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To Know God

Sermon – 5/08/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 17:1-5

The scripture for our reflection this morning is from the 17th chapter of John's gospel, verses 1 through 5, as this prayer of Jesus comes after his final words of instruction to his disciples and before his arrest:  

1After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’

 

Have you ever had that experience of entering into a place and having a sense, a feeling, of the presence of God?  Do you know what I'm talking about?  Judy and I were in Edinburgh in the spring of 1998, attending the annual assembly of the church of Scotland.  I was one of three North American delegates, part of a larger international delegation that the church of Scotland has there every year to give witness to the global unity of the church.  It was fascinating to see how that church of our own ancestral heritage, because we come out of Scottish Presbyterianism, so it was a look back into the past of sorts.  To witness this church conduct its business, much like our church will in Portland this summer (at the general assembly), except they do it with a whole lot more pomp and circumstance and fanfare, ancient traditions, wigs in the English jurist style, and robes, just an incredible thing to witness.

We were staying at a bed and breakfast about a mile away from where we were gathered, in a seminary of the Scottish church.  Beautiful walk through old Edinburgh, with that great old castle looming above us.  And I had a chance to explore the city a little bit and discovered a cathedral off the beaten path, not too far from where we were staying, it was not one of the historic cathedrals that's on everybody's "must see" list, it was just your average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill cathedral.  Keep in mind our entire building could easily fit inside of this vast building.  I thought it would be interesting to go and see what this more 'average' cathedral was like.  And immediately when I walked in to the cathedral, I was filled with a reverence, as that vast interior space did what it was designed to do -- drew my eyes upward above the ornate altar, beautiful stained glass windows and that colored light filtering through, rainbow of color on the gray stone pillars.  Very inspiring and uplifting, just the sight of it.

And there was something oddly familiar about it.  As soon as I walked in -- it wasn't as if I'd been there but it was as if I had seen it before.  And it wasn't just that the nave of the church was built in that very traditional European cathedral style -- long, stone, high, but that I had seen it.  As I looked over the space, I noticed over to the left this painting.  This painting -- the painting by A.E. Borthwick entitled "The Presence".  It's of an old European cathedral, and when I saw this painting (much bigger in real life) I immediately recognized that it was a painting of that church.  And I was standing in the very place depicted in this painting.  And in this painting (I know you can't see it well from there, so I invite you afterwards to come up maybe and ponder a little bit or even better yet, during the week just to stop in some time and spend some time in contemplation here) but it depicts the congregation at the front, near that very ornate altar, a group of people and the vast empty space behind them, obviously not an American church because they'd all be seated in the back J.  And a few scattered people in the pews back there, the back pews are all empty, and there is a woman kneeling in prayer, head down, very low, you have the sense of maybe some despair.  And then, of course here, the image of Jesus approaching her with his hand outstretched as he walks toward her.

Never mind that very traditional European looking Jesus with blond hair and I'm sure if you could see his eyes they'd be blue, but the painting carries a lot of power and even more so in person when you stand in that very spot.  It's not particularly great art, and this is not a great reproduction, but it captures the essence in the image that I want to communicate with words.

If we teach you everything there is to know about Jesus, about God, about scripture, and that's it, we will have failed as a church.  We will have failed.  Because Christian faith is not about 'about'.  It's about knowing God, not knowing about God.  Do you understand the difference?

We know a lot about the President of the United States, hopefully we knew enough to vote for or against him, but how many people can say they really know George W. Bush?  No one here.  You see there's a difference between knowing something about someone, and knowing someone, isn't there?  And there are lots of people who know about Jesus, including Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims -- they know about Jesus.  To be a Christian isn't knowing about Jesus, it's being in relationship with Jesus.  To know him.  And that's why the number one metaphor used by Paul for describing the way of Christian life is to be "in Christ'.  Which implies that knowing Jesus in a more intimate way, from the inside, if you will.  

And later on in this prayer of Jesus, in John 17, Jesus says "Praise to God, as you are in me and I am in you, may they (referring to the followers of Jesus) also be in us".  And I'm not always sure what to do with this rather mystical language of John's gospel that does not appear in any of the other three gospels.  Except that it calls us to know God as intimately as Jesus did.  Not just to know about God.  And knowing God in this way is so incredible that John tells us here in this prayer of Jesus that to know God is eternal life.  It's not that if you believe the right things about God that you will receive eternal life some day, but rather that if you know God today you already are participating in this eternal life.

And what gives this text even more power is to know that John is not writing some theory, some theology, about all of this -- he's writing from his own experience, from the experience of the community as they experienced God in and through Jesus. 

You know we're doing an assessment of our Christian education program, and we invited people to fill out a little survey, and we're pleased to note that over 90% of you said that you are able to articulate and share your belief about God and Jesus.  That's pretty good.  The figures dropped a little bit when it got to Holy Spirit -- 75% or so, we're not as good at spirit as we are with God and Jesus, and that's typical of Disciples [of Christ].  As we evaluate and make adjustments to our Christian education program to match the needs with the resources, there's one thing I expect will not change in the overall goal or purpose of our Christian education, and that is that our purpose is not to teach children about God, our purpose is to teach children to know God.

And to do that, we need adult volunteers who know God.  And that means that we as a church need to seek to know God.  And I honestly have to tell you I can't teach you how to do that.  I can no more teach you how to know God than I can teach you how to know your mother.  It's something you have to experience.

How can one know that which by definition is unknowable?  In the Muslim tradition there are 100 names for God, of which they know 99.  But there is one that always remains unknown, you see.  Seeking to know God is like trying to figure out what was in the world, the universe, before the universe was created.  Before the Big Bang -- what was there?  Or if you travel on a spaceship out beyond the furthest galaxy, to the very edges of the universe, what then will you find?  I get a headache just even trying to think about such things.

That's how vast and great God is.  How can we know God?  What we can do is to teach some of the different ways of knowing God, or how others have come to know God.  It's not about knowing facts.  It's more about having experience, to have a sense of God's presence.  To know that we are not alone.  And I have to say, on Mother's Day especially, now in this stage of my life I have probably more sense of my mother's presence in my life now that she's gone from us than I ever have.  And the same would be true of God, to have that sense of that presence that is with us at all times.

So how do we find that presence?  Or does it find us?  And in that painting of Borthwick you will notice that it is Jesus who is approaching the woman in prayer.  And so we get the sense that maybe Jesus is the one who initiates that encounter.  But also note that the woman is in church.  She's in prayer.  Now don't 'literalize' the painting, the same as I would say don't literalize the text.  In church is not the only place where we find God, is it?  But I think the point the artist is in part trying to convey to us is that coming to know God, to have that kind of intimate relationship, comes out of a way of life, and being in church and being in prayer is a symbol.

So with that in mind, I just want to give you my five keys for knowing God.  I'm not teaching you how to know God, but just 5 keys or ways that can help us to have that experience.  Those familiar with Disciples history will know that Walter Scott had his 5 finger exercise, right, that he taught the little children the way to salvation so that they would go home and tell their parents and everyone would come to the revival meeting.  Well here's my 5 finger exercise for the keys to knowing God.

First of all, stick out your thumb, what does that mean?  To go the way of Jesus.  Go the way of Jesus.

Secondly, you've got to study scripture.  You've got to know your scripture.

Third, what does 3 stand for?  Trinity -- God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  So the spirit, spiritual discipline, prayer, and contemplation.

Fourth, well, what do I have on that finger?  That's my ring finger.  That's my wedding band.  The way of love.  We talked about that last Sunday, the new commandment Jesus gave us -- "to love one another as I have loved you".

And fifth, to open your hand, you have to be in a giving mode.  Outreach, giving to one another.  The offerings that we give of ourselves is a symbol of that larger giving that we are asked to give of our whole selves to God.

So, the way of Jesus, study scripture, spiritual disciplines (prayer), the way of love, giving of ourselves.  These are the 5 keys that at least I find helpful in coming to know God in my own life.

I want to take you back to the church of Scotland and to Edinburgh.  Judy and I were eating at a restaurant on Thursday night that week when we heard on the television set somewhere in the restaurant "Springfield Oregon".  We're in Edinburgh Scotland, and they're talking about Springfield Oregon in the news -- we knew it could not be good.  We didn't hear what it was but we had a sense that we needed to find out.  We finished eating quickly and went back to our room and we called home.  That's when we learned about Kip Kinkel at Thurston High School.  And I have to tell you the feeling that we had, fear, and afraid for the safety of our children.  Not the physical safety, they were with Grandma, my mother, we knew they were safe.  But for emotional safety, and our desire to be with them in this time of tragedy in our community.

The next morning I approached the moderator of the assembly and asked if I couldn't say a word.  I told him I live in this little community that's in the shadows of Springfield.  And so he said, well yes, of course, we'd love to have you.  And so I spoke to the thousand delegates there in the Scottish church assembly.  And I asked for their prayers--their prayers for our community, for this high school, for this church, for the people in this church that I knew had students there and friends at that high school.  And I recounted to them some of the horrors of which we had been living in the last year's prior to that, several school shootings and the kind of gun violence in which our culture has been steeped, and the number of deaths that have resulted.  I mentioned the fact that the following year that Scotland was going to have a parliament for the first time in 300 years.  They would have their own parliament, and it was going to meet in that very assembly hall where the church of Scotland was meeting, and so they were going to have to move their meeting next year.  I said:  "Please, use this new power of your parliament to protect your children above all else".

Well, the newspapers were covering the event and reported the next day that the Reverend Bryant broke down and wept in front of the assembly.  It wasn't true, it was a tabloid, they were trying to make this American look bad J.  Do I ever cry in front of people?!  I got a little choked up, OK?  I couldn't talk.

But when I went and sat down, someone passed me a note, a delegate from Dunblane, and said you must come to our community and visit us after the assembly.  We had been planning to go to Dunblane.  Ronald Osborn told us 'you must go to Dunblane'.  And now all these people at this assembly were saying to us "you must go to Dunblane".  What's in Dunblane?

We went there to visit this sleepy little village.  Not a large town, very small town.  And we learned that it was in Dunblane, just 2 years before, that a crazed man had walked into a school with two automatic pistols and killed 16 kindergartner's and their teacher.  We went to the Scottish churches house -- an ecumenical institute that has a library dedicated to a Disciple of Christ pastor who was a known ecumenist in Scotland.  We learned that it was there in that house where they gathered the families affected by that tragedy.  For every week they were still meeting, now 2 years later.  Coming together in support, to share together, to support one another in recovering and healing from that tragedy.  

On our way out, we stopped by the cemetery -- and old cemetery, we walked up the hill through tombstones two and three centuries old to a new portion of the cemetery where there was a fountain in a semi-circle of tombstones.  We walked past, and we looked at each one.  The names, the versus, the things that parents remembered about their child.  Pictures of little teddy bears and toys.  And the last tombstone larger than all the rest  for the teacher who tried in vain to save her children, now laid at rest with them forever.  

And there was a bench by the fountain there where we sat.  It was there that I broke down and wept.  And I remember the sounds of the hushed voices from other visitors mingled with the rippling water of the fountain.  And I looked back on that event 7 years ago.  Seven years ago this May.  A lot has happened in my own life.  My children, born in the same years as many of those children of Dunblane, have grown up into beautiful young people. And this is the one thing that I remember -- how that is a sacred place.  My wife remembers that it wasn't just the place, it was the people.  The reaction of all those people at the assembly and in Dunblane to us when we told them we were from Springfield Oregon, and they immediately connected to us and they understood our anguish and our pain.  And they supported us in the most incredible way.  

The thing I remember about that place is that it was one of those when you enter you feel in that place a presence.  The presence of God that comforts you in times of sorrow and grief.  As Jesus says earlier 'I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you'.  I felt that presence in Dunblane.  The presence that brings people together in times of tragedy for support and healing as it did at the Scottish churches house, as it did at that fence in front of Thurston, as it does in the Interfaith services here.  I felt that presence in Dunblane.  The presence that moves people from despair to anger.  And from anger to action.  And from action to change for the common good.  And in Dunblane I learned how that community rallied to change the laws of Great Britain to make it impossible for anyone to own that kind of automatic pistol in their country again.  

I felt that presence in Dunblane.  The presence that in death affirms the beauty and wonder and special-ness of life.  And fills you with hope that the good will triumph over the evil.  That love is stronger than death.  That life in God is greater than death.

To know this presence is to know God.  Sitting there on that bench, where the ripples of the water mingle with the whispers of children playing in a schoolyard in a distant time, I felt that presence.  

This, said Jesus, this is eternal life.

 


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