Sermon – 1 May 2005

To an unknown God

The God whom we worship is both known and unknown.

Out of such a paradox, Christianity was forged and hurled around the known civilized world of its day.

Paul?s sermon on the hill known as the Areopagus in Athens is itself a little Pentecost ? a little of the Holy Spirit breaking through into this world. His ability to preach the gospel in a culture that was not his own and in a city which Jesus had never visited was itself of great significance.

His sermon was this. The God whom we worship is both known and unknown to us.
And this is important, I think. I?m aware that my reading of this sermon is not quite what some people make of it. I don?t believe, that Paul was simply saying that the God whom they did not know before was to be known in Jesus. That is the easiest reading of this text, but not for me the most fulfilling.

No, it seems to me to be important to hang onto both sides of the argument and recognise that God is both knowable and unknowable. Both at the same time.

Yes, paradox can sound like nonsense, but it is the very stuff that our religion is made on.

We worship a God who is three and yet is one.

We worship a saviour who was killed and yet at this time of year we proclaim him as alive.

We believe in a God who walked the earth at a particular time and in a particular place and yet we proclaim a God who is in every place and for all time present.

These are all paradoxes that have been used by the church as much to beguile believers as to explain the faith. And there are more. Our faith is after all divinely simple ? and yet utterly complex and interesting. Paradox, like love, is all around us.

So, I believe that Paul was preaching a paradox to the people of Athens. He was after all preaching about someone whom he claimed to know and whom he had never met. He was preaching about the saviour of the Jewish people to an audience of gentiles. He was proclaiming a figure who was formed and lived and died in the Jewish world on a mercantile hill amongst the gentiles of Athens.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that he uses paradox to preach with.

(Good preachers always do!)

And what I want to suggest to you this morning is a suggestion for what to do with this kind of thing. For it is deeply embedded in our faith and you miss out if you never come to grips with it. (It is called apophatic prayer, but let that not trouble you for a moment).

What you do is you take one of these paradoxes and you turn it over in your mind, letting your mind swing from one side of the paradox to another. And as you do so, you learn more and more about God. (Or indeed, you learn about what God is not).

You see, it is important to proclaim the knowability of God. It is important to proclaim the God whom we come to know in Christ. The God whom we know as Jesus. The God whom we come to know who calls us to the supper we share in church. The God whom we know who is proclaimed in the Gospels as one who came and walked amongst us. This is the God who became vulnerable. Who was born a baby. Who lived our kind of life and died and unkind death at our hands. This God is knowable. We have stories to tell us all about him.

But it is also important to proclaim the unknowability of God too. And it is this side of the paradox which leads to fundamentalism if it is neglected. For we do not know the mind and will of God. Be very wary of anyone who tells you that they do. For God is bigger than we are. Mightier. Eternal. Holy.

There is always a sense of God which is Other. That aspect of God which is Beyond. Beyond our immediate understanding. Beyond our comprehension. Beyond our own definitions of divinity which will always be limited by our own inadequate language.

You see, talking about God is one think. Knowing, or unknowing God is another. This is the point of our faith where our ability to speak of God breaks down. Or perhaps breaks out. Breaks out into poetry, dance, art, and yes, into paradox.

So to end with, let me come back to that paradox which Paul proclaims on the hill of the Areopagus. God is known in Christ and the unknown God of the Gentiles.

Let me meditate on that for a moment or two as I draw to a close.

God is known in Christ. We can imagine so many of the scenes in Jerusalem. We walked with him through the stories of Holy Week. We saw him enter the Holy City and be praised. We saw him betrayed and knew that we had betrayed him too. We saw him crucified and knew that we too would die. We heard of him raised from death and knew that we frail humans would be raised up with him to God.

These things we saw and heard about in stories. They were, most of them, knowable.

But then the stories started to change. Did we understand the story of the road to Emmaus? Was Christ physically with them there or not? Was he recognisable to the disciples in his Easter form or was he not.

The paradoxes started to happen the more people proclaimed the central truth that Christ was not dead but risen.

And now Paul proclaims the same on the hill in faraway Athens.

God is known. God is unknown. God is knowable. God is unknowable. God is with us. God is beyond us.

As the days wear on and we hear of his Ascension, the descent of the Spirit and as we celebrate the Trinity ? all these festivals over the next few weeks, we will discover more of the same.

That sense of discovering what we already know, and don?t know is at the centre of what it means to live with a living faith.

God is with us. God is beyond us.

And invites us all to wrestle with who we are and who is God who loves us.


Speak Your Mind