When we talk about “knowing God”, it can feel a bit like, perhaps, “knowing the number of planets in every galaxy” or “knowing whether I will win the jackpot next week.” If it is possible to know those things, we certainly haven’t figured out how yet.
And yet when we encounter the stories and accounts of the historical Jesus, one may get a strange feeling that, if there is a God, this God wants to be known. Suddenly, the accounts of Jesus become much more than inspirational stories. They become a key, like an anonymous tip that the person you have a crush on does not, in fact, hate your guts.
If one reads the account of Jesus’ life all the way to the end, however, they find that knowing this God also means experiencing some sort of death.
Death is at the very center of the Jesus story.
The kind of death associated with following Jesus is different from the death he experienced himself. It is a kind of death that everyone, religious or non-religious, has become accustomed to: the death of our hope.
Death, not disappointment. Disappointment is when we are passed up yet again for a job promotion and spend the evening re-watching an entire season of Friends. Death is when the same thing happens and we watch every season of Friends for the next week. Disappointment is a night drive to clear the head. Death is an impulse move to Tucson, Arizona to live with your grandparents. Death is attaching all of your hope for acceptance in one thing and having that thing ripped from you. When we experience this kind of death, we generally attack it with one of two strategies: we quickly replace our hope with another one, or we detach ourselves completely from any hope at all. The first strategy sends us spinning in a cycle of death and rebirth, replacing our old hope with a new one as fast as we can produce it. The second strategy looks slyly at hope and says “I’m onto you – I’m not letting you trick me again.”
A third strategy is proposed, however, by an unexpected source: a letter written in the first century from the apostle Paul to a small community of friends in Philippi. In it, Paul writes a long list of all his privileges and achievements – everything gained and worked for in his life that could secure his hope of being admired and accepted. After listing all of these, he wrote “I’ve dumped all [these things] in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.” (1)
Paul does not try to move quickly past the experience of death for anything else to place his hope in. He also does not deny this kind of death by rejecting hope altogether.
He is instead so enraptured by another thing entirely that death feels inconsequential. Instead of continuing the cycle of death and rebirth, Paul proposes one final death and rebirth: the death of all our hopes into a birth of “knowing God.” But this kind of knowing has nothing to do with what we have earned or accomplished. It is born out of what Jesus has earned and accomplished for us.
It is one thing to embrace the extraordinary. It is another thing to be embraced by the extraordinary. (2)
A young, aspiring politician would no doubt dump everything for a chance to meet with Barack Obama. But what if Barack Obama dumped everything to come meet with the young politician?
To know God is to be embraced by God.
To know God is not to lose the self, but for the true self to finally be found in God.
To know God is to be so secure that one is finally able to turn their gaze outward to the well-being of others.
To know God is to die and not even notice.
(1) Philippians 3:8-9, the Message
(2) quote from Ed Park