6th Sunday of Easter(A): Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Acts 17:22-31

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

In my tradition, we pray a prayer at the beginning of Sunday worship called a Collect (COLL-ect), which gathers together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme for the day. The Collect assigned for this Sunday describes a God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love.[i] This idea of experiencing the incomprehensible God through love rather than knowledge is expressed in a Christian tradition known as apophatic theology, which insists that God can never be truly known through human intellect. The apophatic tradition reminds us that all our thoughts, images, and ideas about God are just that: about God, not actually God. In fact, our attachment to ideas about God can easily become idolatry. Surprisingly, this rich tradition of apophatic theology has roots in Paul’s address to the Areopagites in Acts 17.

As Paul waits for his missionary partners in Athens, he notices how crowded the city is with idols and discovers one altar dedicated to an “unknown God.” Because Paul is a gifted evangelist, he knows that all cultures have within them seeds of the Gospel that need to be affirmed, watered, and grown.[ii] So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” is really the God who has made himself fully manifest and accessible in Christ.[iii] Eventually, Paul is brought to the court of Areopagus, where he essentially says, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God and I’m here to tell you that this God has been made known in the Risen Christ, through whom we can tap into the divine source of being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”[iv]

The lectionary unfortunately leaves out the Athenians’ response, which is mixed: some scoff, some want to hear more, and two listeners become convinced that Paul is speaking truth: a woman named Damaris and a man named Dionysius (17:32-33). Although Dionysius doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens.[v] But more importantly, Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination as the great spiritual icon for experiencing the God who is beyond all human understanding. In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this biblical character’s name as a pseudonym in writing books about accessing the God beyond all knowing. The author chose this pseudonym because he imagined that Dionysius had been deeply persuaded by Paul’s teachings about the “unknown God,” a phrase that inspired the author to formulate the foundations of apophatic theology. Today, this Syrian author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is considered one of the most significant theologians of church history. Most theologians since the 5th century have been influenced in one way or another by Pseudo-Dionysius, who is also referred to as “Psuedo-Denys,” or, as I prefer, “Denys the Menace” (because he laced his apophatic theology with a not-so-healthy dose of Neo-Platonism).

One theologian who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is an anonymous English author who wrote a text called The Cloud of Unknowing in 14th century Nottingham, the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood. Although the apophatic tradition does not conflate images with the divine, the Cloud author uses images to describe the human relationship with God. He explains that between ourselves and God, there is “a cloud of unknowing,” which we cannot penetrate with our thoughts, but which we can penetrate through humble love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through this cloud. He offers a practical way to do this which has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind and to detach ourselves from our thoughts. This sacred word is meant to be repeated as a kind of mantra, an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting carried away by our thoughts, we return to the sacred word. By returning to the sacred word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud.

I have personally found this prayer practice to be deeply beneficial and transformative as it helps me develop a healthy detachment from my thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of secondary benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and deeper sleep. However, the primary benefit I receive as I let go of my thoughts and try to be present to God through love is a direct experience of God as my very being. The Cloud author says, “God is your being…and God exists in all things, as their cause and their being.”[vi] In Acts 17, Paul says something very similar when he preaches, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Paul and the Cloud author invite us to experience the “unknown God” by being present to the simple reality of our existence because it is by being present to our existence that we are actually being present to God. Richard Rohr paraphrases the Cloud author when he says, “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God…Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[vii]

Although it is unlikely that Paul would have ever identified as an apophatic theologian, his prophetic words to the Areopagus provided the soil out of which apophatic theology could emerge and grow. From that soil, we have inherited the wisdom of Pseudo-Denys and the contemplative prayer practice of the Cloud author, both of which invite us to directly experience the God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love. By accepting this invitation, we can come to experience the “unknown God” as the One in whom we live and move and have our being; and indeed, as the One who is our being.

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The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California and author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic). He enjoys exploring the pristine beaches, gentle rivers, and stunning redwoods of Humboldt County with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi. He tries to practice Centering Prayer, but admits that he often sips coffee during contemplation.

 

 

[i] “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 225.

[ii] Christian Missiologists sometimes refer to these “seeds of the Gospel” as logoi spermatikoi. See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 23 – 72.

[iii] Even though the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the apophatic tradition insists that our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God.

[iv] My paraphrase of Acts 17:22-31.

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Kirsopp Lake. LCL 153 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1998), Book III.iv, 197.

[vi] Author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counseling, translated by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 139.

[vii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.

 

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.[1]

Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.[2]

As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.

The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.

I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.[3] By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”[4]

In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:

When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”[5]

This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.

Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7.[6] It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The word that sticks out to me in the readings assigned for today is only actually used once – and yet it seems to hover around all of them, tying them together somehow. In Acts, Peter is reported to say, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Let them know with certainty.

Now, maybe the word sticks out to me because it is so appealing – and yet, I know that it is entirely antithetical to faith. Faith, and God, are so much more mystery, and incomprehension, and immensity – and how can one be certain of any of those things?

Despite knowing that, certainty always has and likely always will appeal to me. I love the idea of knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have always liked to write things in my planner in pen, not pencil – thinking somehow the ink on the page created an unchangeable, immovable fact. It became something I could be certain of, not just a proposal of possibility.

But, can we ever be certain of God? Or, maybe a better question – should we ever try to be?

In a chunky reading from Luke, we have the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are walking along the road, and Jesus himself comes near to them, but they do not recognize him. He asks what they are discussing, and they explain to him that they are talking about Jesus, who they hoped would be the one to redeem Israel. Now, this must be interesting for Jesus to hear, because of course, as he understands it, and as we, his modern-day readers understand it, he DID redeem Israel. Yet the two disciples are so certain that they know what the Messiah will be like, that they don’t see that God is with them.

Our scripture says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could it be that their certainty was, in fact, their blindness?

They continue walking and tell Jesus about the women who have astounded them, by reporting that there was no body at the tomb, and, furthermore, that they had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps their certainty that this would never happen to women kept them from receiving the good news. Jesus calls it being “slow of heart to believe.”

I wonder if our hearts are slowed by our certainty.

Jesus becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never been certain about what’s actually happening in the breaking of the bread. Jesus has shared many meals with them, but maybe there’s always been a moment of mystery in that action. Maybe there’s always been a moment of inbreaking – a moment where God is revealed or cracked open – where God is beyond.

As soon as the disciples understand that Jesus has been with them – when they get certain about the identity of the stranger who has been travelling with them, he vanishes. As soon as we get certain about the way Jesus has appeared, he disappears again. It isn’t his way to be in a box, or to appear in the ways we expect. It’s his way to surprise, to delight, to break through our certainty and reveal to us mystery, instead.

So, I might edit Peter – because I don’t think we should come to God with certainty. My prayer is that we learn to live with such mystery, and with such ambiguity – that we greet everyone as if they are Jesus, travelling down the road with us.

 

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The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.