ‘do this with gentleness and respect (reverence)’, so that people don’t take offense or don’t feel that we are preaching at them in a way which is off-putting.
Paul is a master at this kind of missionary work, because he knows full well the sophisticated cultural world of those to whom he is speaking in Athens. He even quotes in his sermon, the well-known phrases from the Stoic poets Aratus and Cicero, ‘In whom, we live and move and have our being….We are his offspring’, who were popular at the time in Athens, to make the point that the unknown god that they are worshipping has now been made known in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The second take home lesson from St Paul is that this ‘unknown god’, who has been made known in the God of Jesus Christ, ‘gives us life and breath and everything else’. In other words, the God of Jesus Christ is the one in whom our desires are fully met. This God is literally the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’. When we worship this God, we are worshipping the source of all life and goodness. Our desire for seeking this God is built into our hardware, so to speak.
As St Paul puts it, ‘God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any of us’.
We are naturally made to seek this God and this is why our desires are infinite and can never be fulfilled by anything or anyone else. You might even say in our contemporary language that we are ‘formatted’ for God, and this is why we are by nature religious, even though, like the Athenians, this natural desire can get deviated to worshipping other lesser gods.
The third lesson, we can take from St Paul, following his points about being naturally religious and desiring God, is that this God whom we naturally seek has been raised from the dead in Jesus, so that all may know who God really is. This resurrected God is none other than the one whom St John speaks of as Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in the resurrection of Jesus for all to worship and love.
This three-fold expression of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveals that God is love and those who live in God, live in love. So, another name for the ‘unknown God’ of the Athenians is ‘love’ and this love is what we mean when we say God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: intimate, mutually indwelling relations of divine love. God in us, and us in God.
So, when we encounter real love, we encounter God, because God is love. And it is through the Holy Spirit that this is communicated to our hearts and minds in often, like the Athenians, unknowing ways. We simply love and this love is frequently blind because our deepest desires are not always easy to explicitly express in words or to think in concepts. But wherever and whenever these deep desires move within us, we can be assured that God is there. As the ancient hymn puts it: Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est (where there is charity and love, God is there).
The good news of this Easter time is that at last, because of his resurrection, we now know whom it is that our hearts seek and this One is the God of love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.