The (un)known god

Sermon for Easter 6

Acts 17.22-31; John 14.5-21

My name is Timonus. Once, I was a slave; my master was Sophos, a philosopher in Athens. I had an easy job—I just followed him about and fetched and carried for him. I was set free when he died, it was in his will.

As a philosopher, Sophos spent a lot of time on the Areopagus, the place the Romans call Mars Hill. I used to love being there. I’d keep out of sight of course, slaves should not be seen in such places, but I kept my ears open. My master was one of the Epicurean philosophers. They had no time for any of the gods; as far as the Epicureans were concerned, the gods lived so far away that it was pointless taking any notice of them. And the gods took no notice of us either! My master Sophos never prayed, never sacrificed, never went to a temple except for social occasions. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good man, after all, he treated me well and he set me free.

But he did have one blind spot—he hated the Stoics. They’d gather in the Areopagus as well, and there was often a bit of a verbal stoush between the Epicureans on one side and the Stoics on the other. All done in the most genteel way, of course—with gritted teeth through a fixed smile.

Mind you, I don’t know why they fought really, they were so similar in so many ways. Neither had time for the old ways. Both looked down on people who still believed in the old gods.

I remember this one time, a time when the Epicureans and Stoics were on the same side. The Christian Paul was in town. No one had heard of Christians back then, so Sophos and his friends Dionysius and the lady Damaris were interested. They thought Paul may be representing a new school of philosophy. They thought he may be someone they could have debates with. They debated for fun!

Well, Paul had become quite worked up by all the idols and shrines in Athens. Funny, living here, you get used to them. But it is a shock when you first get here.

I saw him, stopping by the altar to the ‘unknown god’. He stood and stared at it for the longest time…

You do know the story about why the altar to the ‘unknown god’ was set up, don’t you? No? Well, so the story goes, six hundred years ago there was an epidemic here in Athens. Many were sick, most of them died. The people believed that the epidemic had come because they had offended one of the gods. But which one? After all, there are so many! There are twelve major gods and goddesses, and thousand of minor deities. Well, they sacrificed and prayed to every god and goddess they knew, but still the plague continued.

They had no idea what to do! So they did what everyone does when they’re at their wits’ end—they hired a consultant. They brought in a prophet, poet and philosopher from the island of Crete, a man called Epimenides.

When Epimenides arrived in Athens, he was struck by the number of shrines and idols, just the same as Paul. He joked that with the number who had died, it would be easier in Athens to find a god than a human being.

He decided that if the Athenians were already worshipping every god known to them, then the god who was punishing them must be unknown. But how to find this unknown god? Where could they worship him? If they put an altar up just anywhere, they might offend him again. Or offend another of the gods, who would bring another punishment upon them.

Epimenides hit on a bright idea. He got a flock of sheep, and starved them. Then he let them out to roam the hills and fields around Athens. You would expect them all to get right into the grass and eat up big. But wherever a sheep did not eat, but lay down, there they would erect an altar to an unknown god and sacrifice the poor sheep on it.

As far as I know, the sheep who didn’t eat and just lay down were just too exhausted to do anything else, and very near death anyway. But the plan worked. The altars were erected; the unfortunate sheep were sacrificed; the plague stopped; Epimenides was a hero.

Anyway, the altar to the ‘unknown god’ that Paul saw was the only one left. (Once the plague stopped, people eventually forgot about the unknown god. Perhaps they kept this one altar for insurance if the plague ever came back.)

Anyway, as I said, Sophos and the others thought that Paul might be a philosopher like them, so they invited him to speak. He started telling them about Jesus and the resurrection, though they thought he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasia.

Sorry? Oh—in Greek, my language—the word for ‘resurrection’ is ‘anastasia’. Sophos and the rest thought that Jesus and Anastasia were two gods, perhaps a husband and wife team. That was quite hilarious as far as they were concerned. It really made Sophos’ day!

Anyway, they thought it would be amusing to hear more, so they allowed Paul to address them. He pointed to the altar to the ‘unknown god’, and said he knew who this god was. I could see Sophos nudging his friends Dionysius and the lady Damaris, who just looked thoughtful.

Paul spoke about the God who had made everything, the Lord of heaven and earth. He said that God made us so that we would search for him, even though he is all around us.

I could see Sophos frowning. Partly because he didn’t believe what Paul was saying, and partly because Dionysius and the lady Damaris were getting quite interested.

Then Paul talked about a man who this God had raised from the dead, and I realised what he meant. This man was Jesus, and he hadn’t been speaking about two gods, Jesus and Anastasia; he’d been talking about Jesus and the resurrection. It all began to make sense to me! But, I thought, better not tell Sophos I thought it made sense. Good master or not, he’d have me punished.

Sophos went home glum. His friends Dionysius and the lady Damaris became Christians. You know, Sophos never really enjoyed going to the Areopagus after that day.

Once I was freed, I went east to Ephesus, where I met Ariadne, my wife. Not long ago, she became a Christian too, and she’s been talking about Jesus and the resurrection too! She has told me of the writings of John, who tells about Jesus.

John writes of Jesus speaking with great tenderness to his disciples the night before he was crucified. He said to them,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Peace. I’d love to know peace deep in my heart. I’ve had enough of trouble.

And Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, who would speak up for us and defend us. The Spirit who would comfort and help us and teach us truth. The Spirit who would live in us. God’s Spirit in us!

It’s all starting to make sense to me again. I’m starting to realise that the eternal God who made heaven and earth is close to us. Jesus says we can know God because we see God in him. If we know him, we know God. God is not an unknown god.

Ariadne says it’s like letting go and relaxing in God. God’s love is all around us, she says. In God we live and move and have our being, just like Paul said. And as Ariadne’s favourite John says, God loved the whole world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would have eternal life, an abundant life that starts now.

You know what? I think I’m becoming a believer.

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