As Christians get more and more involved in interfaith activities they may be moved to examine their own scriptures, doctrines, and traditions in order to lay a sound basis for this work. Below is a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday, entitled A Model for Interfaith Living. Very often Christian sermons are based on Bible passages listed in a schedule of readings called the Common Lectionary. Among the Common Lectionary readings for May 25th was the following story about Paul the Apostle visiting Athens and reaching across religious boundaries.
Acts 17: 22-28
So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this 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, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by people, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath, and everything. And he made from one every nation of people to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet 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 poets have said.”
Scarcely a day passes anymore without news of terrorist activity in some part of the world, and much of this is instigated by militants who are using religion to incite hatred. The Faith in Action Committee of Hanover Church noticed that such reports were making some people in our own community nervous, and suspicious of strangers. Might the civility and eventually the safety of our own city be undermined by fear? We decided that we needed to provide a safe place for people from various faith traditions to meet and eat together and talk about what we were experiencing. We needed to ramp up interfaith education, but not merely of the academic sort. We Christians needed to understand better not just what Muslims or Jews or Sikhs or Buddhists believe, but more importantly, how they experience the presence of God. This, we decided, would more likely help us be peaceable neighbors: talking about our experience of the presence of God.
That’s what the Apostle Paul did when he addressed the lovers of philosophy who used to gather in the market place in Athens to discuss the latest ideas. We read about it in today’s passage from Acts. Paul was afire with good news about the resurrection of Jesus, and he felt called to share this good news with everyone, everyone! But notice how he went about talking to those seekers after truth. He didn’t say: “Look here, you poor lost souls. You’ve got it all wrong, and if you don’t see things the way I do, you’re all going to hell!” Some Christian evangelists have spoken that way. But Paul set a very different model for witnessing about Jesus to people whose experience of the presence of God had a different history.
There is a phrase in the third chapter of First Peter that puts in a nutshell Paul’s approach. It says, “Always be ready to give an account to anyone who asks about the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.” Paul did that so well! He was gentle and respectful. He acknowledged that he wasn’t bringing God to these strangers. They had already experienced the presence of God, although they didn’t have words to aptly describe that experience. Indeed, does anyone? In the presence of God we are awkward stammerers who grasp the all in a mystic moment, but cannot convey what has come over us. That’s partly why Jews have always refused to pronounce the word for “God”. That’s why the ancient Christian monks of the desert wrote about the God of Unknowing. And that’s why the story about Jesus is so very precious. John put it this way in his first chapter: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” In other words, a most excellent way for human beings to understand what God is like is to get to know Jesus, who was so chock full of God’s spirit!
An account of Christian hope might continue in this way: The sacred spirit which the philosophers of Athens had already experienced even before the arrival of Paul the missionary, that sacred spirit which was so abundantly present in Jesus, continues to be experienced by people today who have been raised in various religious traditions, or even none. That spirit is free, and it blows where it wills, teaches John the Evangelist in his third chapter. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, drew this insight from John’s text: He said, “There is that of God in everyone.” Although we might like to broker sacred spirit, or claim our own unique access to it, so as to warrant a certain theological pedigree, sacred spirit cannot be corralled by our doctrines. That’s what Paul was acknowledging when he addressed the philosophers of Athens and told them that he and they shared a common experience. Paul did not feign respect. He did not talk nice to those guys just to get their ears. He respected their witness because he observed that sacred spirit had already visited them. He was there to share more good news about the ongoing presence of what Christians eventually called the Counselor, the Advocate; but that spirit of God was busy with folks long before Christians connected it to Jesus of Nazareth.