Knowing God is Eternal Life – a sermon

Audio is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

As a child of the 1980s, one of my favorite cartoons of all time is still the short lived G.I. Joe series.  Running for only ninety-five episodes over two years from 1985 to 1986[1], I still have vivid memories of the battles between the good guys of G.I. Joe and the bad guys of Cobra, “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”  I’d sit on the carpet in front of the television with my action figures of Flint, Shipwreck, Duke, Sargent Slaughter and their nemesis, Cobra Commander, and live out the episode using blocks and whatever G.I. Joe vehicle I had at my disposal.  What I remember most about those old episodes however, aren’t the battle sequences or the cool toys, but the tag line from the National Child Safety Council’s Public Service Announcements that ended many episodes, “Now I know!  And knowing is half the battle.”

There was some good, lifesaving information in those PSAs, things that every kid should know.  It was through G.I. Joe that I learned that if there was a fire in my house, I should check if the door knob was hot before leaving my bedroom, or to never get in an old refrigerator, or to pinch my nose and lean forward when I get a bloody nose or that girls could skateboard just as well as boys.[2]  As I’ve gotten older and presumably a little wiser, however, I’ve come to realize that knowing is a lot more than half the battle.  In fact, this week we come to learn that knowledge is eternal life.

For the third straight week, we find ourselves listening in on Jesus’ final conversation with is disciples.  We are still in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion, but now Jesus has finished his concluding instructions and has begun his high priestly prayer.  Like so many prayers that happen in a public forum, this one is part earnest conversation with the Father in heaven and part sermon for the people who are listening in.  Jesus understands that his death is going to make it hard for his disciples to believe in his claim of eternal life, and so he is very intentional about making it very clear just what eternal life is.  “And this is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

This is, for several reasons, a striking definition of eternal life.  First of all, it comes from the lips of the only human being who really knows what eternal life is like.  For every book and movie ticket sold about “90 Minutes in Heaven” or telling us “Heaven is for Real,” is only Jesus who came to earth having experienced the fullness of eternal life.  Secondly, this version of eternal life has nary a mention of Saint Peter guarding the pearly gates or streets paved with gold, or rivers flowing with milk and honey, or angel choirs singing their unending hymn of “holy, holy, holy.”  Here in ascension week, when we hear the story of Jesus ascending on a cloud from the first century flat earth to the heavens above, it seems very strange to think that for Jesus eternal life has nothing to do with a place, but rather it is about a relationship.

Despite our modern day fascination with heaven as a place to go after we die, the idea that knowing God is eternal life has been affirmed over and over again in the Christian tradition, be it in the prayer written in 1549 that we prayed just two weeks ago, “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life…”[3]

So, if eternal life really is knowing God, then the obvious follow up question is “how do I get to know God?”  It seems to me there are three distinct ways we can come to know the Lord: through study, through service, and through prayer.  The first way to get to know God is through study.  The Bible is the story of God’s interaction with his creation, and so, it stands to reason, that through reading and studying the scriptures, we’ll begin to discover the things that are close to God’s heart: things like justice, compassion, and love.  As we move deeper into study, it becomes important to not become isolated, but to check ourselves against the rich history of the tradition.  Studying what the great theologians have come to know over the centuries can seem daunting, but like that friend who introduced you to a future spouse, sometimes learning what someone else has to say about God can open your eyes to something you had never seen before.  Of course, studying comes with a major caveat.  There is a tendency in study, be it biblical or theological, to get to know an awful lot about God rather that actually getting to know God.  What I’m advocating this morning isn’t the gobbling up of information so that you can recite all sorts of facts about God and win The American Bible Challenge[4], but instead study is about learning everything we can about the things that are important to God.

As we come to learn the things that are in God’s heart, it seems obvious then that we would take part in those things.  The second way to get to know God, then, is through service.  Just last week, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that the Father would reveal himself to those who followed his commandment to love.  We come to know Jesus in a deeper and more meaningful way when we reach out to the world with the love of God.  Whether it is through Meals on Wheels or volunteering at Foley Elementary School or taking a mission trip to Honduras on the Dominican Republic, a deeper knowledge of God is most often found in acts of care and compassion.  This is affirmed in my favorite Collect from Morning Prayer.  The Collect for Mission from Morning Prayer, written by Missionary Bishop Charles Henry Brent who served the people of the Philippines from 1901 until 1918, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you…”[5]

Finally, the third way in which we come to know God is through prayer.  Not the sort of prayer that includes the laundry list of things we’d like God to do for us, but rather the type of prayer that feels more like a conversation with an old friend; prayer that includes a great deal of listening.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this is, for me, the hardest part of getting to know God.  I’m a doer.  My mind is always whirling around with items on my to-do list or sermon ideas or random television trivia, and it is really difficult for me to just stop and listen for that still small voice of God.  Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of ways to chill-out and listen: centering prayer, prayer beads, meditation, and found very little success.  Instead, I’ve found God’s voice is most active when there is silence in the midst of corporate worship.  Those fifteen seconds after the sermon and before the creed that get glossed over at 9 o’clock, I’ve come to know more about God there.  The sometimes interminably long silence before the confession, I’ve come to understand what God desires of me there.  The quiet that follows the distribution of communion, God has revealed himself to me there.  It doesn’t work the same way for everyone, but I’m certain that God will find a way to help you come to know him better through prayer.

“This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “to know God and his Son whom he sent.”  Knowing is a whole lot more than half the battle, it is the whole enchilada, and it is a gift given to us by sheer grace.  Of course, like all relationships, this one takes some work, but I promise you, study, service, and prayer are nothing compared to the glory that is eternal life in God.  Amen.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe#Cartoon

[2] http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/s7x099/all-gi-joe-psas

[3] Collect for Easter 5, note on date from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 182

[4] http://gsntv.com/shows/the-american-bible-challenge/

[5] Third Prayer for Mission, note on date and authorship from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 128.

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