Dear Unknown God

What makes a good friend?

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Acts 17:22-31

What makes a good friend?

Loves, Listens, Kind, Shows Up, Honesty, Reliability, Doesn’t Betray You

Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times.”

What if God’s call to us is to work on making friends?  That’s more like the approach Paul is taking in today’s scripture reading. 

Last Sunday we read about Stephen testifying before the Jewish Council.  His sermon to them is a witness to the resurrection, but it’s confrontive because he’s being accused of blasphemy.  He’s filled with the Holy Spirit as he speaks, but he still ends up being stoned by the Jewish council—And there in the background watching the punishment was Saul. (Acts 7)

Today in Acts 17, Saul has dramatically changed from being a zealous persecutor of Christians to the zealous Christian missionary bringing the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, and more often now using the Greek version of his name—Paul.  He’s had dramatic life-changing encounter with Jesus.

Now that Paul is a friend and follower of Jesus, he’s passionate about telling everyone. He’s been to cities all around the northern Mediterranean telling about Jesus’ resurrection, and now he is in Athens. Not surprisingly, this draws attention and so Paul has been asked to speak before a council.  This time, instead of a Jewish council, Paul is speaking to a Greek council.  But these Greeks know nothing about Jewish history or Jewish scripture, and nothing about God.  They study Greek philosophy, and they have altars and temples throughout the city built to honor their gods.

Paul doesn’t jump right to preaching.  He has discussions with the Jews and other like-minded people at their meeting place, the synagogue. And every day he goes out on the streets and talks with anyone who happens along. He gets to know some of the Epicurean and Stoic intellectuals through these conversations, and that’s what gets him invited to speak at the Areopagus.

During Paul’s exploring he found a shrine that said, “to the god nobody knows.”  And so Paul begins his speech at the Areopagus by noting that the Greeks were very religious, and indeed they were.  They had many gods.  But the Greek gods were quite different from our God.  They believed their gods required appeasement.  Each god had influence in different areas of life, and to make sure things went well in that area, they made an offering to pacify that area’s god.  The offering was purely given to keep that god happy, because an angry god would not let the harvest go well, or the business venture succeed, or the home life be peaceful.  They had no concept of a god who was loving and forgiving, or of the idea of having an ongoing relationship with a god.

So Paul tells them about the one true God who created everything, who gives us everything, and doesn’t require appeasement. Paul speaks in terms that these people will recognize.  Although he is conveying Biblical ideas, he doesn’t quote scripture.  Instead he connects with their existing understanding and explains how God is more than an object to be worshiped.  He is “not a what but a whom[1] who created the world and everything in it, and who has no need of anything we can offer. 

Paul further explains that God calls us all to change how we think and live, so that God is not unknown but known, and that’s why God sent a man to show us the way. To prove all this, God raised this man from the dead.  This doesn’t sound quite like we’re used to hearing Jesus explained, but Paul knew they wouldn’t understand as well if he expected them to know what they didn’t know. And although many scoffed, some of those listening that day believed and began to follow Paul to learn more about Jesus. (Acts 17:34)

But not everything Paul demonstrates is good for us to do in 2023.  Paul adjusts for their culture, but he is also dismissive of their worship practices and assumes an air of superiority. 

“One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past.” (Acts 17:29-30)

Even though Paul is standing in a place of higher learning, it seems in some of what he says that he’s calling his listeners ignorant.  Over the last 2000 years, Christians who assumed that non-Christians were inferior human beings have done a lot of damage, and many people have been killed or enslaved or ostracized.  So we would do well to remember Peter’s words:

If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Paul makes an important point about the value of every person earlier in his speech. In verse 26, he says:

Starting from scratch, [God] made the entire human race (MSG)

From one ancestor [God] made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth (NRSV)

That verse has been used in countless arguments against racism.

Benjamin Banneker (1731– 1806) was an African American freeperson and one third of the team who surveyed and planned Washington, DC. He also published an almanac that included calendars and astronomical data, and you can get one on Amazon!  He used Acts 17:26 as evidence of the intellect and character of other African Americans in his arguments against the dangerous rhetoric of black inferiority being used by then– secretary of state Thomas Jefferson.

Frederick Douglass also used Acts 17:26 to appeal to the conscience of white Christians in his abolitionist papers and speeches. “For Banneker and other blacks, it was not enough to hold a particular idea to be true, but especially for Christians, those who hold the Bible as authoritative, that conviction should compel or motivate [us] to action.”[2]

The kind of friendship we are called to, that we see in Jesus, transcends hierarchy and privilege. That’s part of why Paul says that God is calling us to a “radical life change.”  He says God has given us “plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him…he’s not remote, he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him!” (Acts 17:26-28)

Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit who lives in us, filling us with God’s love.  That’s what drives Paul and inspires us as well.

“For Christ’s love compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14)

Jesus talked about this love on his last night with his disciples before he was arrested.  He said:

“If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth.” (John 14:15-16)

The Holy Spirit is our friend. Doing what he told us means loving God and our neighbors. Jesus himself showed us what it that looks like.  I love how theology professor Shirley Guthrie describes how we see the Holy Spirit in Jesus:

  • He went to parties, ate and drank, and had a good time.
  • He talked more about what people did with their money than about their sexual purity and was as interested in the health of their bodies as in their souls.
  • Jesus was the friend and companion not just of the morally pure and pious but of immoral, unbelieving sinners.
  • He defended the cause of those who were rejected and despised by polite society and the religious and political establishment.
  • He believed that human need takes precedence over strict conformity to the law.
  • He came to serve other people, not to assert his moral and religious superiority over them.
  • He loved his enemies and did good to those who hated him.
  • He trusted and served the God he called Father even when it did not pay off in personal success and happiness, even when it meant giving up his own life for unworthy, no-good sinners.
  • He prayed even when everything he had worked and hoped for was denied him and he felt forsaken by God. That is the kind of life that is the result of God’s Holy Spirit coming to dwell in a person.”[3]

For us, the work of the Holy Spirit might be stronger in some seasons of our life than others, but we can always count on Jesus to be our best friend, and through Jesus, God is also our friend. Romans 5 says:

For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:10-11)

What gets in the way of friendship?  What makes it hard to connect with people and with God?

Shyness, introversion, and social anxiety. Fear. Depression. Hate.

When we are not doing well, whether it’s emotional or physical, we have a hard connecting with people and with God and Jesus, and we have a hard time believing that anyone loves us, even God.

Loneliness has become such an epidemic that the US Surgeon General has published a report: “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.”[4] According to the data in this report, the highest rates of loneliness are found in older adults and young adults, those with lower incomes, and those with physical or mental health challenges.

Churches and community organizations used to be the main connecting points because that’s how our culture was. Many people have become disillusioned with institutions, partly because they experienced abuse or bullying or toxic behavior.  But church can be a community in which to find the healing effects of social connection.  We are called to build connections and community. We are sent out into the world to share God’s love.

Create opportunities for social connection.

  • Worship is one of those, but Sunday morning is not possible for everyone. And for some, it’s harder to connect in a larger group.  What if we had some alternate worship opportunities?
  • The advent of air-conditioning and social media has changed the way we meet people.  We’re inside and online. But what if we had more benches outside where people could stop and talk and get to know one another?

Embed social connection in organizational policies

  • What if we required everyone to bring a friend?

Actively seek to build partnerships

  • We tend to build silos instead of partnerships, but those of you who are engaged in different groups and organizations can be ambassadors of connecting the church.

All that sounds hard.  It is hard.  But sometimes it’s also very simple.


Diana Butler Bass, in her book Freeing Jesus explains it well.  She says:

“In August 2019, at the beginning of the school year in the United States, a photo showing two little boys holding hands went viral. Conner, an autistic boy entering the second grade, was going to school alone for the first time. Although the bus trip went well, when he arrived at the school, he froze with fear and started to cry; he hid in a corner, unable to walk into the building. Christian, another boy, saw Conner and went to comfort him. Then he took Conner by the hand and led him inside the building.

“He found me and held my hand, and I got happy tears,” Conner later told a reporter when asked about Christian. “He was kind to me. I was in the first day of school, and I started crying. Then he helped me, and I was happy.” Conner’s mother said, “Christian is Conner’s first real friend.” And Christian’s mother explained, “They have an inseparable bond.”

Butler says that, “Like millions of others who saw the photograph and read this story, I felt verklempt, unable to hold back small tears of joy. I also laughed—because who would believe it without a picture? A white boy named Conner huddled in a corner, a Black boy named Christian—Christian!—reaching out to help him. It was an updated American parable, a rewrite of The Pilgrim’s Progress for an age of racial anxiety and political division.

As I looked at the photograph, it seemed an icon for these days, a Jesus tenderly leading a frightened boy toward a new world. “This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you. . . . You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12–14). I am not sure if I ever knew what to make of those words of Jesus: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It all sounded so conditional. What kind of friendship was that? The story of Conner and Christian clarified it, though. Friendship is contingent on love—real love: compassion, empathy, reaching out, going beyond what we imagine is possible. That is the command: love. And if we reach out in love, friendship is the result, even friendship with God.[6]

Thanks, God

Cover photo by Anna Kurmaeva on Unsplash


[2] Bridgett A. Green in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, Carolyn J. Sharp. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 275). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Guthrie Jr., Shirley C.; Guthrie Jr., Shirley C.. Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (pp. 294-295). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.


[5] Courtney Coko Moore/Facebook

[6] Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus (pp. 12-14). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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