Same God, Different People – May 21, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St,. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2107

Let us pray. 
Heavenly God, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[1]

Are all religious traditions of the world ultimately the same thing? Does everyone, regardless of particular religious belief, worship the same God? Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, in his 2010 book God is Not One, answered these questions with an emphatic “No.” For him, any claim that religions were fundamentally the same was “dangerous, disrespectful and untrue,” and risked “blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide.” Prothero’s argument certainly pushed back against a popular approach of the late twentieth century that treated all religious differences as meaningless or inconsequential, yet Prothero’s book also crystalized an emerging consensus among professional religious people—academics, members of the clergy, and others—who engaged regularly in interfaith study or dialogue. Many of these specialists believed that asserting the sameness of God across religious traditions was indeed dangerous—not because they sought to advance the agenda of any one religion in particular, but precisely because they were interested in respecting all religious traditions as unique phenomena that deserve to be appreciated on the basis of their own strengths and merits without being forced into artificial agreement with one another.

Scholars and interfaith leaders now largely agree on this point, but many faithful, non-professional religious people don’t. It is increasingly common, at least in this part of the world, to meet individuals who see no real differences between the customs and beliefs of different religious traditions and readily interchange them: they like yoga on Saturdays and Compline on Sundays, they attend both a Passover Seder and an Easter dinner, and they listen to a Buddhist meditation while on their way to church. These folks do not always understand or respect the subtle distinctions that enthrall the experts, but they perceive a similar hunger at the root of many different religious practices—and no religious or academic authority is going to stop them from exploring that for themselves.

In Athens, Paul attempts to do some interfaith dabbling of his own, as he explores a common spiritual yearning that unites both the Greek philosophers he converses with and the Christians he represents.[2] To be sure, Paul’s approach is a bit presumptuous, and he could show more respect for the Athenians than he displays.[3] He is unabashed, for example, in expressing his belief in the superiority of Christianity; he hints at the “ignorance” of his Greek compatriots and explicitly denigrates the “idols” that are inextricable from Greco-Roman religious practice as well as the Greco-Roman idea that a god can live in a temple. But even as he highlights differences, Paul demonstrates a clear interest in building bridges.[4] He frames his speech in terms that would be easily understandable to first-century Greeks and quotes two poems that they would know, indicating a willingness to try to view the world from their perspective. Paul also takes pains to establish that both Christians and Greeks worship the same deity. The Athenian altar “to an unknown God,” he tells the Athenians, addresses the same Christian God that he worships, “the God who made the world and everything in it,” the “Lord of heaven and earth,” a God who “is not far from each one of us” and made “from one ancestor…all nations to inhabit the whole earth.” This is still a God that Paul gets to define on his own terms and use for his own purposes, but this is nonetheless a God that Paul is willing—and, in fact, eager—to share.

Indeed, what is most impressive about Paul’s speech to the Athenians is the extraordinarily expansive and accessible way in which Paul is able to speak of God. Paul talks about God using concepts and phrases that would be familiar to the Greeks, but he also describes a God that is so big that God both transcends and infuses all of creation—including Greeks, Christians and everyone else. The God Paul imagines is so unlike human beings that he cannot be contained in the sanctuaries that they construct or tended to meaningfully by any of their actions, yet that same God is also the One in whom we all live and move and have our being, the source of all life who continues to supply all of us with breath and energy and anything we could ever need. Paul’s God is both so massively imposing that no one human being can ever fully comprehend him for themselves and so intimately connected with all of humanity that every human being originates from God, always operates within God, and never is able to escape God’s reach.

Paul’s appearance in Athens, I think, shows us one way in which we might meaningfully engage other religious traditions without minimizing the distinctions that really do exist between faithful people of different convictions and backgrounds.[5] Notice that Paul does not deny or paper over the real distinctions that exist between him and the Athenians. If anything, he emphasizes them. But Paul is still able to envision a God who is large enough to encompass both the Athenians and the Christians. If we wish to follow in Paul’s footsteps, we need not seek either perfect harmony with or complete separation from other religious traditions. Rather, we can acknowledge the differences we have with other religions while simultaneously learning from them and recognizing some basic commonalities that we all share. In truth, the way in which Paul talks with the Athenians doesn’t just show us how to interact with other religions; it also offers us a good example of how to navigate differences of any kind.[6] How often in our interactions with others do we seek complete agreement and treat any difference as an insurmountable obstacle? What if instead we allowed ourselves to embrace difference and cherish the things we share?

The world is a tense and complicated, sometimes violent place, hence Jesus’ own fearful mentions of it, and it can be tempting to want to escape the pain and conflict of the world by retreating to the castles of our own convictions. Jesus, however, teaches us that relationship with others cannot be avoided. When he tells us to “keep his commandments,” he is referring to his repeated instructions to “love one another”—to be in positive relationship with our fellow human beings. Again and again, Jesus emphasizes the importance of relationships: the relationships we must cultivate with each another as well as the relationships that we have with the God who never abandons or forgets about us and the relationships that exist within the very being of God—between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Relationships, we learn, are at the center of the whole universe, and relationships require us to share and interact with others while maintaining our own distinct identities.

Take a minute to consider the relationships on your mind this morning. Where do you need to reach out and find commonality? Where do you need to acknowledge differences, even as you choose to care for one another through them? Remember Paul’s address to the Athenians, remember Jesus’ discussion with his disciples, and trust that God is close enough to know each one of you intimately and big and generous enough to let you disagree.

[1] The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 100.

[2] I was assisted in my reflections on Acts 17:22-31 by doing more scholarly reading than I typically do. I particularly found helpful Joshua W. Jipp, “Paul’s Aeropagus Speech of Acts 17:16-34 as Both Critique and Propaganda,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 131, no. 3 (2012): 567-588, and Robert E. Dunham, “Acts 17:16-34,” Interpretation, April 2006, 202-204.

[3] See Dunham, 204.

[4] See Dunham, 204.

[5] See Dunham, 202.

[6] See Dunham, 202.


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