To Know God—That’s Life!
To Know God—That’s Life!
[Many of the quotations below appear in Fr Anthony Coniaris’ “Meet Jesus in Sunday Gospels” vol.1, pp.103-111]
Today we will honor our Sunday School teachers and students as well as our high school and college graduates. One of their main endeavors has been the pursuit of knowledge. It has been said that all of the knowledge of mankind from our early origins until 1845 equaled one inch. From 1845-1945 equaled two inches. From 1945 until now the knowledge acquired by human civilization equals the height of the Washington Monument in D.C. (555 feet). In other words, there has literally been an explosion of knowledge. The true marvel however is not that we are coming to know more and more about our universe, but that we can come to know Him Who stands above and behind the universe—that is God.
In today’s Gospel, the Apostle John writes: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3). The supreme blessing of the human soul is that it can know God. The supreme tragedy is that often it does not want to know Him, being distracted by the things of this world. In other words, we pay more attention to the huge height of information we’ve gathered about the creation, than we pay to the simple knowledge of the Creator.
To know God is not just another kind of knowledge: it is a matter of life or death, heaven or hell. This tragedy of choice became glaringly apparent once again in the Sante Fe, Texas school shooting this past Friday morning. And it hit very close to home since the shooter is a teenager of Greek descent who was in the local dance troupe. I will not say his name because this plays into Satan’s influence to implant a sociopathic desire for recognition.
St. Anthony the Great (+356), one of founders of desert monasticism, said “The most grievous loss and the greatest disaster is for a person not to know God.” Tragically, the Greek teenage shooter identified himself as an atheist on his Facebook page and perpetrated a unspeakable disaster for the eight schoolmates and two teachers he killed, the 13 he injured, the hundreds he traumatized, as well as their families, the whole community and our society at large. Let us remember the victims, and I will name them: Cynthia Tisdale, Anne Perkins (teachers), Sabika Sheikh, Chris Stone, Jared Black, Shana Fisher, Glenda Kimberly Vaughan, Angelique Ramirez, Christian Riley Garcia, Aaron Kyle McLeod
Nearly everyone has heard of Harvard University. But not many know that it was started when a man named John Harvard, when he bequeathed his personal library and half of his estate in 1636. And virtually no one knows what he wrote in his will: “Every student in this college shall be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider the main ends of life and to know God and Jesus Christ, whom to know is eternal life.” Sadly, Harvard University, like many institutions of higher learning, have abandoned their religious founders and spiritual mission to become ever more secular, if not explicitly atheist schools.
The Prophet Jeremiah, some 600 years before Christ, wrote: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the might man glory in his strength, let not the rich man glory in his wealth; but let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth; for in these I delight, says the Lord” (Jer.9:23-24).
The purpose of all Christian preaching and teaching is to help us to get to know God. This is not knowledge about God—that would be information. To know God personally—that is to have an intimate relationship with Him. Think about the various relationships with people in our own life and we understand that there is a world of difference between knowing about someone, and really knowing him or her. Knowing about God and His Son Jesus Christ does not save us, nor bestow eternal life.
St. Athanasios the Great (+373) one of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (325) that we commemorate today, the Seventh Sunday of Pascha, said this: “For what use is existence to the creature if he cannot know his Maker? How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father through Whom they had received their being? They would be no better than the beasts had they no knowledge except of earthly things; and why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him?”
We may remember that God made us in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26) but we may forget that the only way to become like God is to know Him.
The famous America writer, Mark Twain (1835-1910) shared this story. When Mr. Twain had been bragging about how many great and famous people he knew in the world, his daughter said to him: “Gee, dad, you know everybody except God.”
Now, getting to know someone personally can be difficult, if not impossible, unless the other person chooses to open up and reveal him/herself to us. But God has already done this in through His Son Jesus Christ. John the Evangelist writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). The Apostle Paul said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1Corinthians 2:2).
When Christ ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of God the Father, this completed the offering--the opening-up--the invitation from God to us to know Him personally. For not only did the Logos assume our humanity in His Incarnation, but now He has brought it with Him into heaven, into the Godhead of the Trinity.
The question is: How do we come to know God? In the various sciences, different tools are used to investigate and discover knowledge: microscopes, telescopes, computer modeling, etc. To know God, we need a different set of tools—spiritual tools. First, (and these are not in any order of priority or importance), we need purity of heart for Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mt.5:8). The first step in the spiritual life is catharsis, cleansing and purification. Through repentance and the Sacrament of Confession, we can empty our heart of bitterness, jealousy, anger and resentment.
Second, we need photisis or illumination by the Holy Spirit. Again, the Apostle Paul says, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord without the Holy Spirit” (1Cor.12:3). St. Silouan of Mt. Athos also wrote about this: “We may study as much as we will, but we shall not come to know the Lord unless we live according to His commandments, for the Lord is not made know through learning, but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and scholars have arrived at a belief in the existence of God, but they have not come to know Him. To believe in God is one thing, to know God is another. Both in heaven and on earth, the Lord is made known only by the Holy Spirit, and not through ordinary learning.”
Thirdly, we need the Scriptures, especially the Holy Gospels, to know God. Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) wrote: “God created mankind so that he could hear His words, receive them, grow in them, and through them become a participant of eternal life.” The Bible is the record of God’s revelation to humankind. And reading the Bible with an earnest desire, God reveals Himself directly to us through this record. This is why it is imperative for us to be on time for Divine Liturgy, so that we can hear directly and mystically the Word of God in beginning of our common worship.
Fourth, we need to practice love in order to know God. John the Evangelist said: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1John 4:16).
Firth, in order to know God, we need to pray. Prayer is the way we talk to God and if we practice the Prayer of the Heart in silence, we can begin to hear God talking to us. What does it say about our value system, when we spend twenty years learning a vocation to pursue a career but can barely spend five minutes a day dedicated to know God through prayer?
Sixthly, in order to know God, we must live in communion with Him. This is theosis or deification. St. Gregory of Nyssa (+394) wrote: “The Lord does not say that is blessed to know something about God but to have God present within oneself.” What more concrete tangible way is there to have God within us than to receive His very body and blood in the Holy Eucharist? And if this is true, how can we directly know God if rarely, if ever, receive Him in the Mystery of Holy Communion?
The seventh and last way to know God is through obedience (Greek = hypakoue). St. Matthew the Poor (1919-2006) wrote that the Gospel is spiritual and “must be obeyed and lived through the Holy Spirit before it can be understood. If anyone living outside the Gospel tries to understand it he will stumble and fall…But if anyone has…total obedience to God…that person enters into the mystery of the Gospel without being aware of it.”
“Not knowing God, we cannot truly know ourselves—who we are. Likewise, we cannot know the meaning of our life. Thus, we also lack a goal or direction, much less how to get there. We are on a journey with neither a map nor the rules of the road” (From Theology and Sanity by F.J. Sheed, 1946). This summarizes the existential crisis of our time, and it is affecting not only us but our children as well. We see the symptoms of this illness, not getting better but rather becoming worse, especially in the horrible school shootings that are on the rise in the last twenty years.
If you are an atheist or you know an atheist, ask yourself or them, “Please, tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” The answer you will not often hear is: “I can’t tell you about this God because I don’t believe that God even exists.” The answer you will more often hear is about a god that faithful Christians themselves do not know because the god of an atheist is a twisted, distorted, false image of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, encourage your atheist friend to read the Gospels and let Jesus Christ speak for Himself to them. Then follow up with them to say this is the God that I know and believe in. This of course implies that you yourself are doing all of the above.
A slightly different scenario you may encounter is when people say, “It doesn’t matter which god you believe in as long as you believe in a god.” Fr. Anthony Coniaris reminds us of Jesus’ words we heard in today’s Gospel: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
My brothers and sisters, if the Divine Liturgy seems stale and boring, if the sacraments seem like empty rituals, if the Orthodox Church seems like a hollow institution, and if the Bible seems more like bad news than the Good News, here is the solution: get to know Jesus. If we truly come to know the true God, then everything else comes alive. If we want our life to be filled with color and life then we need to fill ourselves with Him who is the author of life. Please seek Jesus in the Scriptures, become obedient to His commandments, pray to receive the Holy Spirit, gain purity of heart in Confession, and above all love one another with the sacrificial love of God. Amen!