LEVELS OF KNOWING JESUS
(The Rev. Cn. Dr. Fred B. Vergara. Holy Trinity Episcopal church, Hicksville, NY. July 17, 2016)
A Pentecostal preacher was invited to preach in the Episcopal Church at the 10 AM Sunday Eucharist and he asked, “Father, how long can I preach?” The Episcopal priest replied, “Brother, you can preach as long as you want but at 11AM, we will be out of here.”
The acolyte asked the priest, “Father, how do we make holy water?” The priest replied, “We boil the hell out of it!”
The rector made an announcement, ”I have good news and bad news: the good news is we now have the money to repair our leaking roof; the bad news is the money is still in your pockets.”
I humor you today because our Scripture readings have good news and bad news.
In the Old Testament (Genesis 18:1-10), the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre with good news and bad news. The good news is that Sarah, his 89 year old wife, would bear a son. The bad news is that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed.
In the Gospel of Luke (38:42), Jesus visited the home Mary and Martha with good news and bad news. The good news is that Mary had chosen the better portion by sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him; the bad news is that Martha became so distracted in her cooking and got irritated because she needed the help of Mary in the kitchen.
Now Jesus always loved to eat. He even ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors to the point that he and his disciples were branded by the Pharisees as gluttons and drunkards. Even at his death and resurrection, he instituted a memorial in the form of The Passover meal. The Holy Eucharist that we do every Sunday is a remembrance of his passion and death and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
But here in this gospel, between the Martha the Cook and Mary the Sunday Student, Jesus favored the student. I just don’t get it.
So I better preach from the Letter of Paul to the Colossians (1:15-28) and seek to understand why Jesus is the ”image of the invisible of the invisible God…in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
For here in this passage from St. Paul, we get a glimpse of why Jesus is not just the messenger of God but God. Not just the Son of God but God, co-equal and one Being with the Father and the Holy Spirit in that enigmatic phrase, the Holy Trinity, from which our church was named. By sharing my thoughts on why Jesus is God, I hope just like St. Paul, the servant of the Gospel, it may help our church grow into maturity, into the full stature of the measure of Christ.
There is so much Greek thought in this Pauline letter and it is no wonder because St. Paul was the apostle to the Greeks and the Romans and you know that the most valuable gift we get from Greece is Greek philosophy. When I was in college, my favorite subject was philosophy and I was always fascinated at how Greek names sometimes jibe with their philosophies. For instance there is a Greek philosopher named Euripides and another named Eumenides. Euripides is the writer of tragedies and satires, ripping into pieces many of the heroes in Greek mythology. Eumenides, on the other hand is a character in Aeschylus tragedy which sort of synthesizes the opposites. As you know there are three progressions in reconciliation in Greek drama: thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
The reason why I remember these Greek names is that I imagine Euripides tearing a paper and Eumenides putting it back together. So you rip this, you mend this. Euripides, Eumenides!
Another example of reconciliation was this: Thesis- Plato said, “to do is to be;” Antithesis - Aristotle said, “to be is to do”; and Synthesis- Frank Sinatra said, “do be do be do.”
But the one philosopher who is most useful in helping us understand why Jesus is God is Danish philosopher named, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard whose father was a Lutheran priest in Copenhagen, Denmark studied theology and developed the three levels of knowing Jesus as God.
1. First Level is the “aesthetic level”; knowing Jesus as the image of God: In Colossians , St Paul declares: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God.”
The other word for image is Icon. Our church has icons; Iconography is one of the Christian arts. Icons are considered “windows to the divine.” The statues of Jesus are icons that give us a window to his divinity. For instance, this icon of the crucified Jesus in our sanctuary gives us a window to his death and his rising again to life.
Another word for image and icon is model. In arts, there are models: classical, neoclassical and modern. In cars, there are many models: Ford, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, what have you. Once we asked why fashion models are often thin, tall and lanky ladies and one couturier replied, “Because models do not represent themselves; they represent the clothes they wear. In other words, models serve as hangers!”
So when we are on the aesthetic level of knowing Jesus we know Jesus as representing God; we admire his beauty, we are awed in our worship and praise. He is the model of the living God.
But models change. In our Baby-Boomer generation, the model of courtship is expressed in this song, “My love is deep as the sea that flows forever, you ask me when will it end? I tell you never.” Poetic, classical and expressive. In today’s millennial generation, the model of courtship is expressed in this song: “Baby, baby, baby Oh.” Abstract, modern and hip hop. Maybe the reason why many churches are dying is because we are losing relevance in this generation. Our neighborhood has changed but our model of church has not.
2. So the second level is the “ethical level”; knowing Jesus as the reality of God. It is the level of commitment and certainty. Once upon a time, you are searching for God. Where do you go? Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam? Then you came to Christianity: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, interdenominational, evangelical, charismatic, asthmatic, etc.. You become confused and studied Confucianism.
You’ve been to many models of God, many icons of the divine. You’ve shopped for so many churches and finally you came to the realization that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” And like Martin Luther, you say: ”Here I stand, I can do no other.”
John the Baptist while in prison sent a word through his messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you He who is to come or shall we wait for another?” And Jesus replied, “Come and see: the blind receive their sight, lepers are cleansed, the Good News is preached to the poor, and blessed are those who take no offense at me.”
Philip asked Jesus: ”Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied” and Jesus replied, “Have I not been with you too long and still you did not known me? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. I and the Father are one.”
Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to his disciples, so when told he rose from the dead, Thomas doubted: “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands and touch his pierced side, I will not believe.” At that very moment, Jesus appeared: ”Thomas here am I, touch my hand and feel my side. Do not be faithless but believe.” Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
To know Jesus in the ethical level as the reality of God, is like the hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
Jesus is not just the image of the invisible God or a representation of His Father. He is not just one of the models of God. Jesus is God! Very God of very God! Jesus is not just a model of God: He is the reality of God.
3. The third level is the “spiritual level,” to know Jesus as the experience of God. In John 14:12, Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, even greater things because I am going to the Father.” Acts 1:8 says, “And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the world.”
To know Jesus in the spiritual level is to experience life in the spirit. In the words of St. Paul, it’s no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me. Jesus is alive in my life, Jesus is alive in my work, Jesus is alive in my relationships. Mystics call it the Christ in me and the Christ in you.
When you know Jesus in the spiritual level, you also perform the things that he did and release the ministry he shared. The Book of Acts recorded what the apostles did after the resurrection. St. Peter, Mary and the other apostles established the Church in Jerusalem which became the center of Christianity in the early Church.
Paul was converted through the martyrdom of St. Stephen and both he and Barnabas and St. Luke traveled through the Greek and Roman world preaching the gospel and planting missionary churches. Antioch became the mission-sending center for the Gentile church. Miracles, signs and wonders accompany the preaching of the gospel.
In Acts 8, St. Philip was directed by the angels of the Lord to witness and to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch, who would latter start the Church in Ethiopia. Thomas went as far as Asia, preaching the gospel and planting churches in India. He was martyred in Madras and the Mar Thoma Church, which is in concordat relationship with the Episcopal Church, bears witness to the works of St. Thomas.
To know Jesus in the spiritual level is to experience the healing, the holiness, the miracles and the signs and wonders of what Christ has done.
Over forty years ago, I was a student in the Philippines radicalized by the communist movement. While I was not a member of the Communist Party, I virtually subscribed to its ideology. I became and student and taught socialism in the teach-ins, participated militant rallies against the Marcos administration.
God was not in my vocabulary. Mao Tse Tung’s Red Book was my bible and I agreed with his idea that religion was an opium of the people.
Then martial law was declared in September 21, 1972 in the Philippines and the following months and years were marked with arrest and imprisonment of many militants and protesters. In the activist circle there were only three ways to survive: US, UG and UJ -United States, Under Ground or U Join the Marcos regime.
So having no means to escape to the US, I have thought of going UG and together with a few friends traveled to a place where we could be in contact with the New People’s Army. Fortunately or unfortunately, I got sick of pneumonia.
My sickness was so severe that my friends abandoned me in a house of an old couple, whom I would later know were Pentecostals. They prayed for me. At that point of time, the communist ideology was not real to me, my Red Book was not real to me, my knowledge and my education were not real tome.
When you are in such a point of need, when you have no one and nothing to hold on to, God becomes real. I reached out for God and called on Jesus as this Pentecostal couple advised, and God met me at the point of my need. I was healed!
I was healed that I may tell this story: I was healed to tell the story that there is a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who will never leave us nor forsake us.
I was healed to tell the story that even in the midst of a dangerous world like ours, there is a God who will lead us into a place of safety, a beloved community where we can express love and be loved.
I was healed to tell the story that even in this generation when people fence each other out by hatred and prejudice, there is a God who calls us to love God and neighbor.
I was healed to tell the story even in this generation when some lost souls would fly a plane to destroy a building and massacre the people in it, would drive a truck to kill a crowd, would detonate themselves and kill others as well, there is a God to whom we shall stand before in the Judgment Day.
I was healed to tell the story that there is a God who feels the pain for the sins of His people and that there is healing for their sin-sick souls.
I was healed to tell the story that even in the midst of this rapidly changing world, there is a God who never changes, who the same yesterday today and forever. That when He saved you before, He saves you now and He will save you forever.
I was healed that I may tell that the fullness of this God is in Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Yes, Jesus is the image, the reality and the experience of God. Amen.