Conspiracy theories abound. There are people who believe that the moon landings were faked in television studios. I can remember seeing moon rock when I was an undergraduate in the Geology Department at Durham University, and seeing how they examined made me confident it was what it claimed to be. Yet, there are still people who feel they can’t believe we landed on the moon.
Another well-known target of conspiracy theories is the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, with theories suggesting their destruction by American bombs, by the Fire Service, by the CIA, indeed by almost everyone except the planes we saw fly into them with our own eyes. Perhaps the towers didn’t collapse the way structural engineers thought they should, but remember the Titanic didn’t stay afloat the way engineers said it was impossible not to. Yet, there are still people who feel they can’t believe the twin towers collapsed because of planes flown into them by terrorists.
Imagine someone telling you that they don’t believe in Australia. People say it exists, but they’ve never seen it, and they tell you that photos and pictures on television are fake. People who’ve been there on holiday have been conned – after all, you sit in a tin box for 24 hours. You could be flying round in circles and landing at Farnborough. Kangaroos are brought in from the zoo. Whatever you say, they feel they can’t believe in Australia.
That’s what Paul found in Athens, on his visit there: an altar to an unknown God in the Temple. It struck Paul that there were people in Athens who believed in a God, but didn’t know him or have a relationship with him. Although that was what Paul found in Athens many centuries ago, I think that’s still the same today. There are a great many people who believe God exists, but who don’t know God as a living God with whom they can have a relationship.
When I lived in the north-east of England, I learned that traditional form of religion in Northumberland and Newcastle had been Presbyterianism, but in County Durham there was an ex-Primitive Methodist chapel on every street corner. However, it soon became very clear to me that the main religious movement was Newcastle United, followed as a second religious movement by Sunderland. Here in our corner of the south east, Aldershot Town doesn’t generate the same kind of energy and emotion, but there are a great many people who practice the religion of large and expensive cars, the religion of shopping and consumerism, and the religion of garden centres. Throughout our land, there are a great many people to whom our God is unknown.
In just the same way that people refuse to believe in the moon landings, in terrorism causing the twin towers to collapse, even in the existence of Australia, there are plenty of people who simply refuse to believe that God might exist, whatever we might have to say. Let us be in no doubt that just as God was unknown to some in Athens in Paul’s time, God is unknown to some in our time and place, be that through following other gods, frivolous or otherwise, or through minds closed to all possibilities behind that which they think. Be it through deliberate choice, or simply though passive inaction, be very clear, that God is unknown to many in our world.
So, how might we, who do know God, respond to this fact that God is unknown in our world?
Paul responded by proclaiming what he knew of God, and I’m sure we’d all stand by that. But proclaiming what we know of God is easy to say, but much harder to be clear how we do that. Most of the people who need to hear that aren’t here this morning, and simply moving outside, where folk are passing, would, if we’re being honest, be fairly useless as most people would ignore us. When you go abroad, if you don’t know the language people don’t understand you no matter how loud you shout. I suggest we need to proclaim the God we know through the lives that we live and our encounters with the people that we meet.
Actually it goes deeper than that. God can be known, and not just as a theological concept or a religious relic or some such, but a living presence, moving and working in people’s lives today. God is living and always present with us, and this is what our reading from John’s gospel is all about. There is no limit upon God and his love. – it’s always with us, whether we know it or not, and all we need to do is remember that, and make our best attempt to live that through our lives. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
In his gospel, John tells us that there is something within us, something that comes to us. To all shapes and sizes of us, young, old, annoying, lonely, attractive. There is something within us that realizes our need, that reaches out to God, that touches the heavens, that is the spirit of truth. And we know that no matter where we go, or who we meet, that spirit of truth, that counsellor will be right by our side. There is something within us gently guiding, speaking words of love, and mercy, and challenge, so we will never be alone, nor friendless, nor without help, because that spirit will be there, cradling us and protecting us. There is something within us, and there are those who cannot understand, who pour on ridicule and scorn, because they do not see, or will not open their eyes to see the God of love and power, who is everywhere they look. They may well think we are stupid, or dangerous, or just plain weird. They will attempt to make our lives difficult, but we know that we have not been left alone, and so we continue to show the love that we ourselves have been shown: the love of the God of creation, and we do it by the power of his Spirit.