1 Peter 3:13-22
My daughters’ high school offered a senior honors elective called “The Search for Meaning in Western Literature.” Students read a wide range of things, including – though this was a public school – parts of the Bible, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Every week they had to write an essay. One week it was on the search for meaning in what they were reading. The next it was on the search for meaning in their own lives. I’ve always thought this was the ideal high school course; adolescence is a time of searching for identity, for meaning. Teenagers ask, who are we, what is the world about, what is our place in it? For that matter, so do we adults. In our hearts, if we admit it, we are all of us adolescents all our lives; humans are created, it seems, to search for meaning.
I bring up that course first of all because we have guests this morning from Bishop Brady High School, here to talk about their school. The great advantage of a school like Brady, as I see it, is that religion – which is all about the search for meaning – is not off limits. In building the absolute wall we have between Church and State we have impoverished public education. There is no way that churches, which have at best only an hour or so a week of people’s time, can make up for what has been lost in the over-secularization of education. Good Church-affiliated schools like Brady do not indoctrinate; they do not deny the findings of science or cover over the evils done in the name of religion in history. But they recognize that formation of our youth is incomplete without including the dimensions of meaning that religion addresses. So that’s the first reason for mentioning that high school class.
The second is that the readings we have this morning put us right in the middle of this business of searching for meaning in life, and speak to us of the difference between false meanings – meanings that fail to do the job – and true meanings, meanings that complete us as human persons: to use a religious word, meanings that “save” us.
So what am I talking about? In the passage from Acts, that history of the first generation of Christianity, St. Paul is in Athens. Athens was the center of classical civilization and learning in the time of Jesus. The sages and philosophers of Athens had searched for meaning for a thousand years, producing Plato and Aristotle and the rich art and stories of Greek mythology. Paul, a sophisticated Greek-speaking Jew, had been walking around the city, admiring the many temples to this god and that. The Greeks and Romans had gods for everything – war and peace, wisdom and love, the arts, agriculture, the sea. And Paul was especially struck by an altar he sees, inscribed “to an unknown god.”
Now what is that about? Why is it important to our own search for meaning? Well, you see, if all one’s gods are “named gods,” gods for this or that aspect of our own desires, attempts by us to design meaning for ourselves – then the whole search for meaning is revealed as circular. It all comes back to us. All our gods are just projections of our hopes and dreams; in the end we’re all alone, and our search for meaning is shown up to be meaningless. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. Gods of our own manufacture cannot save us, because in the end they are just us.
But the Greeks were not fools. They knew this, which is why they turned to philosophy for meaning, not the religion of their mythological gods, which was really just a civic cult – like holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving: serving a purpose, but not an ultimate purpose, a saving purpose. Hence the poignancy of their altar “to an unknown god” – an altar to the hope that there was a God beyond the gods who might yet give them true meaning for their lives.
It is this God, St. Paul proclaims to the Athenians, that he has come to tell them about. Now this God, of course, is the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ; the God of the Holy Trinity: God the Creator, God who died and rose for us in Jesus the Christ, God the Holy Spirit who working in our lives and our world leads us deeper and deeper into true meaning, meaning beyond us, meaning that saves us.
Notice how this God – in St. Paul’s description of him to the Athenians, and then in the passage from St. Peter and the gospel – how this God reverses what we might call the direction of meaning, so that meaning flows from him to us, rather than being a projection or an idol-making by us. God created us, Paul says: we do not create God. Jesus died and rose to save us: we cannot save ourselves. The Spirit of Truth, St. John’s gospel says, is sent to us; we do not manufacture truth.
We are so used, in our secular society, to putting ourselves at the center, making ourselves the starting point, that this seems strange to us. To get our heads around it takes some serious questioning. It is a mystical concept – dependent not on laboratory tests or proofs, but on things like worship and sacraments and prayer. Things like abiding in love, accepting faith as a gift, living that gift out and passing that gift on. In the end it means coming to the realization that it is not really we who are searching for meaning, but Meaning (with a capital M) who is searching for us. That it is Meaning who has searched us out and found us, in the love of Jesus Christ.
Well, to that I would just add one footnote. No religion, no Church, no authority has a final lock on Meaning, on God. The revelation of which Jesus speaks in the gospel this morning is an on-going process, a living process. Together in community we do our best to embody this Truth, but in the end there is always a dimension of the Unknown in true religion. To claim otherwise is idolatry, the sure death and dead end of our search.