William Barclay said,
There were many altars to unknown gods in Athens. Six hundred years before his a terrible pestilence had fallen on the city which nothing could halt. A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god; and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to “The Unknown God.”*
So Paul begins his preaching in Athens in a rather sarcastic manner, saying, “So, I see you’re really religious, right?”
Actually, at this point Paul has been in Athens for some little while, waiting for Silas and Timothy to come and join him on his journey. Whilst there, he has noticed the preponderance of idols around the city, and it has got him quite upset, so he has been engaging everyone he can find in argument about them, because of course idolatry is strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition, and has a history of getting the people of God into trouble whenever they have indulged in it.
The people of Athens, we are told, loved nothing more than a new idea, an innovative philosophy, a shiny new idol to adore. When Paul came preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ, they thought that was exactly what they had found; and finding Paul quite happy to talk and dispute and discuss until the cows came home, they invited him to do just that.
And he rewarded them with biting sarcasm, “So, you’re really religious, right?”
The Athenians, if we believe the story about the sheep, said, fine, we may not know the name of the god this sheep is laying next to, but we can still control it with a little bit of ovine sacrifice. We can contain it with a shrine, so that next time we need a pestilence driving out, we know where to find it again. We can keep it at our side, for our convenience.
In some ways you can hardly blame the Athenians for wanting to cover all the bases. After all, don’t we do the same? How many people here have buried a statue of whoever it is you bury in your front yard to sell your house? Is that the one you bury upside down? What about the little rituals that we make up to bring us luck?
And we do more. Some of us make idols out of flags. Some of us make idols out of guns. Some of us make idols out of people, or out of ideas, even good one. Even the good ones become idols when we trust them with our salvation.
We all do it. We do it, I think, because we like to think that we have our bases covered, that we are in control, that even when we face the unknown, we can label it and build a shrine to it, or destroy it and bury it. We are not so different from the Athenians.
We make idols out of everything and anything that we think will keep God at our side, on our side, at our convenience. When we reduce God, in whom live and move and have our being, to a shrine, to a ritual, to a touchstone or an idea, even a good idea; whether or not we give it the name of God, we are practicing idolatry.
“Well aren’t you the religious ones,” says Paul.
The good news (says Paul) is that although any god that we might hope to control is no god at all, there is a way to know the uncontrollable, unpredictable, wildly wonderful, abundantly real God without sacrificing our senses, without sacrificing our minds or memories, and even without sacrificing sheep. The God whom we all know with the essence of our being, in whom, in fact, “we live and move and have our being,” although not confined by gold or silver or stone (let alone by flags or guns), has deigned to share our human nature with us, so that we might, through the person of Jesus, know God in a very human way.
There’s a paradox, a seemingly unresolvable tension in all of this. If we try to make God in our own image, then we commit idolatry. Yet we ourselves are made in God’s own image, and we know God, although, as Paul says elsewhere, we see God as though through glass, or through water.
In last week’s gospel Jesus insisted that his disciples had seen God because they had seen him; that they knew God because they knew him; that they had heard God because Jesus was speaking to them. Now, he addresses us: Although I have to go away, he says, you will not be left alone. You, too, will know me, will know God, because of the Holy Spirit whom God is sending to you. And you will know the Spirit, because the Spirit is that which lives in you, and in which you live and move and have your being. It is the very breath of life; it is the whisper of God in the wind, and the haze on the horizon, and it is in the Spirit that you will continue to know me, and through me, to know God.
With the coincidence of this reading falling on Memorial Day weekend, by simple word association I was reminded by the shrine of the Unknown God of the tradition of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We memorialize that which we do not remember, which we do not know, but we do know, when we pay our respects at the tomb of the Unknown Solider, that we are honouring real people, real memories, real sacrifice. Just because we do not know their names or faces does not make them vague or immaterial, nor any less important in the scheme of things than those that we do know; and we trust that our sorrow, our horror at the horrors of war, our penitence for our part in the violence that kills the sons and daughters of our neighbours, even in our ignorance, is acceptable, and that our prayers, even for those whom we do not know, are heard by the One who knows all.
We try so hard to pin things down, to make them, literally, concrete. Yet there is a blessed unknowing that comes from knowing that God is God, and has created all things and loves everyone that has been created. There is a comfort in letting go of the need to control an idol, and instead trusting the living God to work out the plan for our salvation.
The Athenians, because they did not know God, had to make one up: The Unknown God. We who know God, revealed to us in the Risen Christ, breathed over us anew each day by the Holy Spirit, who is our constant companion and Comforter; we are free instead of making idols to let God be God.
Perhaps if we were to let go of a few more of our own idols, and let God be God, we would more readily recognize the Holy Spirit in the image of others, more easily keep the commandments of love that Jesus gave to his disciples; perhaps we might even find that peace which is offered to all peoples, nations and families of God’s creation; that peace which passes all understanding.
For such peace, let us pray:
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
*William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (St Andrew’s Press, 1976),