Sixth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Quarantine
ACTS 17:22-31; PSALM 66:7-18; 1 PETER 3:13-22; JOHN 14:15-21
“so that they would search for God
and perhaps grope for him
and find him”
This speech of Paul’s—from the Areopagus, the speech we read in Acts— offers, on the surface at least, a history of God’s salvation of the world. For Paul, it all begins with the one God, the maker, and Lord, of heaven and earth. This God also made all the peoples of the world, too, putting different peoples in different places in the world. And while this God is as close to us as our own breath, the peoples of the world found themselves at a distance from God, and as a result “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.”
But now, as Paul tells the story, the world no longer needs to grope or search for God—instead, all people are invited into God’s life, a life of turning to him, and of turning away from the idols of our own making. It’s a turning towards God that is made possible, and evident, in the sign of the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul’s speech has inspired a number of things. It’s inspired a way for us to imagine the relationship between God and culture—Paul uses what was available to him in Greek religious culture, things like religious sculptures. The speech begins with the words, “Athenians, […] as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God.’” And part of Paul’s speech is to say, “I might know who your unknown God is …” Paul will later quote poetry that wasn’t intended to communicate Christian ideas at all, but were used by Paul to explain just how close God is to each one of us— “In him we live and move and have our being”—the words aren’t from the Bible, but from the Greek poet Aratus.
(It’s this sort of sensibility that guides friends of ours like Matt Kieswetter as he offers film discussions. We can find seeds of Christian truth and meaning even in secular and non-Christian works of the imagination.)
Paul’s speech has also guided some theological reflection on questions of religious pluralism—Why so many faiths? Might we all be be connected to the same God in some way? For Paul, here, the answer is yes. The God that Christians worship—the maker of heaven and earth, and parent to the whole human family—has given us all a guiding spiritual intuition that ultimately has its source and end in the One God of Judaism and Christianity, the God that raises Jesus from the dead, thus revealing God’s purposes in the world, and a way for us to come closer yet to God.
Paul’s speech here isn’t the only way that theologians have made sense of religious pluralism, and as interesting as further conversation about that would be, it’s not where I’m headed today. Another day perhaps.
What I do want to pick up on is this: what does it mean that a consequence of the way God has ordained the world is “that [people] would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him”?
It seems, the way Paul tells this story, that God knowingly made the world in such a way that we would search for, and reach around in the dark for God. God, at least initially, didn’t make it easy for us—and it appears God knew exactly that, that the way he made the world wasn’t all that conducive to quick and easy answers about who God is, and what God’s purposes are.
And it seems to me that we are now in a similar place, except that instead of never knowing God directly, as in Paul’s story of salvation, we’ve gone from having some assurance, to having even that sense of assurance stripped away. And so we find ourselves in a time when we, too, “would search for God,” a time of reaching around in the dark, sure that God is near, but at a loss for where God is, for where God might be found.
But if Paul is right in this speech, this searching, this reaching around in the dark for God, is part of the way that God has ordained the world—and if this is the way God has made the world, then there is some purpose to this searching. There is something for us to learn.
For one, Paul makes an assumption here that we can take to heart. Even if we search around in the dark, reaching out to God, God is already “not far from each one of us.” If this were true for the nations of the world, then it is true for us as well.
We can have confidence, an intuitive confidence, that “in him we live and move and have our being”; and that we are all God’s children.
And so even as we find ourselves in a time of searching for God, and in a time when so many of our assurances have been stripped away—things like worship together face-to-face, regular reception of the sacrament, the weekly routine of Sunday worship—we can be confident that God is near us, that we all belong to him, that “In him we live and move and have our being.”
And so in one way, let us be confident as we search out God—that even if this is a time of discomfort, we are already in and with God. And that if this is true, we can see this time also as a time of discovery, the discovery of a God who is already as close to us as we are to our own breath.
It will take time though, and it will take all of us together to make a way forward, to discern the times, to discern the ways we can come closer to God at this time, to discern with one another, the things that bring us false comforts, and the uncomfortable ways that God’s closeness is already real.
There is one very important difference between our searching for God in a time when our assurances are stripped away, and the searching for God experienced by the nations and people of the world in Paul’s speech: we know that God has raised Jesus from the dead.
We already know that the living God lives in Jesus, and by living in Jesus, God lives in us and brings us life—and not always a comfortable life, but rather the discomfort that naturally comes with growth and life.
And so even as we search, reach out in the dark for God, we have one firm assurance, and an assurance that all our life together as Christians has as its foundation: God has already found us, God has already reached out to us and healed us, and he has done so in Jesus—the one raised from the dead for our sake, and for the sake of the life of the world.
May we look to him in confidence and assuredness, the confidence and assuredness that in Jesus God is already making all things new, and inviting us into that life, even now.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons