Sunday, May 25, 2014

"An Unknown God"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 25, 2014

Year A: The Sixth Sunday after Easter
Acts 17: 22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

"An Unknown God"
            If you were here last week you may remember that in our passage from the Acts of the Apostles we heard the story of the death of Stephen.
            Stephen, the first deacon and martyr, was stoned by people angry at the message he preached. He faces his death in a very Jesus-like way, asking forgiveness for his killers and then surrendering his spirit to God.
            It’s a powerful and moving scene, very well-crafted by Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles (as well as, of course, the gospel that bears his name).
            Luke throws in one detail about the stoning of Stephen that I didn’t mention last week and you may have missed.
            Luke writes that when they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him “… the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a man named Saul.”
            And this is how we first meet the man that we know better as St. Paul. The young man named Saul is there at the stoning of Stephen, keeping an eye on everyone’s coats, presumably cheering on the crowd as they kill this very Jesus-like figure.
            We know a lot about Paul from his own letters and also from the Acts of the Apostles. The accounts don’t always match up but we know the broad strokes of his ministry.
            Paul was a very devout Jew, a Pharisee, in fact. He felt that that the followers of Jesus were blasphemers, using God-like language when they talked about Jesus. So, Paul enthusiastically threw himself into persecuting Christians, including Stephen and others.
            But then Paul had a conversion experience to end all conversion experiences.
            The Risen Christ steps into Paul’s life and sends him hurtling in a completely different direction.
            The man who persecuted Christians now becomes an apostle and spends the rest of his life sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout the Mediterranean world.
            And so, in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we encounter this transformed Paul in Athens. Athens is, of course, still the Greek capital but in ancient times it was the center of culture and philosophy for the Mediterranean world.
            We’re told he stood in front of the Areopagus, which was a hill where an Athenian council met. It must have been a tough crowd.
            The educated and sophisticated Athenians must have been skeptical of this strange, rather hyperactive Jewish preacher. But, Paul’s no fool. He begins with what sounds like an attempt to butter up the Greeks, saying,
            “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
            Paul has wandered their beautiful city and seen all the magnificent shrines to the many pagan gods. But, one shrine in particular has captured his attention and his imagination. Paul has found a shrine with the haunting inscription: “To an unknown God.”
            “To an unknown God.”
            Paul then essentially tells the Greeks, “See, you’ve always known that this God exists but you just haven’t known him. But, I know who this God is. This is the God who made everything, is the source of all life. This God definitely doesn’t live in shrines. This God is spirit but is not far from us – is actually right here.”
            It’s a powerful moment.
            And, a little later, we’re told that Paul actually has some success, converting some of these skeptical, educated and sophisticated Greeks to Christianity.
            I think about Paul’s work a lot. I try to imagine what it must have been like to travel from town to town, sharing the Good News with people who have never even heard the name Jesus – people who haven’t got any idea what Christianity is all about.
            It must have been hard.
            But then I also sometimes think that today we might have an even harder job.
            We are surrounded by people – at work or school, on the street, on the bus – who have heard of Jesus, who do have at least little idea of what Christianity is all about. And lots of times, maybe because they’ve been turned off by the loudest and meanest and most judgmental Christians or maybe because they’ve been hurt by the Church, lots of times they want no part of us.
            Because I’m kind of a “professional Christian” I probably experience that kind of suspicion and rejection more than you do.
            I can feel it when I walk the streets in my collar and people sometimes look away or smirk or even give me an angry stare. (At least I’m hoping it’s the collar. Maybe it’s me!)
            Lately I’ve officiated at a number of weddings. None of them have been here in church. Instead they’ve been at catering halls, which a lot of people prefer because of the convenience of having the ceremony and reception I the same place.
            I do these weddings because I like working with couples, helping them prepare for the wedding and, much more importantly, married life. But, I also do these weddings because they give me a chance to reach a captive audience of people – the wedding guests, most of whom, I’m pretty sure, never go to church.            
            And maybe just like the Greeks looking at Paul long ago, these wedding guests often look at me with skepticism and sometimes impatience. Often their faces are pretty much blank as they endure this little dose of religion before they get to the cocktail hour.
            I think to myself, “No Sale.”
            But, each time there’s also a face or two that seems open to the message. Each time there’s a person or two who seems to remember something long forgotten – each time there’s somebody who I can tell is encountering the unknown God – or maybe just the mostly forgotten God.
            So, I hope and pray, that, who knows, maybe even just one person at these weddings might be inspired to give Jesus another look and maybe even go to a church on Sunday.
            And, who knows, maybe at church or somewhere else they’ll discover an unknown or forgotten God who’s been right there waiting for them the whole time.
            So, let’s go back to St. Paul. Let’s imagine for a second if St. Paul were to arrive in Jersey City today.
            As he wandered around he’d certainly see a lot of shrines, just like he did in Athens long ago. Our city is filled with churches and other houses of worship.
            But he’d also see and meet plenty of people worshiping the other gods of today: money, power, pleasure, the piles of stuff that most of us accumulate.
            He’d find lots of people who are simply lost. Kids and adults hanging out on street corners, up to no good or maybe just having nothing much to do, no work to do and without much hope.
            But, just like among the Athenians long ago he’d also discover here a yearning for an unknown God – a deep desire to know the God who loves us enough to live with us and die for us.
            Paul would discover lots of people missing this unknown God – lots of people who don’t really know Jesus – the Jesus who loves us and never abandons us, who never leaves us as orphans.
            With the help of the Holy Spirit, right here and now at St. Paul’s in Jersey City, in our own way we can do the same job that Paul did long ago: through our lives and our words we can share the Good News with a city, with a world, hungry and desperate to meet an unknown God.
            Like St. Paul in Athens long ago, we can boldly and joyfully proclaim:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!