Sunday, May 21, 2017

Where the Apostle Paul got it wrong

“To an unknown god”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Air-ee-opagus 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 mortal’s 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 one whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
For centuries, this story has been the model for evangelism. Paul taught us how to toss out the bait. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” And then he praises their object of worship. “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.”

Paul sounds accepting…sounds like a man interested in an intellectual conversation about how some come to see God differently than he… then comes the zinger. “What you worship as unknown is actually known, at least to those of us who have a corner on the truth market.

Listen up, says Paul, we know who God is…we know and you don’t and we are here to save you. There is only one way and if you’ll hear me out, I will show you the way. And then comes the topper. Paul says God has ignored your ignorance up until now. God’s judgment will be up on you soon. You’re either with us and “in” or you see God differently and you are “out.”

That’s the sort of thing I heard growing up in the Protestant church but it didn’t make any sense to me…it didn’t square with Jesus’s teachings. The Good Samaritan never once tried to convert the man he found along the roadside. He bound up his wounds and found him help…and then went quietly on his way. The inconsistency between what Jesus taught and what my pastors were telling us is was why I left the church as a teenager and didn’t come back until I became a parent and reluctantly decided that while I didn’t need church, my children did.

It was there that I was inspired to help start the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Cheyenne. It was then at First Christian. Highlands was a big part of it. The founder of HFH was a fellow named Millard Fuller. Millard was a rich man who literally awakened one morning and gave it all to the poor and started HFH. You know how Habitat works. Those who “have” help build houses for those who “have-not.”
Along the way, Millard often ran into complaints from fellow Christians. “I want to do this but I can’t work alongside Mormons…or Catholics…or Jews…or…Muslims or…on and on it went. People. Most often Christians of one flavor or another objected to working with those whose theology differed. Millard’s response was what he called “the theology of the hammer.”

This theology is about bringing a wide diversity of people and faith communities together to build houses and establish viable, dynamic communities. It acknowledges that our political, philosophical and theological differences exist, but we can all find common ground using the hammers and nails as an instrument of God’s Love.

The theology of the hammer recognizes the problems of the world or even the problems down the street can’t be solved by people who find God in one way working alone without others who find God in an entirely different way or, I might add, without those who are skeptics, agnostics or even non-believers. It doesn’t matter how or whether you believe, we believe everyone has been given gifts that can be used to bring us a little bit closer to the Kingdom of God.

There’s another story that makes my point. It’s a Bibles and Beer story. It’s a story that begins like an old joke. “A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into a bar.” It does sound like the opening of a gag but it is actually how Bibles and Beer began 6 years ago. A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into Uncle Charlies and invited others of diverse faiths to join us.

A couple of years after it all began, one of our members, a Game and Fish biologist, came with a guest. He was from Kenya, Africa. He was a Muslim from a part of the world that saw very little cooperation or even friendships with Jews or Christians. He too was a biologist, a part of a delegation of African scientists who spent the summer in the U.S. studying with American scientists. This fellow came back every Monday evening and took part in our Bible study. At the end of the summer, they all returned to their African homes.

Before leaving, the entire delegation gathered to share what they had learned while in the U.S. Each took turns telling of the new veterinarian techniques they’d learned or about the wide-variety of research projects in which they’d been involved. When it came time for our Kenyan-Muslim friend to share, he said, “What I learned is that it is possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslim to sit together and study the Bible.”

How different things might have been if that had been Paul’s message that day in Athens. How different the history of the world might have been if there would have been a focus on doing the work of the divine and not how we each come to know the divine from the start; no one marginalized, rejected, discarded, or killed in the name of someone’s limited view of god.

How different it could be if we shifted now from concerning ourselves with whether someone else is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Hindu or an evangelical…whether they are inspired by the Quran or the Bible or the sayings of the Buddha…how different it can still be if we just worked with one another to feed the hungry, house the homeless, comfort the addicted, visited the prisoner…and loved our neighbor.

How different things might have been if Paul had acknowledged the truth in the inscription he found on that Greek altar. The unknown God is the God of all of us.

Sorry Paul…but it is possible, even more likely, that we can live out our faith without being concerned with converting those whose faith directs them to work with us side-by-side. As Job said, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not.” AMEN

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