Nature Reveals the “Unknown God”: Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

Nature Reveals the “Unknown God”: Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21 May 6, 2023

In Acts 17, Paul says the “unknown god” created everything. One of the best ways to know God is to immerse yourself in God’s Creation.

woman on top of mountain, arms raised
Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com. https://www.pexels.com/photo/happy-woman-on-edge-of-mountain-4992803/

Here are ideas for reading and preaching Acts 17:22-31, the story of Paul preaching at the Areopagus, and John 14:15-21, Jesus’s instruction to love and follow his commandments. This is part of the EcoPreacher 1-2-3 series to equip preachers and congregations for engaging the Bible through an ecological lens. These texts are assigned as part of the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Eco-Exegesis

Eco-exegesis is a method of interpreting the biblical text through a green lens using the principles of ecological theology. 

Acts 17:24-25

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

Paul engaged the Greek scholars, poets, politicians, and philosophers in the public gathering place of the Areopagus in order to proclaim an important truth about God.  There in Athens, surrounded by shrines, altars, and hand-crafted sculptures of deities, Paul challenged the idolatry that he witnessed.  It seemed that every aspect of life had its own god or goddess that required homage – and payment, which ultimately benefited the makers and keepers of those idols.  They even had an altar to a nameless god, in essence, recognizing the mystery of whatever unknown deity might be out there.

But Paul pointed out that the god whom they called “unknown” was, in fact, fully knowable through the heavens and earth that God created, and through the very breath of life.

One of the ways this passage in Acts can connect our faith with God’s Creation is by heeding its warning not to be fooled by those who construct systems that misdirect our worship away from God.  While the places where we gather to worship are important and necessary, they are not a substitute for encountering the Lord of heaven and earth through heaven and earth itself.  We need only step outside of our buildings to witness the grandeur of God’s Creation.  But we will also see the ways in which we have desecrated it through our idolatry of wealth, relentless acquisition, and self-serving individualism. Turning back to God redirects our attention toward honoring God through honoring “the world and everything in it.”

John 14:15-16

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

When Jesus used the word “love” in this farewell speech to his disciples, he was not talking about a romantic kind of love, or the type of love between friends or family. In Greek, the word is agape, and it means to love in a moral or ethical sense. Agape love is unconditional, sacrificial, and selfless.  Jesus is clear that following the commandments to love God and love neighbor are the way to love him.  It means seeking the good of the community and the flourishing of everyone instead of focusing only on one’s desires.

The earth is the Lord’s, Psalm 24. Photo by Leah D. Schade. All rights reserved.

Agape love for Earth

As our planet and human communities continue to suffer from pollution, climate change, and violence toward Earth and each other, it becomes more and more obvious that the only way to avoid catastrophe is to practice agape love. This love will compel us to protect fragile ecosystems that ensure life on this planet can continue. This love will sacrifice short-term profit in order to ensure long-term survival of our species.  And agape love will seek the good of both humanity and our Earth kin, realizing that our lives are inextricably bound together.

Fortunately, Jesus promised that  this seemingly impossible requirement of selfless love comes with a promise of divine presence to create this flourishing.  In Greek, the word for this presence is paraclete.  Sometimes translated as “comforter,” or “advocate,” the Paraclete is another way to understand the Spirit named in the next verse. As Christians, we can trust that the Spirit comes alongside us as we come alongside others in our advocacy for climate and environmental justice, restoration, healing, and reparations.

1 Eco-Idea

The Eco-Idea is one succinct statement that tells us who God is and/or what God does in relation to Creation and how we should respond as people of faith.

Knowing and loving God means knowing and loving God’s Creation and leads to advocacy to protect this fragile yet magnificent planet.

2 Eco-Questions

Eco-Questions are what we can ask to help a congregation draw out the implications of the Eco-Exegesis and Eco-Idea. 

  1. Where do you experience the presence of God in Creation? Invite the congregation to think about a place where they felt a connection between nature and the Divine and then to share that with each other.  How did that place convey a sense of wonder, awe, majesty, simplicity, or complexity. In what ways did that place help you to feel at home in the world?
  2. What does love look like in our relationships with our Earth kin? Does it mean to pay close attention with our eyes, ears, taste buds, skin, and hearts?  Or to protect fragile ecosystems as they are supporting life on this planet?  Does it look like introducing a child to the natural world and cultivating love and respect for the processes of life?

3 Eco-Actions

Eco-Actions are ways that a congregation might respond to the Eco-Idea and Eco-Questions.  One of these possibilities may have salience for your ministry context.

Bible eco-infographic available from Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development
  1. Preach and share stories of faith leaders who engage in the public square to advocate for protecting Earth, communities, and human health. The book Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, edited by Leah D. Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, has 21 chapters by spiritual leaders doing this work.  Check out the chapters by Rabbi Mordechai Leibling, Green Muslims founder Huda Alkaff, Quaker activist Jay O’Hara, public health advocate Natasha DeJarnett, and youth climate activist Kiran Oommen for examples of faith in action.
  2. Plan an ecumenical or interfaith book study with the edited volume, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. The 58 short essays are divided into eight sections with themes such as “advocate,” “persist,” “feel,” “nourish,” and “rise.” At the end of the study, plan one action your group can do together to live out your faith in the midst of God’s Creation.
  3. Order Bible Eco Infographics to display in your church. The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) has developed seven attractive infographics on the Bible and ecology. The infographics help viewers visually understand Bible-ecological concepts in relation to biodiversity, animal welfare, food, and trees. The infographics are available for purchase as large ecologically-printed posters.  With increasing environmental concern within faith communities around the world, these Bible eco-infographics represent an innovative way to convey biblical ecological teachings. To order the infographics click here.

Read also

Rebuilding the Temple . . . of Earth: EcoPreacher Guest Sermon

17 Ways to be an EcoPreacher and Help Heal Our Planet

Touching the Wounds of Our Planet: Thomas and Our Eco-Spiritual Crisis

EcoPreacher 1-2-3 is a partnership between the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, publishers of Eco Bible, a Jewish ecological commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures.  EcoPreacher 1-2-3 provides Creation-centered sermon preparation that is short, accessible, and based on a solid biblical foundation. To see other EcoPreacher ideas and to sign up to receive future EcoPreacher 1-2-3 installments, click here.


Leah D. Schade with book, Rooted and Rising

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own.  She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her newest book is Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation, co-authored with Jerry L. Sumney and Emily Askew (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

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