Knowing God

Acts 17:22-31 I went to the zoo yesterday. I love going to the zoo.

How is it that we know an animal when we see it? How do we know it's an elephant? How do you know it's an elephant? A long nose, big ears, large animal...How do you know it's a giraffe? Like a horse with a long, long neck. How do you know it's a gorilla? Walks on its hands and feet, climbs really well, baby clings on back. What about a zebra? It has stripes. We can see them with our eyes.

If we can't see them, we can still know they're there: we can hear the lion roaring; in the petting zoo, we can feel the difference between the rough hair of the goat and the smooth wool of the sheep. And, as you've probably noticed in the zoo, you can also smell them from quite a distance.

So what about God? God's not like an animal. Can we see God? No; some have suggested that seeing God is like seeing the tree move because the wind is blowing; we can't see the wind, but we know it's there. Or a bird leaving a branch, causing it to move. We don't see the bird once it has gone, but we can see the branch moving. Can we hear God? We worry about a lot of people who claim to do so. Smell? Touch? Taste?

How is it that we know God? This is the question that faced Paul in Athens. Paul knew God. He was raised in that ancient Jewish practice, that faith in the one God. He was a Pharisee of the highest order. And in his conversion on the road to Damascus, he actually did have a sensory experience: he saw the blinding light and heard the voice of Christ.

And then here he is in Athens, meeting these folks where they are. It reminds me of his phrase of being "all things to all people." There he is at this shrine to an unknown God, a place of some importance to the Greeks. Does he come to them with Scripture? With the history of the Hebrew Bible? No. Instead, he quotes two Greek philosophers. He finds what it is in their stories and in their traditions that might point the way to Christ.

And in doing so, he nudges them, tests their assumptions. God is known, he says, not unknown as you think. All of humanity is of one family; Athenians are not put above everyone else, as you think. God is not pleased by buildings, not encouraged by offerings of gold. And then he invites them to repent, to turn toward this God whom they don't know in hopes that they might know him more fully.

What about us? My hunch is that some of us know God. But how is it? How is it that we know God? Is it through experience, hymns, music, worship, Scripture, creeds, service, friends, family, relationships? How do we share that knowledge with others, especially with those who don't know God? If we take a page out of Paul's playbook, we certainly don't do it with arrogance, a kind of, "I know Jesus and you don't, so let me be so generous as to give him to you, too." Instead, we meet them where they are. We listen to their stories. We walk along side them and find where it is that they know God already and simply might not see it for themselves.

My hunch is that some of us aren't sure we know God. Maybe we're the modern-day Athenians. So then what is it that gives us meaning? Not what we enjoy, but what is it that lets us know that we are connected to something beyond ourselves, a larger meaning, a greater expanse? I'm pretty sure that we'll find God there; and if it really is God, then we'll find ourselves nudged and tweaked.

The key for this question might be found in the way we define the word church. If church is only the sanctuary, or if it's only the building, then it becomes a shrine, a zoo, where we try to know a God whom we can see, hear, touch, and smell.

But if church means community, then it moves us; it gives meaning and shapes us.

Here's the invitation: I invite those, especially those without community, who are looking for meaning, to taste our community at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. I promise that you will be welcomed; and I promise that you will be nudged. And I also trust that you will come to know Christ, not in the way that you know an animal at the zoo, but in a way that ultimately grounds you in a more meaningful life. That is the hope of the resurrection we celebrate this Easter Season, that God, who can and will be known, would give us hope.

sermonsMarthame Sanders