Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21 “To an unknown God.” The Romans conquered Greece in the century or two before our Lord’s birth. They made of Athens, its capital, a relatively free city by the standards of the time, one permitted to run its own affairs and maintain its own traditions and customs; one where people could openly speak their mind. After all, Athens by this period in history was no longer a particularly important commercial, much less military, hub as far as the Romans were concerned. It was rather a city of philosophy and literature, of academies and schools. Think of it as Oxford and Cambridge, both Cambridges I might add as an American, all rolled into one. And in spite of occasional revolts among the Athenians against their rule, the Romans happily adapted Greek learning to their own ends, making Greek culture in effect their own. It was to this first-century multicultural Athens that Saint Paul arrived as described in our first reading this morning from Chapter Seventeen of the Acts of the Apostles. Except of course that Paul did not come to Athens on a study holiday, as so many students do to this day. He did not come to sit at the feet of the great Athenian professors and philosophers of the time. He did not come to Athens to earn his PhD in the works of Epimenides or Aratus, Greek sages whom he quotes in his oration or sermon. To be honest, if you read carefully this entire passage or chapter from the Acts of the Apostles, it becomes clear that Paul did not really intend to go to Athens at all. It was simply not on his itinerary. Paul was more or less forced to flee there as a refugee because, well, his preaching had been causing riots in Thessalonica and elsewhere. It would seem that Paul’s companions and perhaps his travel agent saw Athens as a kind of safe haven for him, a place known to be tolerant of new ideas, even those of bold disrupters like him. So, his sojourn in Athens was for Paul an unintended, perhaps even to some extent unwelcome, respite or enforced rest from the dangers and jeopardies awaiting him along his coming missionary journeys. Yet true to his nature, and true to the Gospel he proclaimed, Paul as we see did not sit still in Athens. Rather, he took advantage of this unanticipated but in many ways serendipitous turn of events to introduce the Gospel message to arguably some of the leading thinkers of the age all gathered together at the Areopagus, a forum of debate and the exchange of ideas. Call it the first Christian graduate symposium, if you will; the beginning of the long tradition of Christian learning and philosophy extending right up to today. And Paul gets right down to business. “As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship,” he explains to the Athenians, “I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown: This I proclaim to you.” I suppose we must here pause for a moment and admire the perspicacity of both the ancient Athenians as well as that of Paul; the Athenians, for recognizing with Socrates that wisdom comes in knowing that one does not ever truly know anything, much less everything; Paul, for offering a radical, unheard of, alternative wisdom, a wisdom not found in books or ancient texts but in the life, death, and Resurrection of our Lord; a wisdom personified, if you will. And it is the person and Gospel of Christ which Paul proclaims.
Now, if God is still seemingly unknown in our own materialistic, multicultural, post-modernist world today, as many proclaim, it is perhaps because people still seek God where God is not to be found. They seek a God whom they can in fact comprehend, and to that extent, control and manipulate to their own ends; a god made in their own image or in the image at least of their own self-interest and pride. God in a book or a box, in other words, in a temple or a tabernacle. Put God on a shelf where you can keep an eye on him. This is too often the god of the unscrupulous influencers of any age in the worlds of politics, statecraft, and finance, and sadly religion too. But a God within our grasp is, needless to say, no god at all. Yet, as any Athenian philosopher could tell you in the words of an ancient proverb: Called upon or not, God is always there. That of course is the God the Athenians seek to honour with their altar and whom Paul preaches with his words. After all, as more than one saint has reminded us, our Lord himself comes to us as one unknown. The people of his time did not exactly recognise him and readily embrace his teaching and Gospel. Quite the opposite. The disciples themselves at the Sea of Galilee did not know much about Jesus when they dropped everything and heeded his call to “follow me.” And if, as they say, all our life decisions, from trivial to tremendous, are always made on the basis of inadequate information, the importance of faith becomes ever more clear and certain. But the paradox at the heart of faith is that the God worshipped as unknown is also the source of all that we know or can know or ever will know; the source of all that we are. For, God always remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our horizon, just beyond our control; as, come to think of it, does our very life itself. The truth behind this reality is what distinguishes God with a capital G from all the gods with a small letter g. It is also, I think, what distinguishes the God of Christ, and thus the God of Christian faith, from all other gods, known and unknown. It is this God, in whom “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul tells us quoting from the Greek poet Aratus. And so, Paul calls upon the Athenians to repent. Repentance would seem at first glance an odd response to Paul’s essentially philosophical discourse or lecture. But neither ancient Athenians nor we today are immune from the temptation to glorify our own sense of self-importance and competence, our own propensity to think ourselves godlike. True faith and wisdom begins, I reckon, when we give up such illusions and, yes, repent of them. Paul knows, and so should we, that information and even intellectual enlightenment, as essential as they are, will never be enough. Counter-intuitively perhaps, we can only truly know God as revealed to us in the person of Christ. Only in faith. And true faith comes in the assurance of Christ’s Resurrection. So, that is where Paul wisely ends his lecture or oration. As he puts it, God “has given assurance to all by raising [Christ] from the dead." In our Lord’s Resurrection then, we too are raised up beyond ourselves and our ignorance and reassured of God’s favour. In Christ’s Resurrection, the unknown God of the Areopagus becomes at last manifest and real today and forever. Amen. The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs