When I read Paulâ€™s speech about the Athenians worshipping â€œan unknown god,â€ (Acts 17:22-31), I admire him. I think of Acts as creative history, biased and bold, cheerleading the emergence of Christianity. Maybe Paulâ€™s declarations never occurred or were embellished. No way to know for sure.
The 6th Sunday of Easter â€“ for May 29, 2011
â€œI found among them an altar with the inscription, â€˜To an unknown god.â€™â€ (Acts 17:23)
Still, I sense Acts 17 is at least a glimmer of Paul, of the â€œfriendâ€ I miss when I havenâ€™t seen him in a long time. I donâ€™t think that because Paulâ€™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, Paulâ€”again, for meâ€”just as easily inspires as irks.
Because of Paulâ€™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 wonâ€™t quote the apostle from where he proclaims the end. Find those verses on your own! Indeed, itâ€™ll be real easy becauseâ€”as I write these words in mid-May, 2011â€”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.
Thereâ€™s more. As someone who supports gay rightsâ€”oops, I really mean human rights and equality for allâ€”Iâ€™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 â€œWelcome.â€ Paulâ€™s minimal mention of what is now called homosexuality (a word invented 1,800 years after Paulâ€™s death) created maximum pain for Christian community. Coupled with Paulâ€™s wishy-washy comments about marriage (read chapter seven in I Corinthians and see if you understand his meandering position), Iâ€™d never trust Paul for advice on romance, relationships or sexual orientation.
And yet my pal Paul has written words so brilliant I canâ€™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 Paulâ€™s declaration about love in I Corinthians 13. My singular concern would be that the attendees have heard â€œlove is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rudeâ€ too many times to actually pay attention. When I read Paulâ€™s â€œLove Chapter,â€ I usually invite people to listen as if for the first time. The first time . . .Â 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 â€œWelcomeâ€ sign, I invite him in and offer a mug of Peetâ€™s French roast. Letâ€™s talk!
What about Acts 17? Did Paul say those words? Or did the author of Acts cobble together tried-and-true Paulisms so Christianityâ€™s beginnings would appear stirring and sterling? I have no idea. Except when I read Paulâ€™s comments about worshipping an â€œunknown god,â€ I am profoundly challenged. Itâ€™s as if Paul is the only friend whoâ€™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 â€œgâ€ gods that reveal priorities and foibles. Of the many items I pay homage toâ€”which include commitments as diverse as mortgage payments and afternoon napsâ€”I confess to bowing before the altar of backpacking equipment. Iâ€™ve rarely seen a tent I donâ€™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 â€œgâ€ gods?
My dangerous example? How do I worship the capital â€œGâ€ God? In this reflection Iâ€™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, isnâ€™t my view the correct one? Donâ€™t I have the right, best, true answers? Arenâ€™t I savvy enough to embrace the parts of Paulâ€™s preaching I admire and toss the rest into the garbage dump of trite phrases or fear mongering?
David James Duncan writes, â€œThe greater a personâ€™s confidence in their definition of God, the more sure I feel that their worship of â€œHimâ€ has become the worship of their own definition.â€ Iâ€™ve used Duncanâ€™s quote from his GOD LAUGHS & PLAYS before. Iâ€™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 heâ€™s wrong about a lot. He asks to come inside. Says heâ€™s been to Athens and wants to share about a little speech he gave, about a god who is â€œunknown.â€ 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.)