Readings: Acts 17:22–31, 1 Peter 3:8–22 & John 14:15–21
For as long as I can remember, I have always believed in God. Even during the years of my young adult life, when I stopped attending church, I never stopped believing in God. My belief was, and still is, that God is the source of all creation. This was the fundamental belief of the ancient Israelites; that God created the heavens and the earth.
The Apostle Paul drew on this fundamental belief to argue against the widespread idolatry he discovered when he visited the city of Athens. Paul engaged in debates with Jews in the synagogue, and with Greek philosophers in the marketplace, where he proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus. After having debated with several particular philosophers, these same men invited him to explain his teaching at the Areopagus.
The Areopagus, meaning the Hill of Ares, named after the Greek God of war, was a rocky outcrop located northwest of the Acropolis in the ancient city of Athens. But in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it refers not just to the physical location itself, but also to a council which used to meet on the hill. One of the functions of the council may have been the supervision of education, possibly controlling the many lecturers who taught in Athens.
So having been invited to address the Areopagus, Paul acknowledged how religious the people of Athens were, which was a reference to the many idols of worship he found in the city. One such idol was an altar dedicated to an “unknown god”. Paul proclaimed that what the Athenians worshipped as unknown, was in fact the God of the Israelites, the one true God who made the world and everything in it. He encouraged the Athenians to stop thinking that they could somehow fashion an image of God made of gold, silver, stone or any other material, because God was beyond the capacity of human imagination.
Paul no doubt had in his mind the second of the Ten Commandments relating to idolatry, which said: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Ex. 20:4 NRSV) These days we tend to find idolatry, not so much in the shape of an image of another god, but in the form of a preoccupation or obsession with wealth, power, status, possessions, and even one’s physical appearance. Some people make those things the very centre of their lives, and they devote all of their time and energy to increasing how much of each they have, or in the case of one’s physical appearance, to improving it based on some subjective social measure.
A focus such as this is also contrary to the first of the Ten Commandments, which says: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2–3 NRSV) In this case, a focus or obsession with a human value such as wealth, power, status or possessions, can virtually result in those things becoming ‘gods’ to some people; they can become the only thing that gives meaning to a person’s life.
Of course in this increasing secular world that we live in, if someone was to be told they were contravening the first two of the Ten Commandments, they would no doubt just laugh, and dismiss the person informing them of this as a “crazy” or a “nut job”. But what do you think might be the problem though with this type of self-centred attitude and behaviour?
One answer is that it can perpetuate the social injustices that exist in the world today. If the only thing that people care about is themselves; how much they have and how good they look, then they are possibly less likely to be concerned with the plight of other people who are far less fortunate than themselves. They will perhaps be less motivated to do something to help those other people in some way. Of course the other problem with self-centred attitude and behaviour is that those people themselves are potentially missing out on something more important in their own lives.
I’m fairly confident that experience would suggest that material objects such as wealth, status, power, possessions and even one’s looks, can’t make people happy or satisfied indefinitely. No doubt they can provide sustained happiness or satisfaction for short periods of time, and wealth can certainly provide people with relative security and comfort over a longer period of time, but those things can’t satisfy the innate longing that human beings have to fill the emptiness inside them, which has been described in psychology as the “God hole”. When talking about God, St Augustine famously described this emptiness in these words: “for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”
Unfortunately for a lot of people, they don’t allow themselves to consider the possibility of God, and the “God hole” in their lives. Jesus was well aware of this when he said to his disciples in relation to the Holy Spirit, “This is the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Jesus knew there would always be people who just wouldn’t, or couldn’t accept the existence of God, even though God had revealed Himself to the world through Jesus. These were the people who could not receive the Holy Spirit. But we, who believe in God and believe that God revealed Himself to us through Jesus, have the Spirit with us and in us. As Jesus told the disciples in relation to the Spirit, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you”.
The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” We must be careful not to let human values become the focus of our lives. The teaching of Jesus is an ongoing reminder of what it means to make God the centre of our lives.