God, in Whom We Have Our Being
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
April 27, 2008
Acts 17:22-31 John 14:15-21
I’ve always loved this story in Acts. Here’s Paul in the midst of the most sophisticated thinkers of his time—you know, the ones who like to think they’re really open-minded but look down on folks who aren’t quite as cool as they are all the same. This is the spot where the best debaters go to discuss whatever’s new. I suppose in many ways it was like Point-Counterpoint or Larry King, or maybe The McNeil Hour or some such. If you wanted to be really up on the latest thinking, you went to hang around the Areopagus.
And here comes Paul. Now we know that Paul had Roman citizenship and had been trained in rhetoric and the best of Jewish thinking, but it always makes me a little nervous to think of him in
But Paul manages to get to these sophisticated Athenians on their own turf, because he’s found this altar to an unknown God, and it’s a great opening to tell them about his God. And he does it brilliantly, doesn’t he? He starts by complimenting them on being “extremely religious in every way” and telling about how he had gone through the city looking carefully at all the evidence of their religious worship. And then he tells them that he’s going to tell them about this unknown God they’ve got—not introducing a new god into their panoply but just filling them in on one they’ve already got, even though they don’t really know this god.
We could look at this as a nice story about something that happened a long time ago by someone long since gone. But there are a few things that Paul says to the Athenians that bear emphasizing to the
Paul starts by describing God as the one “who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is the Lord of heaven and earth” and tells the people there that this God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” We’re not likely to erect little shrines for God to live in, these days, at least, not physical shrines. But I think we do erect mental shrines for God. We define God, and by defining God, we limit God. That’s the origin of the word define—to set limits or boundaries.
It’s a very human need—to define. We like to “get a handle” on things, and we like to get a handle on God. Think about it: when you have a handle for something, you can carry it around—it’s in your power. But what Paul is reminding us here is that God cannot be “handled”; God cannot be tamed; God cannot be confined in a shrine of our making. We can never fully define God, because once we’ve done so to our satisfaction, we’ve enshrined God. And that’s not where God lives.
We’ve all tried to get a handle on God at various times in our lives. When I was a small child, I thought I had a pretty good picture of God—he had a long white beard, and he lived “up there” where people didn’t go … and if you were good, at Christmas time he would drop through the chimney and leave you presents.
Sometimes people get stuck on a God who is always looking over their shoulder to find out when they’re doing the wrong thing, just waiting to punish them. Or a God who blesses their country—whether it be
But all of these, my friends, are shrines made by human hands. God can’t be tamed and put in our boxes. God’s way bigger than that.
Paul continues, saying that “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” All of us are made by God, and we come from the same source. The Athenians are not the only ones created by God, and neither are the Jews. Nor are the Americans the only ones so blessed. Nor the Presbyterians … or the Christians for that matter. Nor the Democrats, nor the liberals, nor those who recycle. All nations. All people.
We get this one, right? Whether it’s from Adam and Eve or from chimpanzees, we know that humans are all created the same. No problem. But I think we sometimes have trouble living this one out. Because, y’know, we’re good people here. Just look around you—pretty good people here at Summit Presbyterian Church in
It’s a sign that we’ve got God boxed up—enshrined—if God seems to look down on all the same people we do. That would be defining God in our image. And that’s not the way it works.
Paul goes on, saying that not only did God make all the peoples, but God “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 God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”
Ah. Interesting. God created us with limitations and boundaries. God has no boundaries, but we do. And one of the effects of those limitations is that we all have a hunger for God.
The Athenians demonstrated that hunger with a city full of shrines to many gods, including this Unknown God.
In 21st century
We all have that hunger in us. Augustine called it the “God-shaped hole” in us. Sometimes we fill it up with other things—drugs and alcohol, maybe, or success and wealth, or the Perfect Relationship—or family … maybe even with church activities. But the hunger that we were created with is for God.
We are created to “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’” Perhaps this was radical news for the ancient Athenians. Perhaps the reason they’d built shrines for all their gods was so they could feel close to divinity. But Paul is saying that that’s unnecessary, because God is “not far from each of us.” Indeed, it is in God that we live and move and have our being. We live in God. Whether we know it or not, we live in God.”
I found a story about a small fish who went to his mother one day and said, “I keep hearing about this thing called water, but I can’t figure out what it is. In school today [get it? School of fish?] they were talking about it, so I swam all around looking for this thing called water, but I couldn’t find it. I swam to the top of the ocean, but I couldn’t find it. I swam into the depths of the sea and I couldn’t find it. I swam to where the ocean met the land—I can’t find it. Where is this thing called water?”
As the fish lives and moves and has its being in water, so we live and move and have our being in God. Whether we recognize that God is there or not, we live in God. Whether we try to define God or not, we move in God. Whether we try to reject God or not, we have our being in God.
And what is our response? Why, thankfulness. Thankfulness that God surrounds us every day, all day. Surrounds us with love, surrounds us with the desire that we would follow God’s will. Surrounds us with sorrow when life goes against us. Surrounds us with hope that a better day will come. Creates in us a longing to find God—and all we have to do is open our eyes.