When people find out that I am a Pastor I come across so many people who tell me that they aren’t Christian but they are spiritual people. Sometimes they even say they don’t believe in God but are spiritual. I think by spiritual they probably mean similar to what Paul encountered today when he visited Athens and found the people there very religious people. People don’t like the term religious or religion much these days. In fact a lot of Christians don’t like the term either being applied to themselves. It has a bit of negative feel about it when someone uses the term. But what does it mean to be spiritual or religious as Paul referred to the Athenians?
I think it means that they understand that there is something bigger than themselves that exists but they don’t really know what it is.
Paul called it “the Unknown God”. They are searching but have not yet discovered the personal relationship that God invites them to.
They know there is something there but not quite sure what. So many people are on a search for the truth. So many people are on a search for meaning in life. There are various ways that people undertake that search.
People use their careers as a way of finding meaning and purpose in life. But the problem with that is that careers can actually suck the life blood out of us rather than give us meaning. We have seen those who have been burnt out in their careers. Those who have neglected family in order to build up their career so they can support their family better. Or sometimes we have seen those who have given their life and soul to their career only to be called in and sadly advised that they are being offered a retrenchment because the business is going in a different direction.
Some find their search for meaning in their sport – as a participant or spectator. As a participant sport can be a very short lived search.
An injury or illness can sideline you. In team sport there is always someone who is vying for your position. As a supporter of sport there can be great highs when your team is winning but even lower lows when your team loses. Sport is probably one of the biggest areas that is challenging the church in people’s search for spirituality. The MCG is often referred to as the Spiritual Home for football clubs. Sport is played on most sacred days. Sundays is not even given a second thought. Football on Good Friday went off without much negative feedback. Sport is being used to create the new voice of ethics taking on issues like sexism, racism, drugs and same-sex marriage. Many refer to their sport as their religion. When we hear things like that it can be very disheartening. But Paul didn’t find it disheartening at all but found an opportunity to speak to them about what they were searching for. But what is interesting is that Paul doesn’t begin by firstly rejecting what they have found as their spiritual direction. In fact he upholds them and praises them:
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god. He doesn’t say – you foolish people for believing in false Gods. There is no doubt that the church has a challenge today. But we need to be careful that we don’t demonise and make enemies of those who are spiritual but not yet in a relationship with Jesus Christ. At the end of the day the journey of their Spiritual quest will let them down. When Peter and the disciples were causing disruption the people wanted them put to death.
But Gamaliel gave very good advice that is still relevant today: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34-39) This is our strategy also. To remain strong in our faith in God and be there in time of need. That was the advice Peter gave in our bible reading: He said: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:14-16).
Sometimes it is hard. The criticism against Christians can get very personal and hurt and we are tempted to retaliate.
But Jesus promises that we are not alone. He says: I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. When you look at what Paul had to go through because of his faith it didn’t turn him away from God but made his faith stronger: Put in prison, whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. So Paul didn’t see opposition as something to fight against or be concerned about.
Jesus also recognised the opposition we would receive and reminds us “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first” John 15:18. We don’t want to see an “us and them” situation but rather what Paul saw when he went to Athens and found a point of entry to bring the Gospel message. We have points of entry into people’s lives and it is usually when there is a time of suffering or grief. We can be there to share the hope we have with gentleness and patience that Peter talks about. We don’t know when that opportunity may arise so Peter says – always be prepared.
God has placed each of us in various places to be his message of hope and he will use us when the time is right. And we don’t have to worry about what we’ll say or what we’ll do because God will send his helper, the Holy Spirit to be with us. And if you feel inadequate because you don’t know how to witness then don’t despair but be prepared to simply share the hope you have.
And if you feel as if you’ve let God down because you’ve never witnessed to anyone, again don’t despair because that’s up to God and we are simply to always be ready to do so. Paul did not judge the people of Athens because of their idol worship and their non-Christian ways of living. Rather, he uses their culture that acknowledged their worthiness as children of God. Paul begins to tell them about this unknown God that they are already worshiping. Paul does not condemn the Athenians for who they are; nor does he begin with what separates them, but with what they have in common. Paul knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He knew God as the One who keeps promises. He knew God as a God of a second chance, and a God that saves, a God that can convert.
He knew God as a God of love even loving his enemies. A God who came to serve us.
Our God, who has given everyone life and being, and is interested in every aspect of your life, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
So who do you know God as? We cannot tell of something if we do not know for ourselves, first-hand. We cannot share a God we do not know for ourselves with others. We are witnesses for the God we know. We are sent to tell people about the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ. Our God should no longer be unknown. Our God is too good and too generous to remain unknown.
God is known by loving-kindness to us, shown in the One who lived and died and rose again, so that we too might live with God.
We are all called to be witnesses to the God we know and love and make the unknown God known to the world.