john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Gods of yesterday and today

    Good Shepherd 2/05/2005 (Communion Service)

    Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

    "Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus..."

    What was the Areopagus, I wonder? A big new shopping precinct in the middle of Athens? Was it the name of the multiplex cinema? Or the shiny modern sports stadium where the heroes of Athens played all their home games?

    I'm being flippant - and some of you know what the Areopagus really was: a hill near the Acropolis in Athens where the city's ancient council met to make judgments and set policies. Named after the Greek God of War Ares, the Areopagus was the actual place where Ares had stood trial for murder and was acquitted. So it was a sacred place, and a place of meeting and decision-making and influence.

    The ancient Greeks had many gods; Ares was just one. There was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, who had a few amorous adventures with Ares, Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest who gave feast or famine according to what mood she was in that year; Thanatos, the frightening God of Death; and Zeus, father of all people, leader of the gods. [1]

    So when Paul stood in front of the Areopagus he was standing in a place where people met, talked, worshipped, made decisions, influenced by their reliance on all these different gods, different gods who helped them with different parts of their lives. A god for every occasion, you might say. Beneath the Areopagus, the streets of Athens were full of altars to all these different gods.

    But Paul had noticed something striking about one of these altars. It didn't have a name on it, no Zeus, no Athena, no Medusa. Just a simple plaque which read, "To an unknown god." It fascinated Paul that in this city with so many gods to help the people with so many things in their lives, they had a sense that there was still another god who they didn't know and couldn't see, but who might just be there, watching and waiting for their worship.

    I think we are just like the ancient Greeks today. We fill our cities with altars to all sorts of gods, but there's still a small voice in our ears suggesting there's an unknown god around.

    Today we have the god Gerrard, whose presence on the park delights his followers and whose absence makes them miserable for the whole of the following week;

    Today we have the god Lotto, who promises us the earth but is very reluctant to share his gifts;

    Today we have the god Nike, whose symbol, the swoosh, we wear on our clothes and footwear so we know we look acceptable;

    Today we have the god Viagra, who promises to increase our sexual potency and reduce our sexual anxiety;

    And today we have the god Asda, a giant who provides all the food and drink we could ever need and whose priests are dressed in bright lime-coloured robes.

    We smile at these gods, because we know they don't truly satisfy us. And I think the ancient Greeks would have smiled at their gods in just the same way, knowing that they too were flawed. Paul said they were "like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals."

    Paul wanted to suggest to the people of Athens that their unknown god was the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, who gives life and breath to all people and all things, in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who calls all people everywhere to repent, because one day a man who he has appointed will judge the world in righteousness, a man who he has raised from the dead.

    This God is the one who can fill the gaps in the lives of the ancient Greeks left by Ares and Aphrodite, Demeter and Zeus.

    This God is the one who can complete the gaps in our lives which Gerrard and Lotto, Nike and Asda, Alliance and Leicester, Visa and Switch, Posh and Becks, just can't quite fill.

    For we know that despite all the blessings these gods bestow on us, they'll never completely satisfy our deep-down, aching, human needs.

    We know that though we are honoured to live in one of the wealthiest, most comfortable societies the world has ever known, all this wealth and comfort brings with it poverty and discomfort, anxiety and illness.

    I wonder if you saw the documentary the other night called Super Size Me? [2] In it the filmmaker Morgan Spurlock put his body on the line: he went on a fast-food mission. For a month, he ate nothing but McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He set himself ground rules: he had to try everything on the menu at least once; he was obliged to accept a larger "super size" portion when it was offered to him; and he couldn't consume anything (even bottled water) that was unavailable from McDonald's.

    Morgan - a previously fit, healthy, trim young man - ended up very fat and very ill, put his heart at risk, nearly destroyed his kidneys. And put off a lot of people who saw the film, from eating too much more fast food in future.

    One thing which happened to him particularly struck me: he loved the food. It is tasty, it is easy, eating it makes you feel good. But the more he ate, the more he became prone to mood-swings; he began suffering from depression. The only way out of the depression, of course, was to cheer himself up by eating another Mc-meal.

    This illustrates the state we're in with our gods who provide for us, abundantly, but do not entirely satisfy. The other side of the satisfaction and tastiness we get from them is illness and depression. Following these gods seems to lead us into an endless -and downwards - spiral of addiction.

    Paul wanted the Greeks to know that the unknown God is very different; that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ isn't concerned to titillate and amuse us, or fill us up and pamper us. He is the God who sets things in their proper place and demands that the world lives in righteousness.

    And this is very like Jesus' message to his disciples when he explained to them about God. Jesus wants his disciples to know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ demands that they keep his commandments, demands that they live in love.

    This seems a demanding task; not attractive at all. But for those who embrace it it is a way out of the vicious circle in which the other gods function: a vicious circle of thrills and disappointment, plenty and loss.

    Jesus has a name for the unknown god. The Spirit of truth, he calls him.

    "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you."

    If the Spirit of truth is in us then we can keep God's commandments to love him and love others, as we love ourselves.

    If the Spirit of truth is in us then we can know the truth - about ourselves and about the world.

    If we want the Spirit of truth in us then all we need do is ask.

    And the joy of having the Spirit of truth in us is that we can let go of the hold the other gods have over us.

    So we can carry on enjoying the thrills and dreams offered by the likes of Gerrard and Lotto, but the Spirit helps us rest in the confidence of God's love for us when these gods fail.

    We can carry on choosing to buy the likes of Nike to satisfy our self-esteem, but the Spirit releases us to be ourselves, not conform to others' ideas about us.

    We can depend on the likes of Asda to dispense all our physical needs, but the Spirit helps us see that it is God who actually ultimately provides.

    "This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you."

    Paul told the Greeks that in every generation people "would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us."

    Jesus offers us the Holy Spirit to help us in that search.

    [1] Greek gods references from The Immortals of Greek Mythology website
    [2] See Super Size Me website