Worship services are live on Facebook every Sunday at 10 AM PDT.
Voices United 288 “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
Voices United 467 “One Bread, One Body”
Voices United 959 “The Lord’s Prayer”
Voices United 375 “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness”
“Go Now in Peace, Never Be Afraid” (Don Besig/Nancy Price)
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before we were born, you were with us,
and throughout our lives you are our constant companion.
So often, we feel an absence of your presence,
we do not see you when we feel we need you most,
but you are there all the same.
Open our eyes to see your face in others,
in the ones who reach out to help us,
and the ones in need of help,
so that we may reach out in kind.
Through your love revealed in time and space,
in daily actions and words,
we may know the Christ is alive,
we are not orphans but are children of God,
and we may keep true the commandment you give us,
to love one another.
We pray in the name of the risen Christ,
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever. Amen.
The general religious policy of the Roman Empire was somewhat, but not entirely pluralistic. When they would conquer a nation, they would generally tell people, “Oh, your gods and our gods are the same, just with different names.” For polytheistic societies, this worked pretty well. It’s why the Roman Gods and Greek Gods are essentially the same, with all of the same myths. Zeus and Jupiter, Aphrodite and Venus, etc. That’s why the Athenians would have an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” They were just trying to cover all their bases.
And all that really mattered to the Romans wasn’t what you believed, but rather than you participated in the civic religion of the Roman empire; give tribute to the semi-divine emperor, make offerings to the gods when you appear before a magistrate, go to festivals, that kind of thing.
So in one sense, it really isn’t all that different from saying, “All religions are just different paths to the same thing,” and then promoting one kind of culture—“Canadian” culture, for instance—as universal. Believe what you want, but everybody goes to the hockey game and sings “God keep our land.” Have whatever background you want, but everyone sings, “Our home and native land,” regardless of whether they are or are not first nations. That’s what’s called civic religion.
There was a problem, however, when the Romans conquered the Jews. First, the monotheism, but that wasn’t the biggest problem, actually. Greek philosophers had already talked about the idea of the gods being only myths meant to express different parts of the human experience and there being only one creator “Deus.” The real problem was that Jewish law and tradition forbade the worship of idols—even a statue to “the real God” was forbidden, as we can see reading the story of the golden calf in Exodus—so bowing to statues at festivals, offering incense to various household gods, and calling the emperor “the son of God,” were things the Jewish people couldn’t abide.
It’s in this context that Paul talks about statues and shrines; it’s why he rails against statues of gold, and the idea that temples are the actual houses of gods. And he essentially says something along the lines of, “All religions are the same.” He then makes the case for Christianity being especially “the same.” “All religions are equal but some are more equal than others.”
He also talks about what I’ve heard called, “The god-shaped hole in the heart.” “So that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.” The idea that people without a connection to God—our God, obviously—are missing something in their lives that money, success, and even family cannot fill. It’s a basic idea of spirituality; that somewhere at the top of the hierarchy of needs is a spiritual need that also must be filled for a well-lived life.
To me, “The God-shaped hole” in the heart doesn’t make sense, because it puts the power on us and not God to go out and try to fill that hole. In a way, it is saying that we save ourselves, through our own effort, and God just sits there waiting for us to get it right. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, the particular hole doesn’t need to be filled with Christianity of one kind or another, or Buddhism, or Islam, or nature, or music. She will fill it with whatever, and it will be filled. “My cup overflows,” says the 23rd Psalm.
Trying to fill a spiritual “need” with whatever god or spirituality happens to be on hand is like being so desperate for a relationship, being in a romantic relationship or a marriage for the sake of being married, rather than because of who the other person is. And just like human relationships, many of us have experienced a relationship with God that is abusive, or manipulative, or hollow and just going through the motions.
The only way I can think of to explain this more clearly is by trying to tell you why I am a Christian, and why despite that I don’t think everyone needs to be a Christian . . .
What I like about this passage, what Paul does here, is that he does describe God in intimate, relational terms. “That they may search for God and perhaps grope for him.” Our relationship to God is what matters, and that’s going to be different for every person. My relationship with one person, with my husband for example, is very different from his parents’ relationship or his friends, but we all have relationship with him. My relationship with God is going to be different from yours, and that’s why I say it isn’t my job to tell you what to believe. You develop your own relationship with God, which is as deep and as simple or as complex as you need it to be. If I thought it was my job to tell you what to believe, I’d be telling you that my relationship with God is the only right one, that you have to think like me, pray like me, worship like me to “really” know God. And I won’t tell you that.
God finds us; that’s kind of the point of Jesus, that Paul points out here, that God was not going to just sit around and wait for us to finally stop with the hatred and sin, but went and found us with love, as painful as that is. God puts the effort into the relationship, just as we all have to put effort into our human relationships.