When I read Paul’s speech about the Athenians worshipping “an unknown god,” (Acts 17:22-31), I admire him. I think of Acts as creative history, biased and bold, cheerleading the emergence of Christianity. Maybe Paul’s declarations never occurred or were embellished. No way to know for sure.
The 6th Sunday of Easter – for May 29, 2011
“I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (Acts 17:23)
Still, I sense Acts 17 is at least a glimmer of Paul, of the “friend” I miss when I haven’t seen him in a long time. I don’t think that because Paul’s speech to the Athenians conforms to my bias about Christianity. Just the opposite; the words unsettle and challenge me.
In the New Testament books* scholars are confident the apostle personally scribed, Paul—again, for me—just as easily inspires as irks.
Because of Paul’s very real apocalyptic beliefs, followers of Jesus since the first century possessed scriptural ammunition for demanding others repent before an impending judgment day. I won’t quote the apostle from where he proclaims the end. Find those verses on your own! Indeed, it’ll be real easy because—as I write these words in mid-May, 2011—there are road billboards and Internet postings announcing the end-of-the-world on May 21, 2011. Even staid National Public Radio aired a segment on May 21 as I wrote the first draft of this essay. So, batten the hatches, tighten your seatbelts, and prepare for the last, worst, holier-than-thou rumble. Blame some of these dire, dreary warnings on Paul.
There’s more. As someone who supports gay rights—oops, I really mean human rights and equality for all—I’d prefer Paul never again wipe his sandals on my doormat or press the ringer by the little ceramic sign at my front door that says “Welcome.” Paul’s minimal mention of what is now called homosexuality (a word invented 1,800 years after Paul’s death) created maximum pain for Christian community. Coupled with Paul’s wishy-washy comments about marriage (read chapter seven in I Corinthians and see if you understand his meandering position), I’d never trust Paul for advice on romance, relationships or sexual orientation.
And yet my pal Paul has written words so brilliant I can’t imagine Christian faith without them. Just one, predictable example . . .
Though not currently serving a church, I have a wedding and memorial service on my calendar. In both of those very different celebrations of faith, I could confidently read Paul’s declaration about love in I Corinthians 13. My singular concern would be that the attendees have heard “love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” too many times to actually pay attention. When I read Paul’s “Love Chapter,” I usually invite people to listen as if for the first time. The first time . . . as they witness the precious love of two friends about to be married, or as they mourn a companion who personified trust and compassion for them. Is I Corinthians 13 over used? Yes. Could I read it every day and be blessed to the core of my faith? Yes.
Which is why, when Paul stands beside my ceramic “Welcome” sign, I invite him in and offer a mug of Peet’s French roast. Let’s talk!
What about Acts 17? Did Paul say those words? Or did the author of Acts cobble together tried-and-true Paulisms so Christianity’s beginnings would appear stirring and sterling? I have no idea. Except when I read Paul’s comments about worshipping an “unknown god,” I am profoundly challenged. It’s as if Paul is the only friend who’s willing to be honest with me.
Who or what do I worship? Who or what do you worship?
Let me give you a safe example and a dangerous example about my worship of unknown gods, those small “g” gods that reveal priorities and foibles. Of the many items I pay homage to—which include commitments as diverse as mortgage payments and afternoon naps—I confess to bowing before the altar of backpacking equipment. I’ve rarely seen a tent I don’t want to own. I lust for a better, lighter water filter. To the left of where I write these words, I have enough high-tech windproof, water-resistant jackets in my closet to protect the starting lineup of a basketball team during a furious Sierra storm.
My unknown gods don Gore-tex and munch freeze-dried food. How about you and your small “g” gods?
My dangerous example? How do I worship the capital “G” God? In this reflection I’ve already joked about those who predict the end-of-the-world. Often I find it irresistible to denounce, undermine or become flippant about other, different views of the Holy. After all, isn’t my view the correct one? Don’t I have the right, best, true answers? Aren’t I savvy enough to embrace the parts of Paul’s preaching I admire and toss the rest into the garbage dump of trite phrases or fear mongering?
David James Duncan writes, “The greater a person’s confidence in their definition of God, the more sure I feel that their worship of “Him” has become the worship of their own definition.” I’ve used Duncan’s quote from his GOD LAUGHS & PLAYS before. I’ll use it again . . . because I truly need to hear it and pay attention to its hard truth.
Paul stands on the front porch. He makes me nervous. I think he’s wrong about a lot. He asks to come inside. Says he’s been to Athens and wants to share about a little speech he gave, about a god who is “unknown.” And One who is known.
I glance at the ceramic plaque by the doorbell. I invite my buddy in.
(*I’m currently reading Bart Ehrman’s FORGERY…one of many excellent books exploring the books Paul wrote vs. those attributed to him.)