A few years ago, a social media coordinator came to talk to our faculty. Her job was to help educational institutions leverage the power of their faculty by building their on-line presence. Her argument made sense. In order to be known, you have to make yourself available. You fill a social media account with self-selected moments from your life which will create a brand and ultimately build a following.
As she talked about social media, I began to consider how it changes the way we know people. We begin to know people from a distance. So, suppose I create an on-line presence and upload clips of me kayaking and keeping bees. I post about my interests in preaching and literature, and my love for Milton and Flannery O’Connor. Do these data points really build a relationship of knowing?
People may be informed about me, but do they know me?
If a friend breaks her ankle and needs reconstructive surgery which requires her to be confined to her home for 6 weeks with her leg elevated, do they know how I will respond? What kind of kindness will I offer? Am I the kind of person who brings over homemade soup or do I order-in because I know her favorite dish and stay for supper? How long will I walk down the road of her recovery with her? What will I do and say?
The social media coordinator got me thinking. What does it mean to know somebody? We can know from a distance, or we can know in person. We can gather information about a person, or we can live with that person.
Consider knowing from a distance. When we look through someone’s Facebook page, when we trace someone’s social media posts, we engage in a one-sided relationship. On the one hand, we see possible points of shared interests and places where we might start a conversation. That is good. But, on the other hand, we have the freedom to stop whenever we want. Rather than listen to a lengthy conversation about a family vacation, we skip over that topic and jump to something else which catches our eye. We shape the person according to our interests, seeing what we want to see, ignoring what we do not want to see, and spending as much time as we want on what we think interesting rather than enduring an extended conversation about what that person thinks is important.
In contrast, consider knowing from nearness. There is a deeper kind of knowing which happens in shared lived experience. There is a profound difference between looking at a video of a trip to the zoo and being in the video clip of that trip to the zoo. When we are in the video clip, we are part of the action. The day does not end after the two-minute clip of the penguin house. No, we go on to visit the primate house, and then have lunch, and then browse the gift shop, and then walk to the car, carrying one of the kids who is sleeping, and engage in all of the emotions and conversations which happen when you take your kids for a day to the zoo. Such sustained interaction builds relationships. Personal presence and shared experience matter. They make for a relationship where you know a person more fully even as you are more fully known.
There is a deeper kind of knowing which happens in shared lived experience.
All of this is important because in our gospel reading Jesus is praying that we will know Him. But the question is, how do we know Jesus? Do we know Him from a distance, or do we know Him from nearness?
Jesus came to reveal His Father to us. What Jesus revealed was not informational but relational. The Father sent His Son to bring eternal life. Eternal life, for Jesus, is a relationship with God. Listen to how Jesus speaks about eternal life. He says, “And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (verse 3).
Jesus asks us to think of eternal life, not in terms of time, but in terms of relationship. For Jesus, eternal life is not merely the absence of death. It is the presence of God in your life forever.
Jesus has come to bring us into a never-ending relationship with His Father. In this relationship, we know God, the Father, and Jesus Christ whom the Father has sent. This relationship is not one of information but one of formation by the Holy Spirit. Jesus sends His Spirit to bring us to Him and He brings us back to His Father, our loving creator.
Notice the intimacy in this experience of knowing God. We were God the Father’s treasured possession. He sent His Son to die for us so He might rise and restore our relationship. Jesus sends His Spirit that we might hear His voice and be restored to an eternal relationship with God, a relationship where we know God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and are one as God is one.
This knowledge of God is intimate, personal, and experiential. Jesus shared our experience of death that we might share His experience of life.
In a world of many religions, it is tempting to reduce knowing God to information. We can compare and contrast religions. When this happens, we end up knowing information about God. We can list His attributes. We can explain His teachings. We can classify His works.
But God the Father has sent His Son among us that we might not stand on the sidelines, compare religions, and decide which one we want to follow. No, Christ has come so we might experience His claim upon our lives, be known by Him, forgiven by Him, and raised to new life in Him.
Jesus has come that we might know God, not from a distance, but from His personal intervention in our lives.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 17:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 17:1-11.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 17:1-11.