Sermon 05/21/2023 – An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual 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 peoples 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 fumble about 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.”

Sermon Text

One of the greatest missed opportunities we can have as Christians is to not learn about other faiths. It seems counter to how we typically think of things. People struggle at times to know their own scripture; how can they learn about someone else’s? More than that, there is a fear in many a God-fearing Christian’s heart that by learning about other faiths, something might get mixed up in our minds and we will form wrong ideas about God. I can understand that instinct, after all we have so many ideas about “Karma,” in our society generally, and plenty of it permeates into the Church. Can we trust ourselves to learn about faith outside our own, and come out of it stronger, more thoughtful, without also just confusing ourselves?

Paul, it seems, believed we definitely could learn about other cultures and faiths and benefit from the study. In his time, after all, there was no separation between religion and daily life. People lived with the expectation that gods were part of everything they touched. Everything you did, everything you wrote, every little aspect of life had some religiosity to it. With the exception of atheists, most people their entire life as being invested with some amount of religious significance. As such, poetry, law, and writings of all kinds, came across religious ideas at some point in their composition. Even the driest bit of philosophy, because it is founded in a fundamental belief of how truth or knowledge functions, depended upon a belief on how something, or someone set the world up.

In this passage, we have just read Paul is quoting two poets. If we did not look into what the quotes were referencing, we might thing these are odes to the “Unknown God,” named in the passage. However, the truth is that both of these poems are in praise of a single God, the king of the Roman and Greek Pantheons – Zeus (or Jupiter.) One of these two poems praises Zeus for all that he has done:

“From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last. Hail, O Father, mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men. Hail to thee and to the Elder Race! Hail, ye Muses, right kindly, every one! But for me, too, in answer to my prayer direct all my lay, even as is meet, to tell the stars.[1]

The second quote is known to us, only because Paul quotes it here and a few other Christians in the early church had copies they could elaborate on. This second piece is apparently a favorite of Paul’s because he quotes it in Titus as well. That text is more oblique in how it would have anything to do with Paul’s sermon, since it comes from a very specific argument about how the people of Crete viewed Zeus. I quote here a reconstruction of the verse:

“They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one, Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. But you are not dead: you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being.”[2]

In just two short quotations, Paul opens up a wealth of questions for us. He, being born in a Greek city on the coast of Turkey and raised among Hellenistic culture, was seemingly unafraid to mix the poetry of the culture around him and his faith which came from the scriptures of Judea. The God of Israel, one in person, substance, and will – could be described in poetry written specifically for Zeus. While Paul removes Zeus from his quotation, placing its subject as the Unknown God he walked past, the audience he spoke to – the learned men of Athens – would know immediately who and what he was quoting. Paul saw a truth in a piece of poetry devoted to a foreign divinity, and used the shared language it gave him to speak to others about his God.

That principle of universal truth can easily become a universalism that denies faith, but more often a discerning person can augment their faith through this kind of study. E. Stanley Jones, a missionary who served in India, worked with people of many faiths. India has some of the most diverse religious makeup of any country. There are Muslims, Christians, Jews, traditional native religious practitioners, Sikhs, Jains, and so on and so forth. Jones would have all these different groups come together and sit in meetings called “Asherams.” In these meetings they would share their thoughts on given topics and afterward they would dismiss and, often, meet and talk more outside the meetings. Sometimes people would convert from these discussions, sometimes they would not, but everyone took away something they could use.

Jones believed that there was only one truth, the truth of Christ and the Gospel. However, he believed that because that truth had been revealed through nature, through Sinai, through so many different things, that religions outside Christianity or Judaism must have found some of it. If truth truly is singular, then you cannot earnestly seek truth without finding it. As such, religions as old as Hinduism, predating Judaism by eight thousand years and Christianity by ten thousand, must have a wealth of information we could benefit from. Jones was not looking to dilute Christianity with extra-Biblical ideas, but to apply lenses from all over to his faith, so that he could understand even just one more shade of what God was doing in the world.

This is easiest among faiths that are similar to one another. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can easily interface with each other and build one another up. Judaism birthed Christianity after all, and Islam was born from influences of both. The three “Abrahamic,” faiths are naturally made to speak truth to one another. I own a Quran, I own a Tanakh, and I have online access to any text written in interpreting either of them.

St Francis of Assisi, you probably know him as the statue of a man holding a bird in your Catholic friend’s garden, tells us what this can look like. He spent time with al-Kamil, an heir to Saladin and sultan during the fifth crusade. Little is written about his time with the Sultan, but it is widely considered a successful interchange of faith. Though Francis failed in his plan to convert the ruler, all reports of the meeting were positive. After this meeting, Francis seemingly took two lessons away – both to do with prayer. In his Letter to the Rulers of the People, he called for people to pray every evening, and for that time of prayer to be initiated with the public sounding of horns – similar to the call to prayer that rings from minarets in mosques every day. [3]Likewise, his The Praises of God lists all kinds of attributes of God, in a way similar to the ninety-nine names of Allah in Islamic tradition.[4]

In my own life, I take a lot of cues from Rabbis when it comes to questions, I hold about certain aspects of faith. Rabbinical discourse is more willing to ask tough questions than Christian thought  is. Philosophy, often the placeholder for religion in our more secular age, also gives us tools to express our faith. Nietzsche, Camus, Sarte, and many other founders of modernism and post-modernism are good to know. They describe the world in terms we do not always think to use and even when we oppose or disagree with them, our mind is better for the interrogation. Practically, I don’t have time to read all that much though. So what do I do? I talk to people who think differently than me, ask questions to understand and not to convince. I try and see the world through their eyes. In this way, we can find new ways to see the one truth of the Gospel, in languages we now only know the sound of.

We can start in our own Christian family, sometimes that is easier. Listen to a Christian from outside our traditions and see how they talk about God. I can tell you that even within Methodism, if you go to different parts of the world and the country – you will hear different aspects of God lifted up. I thank God that I was at a seminary that had a lot of Black Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal students. I learned more about God through that injection of culture into my life than most anything I picked up in a classroom. We should learn from Christians of other backgrounds, other political ideas, and generally different mindsets. Not everything is something we can take home and call our own, but that is how life is. I cannot know what food is good, unless I am willing to take a bite, and the same is true of knowledge.

People found faith in Athens because Paul spoke their language. He was able to look at them and say, “You know what you say about Zeus, it actually fits my God too, and more than that we preach that the dead will be raised one day and that this is done through a guy named Jesus who was, and is, the God I am talking to you about today.” The first part drew people in, and the second part pushed most of them back out, but for those who were willing to stay after that – there life was changed forever. How many lives might we change if we knew about ideas we currently might not think are “essential?” How many hidden treasures are we unwilling to dig up, simply because they were planted in a soil we consider foreign? God is God all, and while many may see God as Unknown, they are constantly seeing signs of God’s activity in the world.

Are we willing to learn how to translate one to the other? I hope so, and it starts with talking to people you might think are too different, and listening deeply to those we might cast aside as “other.” Listen, learn, and speak life into a vibrant world, seeking the truth. – Amen.

[1] Aratus of Soli. Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus. Translated by Mair, A. W. & G. R. Loeb Classical Library Volume 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.

[2] Rendel Harris, J. (Oct 1906). “The Cretans always liars”The Expositor. Seventh Series. 2: 305–17.

[3] Full text available at:

[4] Full text available at:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s