“The Unknown God”

Nearly 2,000 years ago a Christian missionary named Paul brought the gospel to one of the world’s greatest and most impressive cities, Athens. He shared his message in the synagogue and in the agora (marketplace). His message was radical … in fact a repudiation of the very things that the city was founded on… pagan gods like the goddess Athena, the patron goddess after whom the city was named and all the other gods whose temples dominated the landscape. In fact he challenged everything that they held sacred… all their institutions and rituals and practices.

He attracted enough attention that he was taken to the Areopagus, a high point of the city named after the god Ares, god of war. In that time it functioned as the place where serious matters were judged by a court bearing the same name. Here high crimes like homicide, or sacrilege were dealt with and serious pronouncements were made. Paul was literally “put on the spot.” Luke tells us what happened in Acts 17.

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 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 one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.

Just a little over a week ago I stood where Paul stood… the Areopagus or Mars Hill. I looked up at the Acropolis and the ruins of those temples towering over the city. I looked down over the Agora and its temples. And I had goose bumps. The ruins in their glory bear eloquent testimony that Paul’s words are true. Today, on Mars Hill itself, nothing remains but a bare rock outcrop… and not even the whole outcrop. Several centuries ago an earthquake took a big chunk out of it along with the Christian church building that had stood there… Evidently God doesn’t live in church buildings any more than in pagan temples!

I think of Paul speaking those words. Spoken words seem such fragile things. A word once spoken vanishes on the wind. And yet. And yet it is the temples that are gone while Paul’s words remain, and will remain till the end of time. I think of those words and I think of the faith that we put in our traditions, our rituals, and our understanding. And I realized how much bigger the God I worship is.

We humans are not much good at seeing what is real and permanent. We are not much good at seeing beyond the surface. My trip to Athens helped me to see with clarity.

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McKinney at Cardinal

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