PAUL’s speech in Athens is a critique of the human attempt to domesticate God by reducing him to “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals”. The apostle draws on arguments made in the Old Testament, but which would also have been familiar to a philosophically curious audience of Greeks (Beverley Roberts Gaventa, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts).
Throughout the Old Testament, faithfulness to the true God is contrasted with allegiance to the idols of the nations. Israel’s God is not just a bigger and better version of the gods of its neighbours. Jewish monotheism involves a complete rejection of deities that are formed by the “art and imagination” — and, indeed, the social and economic interests — of human beings.
Paul’s sermon commends the humility of the Athenians in erecting an altar “to an unknown God”. But he goes on to proclaim that God has revealed himself in Christ, and that this revelation demands a response. While he has “overlooked the times of human ignorance”, God now “commands all people everywhere to repent”.
God’s revelation also shows us who we really are. It is in him that we “live and move and have our being”. When, therefore, we are alienated from God, we are alienated from the depths of our own being.
The idols that ensnare us may not be as obvious as those that Paul beholds in Athens. In his Confessions, St Augustine explains how we can make the good things of creation into idols — into objects of devotion that alienate us from God and from our own selves: “You were within me, and I was outside myself: and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created: you were with me, but I was not with you. Those created things kept me far away from you: yet if they had not been in you, they would have not been at all.”
Our epistle emphasises both the suffering and the glory of our risen and ascended Lord. Jesus Christ is now “at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him”. The “authorities and powers” now subject to Christ include all the created things that we idolise and worship in his place.
It is in moments of crisis that our deepest allegiance is revealed. The question posed by Douglas Harnik is a stark one: “How gripped with fear do we become when those objects of our loyalty, hope, and labour begin to show weakness or threaten to collapse?” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 and 2 Peter).
We can dethrone the false gods who so often command our allegiance only by allowing the Spirit of Christ to abide in us and to shape and transform our lives. As our collect reminds us, just as it is “by his death he has recalled us to life,” so his “continual presence in us” will “raise us to eternal joy”.
The manner of this indwelling is the theme of our Gospel, where he promises that his ascension into glory will not leave the disciples “orphaned”. In the coming of the Spirit, they will experience the presence of both Son and Father, and be caught up in the flow of love and delight within the heart of God.
There is an interplay in this passage of obedience and grace. The disciples are to “keep my commandments”, and yet Jesus reveals that such obedience is the fruit of love. And, as St Thomas Aquinas observes, this is itself the fruit of grace: “No one can love God unless he has the Holy Spirit, because we do not act before we receive God’s grace. Rather, the grace comes first.” But human beings must respond to that grace: “it was necessary” that the apostles “make good use, by their love and obedience, of this first gift of the Holy Spirit in order to receive the Spirit more fully”.
The words of Aquinas present us with the same joyful and challenging invitation as Paul gave the Athenians. In Jesus, the “unknown God” has revealed himself, and has poured out his grace upon us. He now summons us to live in that light and truth — dethroning the idols that alienate us from him and from the depths of our own being.