A Spring Fling Wrap up!
To an Unknown God
Hespeler, May 14, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Christian Family Sunday, Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
It has become common these days to blame religion for so much of the evil we find in this world. This is not without some good reason. If you want to create a list of all of the ways in which religion, all religion including Christianity, is evil, it is not really very hard. Just think of all of the Jihads, Crusades and genocides that have been carried out in the name of faith. Consider the atrocities committed because of religious differences – in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories just to name a few.
Evils in the Name of Faith
Remember, in our own country, the story of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, endorsed by all major Christian faiths, that justified stripping all lands from the indigenous people because they were “savages.” Think of the residential school system that was a matter of national government policy, but that various Christian churches bought into wholeheartedly because they saw it as a chance to build up their own institutions.
Yes, religion is not the only cause of such devastation. We could also say many of the same things about nationalism, tribalism and racism, for example. But still, no one should underestimate all of the evil that has been carried out in this world in the name of faith.
But more than that, many people’s individual lives have been devastated by their encounters with religion. Abused people have often seen their abusers empowered and protected by religious institutions.
On this Christian Family Sunday, we need to admit that sometimes religion has had a devastating effect on families. Parents have been persuaded by religious teachers that, if their children don’t fit in with certain expectations, that they should reject them, maybe even turn them out. Such teachings have led to horrible outcomes like suicide and addiction.
Many people today struggle with the long-terms effects of the trauma they experienced because of a strict religious upbringing. This is a pain that they carry with them every day and that most cannot overcome without extended therapy. Religion of all sorts has negatively affected people’s lives.
The downside of religion seems undeniable in many ways these days. And so, you might well ask me why I stay committed to the kind of work I do. Why not just give up on religion altogether? I’ll tell you why. It is because of the altar to the unknown god.
Paul in Athens
When the Apostle Paul went to Athens, he discovered a city that was full of religion and of gods. There were found some of the most famous and celebrated temples and altars in the whole world – the incredible Parthenon, the celebrated temple of Olympian Zeus, the massive Temple of Hephaestus, to name only a few. These temples represented some of the most powerful religious institutions that had ever existed.
In the names of these gods and others like them, the Roman legions had marched and conquered the world. In their names much evil was done, and perhaps some good. But, whether for good or ill, people believed in these gods and their stories because that was what they had always been taught. And so, Paul looked at all of these altars and concluded that the Athenians were indeed very religious people.
And maybe he wondered, given all of the violence that had been committed in the name of those well-established gods, whether it might not have been better if such religions had never existed. As a member of a religious minority who had suffered at the hands of the worshipers of these gods, you could hardly blame him for thinking such things.
Before the Areopagus
So why, then, when he spoke before the Areopagus, an assembly of leading Athenian citizens who were judging him, did he speak positively of the spiritual and religious lives of the Athenians. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way.” Why didn’t he simply reject their spiritual impulses as dangerous and deadly? I believe it was because of the altar to the unknown god.
As he wandered around the city, he had seen an altar dedicated to an unnamed god. Now, no one has ever found the actual altar to the unknown god among the many archeological digs in the city of Athens, but there is no reason to doubt that there was at least one there. They were not uncommon at all in the ancient Mediterranean world. There has been one found in excellent condition in the city of Rome.
Why were there such Altars?
But I’ve got to wonder why such things existed in a place like Athens. They had plenty of gods, after all – twelve major deities and tons of minor gods and demi-gods. You would think that they had all of the bases covered. And yet these strange altars kept being built, no doubt at great cost and personal sacrifice. Why?
The answer is simple. These altars were erected because, from time to time, people had experiences of the divine that they could not fit within the boundaries of all the huge varieties of religions that they saw around them.
Perhaps they were just going along with their everyday lives and they suddenly found themselves experiencing a transcendence that they could not explain. It might have been a moment of pure joy, or perhaps of terror. Maybe they felt as if they had been helped in some way that they couldn’t explain. Maybe they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but they just knew that they were in the presence of the divine.
But clearly, what they had experienced did not fit with anything that they had been taught about the traditional gods all their lives. And so, they had to create some way to acknowledge what they had experienced that was outside of the religion of their society. That has to have been what happened.
What Comes First?
But do you realize what that means? We often work under the assumption that spiritual experiences are created by religious practice and belief. We assume that if you pray in certain ways or go through certain rituals, that you will experience God. We think that if you learn all the proper doctrines about God according to a religion, that you will come to know God. But the very existence of the altar to the unknown god proves that is not true.
Pretty clearly, if you had just taken away all of the altars to all the Olympian gods in Athens and all of Greece, if you would take it away all of the priests and the philosophers who taught their religious and spiritual ideas, this would not have eradicated the belief in the divine. People still would have been experiencing such things and, in response, feeling compelled to set up altars to the unknown that they had experienced.
Our Disposition to Spiritual Experience
The truth of the matter is that there is something in humanity itself, something that is built into the very structure of our minds, that disposes us to have spiritual experiences. I don’t know why that is. My suspicion is that it is something that God has built into us, but I obviously cannot prove that. But wherever it comes from, it is an undeniable part of who we are.
That doesn’t mean that everyone will have spiritual experiences – at least not to the same degree. But they will always remain an important part of human life and experience.
So, even if religion itself is flawed – even if it has often led to evil in this world, we cannot respond to that by giving up on religion entirely. If all of the principled and thoughtful and moral people just gave up on religion, would it just cease to exist? No, it would not.
You could tear down all of the churches, the temples, and mosques. You could destroy all of the institutions that support them. What would that mean? Would it bring the end of religion and the evil it might do? No. People would continue to experience the divine and they would continue to build their altars to an unknown god.
If we Abandon Religion
But that is not the only result. I can almost guarantee you that things would be quickly turn so much worse. If all of the principled and ethical believers abandoned religion, what would that leave? That would just leave all of the unscrupulous ones. And do not think for a moment that they wouldn’t be only too happy to co-opt all of the good intentions of those builders of altars to an unknown god and direct them towards new campaigns of terror, hatred and intolerance.
So, if you were to ask me to defend my choice to continue to participate in the Christian religion despite knowing the damage it has done and that it is capable of, that is what my answer would be. I stick around not because I have deluded myself into thinking that there is never anything wrong with religion. I stick around because I am not going to abandon this tradition to those who would use it in such ways.
I’m going to stick around so that I may do my best to promote a Christian faith that is open, tolerant and welcoming. I want to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to be a Christian and not be hateful. I am very sorry that I seem to be living in a time when so many have found it easy to conclude otherwise. But I will do my part to counter that narrative.
What Paul was Thinking
And so, while I obviously have no way of knowing all that was happening within the mind of the Apostle Paul at that meeting of the Areopagus, I’d like to think that he was thinking something along those lines and that is why he chose not to condemn the Athenians for the errors that he saw in their religious practice. He had respect for the divine experiences that they had had and how they had found ways to honour them.
And yes, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim his own understanding of the best way to approach the divine, especially because of what he had learned through his own experience of the risen Jesus Christ who revealed God in extraordinary ways. There is nothing wrong with doing that.
Paul’s Respect for them
But it is amazing to see how Paul speaks of these things while maintaining enormous respect for the spiritual experiences of the Athenians. He quotes their own poets and philosophers to them. He recognizes that their impulses towards the divine and even their desire to set up modes of worship are legitimate. That kind of respect for people who believe differently can take us a long way. It is an attitude that I would like to bring to every aspect of my religious life.
But more than that, even as he doesn’t refrain from sharing his own understanding and faith, he is definitely interested in finding the points of contact with others rather than the points of difference. He focusses, for example, on the common kinship of all humanity: “From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth.”
And he also doesn’t insist that God’s concern is limited only to his own people. The God he worships acknowledges all nations: “And he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.”
Most of all, he humbly acknowledges that all our knowledge of God is, at best, little more that us fumbling about and perhaps finding him. Such humility will always serve us well in all our dealings with those who believe differently.
Religion is not the greatest evil on the face of the earth. Neither is it the salvation of humanity. It really is a whole lot of us fumbling about and trying to do our best to honour what we have experienced of God. It is just a response and an imperfect response at best. But it is not going to go away if we give up on it. It will likely only become more problematic.
The hope, above all, is not found in religion. It is found in the God for whom we fumble about. The grace and hope is found in the fact that that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
Hope Clothing is open this Saturday!
To See Is to Love
In my Father’s house
Hespeler, May 7, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
In 1946, a brand-new translation of the New Testament was published. It was called the Revised Standard Version. And this was a very significant event in the history of the English Bible because, the previously unrevised Authorized Version had been around for a long time – I mean a very long time. That Bible, better known as the King James Version, was first published in 1611.
So, for 335 years, people had only heard one translation of the Bible. It was quite a shock for some people to hear familiar verses translated in new ways. And one particular verse was especially shocking. We read it this morning and in the Revised Standard Version it was translated like this: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
“I want my mansion!”
In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his death. He is apparently describing to them what it is that will await them after they die. So, the promise seems to be that, in heaven, they will get to have rooms in God’s house. That sounds nice enough. Why would anyone have any trouble with that translation? Well, the problem was that they were used to a somewhat different translation in the King James Version. In the King James version, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
And now you see why people got upset. It seemed as if this new translation of the Bible was ripping them off. The King James Version promised them a mansion and now this newfangled Bible was downgrading them to a mere room? I don’t think so. And so, one of the big complaints against the new translation was, “I want my mansion!”
A Word with Changed Meaning
It was all a misunderstanding. What the original Greek text of the Gospel of John says is basically what it says in the Revised Standard Version: In my Father’s house are many rooms or dwelling places.
But actually, the old King James Version hadn’t been wrong, at least not when it was first published over 400 years ago. Over 400 years ago, the English word mansion didn’t mean the same thing that it means today. Back then, when somebody said that they lived in a mansion, people didn’t imagine the homes of rich people like, in the year when the Revised Standard Version was published, Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. They didn’t imagine The Beverly Hillbillies.
Back when the KJV was published, a mansion just meant a place where you stayed. It often referred to a room in an inn or a place where you were staying in somebody else’s house. 400 years ago, that was an excellent translation of the original Greek phrase. It wasn’t the Bible that had changed. It wasn’t the promises of Jesus that had somehow been reduced, it was just that the English language had changed.
It’s about what you get
So, that is one misunderstanding that people have had of this verse. But there is another, deeper, misunderstanding that is also there that I think we need to address. Whether they’re thinking of a room or a mansion, there is a bigger fundamental assumption that people bring to this passage. They assume that is all about what they get in heaven. It is taken as a description of the accommodations, even of the possessions that they will have in the afterlife. And I just want to underline that that is absolutely not what is being described for us in this passage.
I do not believe that Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament for that matter, ever gave us a description or list of what we would get in heaven. I don’t think they ever described it at all. And they didn’t for one fundamental reason: whatever is waiting for us from the other side of death, absolutely defies all human description. We’ve never been there, and we don’t have the language to describe it.
The best we can do is offer a few metaphors. The best we can do is tell a story about what it is like. And that is exactly what Jesus is doing in this story. He’s not telling you what you get. He’s telling you a story.
A Familiar Story to them
And the story that he is telling would have been familiar to everyone who was listening to him or reading this gospel in the first century, because it was based on something that was essential to their culture. Their imaginations would have filled in the details of the story with no trouble.
But we are not a part of that culture, so it is harder for us to fill in those details and understand the richness of the story he is telling. So, for us to appreciate what is really going on, we have to add those details. So allow me to assist you.
A Young Man Makes his Way
The young man had come to the city to find himself. His father was a wealthy man who owned a fine farm in the countryside. The young man knew that it would all be his one day and he would look forward to doing his best to take care of it. But in the meantime, he wanted to experience the world outside of the farm and discover himself apart from his family.
And so, he did not flaunt any of his wealth. He went and found what work he could to sustain himself. And he just lived in the city and experienced its people.
And it while he was there that he met and became rather enchanted with a young woman named Miriam. She was a simple girl, hard working and kind. She kept a booth in the city marketplace for her father.
Over several weeks he had interactions with her as he bartered for some fruit. He found himself spending more and more time hanging around her booth. He was smitten. She was smart, clever and had a killer sense of humour.
He just had to find out more about this enchanting woman. And so, he started to ask around. He found out that she came from a poor family, but one that was highly respected and honoured. He decided to approach her parents. Respecting all of the customs and expectations of the society, he wanted to ask them if he could have their permission to speak to their daughter.
Meeting the Family
To them he revealed his family and the resources that he could claim, but he asked them not to say anything of that to her. He had this odd idea that she should be free to choose for herself whether or not she wanted to spend time with him. He didn’t want her to be influenced by his name or wealth.
The parents thought his ideas to be odd, to say that least, but they told him that he had their permission. So, he spoke of his love to her and, to his own wonder and amazement, he discovered that she felt much the same. They entered into a period of time together of heady love. They continually found ways to talk together and spend time. Always he was careful not to act in any way that might put her virtue or modesty in question, but it became plain to all that theirs was a relationship that was not to be denied.
Love matches were not common in those days. The normal practice was for marriage to be something worked out between families with the actual couple’s feelings on the matter being seen as a question of little importance. Love marriages could sometimes be frowned upon just because they were unique, but it was not as if it wasn’t something that could happen. As he came to the next step, therefore, the young man was very nervous about how he would speak to her.
A Misunderstood Proposal
They met in the public square. They gazed lovingly at one another for a while before he finally found the courage to speak of his plans. “My love,” he said abruptly, “I am leaving. I have to go out of the city.”
In his nervousness and fear, he did not pause to think about how she might respond to such words. He did not realize how it might have sounded to her. Immediately her eyes filled with tears. He saw such dismay upon her face. She was clearly thinking that he had chosen to abandon her.
“No, that’s not it at all,” he cried out. “Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.” But then he felt lost because he could not imagine how he could put into words what it was he was intending to say.
And so he paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and decided that it would be best to explain to her, step by step, what it was that he was planning to do. “In my father’s house there are many rooms. I know I haven’t told this to you before. I haven’t said it. But, yes, I do come from an honoured family and a prosperous house.”
“That’s what I mean when I tell you that I have to go now. I am going there, to my father’s house. And if I go there, it is only so that I can prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
And when she heard that, she finally understood. And she sent him off with all of her love.
And so, the young man went off to his father’s house. After a few days’ journey, he arrived and greeted his parents joyfully. He went in and over a welcoming meal he told them everything about the incredible woman that he had met in the city. So lovingly and joyfully did he describe her that his parents simply could not wait to meet this extraordinary woman.
But first, the man had some work to do. His father’s house was built around a central courtyard. On one side was the main entrance and the room where his father carried out his business. On another, there were kitchens. Over here was a place for welcoming guests with lavish couches for reclining while dining. But there were also a number of private chambers.
It was a large and extended family who lived here, not just his parents and siblings. There were his grandmother, his uncles and aunts and cousins as well. And they all had their own spaces for sleeping and other private matters. His task was to prepare a place among those chambers for himself and his bride so that they could join his father’s household.
Preparing a Place
He worked at it hard for many days, expanding the space, making it warm and welcoming. He filled it with mementos that reminded him, and he hoped would remind her, of the many discussions they had had together in the marketplace. He put in windows to fill the room with light and cabinets in which she would store her happiest memories. Finally, it was all ready. And so he went and said to his father, “Now I will go to find my bride and I will bring her here and she will make her home in the heart of our family.”
A few days later, the father looked out of his front door and was pleased to see his son coming down the walk. He was accompanied by his best friends who had come to wish him well and at his side was a beautiful young woman with whom he would share a wonderful life.
I happen to believe that there is something that awaits us on the other side of death. I don’t tend to imagine it in terms of people sitting around on clouds or playing harps. Nor do I think that we’re all going to join in some never-ending chorus singing the praises of God. I don’t think that the streets will be paved with gold. I mean, who would want to drive on a street paved with gold? And, no, I don’t think that we get a mansion or even a room. At the same time, I do not think of an afterlife in terms of some people burning in eternal conscious torment.
These are all words or images that you can find in the Bible, except for that one about clouds and harps, that just comes from a Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial, I think. But I do not believe that any of those images are meant to demonstrate to us what that existence is. They are meant to give us some vague sense of what that existence is like.
Telling us a Story
When Jesus told his disciples of the rooms in his father’s house, he wasn’t giving blueprints of heaven. He wasn’t telling you what you’d get. He was telling them a love story using elements that were essential features of a marriage in that world at that time.
For them, marriages did not include things like giving rings or ceremonies before ministers or justices of the peace. The essential ritual of a marriage involved taking your wife to live in a room in your father’s house that you had prepared to share with her. Jesus wasn’t saying what the afterlife was, he was telling a story.
Like I say, I believe in an afterlife, but I believe that it’s going to take place in a plane of existence far beyond our understanding. I suspect it probably has more to do with participating in a great collective consciousness than it has to do with any rooms or streets or clouds. But whatever it is, we simply don’t have the language to express it.
And so, we’re left with stories and images and metaphors. But, man, they are some pretty amazing stories. And with this particular story about the rooms in his father’s house, what I suspect that Jesus was saying more than anything else was that the fundamental nature of this existence that we can scarcely imagine is love – pure, unconditional and unfailing love. I believe that he was saying that, when everything else has been destroyed, love remains, and love is enough.