(just a little primer for tomorrow's sermon)
For most of my adult life I have spent the vast majority of my time as a pastor and Christian working on becoming more knowledgeable. I'm finishing up a second post-graduate degree (Dr. Bucher, can I ask you a question about my back? Uh, no, but if you want a smooth transition when your pastor leaves give me a call.). I've spent I don't know how many hours chasing down info on living in the Roman Empire or doing cross-cultural studies in the world of ancient Mesopotamia.
(Don't mess wit my potamia!)
I've chased down meanings on Hebrew and Aramaic words. I've compared Marcus Borg (great cultural study of the Roman world) with N.T. Wright (another great cultural study of the Roman world who disagrees with Borg, but yet they remain mutual admirers), deconstructed dispensationalism, via the Internet/DVD/books tried to understand the world from an archeologist's eyes, and generally burned a lot of hours in various seminary libraries (I used to hide in the dark in a cubicle at Methesco so I could study all night after it closed). When it comes to the Bible, theology, and the sociology of various Christian movements, I think I've really grown since I walked the line at Lima Stadium as a member of Lima Senior High's Class of 1987.
But, I've got to be honest with you, in a lot of respects I've wondered if somehow I've missed the boat? Or more aptly, taken my eyes off the prize for something less worthy.
Shortly after Christ's death - within a hundred years or so anyway - a subculture began to develop within the Christian movement. These folks, who became known as "Gnostics" (from the Greek, "gnosis" meaning "knowledge"). For my purposes today, it's not really all that important to describe exactly what the Gnostics believed. If you go to the fount of all truth and knowledge - Wikipedia - you'll find (in part) this definition:
a form of revealed, esoteric knowledge through which the spiritual elements of humanity are reminded of their true origins within the superior Godhead, being thus permitted to escape materiality
Gnostics believed that God had implanted knowledge in us, and the creation, that if could be discovered would free us from our present reality. All you had to do was apply yourself to seeking out this "hidden knowledge" with various teachers using texts devised by the same teachers (or those who taught the teachers) who had made these amazing discoveries, and you too could be free of the pain, struggle, and uncertainty that life throws at you.
In the fourth century AD, the Gnostics, recognized as mystic crackpots, were largely banished to the fringe of the Christian experience. And, quite frankly, with good reason. I don't have the time to talk about all the stuff Gnostics taught but the "accounts of Jesus Christ" they wrote were product of "mystic visions" and "out of body experiences". When you start giving "historical accounts" received in the throws of a mystic vision the same authority as that of an eye-witness, problems will quickly arise. Hence, Orthodox Christianity disposed of Gnosticism long, long ago. And while the "Gnostic Gospels" pop up every so often as "proof" the Christian church (meaning mainly the Roman Catholic Church) is trying to keep the "truth" away from people (i.e. The DaVinci Code), the really boring truth about them is that they were just too loopy to be believed.
But while the Gnostics may have lost of the battle, I'm becoming increasingly alarmed that maybe they're winning the war. Oh, I don't mean that there's a growing subculture who believe that Jesus was neither "human" or "divine", but some other substance that was neither. The pursuit of knowledge as the end of the Christian spiritual journey however, has become more our focus than it probably should. Knowledge learned in the right way, with the right bent, from the right perspective. We're no longer obsessed, necessarily, with figuring out the secret as to how to be freed in this life from our physical selves (although I could stand to be freed from about 100 pounds of my physical self), but it seems like every Christian movement out there right now is trying to convince you that there is a more concentric circle of understanding hidden from everyone else they possess... and all have to do is go plant your flag in their soil long enough until that knowledge becomes yours.
That's the essence of Gnosticism - the belief that you have "secret knowledge" others don't possess that is essential for others to know before they know the "truth".
No part of this culture of ours is escaping the Gnostic curse right now. Politics, religion, spirituality, finance, a person's emotional well-being.... all you need are the right "facts" and all will be well. Even the church, even us pastors, even us pastors who are up the occasional night agonizing over whether or not that last sermon sold you bunk and not the "Gospel", are just looking for the right source. The right scholar. The right theology. The right facts in the hope we'll set you free.
We are a people obsessed with knowledge, and for good reason. Doesn't matter what you do for a living, if you don't know how to do what you are doing, you're toast. For example, do you want drive over a bridge built by someone who understands civil engineering or by some guy making up its construction on the fly?
Put that concrete wherever, just use enough to make sure that if a fuel truck goes over this bad boy it won't collapse.
There's a reason why a friend of mine who repairs cars for a living put up this little ditty in his garage:
Labor Rates: $50 an hour for all repair work. $100 an hour if you first tried fixing it yourself.
In our world, now maybe more than ever in history, knowledge is the key to a better life. When I was in college, until the year Aimee and I were married, I roomed with Mike. Mike and I both moved to Lima in the fifth grade. From a very young age Mike was unusually focused on his studies. By his own definition, mot the biggest or smartest guy, Mike worked at his studies like few other people I've ever met. He came from a family of modest means, and knew that whatever way he was gonna make in the world was largely going to be the product of his own blood, sweat, and tears. Most of us don't learn this until later. Mike seemed to get it as far back as junior high school. In high school and the three years we roomed together at college, I suspect that for every hour I studied, Mike studied three or four hours. About the only time I saw him without a book when when he was eating, badgering us to play him in racquetball, when he'd play the occasional video game (on the old "Commodore 64"), or when he slept. On Fridays and Saturdays while the rest of Miami was blowing off steam, Mike was volunteering at the local hospital ER, watching doctors and nurses piece together Miami students who blew themselves up with the steam.
Mike was obsessed with gaining knowledge, and for good reason. He wanted to go to medical school, which is not easy to get into, and become a doctor. I'm glad to say that all of his hard work paid off, and now he has a successful dermatology practice. Given all my Lima Senior classmates - those who graduated and those who didn't - I'm sure if you ask those whose lives haven't ended up where they wanted them to be, they'd tell you they wish - in an echo of an old Gatorade campaign - in junior and senior high school, they'd been more like Mike.
To a degree, the old adage, "Knowledge is Power", has gotta lot of truth to it.
But while in this spiritual journey "knowledge" is most definitely important, it is only a means to an end, and not an end to itself. It's believed now by many scholars that in the early church, before you could become a member you'd have to go through a three year period of study where you'd be challenged to commit the life and certain teaching of Jesus to memory. Given the lack of books (let alone the Internet) this was essential in passing down the story and essence of the faith. The Gospels themselves are largely considered to be the product of different faith communities who at some point decided to commit what they were learning to memory.
But learning was only one aspect of the Christan experience, and not even the most important one at that. As opposed to "learning" about Jesus' Gospel, the greater emphasis was on "becoming" the person Jesus called us to be.
Never was emphasis on "becoming" greater than "learning" than in the writings of Paul. The one who wrote
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."
This is a man who once prided himself on "being a Jew amongst Jews". The smartest religious teacher and leader around, fluent not only in the Hebrew Bible and the tradition of Jewish Law, but also in the Greek disciplines of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy. At one time, Paul's greatest point of pride was that in a room full of very, very smart people, he was arguably the smartest. And because he was the smartest, he was looked to as a leader. Paul, we're told, gave those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian, the spiritual authority to do so. When he was blinded by Jesus he was on his way to Damascus, he was on his way to work with local Jewish leaders in a non-Jewish dominated town to start stemming the growing wave of Christian converts. If the Apostles were taking the message of Christ beyond Jerusalem, Paul was being targeted by those who opposed this message to stomp it out wherever necessary.
It's not surprising then, after Paul's conversion that while he was concerned with new Christan disciples learning the Gospel, he was more preoccupied with them "becoming more like Christ". Or as he put it, becoming someone directed by the Holy Spirit to "produce fruit": Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The fact is, for better or worse, there is no "secret knowledge" in some book or possessed by some "wise teacher" that will produce this kind of fruit. With apologizes to the lady who wrote the book, "The Secret", visualizing who want to be until the day it happens might sound really great (and possesses a grain of truth - it's not a bad thing to have a vision for your life), but it's hardly a secret. I can point you to a thousand other books that say the same thing but weren't marketed nearly as well. While we can learn more about the world around us, about ourselves, and others, in the end Solomon, while admittedly sounding pretty cynical, is right - there's nothing new under the sun. God has given us scripture, the ability to reason, a Christian tradition where we can see were mistakes were made, and our own experience so that we might not just be smarter, but rather, fruitful.
I mean all the stuff listed in Galatians 5 which is the list of that which is the opposite of spiritual fruit:
eagerness for lustful pleasure
participation in demonic activities
outbursts of anger
the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group
you can be the most knowledgeable bloke around and still behave badly and engage in all these things. One of the brightest, smartest students I ever came across while I was at Miami was a witch who offered to help teach me spells to help my love life (which I decided to give a pass). Another classmate of mine who graduated "magna cum-laude" in 1991 and he was a libertarian who not only got high a lot but thought everyone who wasn't with him was self-delusioned nut. Seems like there's a story every single day of someone you wouldn't expect - either due to their education, background, or standing - who has engaged any one or more of the above behaviors and is now paying for it. All the athletic prowess and ability in the world isn't gonna stop people from wearing "Hide Your Beagle, Vick's An Eagle" t-shirts.
It's not enough to know about being a disciple. The end is becoming one.
What's more I have met, heard, read, and talked with plenty of people who knew a lot of Bible, church history, and theology - who could run rings around the rest of us apologetically - who were, for lack of a better term, jerks. Of all the profs, for example, I've had in the two seminaries where I studied, eight ran away from their spouses with a student in their class. EIGHT!
I remember this one time I went to a conference for church leaders: we ended up sitting at a table with a lead pastor whose ministry I had always admired from afar. I had read his books and listened to his sermons. He was brilliant. I thought the world of him....
and then, I met him.
That was a long time ago, but since then I've had enough other personal experience with big-time pastors that I have this theory that you almost have to be ego-centric jerk to be able to grow a church to an epic size. But this was the first time I had experienced this first hand, and I remember really being torn in that moment. Since then, the guy has taken a lot of lumps, and I can't say I'm surprised. Even a lot of knowledge about the one who calls us to "go forth and produce fruit that lasts" doesn't necessary add up to a life where the right kind of fruit is produced.
Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The fact is I know plenty of folks who don't know why e=mc2 or post-milleniallism or who the biblical character Tamar was (she was simultaneously the daughter-in-law of Judah, and also the mother of his children.... not quite the family-values you thought were in the Bible, eh?) who produce more fruit than the Bing Cherry trees in all of that state up north.
All that to say this.... is your spiritual journey - a life of study, worship, prayer, service, personal discipline - is it making you more fruitful. And if it isn't, why?
Or put it another way... are you learning more about God, or making peace with God? There's a big difference.
Jesus calls us in John 15 to "remain in my love... I have told you this so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!" He calls us, in our "becoming" a disciple and in working with others in their "becoming" a disciple, to the realization that it's more important to dwell with Jesus long enough to see the world through his eyes than knowing the right way or the right things. That's the difference between knowing that people who mourn are blessed because now that the Messiah has come they will be comforted, and comforting those who mourn because in your heart the Messiah has come.
Hence, while I think its a good idea to learn all you can, calibrate what you are learning by asking the question, changed a little than when the old lady said something similar in a Wendy's commercial, but still yet applicable..
Where's the fruit? Where's the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control?