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Our Altars to the Unknown God

Our Altars to the Unknown God
May 17, 2020
Passage: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
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It always seems to me that the Easter season takes a big turn halfway through. At the beginning, our gospel readings are all about appearances of the risen Christ and the struggle to recognize him. Jesus’ followers go to anoint his crucified body only to find the tomb empty. Thomas is absent from the room when Jesus appears and he won’t believe without seeing and touching the wounds. Mary Magdalene mistakes her risen Lord for the gardener – until he calls her by name. Two disciples walk with a stranger on the road, but recognize him as Jesus only in the breaking of bread. A misty figure on the beach cooking breakfast; Peter’s sight clears: It is the Lord! When they do recognize him, intimate fellowship follows.

Then the turn. The risen Jesus starts to exhibit leave-taking behavior. And the Easter story opens up and moves out. I am the gate for the sheep. I go to prepare a place for you. I am with you only a little longer. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. Eventually, as his followers watch, Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight. And they have to learn all over again to know Jesus in a new way – know him in that promised Holy Spirit and in their love for one another. With this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, our story moves all the way to distant Athens and Paul.


“…an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:23). That’s how the Apostle Paul launches his address to the assembled lovers of wisdom in Athens, capital city of Greek philosophy. Sometimes, in the words that follow, Paul’s voice is heard as chastising: he knows something about God the Athenians don’t know and he’s going to set their ideas straight. To be sure, there is some of that, especially Paul’s Jewish resistance to representations of the divine in gold or silver or stone and the notion that God might live in shrines made by human hands and be fed by their sacrificial offerings. But I also hear Paul genuinely appreciating and embracing aspects of Greek wisdom concerning God. After all, he quotes two of their own poets to make his point.

Paul offers Athenian lovers of wisdom the gift of the stranger. The one who sees with different eyes. Connects the dots of the holy from a different vantage point. Paul wanders around their city with heart and mind wide open. And an insight visits him. A human altar not to this particular god or that one – the power of the ocean, the vast mystery of the heavens, the consistency of days and seasons, the wild impulses of love and war and creativity, of death and life: the Greeks had altars to all those gods – but instead an altar to an unknown God. An open-ended and image-less altar that grants spaciousness around any human attempt to define God too  tightly or too rightly.

This altar’s inscription testifies to a God always beyond our human capacity to know fully. Perhaps Paul finds in the wisdom of the Greeks a corrective to his own people’s tendency to think of the one God as a tribal God, the God of a particular people, their people. Paul’s words in Athens are about all, rather than some or a few. “God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things,” he says. “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God 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 after God and find God – though indeed God is not far from each one of us” (17:26-27). How could such a spacious God be far away if “in God we live and move and have our being?” (28) – an idea Paul borrows from Epimenides, one of those Greek philosopher-poets.

What a paradigm shift! Instead of God in the world or in us or in our shrines, we live in God, move in God, have our very being in God. All of us. Not some. Not a few. The times of our existence encompassed within the universal womb of one unknown God. The places we dwell, small dots of holy ground spread out across God’s boundless landscape. That is why no one altar to any known God is ever big enough or right enough.


Now this might strike you as a most inopportune time to be wondering about the objects of our worship when, since March the 8th, none of us has been able to open the doors of St. Paul’s and step on to our holy ground and gather around any of our three altars. The altar in the church with its walnut tabletop held up by those two bronze chalices (or are they upraised hands?). The altar further upstairs in the chapel carved with symbols of wheat and grapes. Or the moveable altar we lovingly set up and put away each Sunday evening, downstairs. On the other hand, maybe it’s the perfect time!  Maybe forced distance and absence can grant us different eyes – the eyes of a stranger like the Apostle Paul in Athens.

For I do wonder about our altars. I wonder if a stranger has ever shifted your paradigm by telling you something about God you could not see from the vantage point of your small dot of holy ground? I wonder what insights might re-open for us the doors of St. Paul’s, granting new spaciousness to our worship of a God never fully known? I must confess, I’ve long harbored a crazy vision of our moveable downstairs altar moved not just from storage to the center of the parish hall for mass, but moved outside St. Paul’s worship space completely. I’ve wondered what it would be lik metaphorically – to put wheels on that altar and roll it up the ramp and onto Roy Street and out into neighborhood and city and country and world? This morning, Paul’s words to the Athenians challenge me to learn to recognize the whole earth as God’s table, God’s altar. That our dot there on Roy Street was already holy ground for Native Americans long before most of our people arrived. That even as we stay home from St. Paul’s, our labyrinth garden and surrounding sidewalks offer something of an altar for others, who,like us, are also God’s people.

Resources: None of my sermons at St. Paul’s ever come into being without input from other people. With this one, I want to express special thanks to Debra Sequeira, Charissa Bradstreet, and Natalie Johnson for conversations on Friday that had everything to do with the way the sermon begins and ends. I’ll take a little more credit for the stuff in between.