Sunday Night Worship – 27 April 2008

Where God Lives

Acts 17: 22-31

When I was little and we’d spend days at the pool in the summer, one of my favorite things to do was to submerge myself and swim around in that blurry, chlorinated underwaterworld where people all appeared from the waist down, just legs walking or kicking around.

I had all sorts of games related to being underwater. Sometimes it was simple like holding my breath as long as possible or until I’d reached some landmark (watermark?). Sometimes, if my brother was playing, we would try to speak in “sign language” to each other and then come up to the top and see if we’d gotten the message right. Sometimes I would pretend I was some sort of marine spy who was passing right underneath people without their knowledge.

Even though I don’t play underwater spy (much) anymore I still love that feeling of being underwater, completely surrounded and buoyed by the water. It feels safe and dreamy and a little mysterious, so different from the rest of my life. It fascinates me that so simple a thing as putting my head under the water line changes my entire perspective. It amazes me how little effort it takes to float, that the water is right there – everywhere – to hold me.

So when I was working with this text from Acts and I came to that wonderful line of Paul’s, I thought of my times underwater. Borrowing lines from a Greek 6th century BCE poet, Paul describes God as the One “in [whom] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28). I love this image of God as the one who surrounds us — engulfs us! Like the wonderful playful underwaterworld, God holds us on every side, buoys us up, and carries us weightlessly and gracefully.

Where the metaphor breaks down, of course, is that, unlike the water, with God we never have to come up gasping for air, to save our own lives. That doesn’t work. That is bad theology there.

So the metaphor breaks down, but I still love it, as far as it goes, and I love this thought from Paul. God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

It’s fitting, even though we were disappointed last week, to be worshipping here in these woods this week, with these words. Paul tells the Athenians that “[t]he 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” (vv. 24-25). One commentary reads that last verse to mean this: “Whether they worship or not, whether they know whom they worship or not. The creation of the world and the sustaining of it, the gift of life itself, are already witnesses to the grace of God (The People’s New Testament Commentary, M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, p. 430).

Everything that has already been given and is given now and will be given comes from God and is a testament to the grace of God. God the creator, continually giving in creation, exudes grace and blessing and love and we are practically swimming in it.

Maybe it’s easier to see that out here in the woods, feeling the breeze, smelling the new leaves and the rain, listening to the birds. But maybe there are other places we would be harder pressed to notice. Maybe this week you are swimming in now is one of those times and places, surrounded on all sides by work to finish and more work to begin, by professors with deadlines and exams and papers, and goodbyes on the horizon. Maybe this week feels more like the pool when you just have to come up for air, rather than like the soothing green blessing of this wooded chapel.

Paul knew that. He knew that all of us could have the same experience, the same gifts, yet assign different meanings. He knew that though we are all swimming in the abundant grace of God, sometimes we feel like we are drowning rather than being held up.

He knew that and he was really clever in speaking to the Athenians who, by the way, had asked him to Areopagus, to appear at the judicial council and explain himself. Earlier when Paul arrived in Athens he was distressed to see idols everywhere and then started arguing in the synagogue. The intelligentsia in the town question his spiritual authority and teachings and call him a “babbler.” What we read today is his only speech to nonbelievers, 1 of 3 missionary speeches, and delivered in the cultured, educated, university town of Athens (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. X, pp. 242-4).

Well, you know what it’s like trying to talk to academic types. Ready with their arguments, theorems, and unfinished dissertations. Ready to critique and shoot down your argument before you’ve had the chance to voice it. And then when you get religion in the mix!

Christians have read Paul’s words in a variety of ways. Some hear a sly put-down when Paul opens with, “I see how extremely religious 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’” (vv.22-23). But, remember, Paul is first and foremost a zealous convert and a missionary. Though Christians have been arguing with him for millennia and though he, like the rest of us, may have had “issues,” we can agree he had a singular goal: to spread the gospel.

So, rather than a put-down it seems Paul makes a brilliant strategic and pastoral move. As the missionary he is, in a bit of hot water in a strange land, Paul speaks to the Athenians in terms they can appreciate and get a handle on. He doesn’t quote Jesus (whom they do not profess). He quotes Epimenides, their poet. He doesn’t start off explaining how there is no unknown god. He compliments them on their religious fervor and, rather than ridiculing their idols, connects with them on their own terms.

He meets them in the place of recognized spiritual longing and offers a deeper drink from the well. Their omnipresent idols, which had so worried him when he arrived and began looking around, become the means by which he engages them.

What would it be like to adopt this Pauline method of witness in our own lives? In our university town? Is there something you are distressed to discover all around us, something that needs a prophetic voice of witness?

Because what is clear from this story is that no one is off the hook. Luke’s theology of mission, echoed here through Paul’s story, is that Christians bear witness to God wherever God is found. And God is universally present, so that means pointing out where God is already at work in the life of the world (People’s, p. 430).

No one is off the hook from this witness, no one on either side of the divides we create. This theology of mission confronts those on the right who think that Christians bring God to other people, who so far have no experience or knowledge of God. It also confronts those on the left who think that since God is universally present and all people are already experiencing and worshipping the same God Christians have no mission to anyone (People’s, p. 430).

Paul’s approach also recognizes how we come near our conversions. He begins where they are, taking their spiritual inclinations seriously and then working his way from where they are to the witness he has to offer.

Whether it’s an unknown god or consumerism or individualism or nationalism or environmentalism we all order our lives in ways to create deeper more profound meaning. And sometimes, even for faithful Christians, we recognize the ways other “isms” or worldviews stake claims on us in opposition to our Christianity.

Those are the moments when we have choices to make. Do I take the job that pays a lot and that my parents want me to have OR do I listen to that still small voice calling me in another direction? Is my life supposed to look “American” and “middle class” or am I challenged to live out my Christian calling in ways that conflict with some or all of those markers? Do I live as if Christ makes a difference in my life or do I blend in and keep all that religious stuff private?

The first step, in our own lives and in the witness we have to offer for Christ in the world, is to recognize the order by which we live. Which worldview are we most committed to? Is what we claim on Sunday how we live on Wednesday?

As one commentary notes about this story, “A commitment to any of these worldviews shapes loyalties and informs decisions. Following Paul’s pattern, then, the initial moment in conversion is a people’s recognition that they order their lives according to some ultimate loyalty, staking their futures on something or someone in which they believe. In this sense, all people are religious…[this] marks the beginning point of a conversion…” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. X, pp. 249).

This week I received an email from an alumnus who thought we might like to know about a recent posting on the UVA Arts & Sciences Online web pages ( Judge Ronnie Yoder was active in the Wesley Foundation and the Methodist Student Movement and responded to something in the “Question from the Dean” section on public service while in college. Ronnie was here in the late 50s and early 60s and knew our friend Ward Campbell when they were both students. He left UVA with degrees in government and law, spent a year in seminary on the Rockefeller Fellowship at Yale Divinity School and has worked for over 30 years as a federal administrative law judge.

In addition to writing about his involvement with the Wesley Foundation as a formative piece of his college career, Ronnie’s posting mentioned a scholarship he set up last year with a Virginia Theological Seminary in northern Virginia, to encourage students from various theological disciplines to “write papers exploring whether love is an appropriate unifying philosophical center for all world religions” (

We exchanged a couple of emails and he explained a bit more about the project:  “I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I was delighted to get it done before I pass over, so I can see if it produces some of the type of innovative thinking I’m hoping for. The idea is to break down creedal, doctrinal, symbolic barriers between religions, peoples, etc. by focusing on an acceptable universal philosophical center to frame and test all else. My song “Ode to Hope,” which is linked to the scholarship description on the VTS website, sets forth the central theme” (email from Ronnie Yoder, 4/25/08).

I was struck both by Ronnie’s passion for the project and I was also struck by how Pauline his approach is. Looking for the common ground from which to have a conversation and to offer our witness.

This is where God lives. God is all around and within us. God’s grace is all around and within us, all of us. Within every person and every bit of creation. And we all have voices to sing out praise and to offer a witness to the God we know. May we challenge ourselves to offer this that we know to all we meet and to receive with open hearts and minds what we do not yet know.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008

27 April 2008 – Easter 6

Wesley Foundation at UVA – at the Monticello Trail