Perfect Knowledge

If you have ever watched the Big Bang Theory, you are familiar with the character named Sheldon Cooper, a Caltech theoretical physicist who is extraordinarily annoying if for no other reason than he is aware of the breadth of his knowledge.

Sheldon may be the quintessential know it all, which makes his character a wonderful comedic foil. But his character also reminds us that it is not only knowledge that defines us.

An equally essential aspect of Sheldon’s personality is his lack of awareness of social cues. He struggles with relationships as he grapples to balance his aptitudes and his insufficiencies. But like many of us, Sheldon prefers to focus on what he knows rather than address his shortcomings.

There is something instinctive about our quest for knowledge. All we have to do is observe how babies interact with the world around them, or to hear from the mouths of toddlers the seemingly incessant question of why. From these observations alone, we can see that we have a natural appetite for knowledge. Consider also our biblical text. The first story of the Bible is an explanation of the origin of existence, our own big bang theory if you will. And the second story of the Bible is another creation story; yet at the center of this story is the issue of knowledge – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this narrative it is our desire for knowledge that becomes the stumbling block in our relationship with the Creator.

So what on earth does this have to do with this last Sunday of Easter, this season of Resurrection, and the formation of disciples? Well, as we watched Jesus ascend into heaven four days ago we still had questions to which we were seeking answers such as, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It seems, at least in this circumstance, that our quest for knowledge is as much about clarity or certainty as it is about curiosity. We either want our expectations fulfilled so we can be proved right, or we want to be relieved of our anxiety. In either case, these are not of their own accord worthy objectives because they are self-centered.

Just as eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not life giving and to be avoided, Jesus redirects our desire from knowledge for our own sake to action for the community’s sake. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”[1]

But why this redirection? Well, just as God knew from the beginning that our quest for knowledge would impair our relationship with our Creator, Jesus knows that our fixation on knowledge for our own sake will impair our relationship with him as well.

Fortunately the promise of the power of the Holy Spirit seems to be enough for the disciples because as they return to Jerusalem they devote themselves to prayer as a community, just Jesus has taught them. Prayer that prioritizes our relationship with God, the sufficiency of his daily gifts, and loving others as we are loved.

Such common prayer leads us to a different kind of knowledge. Not a knowledge of that which is self-aggrandizing but a knowledge that even in our insufficiency of self we are more whole and complete as a community, that is in relationship with others and our Creator.

It is Sheldon’s quirky and sometimes contentious circle of friends and colleagues that fill in what is lacking in their respective selves to create a community that is far more whole and life giving. And it all works because of the common relationship – that which they know about each other, and that which is greater than any one of them.

This too is Jesus’ prayer for us a disciples in our Gospel lesson: “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”[2]

The knowledge we as disciples seek is not that which is self-aggrandizing, rather it is that which grounds us in the common knowledge that everything we have has been given to us by our Creator. It is in knowing that we are only complete in relationship with our Creator, and with one another that our knowledge is perfected. To this end, let our common prayer, and especially our Eucharistic prayer – our prayer of thanksgiving – so penetrate our being that we may know our selves to be one with our Redeemer, our Creator, and each other.

[1] Acts 1:7-8

[2] John 17:3

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I am the Gate

This Sunday is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, which strikes me today as a bit of bait and switch. You see, while we have the 23rd Psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” – in our Gospel lesson Jesus tells us he is the gate, not the shepherd.

I don’t know, perhaps the lectionary for this Sunday has shifted over the years. After all, in the very next story of the Gospel according John Jesus does in fact refer to himself as the good shepherd; but that is not part of today’s lectionary. So, for today, what are we to make of “I am the gate?”

Perhaps we should begin with the psalm; this comfortingly lovely pastoral psalm that refreshes us whether we are at ease or in distress. The 23rd Psalm spans green pastures and still waters to the valley of the shadow of death and those who trouble us. There is only one thing that spans the distance of such images as heaven and hell, and that is the love of God as revealed in the resurrected Jesus Christ. But, for today, Jesus is not the shepherd; he is the gate.

Let me share with you another story. Earlier this week, a dear friend of mine was telling me about friend of his – a rancher in western Kansas. As you will recall, before we were being soaked with rain and western Kansas was being blanketed with snow, they were dealing with out of control prairie fires. You and I know controlled grass fires to be life-giving – returning nutrients into the ground, destroying weeds, and encouraging the growth of new grass for grazing. But we also know the life-consuming fires that rage out of control destroying personal property and livestock. This has been the recent experience of our sisters and brothers in western Kansas.

The fires experienced by this particular rancher were so intense that they destroyed a large part of his herd and most of his fencing. But not all of his herd was killed by the fire, about 200 survived but were so badly injured that he had to destroy them himself with the help of a neighbor. The pasture was empty but for the carcasses of his herd, even the fencing was gone. All that remained was the steel gate and cattle guard, which was still closed and locked.

The rancher could have driven a beeline direct to wherever he needed to go, but he chose to drive to the gate. His neighbor clambered out of the cab to unlock and open the gate. As the rancher pulled through the gate, he paused and told his friend, “Leave it open, there’s nothing to keep in.”

The rancher’s words reflect a kind of Kansan stoicism, but I choose to see in them a faithful optimism. Not so much because the pasture will grow again, or because the fence will be rebuilt, or because there will be another herd, but because the gate is the one thing that was present through it all. Through the heavenly greening of the pasture, and through the hellish destruction of everything about it.

The gate is there, and the rancher, who could have left the scene of all this devastation by any direction, chose – whether by habit or intention – to go through the gate; and not only to go through but to leave it open. I imagine the Lord is most pleased with this image.

The gate is there in that pasture in the presence of peace and green pastures, and in the presence of death and destruction. Paraphrasing part of the 23rd Psalm, “Surely your goodness and mercy are present to me in all the circumstances of my life.”

The gate is present to us at all times, even in the face of what we imagine hell must be like, because Jesus loves us so much that he suffered the worst that we could offer – even death on the cross – and came back to us to reveal his resurrected glory – a preview of the eternal life that awaits us.

My charge to you today is to bring the destruction and hell in your life to the gate before this altar. Allow that which stands between you and the gate to fall through the cattle guard so that you can walk through the gate into eternal life.