Sermon 2017 May 21st



Revd Angus MacLeod

Listen here:


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.”

[What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.] Acts 17:23
“IF YOU HAVE GOT THE BODY OF A GOD, don’t wear a baggy shirt…

wear a super stretch J T Lewin shirt instead.”

The current advice on a large Underground billboard advert;

the text that accompanies the shot of a ripplingly muscled back,

with figure hugging shirt.

[Two things to clarify: I don’t remember when they asked me for that photo;

and as they say other shirts are available.]


Today’s reading from Acts is much about gods;

Much about what takes pride of place in our public spaces;

about the things we worship.


The Apostle Paul sought refuge in Athens, having been run out of previous locations.

An ancient historian once said of Athens:

“It is easier to find a god there, than a man.”

Everywhere Paul looks, there are altars, shrines, and temples;

Athena, Zeus, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana –

a forest of idols.

For Paul, a Jewish Christian, it is a violation of the Shema,

the confession of faith: “The Lord our God is one.”

Athens contests the first two commandments of the Law:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me and no graven images.

Paul is distressed.


He might not like what he sees in the culture,

But he doesn’t detach himself from the people.

Typically, when Paul visited a new town, he began at the synagogue.

There he would find hospitality and community.

There he would teach on the Sabbath and explain the Scriptures.

But Paul he wouldn’t remain there.

He would actually go into the marketplace, into the street,

He engaged the community.


Like the Jesus he spoke of,

it was the marketplace and the homestead,

the places where people worked and played,

where Paul spoke of God and the resurrected Christ.

Note: Jesus didn’t call a single disciple at the synagogue.

He called disciples at the dockside, the tax office, the hillside.

It’s impossible to be a witness unless you engage the culture.

It’s impossible to influence the world if you never leave the church.

So, in Athens, Paul famously comes to the Areopagus –

the place of debate for academics and philosophers.


The initial response to Paul is largely negative.

A babbler – a propagandist for foreign deities.

Paul would later say the Gospel message is

a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. 1 Corinthians 1:23


Paul seeks to be faithful in another strange and complex world.

First, he listens carefully – more accurately, he looks attentively.

Faced with the cultural norm of that time and place –

the devotion to the many gods –

Paul does not simply lambast idolatry.

He thinks deeply about what human longings lie beneath their surface.

– trying to discern what people are searching for.


He also knows that he is communicating with a people

who do not share his Scriptures.

The psalms, the Prophets, the story of creation –

these are not their founding stories.


Embodying an intellectual and spiritual hospitality,

Paul has to find a bridge, a way to relate.

Though ill at ease among the avenues of gods,

this becomes his point of contact.

“As I looked carefully at your objects of worship,

I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”

What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

From there Paul tells his story.


The statue for the Unknown God is perhaps the reminder

that part of the human condition is a longing for purpose;

a longing for a place in this world;

usually a longing for love.

Searching, groping – we have an instinct for God –

restless till our hearts find rest in thee (St Augustine.).

To which Paul replies, borrowing from the poetry of Greece:

“We are His offspring,”

The god-shaped hole in our hearts, can be filled –

for God is not far from us.


For Paul, the proximity of God is best made known

in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the living among us, his way and words, his making visible God’s desires for us.

This is what took Paul into the marketplace;

this is what compelled him to engage,

often with those who would treat him with indifference or disdain.

This was the way to make known, the unknown –

by engaging, by finding points of contact

“People who inspire others are those

who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets.” (Chuck Swindoll)


[Always be ready to make your defense

to anyone who demands from you an accounting

for the hope that is in you;
yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
I Peter 3: 15]


Engaging the culture, speaking in the marketplace,

bringing the priorities of Christ to the public arena?

We are within an election cycle.

For those of us privileged to vote it is a time to examine how/if

our Christian principles frame our political thinking.


Four denominations – the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church,

the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland – via an organisation called the Joint Public Issues Team, currently work together on issues of justice and inequality.

The aim – to support local Christians and churches engage with the issues,

and maintain the things it believes to be important on the political agenda.


As the General Election was called, the Joint Public Issues Team

issued biblical reflections and prayers.

It encouraged those who felt fed up with politics, not to give up!

It took words of Paul to the Philippians:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 2:3-5]


In these election weeks, we might consider:

Do we embrace agendas that simply serve our own self-interest?

Do some promoted policies place the interests of some

above the needs and wellbeing of others?

Where lies the common good?

How can we use our vote well?


The Joint Public Issues Team also remind us that once

the ballot boxes are opened and counted, ecstatic or dejected,

doing the right thing is not a one-off decision

but an ongoing responsibility,


When the election is over, the task of government begins.

Whatever mandates our politicians believe themselves to have,

people of faith have a continuing responsibility

to seek what is good, speak out for what is right

and challenge what is harmful or unjust.

Whatever the shape of our new Government,

Christian citizens have a role to play –

to help shape the society we live in,

to remind everyone affected by this election,

of a higher authority in our world –

the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being –

regardless of the shirt upon our backs.