You have already had one sermon this morning – St Paul in Athens – a sermon that gets theologians, if no one else, fairly excited. This is the only account of a sermon preached by St Paul to non-Jewish people. So we find him presenting the Christian message not in his usual Jewish kind of way but in a Greek philosophical kind of way. This way of thinking has had a huge influence on Christian theology. Paul’s starting point is an altar he has seen dedicated to The or An unknown God. It is on this that I should like to reflect this morning.
But first of all back to a more recent past: One of the routines I had as a parish priest was to take Holy Communion to the house-bound. At Easter time this was especially important. At this busy time of year it meant doing a round with about twenty minutes allowed for each household. Any interruption or delay was not welcome, casual chat could land me half an hour late by the end of the morning or afternoon.
There was I reading the Easter story of the two disciples walking to Emmaeus. You’ll remember how they walked with Jesus but he was unknown to them. I finished reading and was about to launch quickly into some short prayers when the elderly lady interrupted. “I love that story – it is so realistic”.
In spite of the schedule I had to ask why. What she said was that whenever she had been in real trouble, like when her husband died, she did not feel or experience the presence of God. It was only looking back she realised that God had been helping her all the time. When she was thinking God was absent, God was present.
Yes, I thought to myself, that’s it. That’s my experience too.
I love that verse in a hymn which sums up what I know. When in the slippery paths of youth, with heedless steps I ran, thine arm, unseen, conveyed me safe and led me up to man.. The unknown God, the unknown Jesus – apparently absent, but, looking back, was present all the time.
Sometimes when we are overwhelmed and God seems unknown we accuse ourselves of lack of faith. We no longer have the confidence we think our religion should bring to our lives – we have failed!
But let us remember how often Jesus the revelation of the nature of God, is so often portrayed as being unknown, unrecognised, yet actually present.
Setting out the agenda for the whole of Jesus’ life the gospel writer John can say He was in the world and the world knew him not. John the Baptist did not recognise Jesus at first. Preaching, he could tell the crowd there stands one among you whom you do not know. We have already remembered how the two disciples travelled with Jesus without knowing it at the time. Mary stands by the empty tomb talking to Jesus without knowing him, thinking he is the gardener.
Remember how the Epistle to the Hebrews defines faith –Faith is the proof of things not seen. Recall how Jesus told doubting Thomas Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
This cannot possibly be failure. As the old lady told me - it is realistic.
Easter is the empty tomb, the apparent absence of Jesus – and at the same time the ever present, ever living Jesus Christ.
It is the unseen arm conveying us safe. It is looking back over times good and bad and realising that the apparently absent God was present.
So back to the first sermon – the one by St Paul!
Some people have criticised it for holding out the possibility that God is knowable in the sense that that you can understand God. Get the right knowledge, mug up your theology, and you can get there. The intellectual approach if you like.
The approach of faith is different: it is entering into a relationship based on life experience. Certainly theology is a rich and demanding intellectual discipline. Knowledge, and thinking can certainly help faith and strengthen our relationship with God. Above all, learning helps keep us on the right path and save us particularly from fantasy and self-indulgence. But information or even practice is not the thing in itself. Just as the idols in Athens, which upset Paul so much, were not the creator, but something created, man-made.
Our Christian faith teaches us knowing God is not essentially intellectual – it is being in a relationship. Things like perceiving, intuition, awareness, grasping something beyond understanding; these are what we are on about. The unknownness of God is part of God’s nature, part of the mystery, part of a glory which we can grasp. God is beyond understanding, yet intimately bound up with the everyday business of living even if at times God is unknown to us. We experience both.
The unknown seemingly absent yet always-present Lord is the mystery of faith!
It may not often feel like it, but in the here and now as we receive bread and wine we are part of life eternal. As we move toward this altar we are including ourselves in something mysterious and glorious, and part of something realistic.