The Road to Knowing God
Based on Philippians 3:7-11 & I John 4 7-12
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of CHXUCC – 7/4/21
You may remember our series during Lent back in March on Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt book, when we examined the 4 stages of faith. When I was in Stages 1 and 2, I was a sponge for anything I could read and learn about God. I was on a mission to know as much about God as I could. I read the Bible voraciously; I read Christian books; I attended bible studies and lectures, taking notes. Everything I learned about God made me feel holy, knowledgeable, and faithful. As I spoke with friends, I impressed them with facts, bible verses to back them up, and air-tight biblical arguments.
Going to seminary was another step in my quest to know as much about God as I possibly could. I sat at the feet of great, renown scholars; I wrote countless papers and preached persuasive and convincing sermons at the churches where I served.
Learning about God is really pretty easy. It just takes time and energy. It’s not much different from learning about Shakespeare or about Thomas Edison. You read what’s been written about them. You read some of what they, themselves, wrote, you study with some scholars and teachers who know more about them than you do, and there you go.
But just as there’s a big difference between knowing about Thomas Edison and actually knowing Thomas Edison, the same is true with God. I found I could know an awful lot about God without knowing God at all. I like the way J.I. Packer and the folks at Wisdom Hunters put it:
“I may gain great knowledge about God and still not know God in His greatness. If I only desire more information about God to shore up my doctrinal debates with those who differ from me, I am vulnerable to pride puffing up my self-righteousness. However, when I humble myself before the Lord in order to know Him, for the sole purpose of becoming more like Him, then my knowledge becomes a bridge to Christlikeness, not a chasm of self-reliance between me and my Savior Jesus. Knowing God energizes my soul, elevates my thoughts, deepens my trust, and emboldens my courage to resist a culture counter to Christ. I want to know God so I can love God better.”
Friends, today we begin a new month-long sermon series on discipleship, what it truly means to follow Jesus. And lesson one in our journey toward discipleship is all about knowing God – not knowing about God – but knowing God. There is a huge difference between the two.
Some of you may remember a sermon I delivered here 6 or 7 years ago when Neil was on sabbatical. I brought in a bicycle and set it on its kickstand right in the front of the communion table over in the sanctuary. I talked about how frustrating it would be to sign up for a course called “Learning to Ride a Bike,” only to have the teacher spend all four sessions talking about the bike – analyzing its parts, learning the mechanics of how the bike worked, watching movies about other people riding bikes, but literally never getting on the bike yourself. My point in that sermon was that that is pretty much how Christians in today’s church have handled knowing and following Jesus. We’ve spent all our time and energy learning about Jesus and almost no time getting to know and follow him.
As we dive into this series on discipleship, our chief purpose is to actually follow Jesus – not master a list of facts about Jesus; not watch him from a distance and cheer, but actually get to know him. If we truly study the gospels, we will find that Jesus actually had very few followers – VERY few. What he had tons of was fans, and we musn’t confuse the two. The dictionary defines a fan as “an enthusiastic admirer.” And as Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv, puts it, “Jesus never asked us to sit on the sidelines and cheer for his cause…Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it actually requires something of them. Fans may be fine with repeating a prayer, attending church on the weekend, and slapping a Jesus fish on their bumpers. But if that’s really the extent of one’s relationship with Jesus,” then that one can hardly be called a disciple. A fan may know a lot about Jesus; but he doesn’t know Jesus. He is a fan, not a follower. So which are we…? Are we fans of Jesus or followers?
As we are going to see again and again throughout this month-long series, the very definition of a disciple is one who follows a rabbi or teacher with the express purpose of being like that rabbi or teacher. This is the critical difference between a fan and a follower; the follower or disciple wants to be like and live like the one he/she is following. This is what led Paul to write what he did in Philippians 3: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I want to be found in him…I want to know Christ – yes, to know that power of his resurrection; I want to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and attaining the resurrection from the dead.” These are the words of a follower. Paul desired to be like Jesus? He doesn’t want to know about him; he wants to actually know him and be like him.
So the question is how do we make the transition from fan to follower? How do reorient our purpose away from simply learning about Jesus to truly knowing Jesus? Well, judging from our second passage for the morning in I John 4, the move from fan to follower seems to begin with love. John says in no uncertain terms that we need to “love one another because love comes from God.” John continues, “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God; and whoever does not love does not know God.” This reminds us of last week, right, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, and he replied with two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus fleshed out what loving our neighbor looks like with the Good Samaritan parable. So it seems that one of the ways we will know God better is if love and take care of others better than we do right now. We widen the circle of those we love and care for.
In my life, this was one of the reasons I felt very called to take on the role I now have with the Charlevoix Ministerial Association, overseeing and dispersing the emergency relief fund. I knew that by putting myself in that position with Murph Watts and Carolyn Klender, I would be widening my circle of love, bringing people whom I wouldn’t otherwise notice or see in my schedule and in my office every week. These CMA folks were not in my life before I said yes to this position. Now, Murph, Carolyn, and I are hearing their stories, seeing their faces, and meeting their children. More love to more people is the natural outgrowth of this CMA endeavor. It’s a concrete way to follow Jesus, and as we live a little more like Jesus did through this position, we come to know Jesus and his heart a little more than we would have if we hadn’t chosen to widen the circle of our love. I John 4:12 puts it this way: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” You want to be more of a Jesus follower instead of just a fan? Widen the circle of your love. Find and seek out folks in need. Make sure your weekly schedule includes times when you will be in direct contact and communication with those Matthew called “the least of these,” and you’ll be following Jesus; you’ll be on the road to discipleship.
A second thing that will compel you further on the path of a follower rather than a fan is not something you want to seek or look for. But it is something you might want to try to welcome the next time it shows up. I’m speaking of suffering. You may have noticed in Philippians 3:10, Paul said, “I want to know Christ…and to participate in his sufferings…” Suffering is a powerful, transformative experience. Now, again, I’m not advising you to seek it out, the way I did with the least of these and the needy. But I want you to know – speaking from experience – that when suffering comes to find you, it brings with it incredible opportunity to know Christ and to know him more deeply than you ever have before.
Suffering comes to us in many forms: disease and the treatment many diseases require; chronic pain and loss of physical abilities; the brokenness or demise of a close relationship; the loss or the suffering of a child or loved one; depression; isolation; or even financial insecurity. We don’t need to seek suffering. If we live long enough, suffering will come a’ calling. Our Buddhist brothers and sisters have much to teach us about suffering and its potential positive role in our lives. All four of the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism have to do with suffering and coming to grips with it in our lives. One Buddhist teacher writes: “We have to lean into our pain and go through the suffering to get to the other side…Only through leaning into and experiencing our pain can we transform our suffering and develop compassion, true understanding, healing, and growth.”
Folks, in case you haven’t noticed, all four gospels are full of suffering. All four of them spend a third of their total pages on the final week of Jesus’s life – when his suffering occurred. I’m pretty sure that is God’s way of saying suffering happens! Suffering is real, and God is going to be with us in that reality in ways that we simply can’t experience in any other of life’s realities. So when suffering knocks on your door, take a deep breath, invite it in, offer it a cup of tea, and be aware of the fact that your are following Jesus, and your road to discipleship just got accelerated. In suffering, you have been granted an opportunity to know God better and to grow closer to God than you ever have before.
At a previous church, a couple came into my office broken and in tears. They told me that their one and only son had been raped while away at college. I listened to their tears, their emotions, their fears. I sat in silence and cried with them, and when they asked me to pray, I had no idea what to say and, frankly, can’t remember what I prayed for. But at some point after the prayer, I said, “It occurs to me that you two are as close to God right now as any humans could ever be.” They looked puzzled by my remark. “What I mean,” I said, “is that God once had to watch his only son suffer at the hands of some truly evil perpetrators and couldn’t do anything to relieve Jesus’s pain… I think you two are in that exact same position now. If anybody knows what you are going through…it’s God. Lean on Him…Cry out to Him. Let Him come close to you as you endure this.”
Discipleship means following Jesus in order to be like him. It’s not about admiring him from afar or learning about him conceptually. It’s about love more than anything else, and as we saw last week, we can’t love God, whom we can’t see, if we can’t even love our brothers and sisters on this planet whom we can see. And in those times and seasons when suffering comes our way, we need to lean into it, recognize that that is God’s territory too. Suffering is the fire where compassion and deeper love are forged. May we all become followers instead of fans, disciples who resemble our Rabbi more and more every day. Amen