Acts 17:16-31–Fumbling for God

Acts 17:16-31
May 15, 2022
Joanna Harader

I am of an age now where I need reading glasses. Usually there is a pair sitting nearby for me to grab when I need to read something. But occasionally I can’t find my glasses and I wander and look and move things around only to discover that they have been sitting on my head the whole time.

Even more humbling is when I am talking to someone on the phone and need to confirm a date so go tearing through the house looking for my phone . . . which I am holding.

In this speech that Paul gives at the Areopagus in Athens, he says that the people “would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”

I don’t intend to equate God with a cell phone or glasses, but merely to help us think about that frustration—yet also comfort–of knowing that something you are frantically searching for was actually right there with you the whole time.

This morning’s scripture reading is a fairly long passage, I know. And out of all of it, I’m caught by this verse 27, and especially intrigued by this verb, in the Greek, psēlaphaō, which seems to be somewhat difficult to translate into English. In different translations it’s presented as “feel after,” or “feel their way toward,” or “reach out.” The updated edition of the NRSV translates this as: “perhaps fumble about for God.” That’s actually my favorite translation. To “fumble about for God.”

The writer of Acts uses this verb only one other time. It is in the Gospel of Luke when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples:
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39)

The writer of Luke and Acts is intent on expressing the materiality of God in the physical person of Jesus, the physical resurrection of Jesus. The body of Jesus is something that can be touched, groped, reached out to, fumbled around on. That is a very intimate and somewhat graphic invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples—to touch him. Not just a little tap, but to really explore, examine, feel the body to touch and feel and know that it is a physical body and not a ghost.

The very being of God is something we can fumble about for, that we can try, in our imprecise and clumsy ways, to feel and to figure out. In thinking about this particular line from this week’s scripture, I’ve been considering the ways that we fumble about for God.

I remember that when I was in middle school I was very big into Jesus paraphernalia. I had the Jesus pencils and the Jesus t-shirts. I would think that “maybe I’ll loan someone my Jesus pencil and they will read that Jesus loves them on my pencil and be saved.” Or I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought, but my adolescent fumbling around included a lot of Jesusy stuff. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not where I am now, but it was part of my reaching and groping and searching.

The whole idea of my fumbling about makes me think of the poet Emily Dickinson. She did not participate in religious life of her day the way that was expected of her. It was quite a scandal that she refused to formally join the church. And much of her poetry expresses her fumbling about for God, her wrestling with these ideas of what it means to connect with God.

One of my favorite poems—which is probably not a good one to share with a bunch of people who showed up in church—but it is still one of my favorites:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

We grope, we fumble, we try to figure out what it means to connect with God. I’ve been thinking about how we fumble around today at Peace Mennonite Church. We worship. Many of us worship in the manner that Dickinson speaks of—we appreciate the glory of God in nature. We also worship by coming to worship services here together (or on Zoom). We have work days, volunteer around the church; we share our food (and toilet paper) with those in need; we work for justice, we come together as a community; we read, we enjoy music, we appreciate art.

Of course, none of these are bad things—I would argue they are all good. I would also argue, along with Paul, that God does not, in fact, need any of this from us; God doesn’t need anything from us. God is close to us regardless of how much we might fumble around.

(The glasses are on our head, waiting for us to notice that they’re there.)

Notice, too, that all of this fumbling after God is not unique to Paul’s community—to the Jewish people and, in particular, those who had begun to follow Jesus. All of these elite Greeks in Athens that Paul is talking to, these Greeks with their shrines and statues—they are also fumbling around for the divine.

And, they also have a sense that the divine is, in reality, very close. In speaking to the Athenians, just a little later in this speech, Paul actually quotes famous Greek poets. This line: “In God we live and move and have our being.” And this idea that we are “God’s offspring.” These are ideas lifted directly from Greek poets. Not Jewish scholars or Hebrew scripture. Greek poets. “In God we live and move and have our being.”

This intimate nearness of God is something people of many faiths understand and experience. As is our fumbling around to make that divine/human connection.

What Paul wants to do here is explain how, for him, that nearness of God that so many people know to be true is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. How those who fumble around for God need only to reach out and touch Jesus’ resurrected body.

Now up to this last point, Paul’s Greek audience was probably with him—they could agree that God doesn’t need human beings, that God is intimately close, that we humans fumble around. There’s not a whole lot for the stoics and epicureans and others to argue with there, really. But this resurrection of the body thing? That’s pushing it.

For some reason, the designated reading for this week leaves off the end of chapter 17 here, which tells us how people reacted to Paul’s message:

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Some scoff. Some are curious, but unconvinced. A few join Paul and become believers. Considering some of the other stories in Acts, where thousands are baptized, this result seems somewhat anticlimactic. But it also seems about right.

The fumbling continues, for all of us. I suppose we can decide what direction we fumble toward and who we fumble around with. But we all, children of God that we are, reach out, feel our way toward, grope, fumble in our pursuit of God.

And yet, God is not far. In fact, God is the One within whom we live and move and have our being. Not only the One we search for, but also the One we search within, invited to reach out and touch the very essence of the divine.

Thanks be to God.