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:
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
about knowing God, not knowing about God. Do you understand the
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
of all, stick out your thumb, what does that mean? To go the way
of Jesus. Go the way of Jesus.
you've got to study scripture. You've got to know your scripture.
what does 3 stand for? Trinity -- God, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. So the spirit, spiritual discipline, prayer, and
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
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
said Jesus, this is eternal life.