You may not have read it for a bit, or ever, but the Book of Acts is fascinating – the world it portrays is a chaotic one, a very very Middle-Eastern one, full of market places and crowds and rumours and demonstrations, and anger and shouting…. and in the middle of it there’s this handful of apostles, and Paul and a few others, and a whole gaggle of women. And they’re all rootless, itinerant preachers and ‘new age’ people, preaching new stuff to an old church, an outlandish little gang of bods – one of their main spokespersons (Peter) was an ex fisherman and another (Paul) a reformed violent extremist and tent maker. How were they ever going to topple the silver god Artemis with her thousands of followers in Ephesus, or the lordly rulers of the synagogues, or the military might of Rome? (as an aside – David Suchet is a fabulous reader, when he assumed the voice of the Synagogue leaders saying “Who is this babbler?” I just laughed aloud) There are amazing scenes of mob rule in Acts – for two hours one mob was chanting for the death of Paul, Stephen was stoned to death, believers beaten… bloody chaos! Even worse than our world, with all our sin and problems. Or maybe just the same.
How were they going to take this new strange teaching to the whole world, a world they didn’t even know about? Impossible. How the hell were they going to carry the story of Jesus half way across the world, over two thousand years, through wars and plagues and disasters, to us here and now? The Book of Acts, my dumplings – what a brilliant series that would be. It has everything! Well, not much sex, but absolutely everything else.
On the beach yesterday I listened to David Suchet reading Chapter 17, all about the time Paul was in Athens and came to an altar dedicated to the unknown god. That made me think about the idea of an unknown god, its relevance to our world today, about all the new gods that spring up as people search for something, anything, to give a sense of meaning to life. Our desire to both know God and to put something else, maybe something ‘easier’, in His place.
I thought about mankind’s recent attempts to create gods – silly things like crystallography (a neighbour is into it big-time), more thoughtful exercises like mindfulness, dark dabblings like Wikka, by-works religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses, absurdities like Scientology (Yeah, OK, respect for the beliefs of others but… Ron Hubbard and Thetans? I plead an exception here) … and the brutal cruelty of Isis (another exception), and I was bemused. Sometimes we overtly worship these unknown gods, sometimes we pursue them on the pretence of an academic process, claiming a higher and more intellectual ground, even to the point of worshipping atheism. That last one is a very middle class god, isn’t it? It’s an intellectually aspirational kinda religion, seeing Christians as simple folk who know no better and are to be tolerated and pitied. And of course there are also the material gods, the gods of ownership, cars and houses and power and social standing. Paul lived in a world devoted to idols and nothing much has changed.
I went home and read The Times just a few minutes later, and right away came across reports of a man kidnapping two women, of two female corpses found stuffed into a freezer, of over 40 murders in London so far this year, of the attempted abduction of a schoolgirl, and then the head of Isis calling for a wave of attacks worldwide. Up to my neck in false gods and evil …. it was a funny kind of morning. A bit gothic.
So. I’m on the beach again this morning, sitting on a log with the dogs snuffling around me, listening to the Book of Acts read by David Suchet. I started on Chapter 14 because I read everything at least three times, listen to everything at least three times, watch everything five or six times if it’s worth watching at all. When David reached Chapter 17 and there was Paul, referencing the altar of the unknown god, a new thought occurred to me; Paul says ‘So you’re worshipping a god in your ignorance?” (my paraphrase) and I remembered a verse in … bother, I didn’t know where the verse was.
So I came home and looked it up, it’s in Romans, Chapter1 : since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
I hate to argue with Paul, but that’s a bit harsh. Without excuse? If you haven’t heard about God, about Jesus, about the resurrection and the atonement, so God is unknown to you… you are without any excuse? Suppose you’ve been born in the jungle of, say, Borneo, and you grow up in a hostile tribe where the virtue lies in killing all outsiders? And if you’ve been brought up to worship some other god, and taught about him and immersed in ritual and works and guilt…. you are without any excuse? Paul was writing to the Romans, and they’d have been brought up with all sorts of nonsense drummed into them.
Hah! So was I. Let me tell you about the god I worshipped when I was at school. He was a god taught to me by nuns and priests. He was a god who was still suffering on the cross, was swayed by the pleas of His earthly mother, a god who winked at injustice. He was a god who would allow my mother to escape the flames of Purgatory if I prayed for her, but would leave her there in torture for lifetimes if I didn’t. He was a god who would send me to hell if I died on a Monday having missed Mass on the day before. He was a god who graded sin according to man’s values, some were small sins and overlooked by our one eyed god, and some were so huge we would careen down to hell non-bloomin’-stop. He was a god who sent unbaptised babies to limbo and unbaptised adults to hell. He was a god who … ah, what’s the point? I won’t go on. The god I was told about was not a good god. And I was supposed to worship him? I was supposed to pray for the dead, and then to the dead? Pray to Mary, pray to dead Saints? Beg them to bribe this corruptible, coaxable god? This man-made god?
When I was in my late teens, already in the Military Police, I looked back on my school years with a new perspective. I had loved worship, prayer, Mass and Benediction, I had so loved the idea of Jesus being right there with us, and I had loved the nuns. They were the nearest thing to family I had. But with a little distance, I saw their god with new eyes. And I couldn’t worship him. For the life of me I couldn’t worship him. Even I had more integrity than to torture someone in hellfire, their release conditional on the prayers of others. Even I wouldn’t send someone to eternal agony for missing a one hour church service. Even I wouldn’t tell an abused child to pray for forgiveness for being raped.
Even I. Sick of the guilt and shame, I stepped away and said ‘Sod you, god. Even if you’re real, I want nothing to do with you.’
And when I was 35 I met the real God. By the grace of God.
When Paul spoke to the Athenians about their unknown god, he said ‘So you worship something you’re ignorant of?’ and then He told them about the true God. Here’s the thing – we can’t worship God if we’re ignorant about Him. I can’t worship Him in truth, and integrity, if I don’t know Him. So, that’s my job, innit? My job now is to get to know God, better and better, to draw near to Him, so that my worship becomes truer, more complete, more acceptable. And my job is to make Him known to others. Everything for His glory.
It itches away at me when I don’t grasp a verse, and don’t completely accept it. And there’s this bloke I know who says that we should always look at the context of any verse, so I went back to Romans 1 and had another (wider) look:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
AHH! Got it! Paul was making my point, wasn’t he? He wasn’t saying that those who have never heard of Jesus are without excuse. He says that those who suppress the truth about God are without excuse: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth’
Who suppress the truth.
The people in Athens who made the idols, and sold the idols and led others astray. The people who now peddle these false religions and new religions and warped ideas about God.
God help all purveyors of false religions, because they have a day of reckoning coming. If they have held anyone back from the knowledge of the true God, theirs is a terrible guilt. If I had remained hostile to God, because of the god of the church I grew up in….. terrible. They have no excuse, because they know that what they preach is false, they can see all around them evidence that God is not their god.
Paul wasn’t saying, after all, that we have no excuse for not knowing everything about God. He wasn’t saying that the man in the jungle should know who Jesus is, even if he has never heard of Him. He was saying that the world reveals to us the nature of God. Not the story of God, but the nature of God. Who He is. And so…. even without the rotten teaching of my nuns and priests, somehow by the grace of God, by His revelation, I knew that He could not be the god they preached. I knew somehow that He is the only good righteous One, He is the potter, I am the clay. He designed, created and owns every cell in my body. Without Him I am nothing, non-existent. He’s merciful to grant me life and merciful to grant me death and merciful every day in-between. His nature is revealed when I look at a flower and marvel at God’s beauty, when I look at an eye and marvel at God’s engineering, when I look at the sky and marvel at God’s power.
Maybe that’s why I couldn’t carry on worshipping the small ‘g’ god of the nuns and priests. Because my eyes told me the very opposite of everything they taught. My God is not capricious, vengeful, corruptible. My God is worthy of worship and adoration and love. And you know, I don’t blame all the nuns, or some of the priests. Some of them didn’t believe what they preached and that’s pretty hard to forgive, bearing in mind all the hundreds of children who passed through that school, but many of them had themselves been deceived by the church. There but for the grace of God…..
The Book of Acts is full of flawed mankind, confused mankind, jealous, conniving, scheming, conspiratorial mankind. Corrupt religion. And in the middle of it all, just a few uneducated but Spirit-filled people. People who brought the truth not just to Athens and the Mediterranean world but to a little church in Durban, and then another even smaller church in West Wales, two thousand years later, to repair the damage the nuns and priests had done. By the grace of God. You know the miracle of Pentecost? It’s so fab, and the Spirit of God is here for us today, but part of that miracle is the Bible sitting right now on my desk. A little book, but God’s great miracle and more than enough to defeat the Ron Hubbards, the nuns and priests and Gurus and shamans of this and every other age.
The world still worships the unknown god, we still create idols, political parties, wealth, possessions, social standing, even knowing that their power will fail, their life will fade, their fabric will rot, their structures will break. The world is chaotic and yet man never learns, he still tries to wield control in all the mayhem, claiming supremacy, serving self. Every day in the obituaries column we read of powerful people who trundle into the flames of the crematorium with nothing, after all their ambition and scheming, but a plywood box and destruction. And we seem to learn nothing. However clever mankind becomes, he still deceives himself that his gods will sustain him. And whether we sit on the beach, or in some high powered office, a millionaire’s mansion or a shanty, we know – it’s pretty bleedin’ obvious – that every breath of our lungs and beat of our heart is beyond our control, sustained by a higher power. We cannot even keep ourselves alive. We can’t.
Only God can.
And knowing this we are without excuse.