Continuing my theme of looking at other people, as if you were looking at them through God’s eyes, it is a tenet of the faith that God sees everything and, more importantly, loves everything and everyone. God knows exactly who we are and loves as we are.
When St Paul was visiting Athens in the first century he discovered a shrine with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’ (Acts 17: 23). He used this inscription on the altar to try and convince the people of Athens that this unknown god was in fact the Creator, the one who had made everything, and was present everywhere. This was the true understanding of God: God was not to be found by worshipping statues. The pagan religions, as Jews and Christians generally referred to other religions, believed that the spirit of the gods resided in idols. By worshipping the statues, even offering sacrifices to them, you could be close to the gods. That was how you got close to the gods. The Romans eventually took that to its logical extreme by demanding that the Emperor himself be worshipped. Yet, Jews and Christians alike believed that God could not be restricted to a statue, but rather was to be found everywhere.
It is one of the things which made both Judaism and Christianity so odd in the Roman Empire. Indeed, precisely because the Christians had no idols, and because the early church services were all held in people’s houses, rather than in temples, the Christians were accused of being atheists. Of course, the opposite was true. They believed God was everywhere, close to everyone. You didn’t have to have an idol in order to get close to God – all you had to do was pray.
Getting close to God doesn’t require that you be in a particular place. There is no one place where you can worship God to the exclusion of others. Of course, there are some places where we do naturally feel closer to God. When I’m calm and quiet in our School Chapel and have a quiet moment, I feel close to God. I find beautiful churches and cathedrals help me get close to God. Equally, though, when I get the chance to go to the market, especially when I sit down with a nice coffee at Zuma’s Café, and just soak up the atmosphere, I feel close to God, even though it is really busy. For some reason a coffee shop at the market is one of my God places. It’s hard to describe, but the best description is that I feel a sense of calm and I notice everything in sharp detail: the waiting staff rushing around getting coffee and food for everyone. Usually, I go there in the holidays, so I notice the young parents watching over their children, protectively, to make sure they don’t get lost in the busy crowds, and the store holders, busily making sure that the next customer is ready to be served. I find myself noticing the colours: vibrant and bright, and the sound, sharp and clear.
Maybe this is what St Paul felt when he visited one of the most important cities of the ancient world, Athens. Perhaps he thought ‘God is in the midst of it all, everywhere, the Creator looking on and rejoicing in what he has made.’
So, if God was not found in an idol and if God was the unseen God that St Paul refers to, what could the first Christians say about God? As they reflected on their experiences of God, the picture of God that emerged was of the Holy Trinity: the Father or the Creator; the Son, Jesus: the historical man; and, then, their experiences of love: the Spirit.
They had three distinct experiences of God: they believed in the Father, the Creator; the very first disciples had seen Jesus, the actual historical figure, and they truly believed that he was God’s son because of the miracles, including the miracle of the resurrection; and then they had powerful experiences of the Spirit, where they felt God’s love. The picture of God that emerged was a fresh expression of an ancient faith, that of the Holy Trinity: three persons of the one God, but all working together.
When St Paul talks about the unknown God in Athens, God is only unknown in the sense that there was no idol, no set picture of what God looked like. But from his experiences he knew what God was like: the Creator, the Father, who made us and loves us; the Son, Jesus, who modelled how we are to live; and the Spirit, who gives us love, energy and power to live our lives graciously and to follow our calling.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall