Click here for the readings for this Fourth Sunday in Easter
This last month I read a book suggested by a friend and colleague on facebook. The book is called “The Plague,” written by an Algerian-French philosopher named Albert Camus. In brief summary, the book traced the story and lives of a few key characters, as they confronted – very slowly – the resurfacing of ‘the plague’ in their town.
The story runs through a whole variety of responses to the plague: fear, anxiety, tension, the presumption of knowledge and certainty, people giving up on knowing, and the escapism so many folks turn to when they find their circumstances too difficult to face directly. Camus’s underlying point – he’s an atheist you see – is to attempt to show that despite the absurdity of suffering in general and in this case, specifically manifested in the plague, the right response isn’t to presume one has certain knowledge about something – for certain knowledge cannot protect, but nor should one despair, give up, or use escapism in an attempt to avoid suffering, loss, sickness, and even death.
Camus argues that in the light of what is – at least to us a confusion or lack of clarity or loss of purpose and meaning – the key to finding meaning in life is to persevere in living, in fighting to survive, in taking what one is given on any particular day or week or month or year, and to live that moment, that relationship, that event, to the fullest extent that one can. In this way, one neither succumbs to the overwhelming fear of the unknown, nor does one imagine that one has grasped full knowledge of all that is and all that matters. Either extreme squashes, so Camus seems to imply, the reality of receiving life as a gift, and living with what is given.
Camus’ insight about purpose and meaning in absurd circumstances seems quite appropriate for our reading today from John’s Gospel. Far too often Christians have associated the truth, or God, with their own sense of having certain knowledge: God has given me knowledge of this or of that in totality so now I know what to do. When suddenly however, people are thrust into the midst of chaotic circumstances, they, we, suddenly have to grapple with the fact that the things we have clung to as providing a sense of certainty, of meaning, of purpose, can simply disappear, come undone, or not come to fruition. Maybe it’s a relationship, or health, or a job, or a potential future. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the piercing of our tentative hold on life; the piercing of our imagined control over suffering and death.
We often think to ourselves, “I’m a good person or this person is good and so why should I or they suffer, get sick, die.” We’re a robust, capitalist culture, how can things suddenly shut down because of a virus that happened on the other side of the world? Why didn’t we have things in place to prevent this. Why didn’t we know, why don’t we know how long or how much, or when all of this will be back under our control. We expect to have knowledge which can provide us with a way of measuring that which we believe to be our purpose and our meaning in the world. But is knowledge, is knowing, a matter of obtaining proof, like one can prove 2+3=5?
Jesus says to his disciples as recorded in John’s Gospel: “when I came into the world, I transformed it so that you could see in me, the will and works of my Father, for I am in him and he is in me. And my sheep, my people, they “follow me because they know my voice.” And any shepherd who might lead my sheep, my people will follow for they will see in his words and works, my own life. They won’t follow a stranger, they’ll end up running from him because they don’t know his voice.” So if one knows the voice of the gatekeeper – God that is – one will follow it. That’s the basic claim.
But what does Jesus mean, by ‘knowing.’ Camus would seem to claim a sort of basic ignorance about our knowledge of the why and the what of life. This isn’t Jesus’s claim. Jesus comes into the world and says: “the purpose of life is really quite basic: it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and body, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor and your enemy as God has loved you.” This we know with certainty since it is revealed to us by the source and the end of everything and everyone that exists. So also then, God gives us our purposes. The real challenge for God’s sheep isn’t this basic reality. Life is not, as it is for Camus, absurd or seemingly meaningless. It is given perfect meaning in Jesus Christ’s life: that is, to love God and to love God is to love all of what he has made. The tricky part then is how that love is to be carried out when we cannot see, understand, or hold on to the fullness of how that love gets concretely lived out, especially when we go through all the difficult things that we do in life: relationships, jobs, family issues, diseases, conditions, and whole societal shut downs.
But where Camus’s direction meets the Christian life is, I think, just here: we don’t have to know how everything is going to turn out, or even if everything is going to be okay, to find meaning and purpose and value in life. To find these things is a matter of one thing: faith. Faith isn’t an emotion. Emotions are too fleeting to constitute faith. Faith isn’t a belief system where your own personally derived beliefs are affirmed by empirical evidence. No, faith is perseverance, holding course because doing so is an affirmation, a response, a giving back with interest, what one has been given as a gift.
For a Christian, faith is the knowledge that God came into the world for us in the Person of Jesus Christ; that he took our flesh and so also all humanity’s sin, and was hung on a Cross for doing so in faith to his Father; faith is acknowledging that act of God on our behalf, and then recognizing that his life, his ministry, was the very gate that has opened the way to relationship with God, the Gatekeeper, so that we might enter into God’s own sheepfold, his people. Knowledge then isn’t about our particular affirmation of some personally held ideals, or ideas, or preferences; knowledge is seeing God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s own life and jumping on board his mission i.e. following him.
Knowledge then isn’t cognitive affirmation; it isn’t just words, or ideas and getting these right. Knowledge is holding onto to Jesus, in the midst of “voices” – whether people or ideas – that make us feel uncertain, insecure, and fearful. It is holding to Jesus in faith and not succumbing to the way that fear and uncertainty can cause us to react toward others in the midst of trying circumstances. It is living into Jesus’s own life: a life of love, compassion, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, sometimes correction. It is not allowing the voice of the strangers to thwart our mission with Jesus, of receiving his grace and sharing it with those who, especially in these times, need it most.
Knowledge is asking, in the midst of these times of social distancing, ‘who are we as individuals and as a community; how are we serving God now with one another, how will we better serve God, as his flock, bound together with of his sheep, when this time of distancing ends?’ Will we live out of a desire for our own personal comfort, evading reality of finite life and resources, living into the escapism so ripe in our modern era; or will we be willing to take risks and perhaps allow ourselves to face uncomfortable circumstances to join with others in proclaiming the gospel to our community? What, if you were really to look at Jesus’s own life and follow his voice rather than your own or that of strangers, would God be calling us to do next? AMEN