Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘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.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
When I emerge from self-isolation to walk around London, I visit familiar places but see them differently because the circumstances of my life – and all our lives – have changed. The same happens when I read a familiar passage of scripture, like today’s reading from Acts 17. I’ve always been flummoxed by the altar to the unknown god, described in verse 23. I mean, an atheist wouldn’t bother creating an altar in the first place, and a pagan would dedicate an altar to a pagan god. So I’ve never understood what was in the mind of the person who wrote that inscription, let alone anyone who worshipped before it.
Today there’s a lot of un-knowing around. Of course, there always has been, but we’ve been able to balance that with things that we could count on and plan for. Now, there’s a lot we don’t know about the coronavirus, or about what our new ‘normal’ will look like. We don’t know how work or school or church will be affected in the longer term. And all this un-knowing can be very disturbing. We give it headspace, in the same way that the Athenians gave space to their altar to the unknown god.
Paul uses that altar as a springboard for a wonderfully concise sermon in which he lists some of the things we can know: God created the cosmos; God doesn’t need our support; God shapes and sustains our existence; and God is closer to us than we can possibly imagine. In the light of that, he urges the Athenians to repent. Repentance is a proper response when we turn towards the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Through that resurrection, Paul writes, God has given ‘assurance to all.’
We are assured that inasmuch as we are in Christ, we will be raised to new life. That new life can start today, and it can change the way we respond to the un-knowing and uncertainty around us. It doesn’t mean that there will be less uncertainty, but that the uncertainty may become softer. Experiencing God’s unwavering love for us can help change our response to un-knowing because that love is constant, and doesn’t change.
As the church prepares to celebrate Ascension Day on Thursday, forty days after Easter, let’s pray for the downpouring of the Holy Spirit, who makes that love known to us. Jesus said ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…’ (John 14.16-17) We in south-east London can grasp the profound truth that escaped the citizens of Athens two millennia ago, and we in turn can seek others, as Paul did, with whom to share that truth.
Fr David Evans is a priest in the Diocese of London, formerly the Vicar of St Christopher’s Walworth and Warden of Pembroke House in the Diocese of Southwark. He is a friend of Sheridan’s and recently preached at St Catherine’s, just before lockdown.