(Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For 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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Now, when the Athenians made that statue entitled "To an unknown god," they were very likely erecting that statue so that this god they didn't know wouldn't get his or her nose out of joint for not being worshiped, and zap the Athenians for their ignorance. I would contend, however, that the devotees of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses were not the only ones hedging their bets against an unknown god. In a roundabout way, Christians occasionally do this, too--they only attach the name God to it, just in case.
This passage is a good reminder that knowing God in a relational sense is not the same as knowing God's title, not the same as knowing the intricacies of the liturgy, and not the same as being book-smart in theology. Now, that's not to say that those things don't help us in that relationship, it's not to say they're not part of that relationship. But they're not the relationship.
Further along in the passage, Paul throws another monkey wrench in understanding that relationship: He essentially says that God doesn't need our presence in the pews, and God doesn't need us to do good works, in order for God to be God.
But...but...but what about all the good things the church does? What about being a faithful worshiper? At first blush, this makes no sense. We want to come to church on Sundays and be uplifted by the gathered body, and it certainly feels like God is there. When we do mission, we get that warm fuzzy feeling. That can't be for nothing, right?
Again, Paul's not telling us to bag on those things. He's just saying, "Don't confuse the stuff of Christianity with your relationship with God. Don't fall prey to the illusion of control. Don't get bound up with your sense of piety and duty to the point of ignoring your relationship with the Almighty."
One of the things I've learned consistently with myself (and I don't think I'm alone in this one) is that the minute I start feeling self-assured in my relationship with God, that's the minute I start ignoring this relational aspect I can potentially have with God. Then I find myself in a very humble place pretty quick. I am less likely to enter into that relationship where I can bend and adjust to the uncomfortable complexities of that relationship.
I thought about this on the day I volunteered for a summer program several of the churches here in town also endorse. The program provides a nutritious lunch for children in the various Kirksville city parks--children who normally get the free or reduced rate school lunches. For some of these kids, the school lunch is the most balanced meal they get all day. Summer creates a hardship for families in that regard.
It's too easy to get involved in what I call the voyeuristic aspects of service. Service to others should not be a chance to check out everyone being assisted and use those observations to boost our own self-importance in the Church. It's easier to simply be a lookie-loo and notice all the dirty kids, the missing teeth and unflattering haircuts, and think, "I'm glad I'm not them," than it is to simply be mindful of the ministry as it is, warts and all.
Although I wish my work schedule would have allowed me to volunteer the whole week we covered the slots in this program, I found out early on it's simply human nature to notice the pregnant teens, the unruly kids, and the unattractive features of their parents. I realized that part of what this ministry called me to do was to merely sit and chat and make small talk with these folks. I found more similarities than I did differences.
It's no secret that one of the messages of Jesus was to comfort the afflicted. We tend to back up from that "afflict the comfortable" part of that message. May we all learn to coexist with that discomfort, while at the same time, grow.