Where to begin
“So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship - and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything…” (Acts 17:23-25, NIV)
When the Apostle Paul was called to explain his “new teaching” to the sophisticated pagans of the Areopagus in Athens, how did he begin? The answer Luke gives us in his book of Acts is that he began with God. For it is at this point that Christianity was so very fresh and different from the world of Greek thought.
This God can be known, Paul said. The Athenians, who were very religious, had a shrine dedicated TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Paul starts with good news: God can be known! This, of course, is right at the heart of Christianity. The Creator God has disclosed himself to us, supremely in Christ. We are not on a long quest looking for something murky and intangible but people with certain news.
Paul continued: this God is bigger than we think. He is the God who made the world and everything in it, [who] Lord of heaven and earth. That means he cannot be contained. Greek religion did that, seeing the deity / deities as confined to special buildings. In their religion, as in all religion since, there has been an attempt to domesticate God - and in this way, of course, to avoid him as a living, supreme ruler. In our generation, we “privatise” God: he’s just a personal matter, of individual opinion, who is vaguely present in church and doesn’t have rights over everyone and everything. But in fact he is Lord, and does have those rights.
Therefore, Paul reasoned, this God does not need our help. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else (verse 25). The Athenians thought religion was a matter of doing our bit to help God or the gods. Pop one in the offering and that’s him happy. But Paul turns this round: it’s not God who needs our help, but we who need his! He gives us our next breath. In the Bible, of course, the direction of travel is always from God to us. The whole narrative of the Bible is not the story of what we do for him but what he did for us.
Do you see what Paul is doing? He’s doing a gentle, reasoned job of demolition. He’s calling into question received wisdom about God and showing how fresh and radically different the Christian message is. God is not unknown; he may be known. God is not confined, but Lord of all. God does not need our help; we need his.
In our own society these truths are equally surprising and equally in need of re-statement. Many people reject a caricature of Christianity, never having the radical and wonderful truth clearly explained.
We have the delight of starting a new Arena course this Monday at 7pm at St Andrew the Great. In this six-part course, over supper, we’ll be seeing how Christianity explains our world. And, like Paul, we’ll be starting with God.
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