To An Unknown God (5/21/2017)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Text: Acts 17:22-31

For a little bit of context, let’s look at the verses which precede today’s text:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So 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. 18Also 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.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Now it may be that the Athenians were superstitious people – people who covered all their bases by erecting a shrine “to an Unknown God,” just in case they had missed a god in the creation of their pantheon of deities.  Or perhaps they were sophisticated enough to know that there were gods or dimensions of deity that would always extend beyond the human capacity to know.  At any rate, the writer of Acts indicates that Paul was unhappy to find such a proliferation of gods throughout the city of Athens.  However, he did not vent his anger with the Athenians over their polytheism in the same manner he would later with the Romans (Romans 1:18-23.).

Paul may have been feeling some anxiety, having just been run out of both Thessalonica and Beroea.  Athens was new territory for him, a university town, a great seat of learning, sophisticated philosophizing, and religious curiosity.  He was not reticent to challenge Athenian philosophies or pagan practices but he did so with his own sophisticated sensitivity to the audience he faced.

As we have been often reminded, Paul was not a systematic theologian.  Though surely a mind of great wit and intelligence, of wisdom and understanding, his primary calling was as an evangelist.  His task was to spread the good news, and he was comfortable adapting the message to his audience.  Above all, he was concerned to be heard and he wanted to be understood.  How often have we self-righteously hung on to a favored way of speaking our truth only to see it sail over the heads of our listeners?  How often have we insisted on having it our way when an effort to enter the worldview of the other would have served communication so much better?  William Willimon, commenting on this passage, suggests that “The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul in Athens, minister to their searching.”[1]

This is a particular problem in our own troubled times when it seems so much easier to be a critic, to judge and even to condemn those on the “other side,” the ones who differ with us, who come at life and its challenges from another perspective than our own. For instance, it is simpler to demonize our political and social opponents, than it is to speak truth to power with compassion and grace, concerned to be heard and wanting to be understood. How much easier it is to throw up walls than to build bridges. Doesn’t bridge building usually require the cooperation of those on both ends of the span?

While it was true that Paul claimed, at one point, that he tried to be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22,) as the occasion demanded, it must also have been true that a personality as strong as his did not have chameleon-like adaptability.  However, he tended to shape his arguments to his audience, using his Jewish rabbinical training and deep-seated commitment to the one true God, his belief in Jesus as the Christ, his own dramatic conversion experience, his passion for persuading others to accept his position on the practice of religion, or some combination of all of these as needed. Whatever approach he took in making his argument though, his faith must have come shining invariably through whenever he appeared on the scene and opened his mouth.  Clearly some were drawn to his message, some mildly irritated by his certitude, though impressed by what he had to say, and some angry and alienated from his insistent arrogance in “explaining it all to them.”  In this text, he was dragged before the court of religious opinion in Athens to account for himself before the authorities.

Typically, he was cunning in his courting of their attention and favor. “Athenians I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  He played a card something like Augustine’s famous line, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  William Barclay puts the argument this way, “God has made [humans] so that instinctively [they long] for God.  There is that in [humans] which makes [them] grope in the darkness after God because [humans are children] of God and kin to God.”[2]

It is interesting that this passage contains words that have become familiar favorites to many who seek to center their lives in the holy.  Following the thought of Seneca and Epimenides, Paul refers to God as the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”  Though this phrase, ironically, comes from Greek thought rather than Judaeo-Christian tradition, it has still become a key concept in contemporary Christian thought.  This reference has inspired thinking such as Paul Tillich’s notion of God as the “ground of all being” and Marcus Borg’s view of panentheism.  In The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes “…this concept imagines God as the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is.  The universe is not separate from God but in God.”[3]

Here we find evidence of what a syncretistic religion Christianity is, how it has often been willing include other traditions in its practice when it helps to express its faith and further its witness, to build bridges between different people who hold differing points of view. Here Paul shows us how to handle cultural relativism. He uses Athenian openness to other religions at the same time he challenges that openness with his own faith in the One True God.

We live in a time when it is easy to say there is one God but many paths to God, that it doesn’t matter what path you take as long as you take one.  Clearly, Paul did not believe this; he was no universalist.  What he did do with Athenian religious practice was to use it to point to the way, the truth, and the life as he understood them. His witness was respectful of the view of others, demonstrating insight into and understanding of other faith traditions; at the same time, he insisted on sharing the truth as he had come to know it through his own experience.  Not only is this a model for witnessing to those of other religious persuasion, it is also a model for witnessing to those of no religious persuasion.

The challenge is to say to those around us, “We see your spiritual hunger.  Might we offer sustenance from our rich store of spiritual resource?”  The challenge is to find the imagery and language that allows us to enter another’s world in order to speak our truth honestly, respectfully, and effectively.  What is the good news that we feel compelled to share with others – not the criticism or the judgment or the condemnation, but the good news? What does it mean for us to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?  In the words of that old Quaker hymn, when we feel our faith in burning in our very bones and the good news of God’s Beloved Community bubbling up from the depth of our being, how can we, like Paul so long ago, standing before the Athenians and their “unknown God, “keep from singing”? Amen.


[1] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Know Press, 1988), 143.

[2] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 143.

[3] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), 66.

Published by


We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s