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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - August/September 2003
To an unknown God


This is the text of the message I presented at our Kirkin' o' the Tartan on Sunday, November 16, 2003.

Carson C. Smith, FSA Scot                                                            Phone (317) 319-3712

2207 Van Ness Place   Indianapolis, IN 46240-4703            carsonsmith@indyscot.org  

 

To An Unknown God

Introduction

The Book of Acts provides us with an account of the spread of the Christian faith, from the ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, following his death, burial and resurrection, to the death of Paul the Apostle. The narrative is developed in widening circles; from Jerusalem in Chapters 1-7, through Judea and Sumaria in Chapter 8, and the uttermost parts of the known world, from Chapter 8 to the end of the book. Peter and Paul are the two (2) prominent characters in the Book of Acts.    

Acts Chapter 17, Verse 16 

Luke the Physician, a companion of Paul, and author of the Gospel account which bears his name, and of the Book of Acts, writes in Acts Chapter 17 Verse 16,

 

While Paul was waiting for (Silas and Timothy) in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace, day by day, with those who happened to be there.

The events of Chapter 17 of the Book of the Acts, took place during Paul’s second missionary journey. His adventures in Greece occurred in approximately 53 AD. He arrived in the city of Athens where Luke adds, parenthetically, in Chapter 17 Verse 21,

(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

One is tempted to suggest that the city of Athens sounds like any college campus, anywhere in the world. Notice that Paul is described, not as decrying the religious systems that he found in Athens, or as making inflammatory statements to them about their “false gods,” or launching upon a one-man campaign whose ultimate aim was to rid the city of idols. Luke writes in Acts Chapter 17 Verse 17,

He reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace, day by day, with those who happened to be there.   

Observation Number 1: Paul reasoned with his listeners. This suggests that he sat down among them, that he identified with them, that he sought to understand precisely where they were in terms of their own spiritual quest, and that, rather than driving them to accept his conclusions or face the torment of judgment eternal, he sought to lead them to a new understanding where they, too, could share his vision of the faith that he professed.

Observation Number 2: Paul launched his missionary effort in Athens in the synagogue, with those identified as Jews and God-fearing Greeks. Saul, later known as St. Paul, was himself a Jew, and not only was he a Jew, he had been a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem. He began in the synagogue, knowing that his audience shared the same religious worldview, same religious literature, the same religious language, the same religious points of reference and, because he drew upon the Old Testament scriptures as his means of demonstrating the authority of his message, he understood that it was here that he was most likely to find his most receptive audience.       

Observation Number 3: Paul did not remain within the relatively secure environment of the synagogue. So determined was he, in the pursuit of his ultimate objective, he went out into the marketplace. Furthermore, he went into the marketplace day by day. Neither sun, nor heat, nor physical fatigue would hinder him in the attainment of his goal. Finally, he reasoned with anyone who happened to be there. He did not make distinctions with regard to who might be deemed more likely to accept his message, he was not hindered by the fact that his listeners might be totally unfamiliar with his spiritual points of reference, nor did he, in any way, seek to diminish the intellectual capacity of his audience to comprehend his message.       

Acts Chapter 17 Verse 18 

And how was Paul received by the citizens of Athens? In Acts Chapter 17 Verse 18, Luke the Physician writes,

A group of Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

One of the most wonderful details of this narrative is that Luke the Physician identifies the philosophical schools of Paul’s opponents.

The followers of Epicurus were fond of luxury and sensuous pleasure, especially that of eating and drinking, whose credo can be summarized as, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The Stoics derived their name from the fact that their teacher, Zeno, had taught in the open, under a porch or colonnade, which in Greek is called a stoa. They held that all things are governed by unvarying natural laws, and that the wise should follow virtue alone, obtained through reason, remaining indifferent to the external world, to passion, or to emotion.

The Epicureans, who celebrated sensual pleasure, and the Stoics, who sought to repress all sensual pleasure, represented the opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. Nevertheless, both appear to have been equally hostile to the message of Paul.      

Paul was taken to a meeting of the Areopagus, which was the supreme court of justice in Athens, where in Acts Chapter 17 Verses 19 and 20, Paul is asked,

 

“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”

 

Acts Chapter 17 Verse 22    

And in the response that follows, Paul’s opening remarks, in Acts Chapter 17 Verse 22, provide me with the central theme of today’s message.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.”

Paul begins by commending the men of Athens for their pursuit of the knowledge of God, stating that, “in every way you are very religious.” And, as Paul walked about the streets of Athens he, no doubt, saw altars and statues that had been erected to honor the entire pantheon, or all the of Greek gods and goddesses.

Zeus the king of the gods
Poseidon the god of the sea
Demeter the goddess of agriculture
Dionysus the god of wine
Ares the god of war
Artemis the goddess of the hunt
Aphrodite the goddess of love 

and, perhaps the most interesting of all, the patron of Athens,

                                                Athena             the goddess of crafts, domestic arts, and war

(The image of a warrior goddess will appeal to our own Celtic warrior women.)      

And it would appear that, as a means of covering every possibility imaginable, and to avoid offending any god that might have been overlooked, the men of Athens had erected an altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

In a moment of divine inspiration, and uncommon genius, Paul seizes upon a point of reference that was already known to his audience, assigned to it a new meaning, and provided them with a new lens through which to view the world, and launches into a presentation of the Gospel, or the Good News, which is one of the most profoundly simple explanations of Essential Christianity found anywhere in the New Testament.    

I will simply read it verbatim, because it cannot be improved upon.

“The God who made the world, and everything in it, is the Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples built by hands.

And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life, and breath, and everything else.

From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.

God did this so that men would seek Him and, perhaps, reach out for Him, and find Him, though he is not far from each one of us.

For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.

As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold, or silver, or stone; an image made by man’s design and skill.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent.

For He has set a day when He will judge the world, with justice, by the man He has appointed.

He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Luke writes that, when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. And a few men became followers of Paul, and believed.

St. Patrick

When the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted the Christian faith in 312 AD, persecution was ordered to an end within the empire, and Christianity spread throughout Roman government circles. Patricius or Patrick, later known as St. Patrick, was born in Kilpatrick near Dumbarton, Strathclyde, on the west coast of Scotland in 390 AD. He was the son of Calpurnius, a Roman tax collector, and a deacon among the Romano-British Christians of Scotland.

Patrick was captured by pirates before the age of 16, and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he was forced to tend sheep. He escaped 6 years later, and made his way to a ship bound for his home in Scotland.

He returned to his mother and father in Scotland, but was called in a dream, to return to Ireland. He entered the monastery of Lerins, located on a small island opposite Nice, on the coast of France. Patrick was ordained a priest and, because he was already familiar with the people, their language, and their religion, he returned to Ireland, following the failure of another missionary, one Palladius.

The success of Patrick’s missionary efforts in Ireland is attributed to the fact that, rather than sweeping aside the traditions of the Celts, he sought to adapt pre-Christian symbols, images and holy sites to his ministry. Recall our earlier example of Paul, as he addressed the men of Athens. Rather than seeking to destroy what he found there, he seized upon a point of reference that was known to his audience, assigned to it a new meaning, and provided them with a new lens through which to view the world. 

Their native generosity; their celebration of the natural cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth; their belief that the visible world, in which they lived, was part of a much larger, invisible world; their view of themselves as passing through this life on their way to another; was entirely harmonious with the Christian worldview.  

In point of fact, the Celtic cross arrived in Ireland ahead of the Church. When examined closely, the Celtic cross is an equidistant cross, superimposed over a circle, and mounted on a shaft. It represents the earth and the four points of the compass, the marriage of Father Sun and Mother Earth, and the four elements, (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water).

Following the arrival of Patrick in Ireland, the Celtic cross was reinterpreted to represent the triumph of Christ over the world. And as new crosses were erected, they began to bear the image of Christ, with his arms outstretched, and their bases were carved with images from the Bible.   

One of the more remarkable achievements of the Church was the imposition of the blessing of three persons of the Trinity, (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), one of the more controversial tenants of Church tradition, over the four points of the compass, (North, South, East and West). 

Because the religion of the Celts was nature based, they often gathered in what were considered to be sacred places, which as often as not, were in clearings in the forest. The image of the sacred grove is preserved in the interiors of Gothic chapels and cathedrals, whose columns are often carved so as to resemble tree trunks and whose vaulted ceilings imitate the intersection of tree limbs. And thus it becomes evident, to anyone who is paying attention, that the Western Church, and the Celtic Church in particular, has become the means by which many pre-Christian images have been preserved to us. 

Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with corned beef, green beer and parades, but the question must be asked, “How interesting would St. Patrick’s Day be, were it not for the Scottish Pipebands?” And when the question arises, “Why is it that the Scots show up on this most ‘Irish’ of holidays?” you can answer with absolute authority, “The kilt and the bagpipe came to Scotland from Ireland, but Patrick came to Ireland from Scotland!”      

St. Columba

The most famous of the Irish missionaries to arrive in Scotland was Columba, later known as St. Columba, who was born in Ireland in 521 AD. He was a Christian abbot and missionary trained in Irish monasteries, who established himself and 12 companions on the island of Iona, not far from his native Ireland. From Iona he evangelized the Scottish mainland, establishing several monasteries on nearby islands. Like Patrick, Columba drew upon pre-Christian points of reference throughout his ministry. He is credited with the declaration, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”

And that is so remarkable, I will say it again, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”

Among the pre-Christian Celts, the druids, meaning people of true vision, were men or women who had undergone intensive training, in order to understand the workings of both the visible, and invisible, worlds. They functioned as teachers, healers, counselors, lawyers, judges and priests. There were schools for the training of the druids, which could be attended for 20 years. At the end of their training, the druids were considered so wise that their decisions were never questioned. 

As a matter of fact, the druids were held in such high esteem that they could stop a war, even once battle had actually commenced. The Romans observed that, when two armies had come together, with swords drawn, the druids could step between the battle lines, and stop the conflict as though they were holding wild animals spellbound. But because they were keepers of an oral tradition, there is no record of their actual teachings. Their image, however, has been delivered to us in person of Merlin of The Legends of King Arthur, Gandalf the Grey, Later known as Gandalf the White, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. But what did Columba mean when he said, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”

Druids functioned as teachers.
Jesus is our Teacher!
(John Chapter 13 Verse 14) 

Druids functioned as healers.
Jesus is the Great Physician!
(Mark Chapter 2 Verses 16 and 17) 

Druids functioned as counselors.
Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor!
(Isaiah Chapter 9 Verse 6)

Druids functioned as lawyers.
Jesus is our Advocate and Defender!
(1 John Chapter 2 Verse 1) 

Druids functioned as judges.
Jesus will one day judge the living and the dead!
(Acts Chapter 10 Verse 42) 

Druids functioned as priests.
Jesus is our Great High Priest!
(Hebrews Chapter 4 Verses 14 through 16)

Druids could cause wars to cease.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace and He, alone, will cause all wars to cease!
(Isaiah Chapter 9 Verse 6)

“My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”

(Pause)

Have you suffered at the hands of the Christian “Fundamentalists?” Are you put-off by the money-grubbing excesses of the Television Evangelists? Do you imagine that you have become too sophisticated, too jaded, or too lost to find your way back?

Do not be deceived and do not be misled.

You were bought with a price, freed to follow, and saved to serve. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Jesus is the Way. And there as many paths leading to the Way as there are men and women seated in this place. Let nothing stand in your way.

I, like Paul, Patrick and Columba, have come to you today, poor messenger that I am, to proclaim to you, what may have been, prior to this moment, AN UNKNOWN GOD. My hope is that I have provided you with a new lens though which to view the world. 

And I will declare, with St. Columba, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”      

Let us pray.

We thank you, Father, for the Freedom made available though Jesus Christ, the One True King. We thank you for the words of Luke the Physician, and for the examples of Paul, Patrick and Columba. We ask you to make real to us, the declaration that, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!” Remind us that we were bought with a price, freed to follow, and saved to serve, in Jesus’ Name we pray,

Amen

For further reading, many of us have “found our way back” through the study of Celtic Christianity and, to that end, I recommend Anam Cara, or in the Gaelic, “Soul Friend,” whose author, Irish Catholic scholar John O’Donohue explains, without apology, that it is Jesus who is our “Soul Friend.”  


Return to December/January 2004 Index Page

 


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