REFLECTION – Acts of the Apostles, 17: 22-31; John, ch. 14: 15-21
St Paul had gone to Athens on one of the many journeys he made to carry the gospel to people living in places far removed from where it all began. Athens at that time, the early first century AD, was still one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres of the Mediterranean world. Although conquered by the Romans and part of their empire, Athens’ importance rested on its great achievements of the past in so many spheres of human activity. When Paul visited it, it was an international intellectual centre a bit like Oxford and Cambridge rolled into one, and more besides. Although Paul was a highly educated man, Tarsus, his home city, could not have had the same ring to it as Athens. Nevertheless, one can’t imagine Paul being daunted at the thought of meeting the intelligentsia of Athens, but he clearly knew he would need to adapt the delivery of his message to appeal to them. So Paul stood there on the Areopagus in Athens, the rocky site of the ancient seat of justice which lies between the Acropolis, with its great temple of Athene, and the Agora, the commercial centre of the city. Looking in all directions he would have seen temples and shrines to many gods, and demigods (human beings who became gods), statues, altars and monuments dedicated in their honour. All these were the outward signs of how humankind had tried to come to terms with the power they experienced in the world which was beyond their control and their full understanding.
So Paul introduces some flattery for his audience and he compliments them on how religious they are, judging by all the temples and monuments he sees. He even comments on the fact that he has seen an altar dedicated to an unknown god. You could say that having an altar with that dedication was hedging their bets in case a deity had been left out. And that gives Paul just the opening he needs to speak about the God he knows: the one God who made the world and everything in it and who doesn’t dwell in shrines made by human hands. He is the God, says Paul, who gives life and breath, everything, to human beings and his relationship with them is that of Father.
And in the reading from St John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to the apostles about the God he knows and wants them to know too. There is no talk of shrines and temples but about God himself and our relationship with him. Relationship is the most important thing. And as we read on, it is clear that St John sees our relationship with God is a threefold one rooted in reciprocal and personal love. If we see God only as a single mighty power we are missing all the opportunities he offers us to know him better and to deepen our relationship with him. In “theological speak” we are thinking here about the Holy Trinity, the belief in God as three persons in one being. This is not an easy idea to think about in the abstract, but it is what gives Christianity its distinctive character. And the relationship and work of all three, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are found in our reading from St John’s Gospel.
It is full of what this threefold relationship means in practice, not simply in theory. Jesus tells his disciples, and of course today’s disciples too, that although he is coming to the end of the human life he shared with them, at his request, his Father will send them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, which will stay with them. So this tells us that Jesus is the Son of God. The Spirit of God is translated in different ways – Counsellor, Advocate, Comforter. The general meaning is that the Spirit of God will be alongside us to give comfort, support, guidance in all the difficulties, doubts, dilemmas and distresses we encounter throughout our lives. This tells us that there is a Holy Spirit through which the Father and the Son from whom the Spirit comes, are always alongside us. God will not abandon us, he will come to us through Jesus who is his Son whom he sent to save us, and his Spirit which will dwell in us.
If I were rash, I would sum it up in a few words. We could say that we are in the care of a great and powerful God, but there is a Father who created us, a Son who redeemed us, and a Holy Spirit which enables us to benefit from the actions of the Father and the Son. And we, redeemed from our sins, are embraced and included in this wonderful, unbreakable circle of love. It is a most beautiful thought to ponder, and carry with us as we follow on in our journey towards our God.
Sadly, the Athenians did not find Paul particularly convincing. But the kingdom of God, a bit like Rome, is not built in a day. It takes time and a lot of work.