Lectionary for May 14, 2023
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20;
1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Our church family had a bit of an accidental quiz recently as we discussed congregational space and usage. Someone asked why there was a special chair with a basin in front of it. A new member excitedly said that he knew the answer: it was for foot washing on Maundy Thursday. Then a woman found a small storage cabinet in the sacristy and wanted to know if the dead, drying plants were supposed to be there. Still another person exclaimed that they were the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday worship, drying out to be used for ashes in the upcoming Ash Wednesday service. We had a fun time as people with various exposure to church traditions shared their questions, experience and knowledge. This week’s lectionary passages address different levels of information, and how the body of Christ works together to share knowledge.
In his speech in Athens, Paul displays an impressive knowledge of Athenian culture and society. He knows about the various idols and monuments in Athens and is able to quote Greek poets in his sermons. In a move that was perfectly calibrated to prick the egos in one of the most learned places in the world (Athens was named after Athena, after all, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war and handicrafts), Paul points out that he knows something that the Athenians do not.
The Athenian altar “to an unknown god” became an occasion for Paul to point out something they worshiped in ignorance. The one, true God, who made the universe and all the humans on earth, created people so they would seek their Creator. God is not far off, giving the people an impossible task. Instead, God is close and, in fact, closer than ever. Jesus lived, died and was resurrected so that all people would come to know the God who loves them. Paul offers knowledge to the Athenians of a previously unknown God, chiefly through the person and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The kind of knowledge that Paul and Jesus are offering is less about knowing something and more about knowing someone.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus offers knowledge to his disciples as well, but not to everyone equally. Jesus will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, as another intercessor to be on the side of the disciples. Sadly, the whole world is not able to receive or even see the Spirit of Truth. However, the disciples will be able to see and receive the Spirit because they already know her (see note below).
Yet, Jesus doesn’t leave all the revelatory work to the Spirit. He told the disciples that he would come back for them after going away. And once the disciples saw Jesus again, they would know, for certain, that he was in the Father, that they were in Jesus and he in them. This “abiding within” is one of the central hopes in this Gospel of John. The disciples would finally know and experience what it would be like to abide in Jesus as Jesus abides in God the Father. Jesus revealed this experiential knowledge to his disciples, I argue, when they saw him raised from the dead.
What does this all mean? We cannot and must not reduce a relationship with God, Jesus and the Spirit to a set of facts that one can “know” or not. The kind of knowledge that Paul and Jesus are offering is less about knowing something and more about knowing someone. I’m thinking about how the Spanish verb saber is related to knowledge and ability whereas conocer communicates the idea of being familiar with something or someone. We are invited and called to become deeply familiar with Jesus, God and the Spirit through abiding with Godself through Christ, not just have some knowledge about God. We don’t follow a far-off God but one who is intimately close and wants to know and be known.
Note: Most of the language here in John 14, especially in verse 17, for the Spirit is gender-neutral. This is awkward in English, and I don’t want to depersonalize the Spirit by typing “it,” so I’ll use “her,” which is my default for speaking about the Spirit, reflecting Hebrew-language gendering when the Greek is inconsistent. Using blanket “him” when the Greek is mostly neuter obscures more than it reveals.