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The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

An Altar on Every Street Corner

Readings: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Paul is in Athens preaching in the Areopagus. It is a quiet place where speakers can present their ideas to those who gather to listen. There, people are able to speak freely without interruption. Freedom to speak out about your beliefs and concerns is typical of this centre of Greek culture. Athens is a cosmopolitan city where people are cultured, eager to learn, well read. Here lies the difficulty for Paul, for this is a city overloaded with statues and altars, an altar on every street corner. They worship many gods. And when they are unsure which of their gods has helped them, they set up yet another altar to an unknown god.

Paul sees and judges the city as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Before he even gets to Athens he is feeling down about his mission. He has had little success in establishing a faith community in the Greek world. He views their lifestyle, their secularism, their materialism, their indifference to his message with disdain. He is indignant to find so many pagan symbols in this cultured and beautiful city. He is not enthused by its historical and art treasures. And so he finds himself presenting his views to anyone who will listen.

"I found an altar to an unknown god,” Paul begins. He understands their hunger for spiritual knowledge; he can see it in their responses. He proclaims the Spirit to the Athenians who somehow knew that such a Spirit existed but were unable to name it. He tells them about the God he worships, the Creator of the world, the one true God who does not need temples or sacrifices. He tells them about God who needs only that humanity should seek out and find; God who longs to be known, not fashioned in human or animal form, but known as one who is present; God who longs to be in relationship with humankind.

The altar to the unknown god! What a haunting image that is! What a haunting image it must have been to Paul who served a living God, whose image of God was of one who cared so much that he became one of us, that he died for us.

What Paul said of the Athenians could well be said of our own culture. Statistics show that one in three people in Canada will not attend a single church service this year. We are becoming an unchurched society. Yet many of those same people who never attend church are groping for spiritual fulfillment. Our groping for God, our searching, our longing, is all part of the human condition. People are seeking, but sadly they are not seeking in our churches.

Did it amaze you as it did me how much interest there was last weekend in the possibility that the world was going to come to a sudden and disastrous end? The search for God can take on surprising and frightening elements. Movements predicting the end of the world have surfaced from time to time, but it seemed different somehow as the media listened and took to the airwaves. It is an indicator of how spiritually hungry people are.

Our concern should be why they are not searching for spiritual fulfillment in the Christian Church. At least it should concern us if we, like Paul, know God as our creator, as the one in whom we "live and move and have our being." Can we proclaim that one to the world, because if we cannot how can we expect them not to build "altars to unknown gods"?

And what altars we humans build! Our gods are many, gods of greed, gods of power, gods of lust. We live in a society that needs to know God. It is often difficult to judge whether churchgoers themselves really have a relationship with God. It is difficult to see what difference God makes in their daily lives. It is difficult to recognize any sense of commitment on their part.

Do you know that God is present with you? Do you look with expectation for an answer to your prayers? Do you believe that God makes a difference in your life? If we as the People of God don't really know that God is present to us, how will we ever convince those who are seeking God? People are looking for answers to their spiritual thirst. They are looking for meaning. They are looking for ritual. They are looking for answers to the difficult questions of our age. They are looking for help in making ethical and moral decisions. Who better than Christians to offer them answers?

The first step, of course, is getting to know God in that way ourselves. We need to know and experience God in the same way Paul did. We must know and search out that living God, that God who is present in our lives, not just on Sundays, but every day of our lives.

It is there so clearly in the gospel. Jesus is speaking to the disciples about his need to leave. "God's purpose," he is saying "comes about not through a cold exercise of the will, but by the warm and personal love of the disciple for the teacher." That love is not a one way street. When we reach out to understand and know God, then God reaches out to us. We are not alone. God has sent another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to be with us. We are not orphans.

That is the profound truth of the Gospel. It is the profound truth of our baptism. It is the most important message to proclaim to a world that searches for unknown gods. Jesus was an advocate for the disciples. He walked with them. He prayed for them. He guided them. He sent the Spirit to continue in that advocacy. The same promise holds true for us. The Spirit of God is within us. In that Spirit we “live and move and have our being.” Love has created a bond that transcends death. It unites us with God. It allows us to encounter the living Christ. We experience him in our hearts.

How do we experience the power of the Spirit at work in our lives? This passage gives us a sense of the bereavement the disciples felt at the loss of their beloved leader. When someone close to you dies, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. And yet we know that the relationship continues. It is different but it continues just the same. We explore our relationship in a different way. We all suffer from the same haunting sense of loss. It is part of the human condition. It causes us to question God’s love. Most of us would admit that it is at times of trouble that we find ourselves turning to God and experiencing God reaching out to us. That makes such sense, because those are the times that we are most open to inviting God to be present to us. Those are the times when we allow God’s Spirit to comfort us.

How do we hold on to that sense of the Spirit at work in us? Certainly there are people who look for signs that the Spirit is present in them. They look for gifts. They seek manifestations. They want to pray in tongues or be slain in the Spirit. They set themselves up as prophets of doom as Camping did last weekend.

The fact is we do not need that kind of sign. We demonstrate the Spirit at work in our lives not by ecstatic manifestations or supernatural gifts but through sacrificial acts of love. We experience God at work in our lives, then we let it happen to others through us. We allow our relationship with God to grow through prayer, through reading of Scriptures and through study of God’s word. Then we risk.

Are we able as a church to allow the Spirit to work within us, to reach out to the community, to draw new people in? Are we able to minister to those already in our midst? Are we able to be relevant at this crucial time in the Church's history? The answer lies in our ability to allow God to be present in our midst. It lies in our ability to experience God "in whom we live and move and have our being."
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