[Note on the text: This sermon, altered at points from the original, was preached in Miller Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey, 19 March 2013.]
“Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.”
To get us started, I’d like it if you’d take a second to think of all the buildings we’ve got on this campus. Think of Stuart Hall. Where we go for lectures and precepts. Where we print out our papers, sometimes minutes before their deadlines. Where we first met Kugel. Think of MacKay. Where we eat and chat. Where we hope to find a table with an open seat so that we don’t have to be that person who makes everyone move over to fit them in. Where we play Euchre, Bananagrams, Bang! Think of Hodge Hall. Centrally located. Host of the year’s best party. The Hodge folk sure do seem to love it. The rest of us, we humor their enthusiasm. Think of the facilities plant, tucked away behind the parking garage like it is. It’s a place we don’t often find ourselves (though that’s to our loss, as it houses some fine people). Think of Miller Chapel. Where we all find ourselves right now. Where day in and day out we gather, sing, meditate, pray, and pass Christ’s peace. Hopefully — before the Day of the Lord comes — we’ll be able to add a library to this list. Hopefully. But leaving that last one aside, I’m curious, between the buildings that we do have up and running on this campus, in which one is it that we receive our education in the knowledge of God? Maybe you think that’s an odd question. But this is a seminary right? Is it not the purpose of a seminary to school its students in the knowledge of God? So I want to leave my question on the table. In which building is this education undergone?
Fortunately for us, we have the First Epistle of John to help us find our way. John is also interested in the knowledge of God. But I say that knowing that I’m going to have to speak carefully. John can be a slippery thinker. He has no problem using words in ways we might not be used to. The moment you think you’ve got him figured out, he’ll pull a fast one on you. Let’s consider the passage that was read for us. It began in this way: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” Later in the same book, though, John is going to say, “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (5:3). By keeping his commandments we know him. By keeping his commandments we love him. The two claims are nearly identical— except for one key difference. Did you catch it? The second time round knowledge is swapped for love. So I’m curious, which is it? What is our commandment keeping evidence of? Our love for God or our knowledge of God?
Before we sort this out, let’s consider another passage. John also says this: “everyone who loves … knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God” (4:7-8). It’s almost as if John is laying down a rule about how to use the word “God” properly. If you’re using that name for unloving purposes, you don’t know who you’re talking about. It’s passages like that one where John is actually at his most frustrating. Why can’t you know God apart from love? What’s the connection here?
It turns out, this is one of those moments of divine irony. One of those moments where what’s frustrating to the thoughtful is gospel to the ungodly. John isn’t working with neat and tidy ideas. Knowledge, love, obedience, in John’s hands, these are messy, overlapping, interchangeable categories. They blur and bleed into one another. They’ve become one flesh, never to be separated. We aren’t supposed to distinguish between them. If you’re like me, you’re not used to thinking about knowledge in this way. I’m familiar with the knowledge that’s supposed to make us smarter. John, however, invites us to the study of a knowledge that aims at making us godlier. The knowledge John cares about isn’t a remedy for ignorance; it’s a cure for the diseases of the soul. It’s a power to drive out the demons besieging a community. It’s a knowledge that perfects the love of God in us.
I say, teach me that knowledge. Where can I find that at Seminary? Which building? Is it in Stuart Hall? Will I find it in coursework? What about Miller Chapel? Will I find it in worship? Or is it in Mackay? Will I find it in friendship? If you’re thinking this is an odd way to ask all of this, you’d be right. There isn’t going to be a neat and tidy answer here. All of these buildings contribute. And they do so in ways we may not realize until after their lessons have been learned. Not until after these lessons have collected our wits, tempered our hearts, and ordered our desires. Let me admonish you only this: be attentive. The limits to this education are set only by the limits to our lives. In every building we enter, class is in session.
The learning goals for coursework like this are something a degree can only gesture at. We won’t just be graduating as mere colleagues and peers in a workforce. No. We will end up as something so much more eternal. We will become, as John likes to call us, his “little children,” “brothers and sisters,” sons and daughters, “beloved.” Believe this: the knowledge of God is a knowledge that makes families out of its students. Families. Do you know how? We don’t need to overthink this one. God knew us first. Remember, the knowledge of God is a two way street. Just as we know God only as we apprehend him in love, so also God knows us to be what his love is fashioning us to become. This morning I get to be the one to tell you all that there is no one here that God does not know, that God does not see, that God does not hear, that God does not love. This is what makes us family: there is no one here that God does not call child. So think on this today, and be glad: we get to study the knowledge of God. We get to teach it. We get to live it. For the rest of your time here and for the rest of your days, there’s only one lesson plan, and it’s good news. Amen.