Sometimes I did not actually know the answer to their questions. Sometimes I even admitted that. But my children used to insist that I answer anyway.
And they would not accept any uncertainty. When I finally answered a question, whether or not I had any idea what the true answer might be, I had to speak with total conviction to match what they took to be my total authority and my total knowledge.
So, Benjamin might ask, how much is that car worth? I would tell him I did not know. He would insist. I would try to explain that something might be worth more to one person than to another. That was not good enough.
Finally I would break down and make up some number. The number could not be too big because he could not wrap his mind around a big number. So I would tell him that a car was worth $100. His eyes would get all round because $100 is a lot of money. And now he knew that that car was worth exactly $100, not a penny more, not a penny less. He knew because I had told him so.
Tragically, my boys grew up. Things changed.
A couple of days ago, Benjamin and I were chatting about economics. I told him what I thought. He had not asked.
You know how the story goes from here.
Benjamin expressed skepticism. I expressed absolute certainty. Benjamin pointed out, irritatingly, that every actual economist who actually knows anything about the issue we were discussing, disagreed with me. Unfortunately, he was probably right.
So I told him that the Bible commands children to honor their fathers. I find I have to say that a lot these days.
But the ugly reality is, my children no longer simply accept whatever I tell them. And probably that is for the best. They force me to ask the question, how do I know what I know?
That question, the question of what we can know, runs through our readings for this morning. Always the issue is if we know Jesus and how we know Jesus.
It starts with our opening prayer. We asked God to grant that, when we hear Christ’s voice, we may know him who calls us each by name.
It is not easy. God calls each of us. But there is a lot of noise all around us. It is possible to miss God’s call altogether. It is possible to mistake some other call for God’s. So we pray that we may hear and we may know.
In our first reading, we see an example of people who did not know Christ’s voice. When the rulers, elders, and scribes in Acts saw a man miraculously healed, they asked Peter and John, by what power or by what name did you heal this man? We want to know.
Peter answers, let it be known to you. It was Jesus. They do not buy it.
In our gospel reading, by contrast, Jesus talks about the people who do know him. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.”
Some do not know. Some do know.
And some struggle. Some wrestle with the question, how can we know? Some good and faithful people, people who do know Christ, need reassurance. They need to be reassured that they really do know Christ.
First John is addressed to people like that. Three times in our reading for this morning, the author says, “By this, we know.” He uses essentially the same phrase another seven times in the other four chapters. Clearly he was concerned with how we can know what we know, since he answered the question ten times!
Among other things, the Christians addressed in First John were anxious about their standing before God. The elder worries because their hearts condemn them. He means they are suffering from over-active consciences.
So the elder reassures them. The elder says that God is greater than their hearts. The elder says that Christ abides in them. The elder says that they have the Holy Spirit.
But his readers were a little bit like my children. They were not inclined simply to take the elder at his word. They wanted more. They wanted to be sure.
So the elder gives them more.
He says over and over again, “by this we know.” And the “this” is always love.
We can know that Christ abides in us, he says at the end of our passage, if we obey God’s commandment. And what is that? To believe in the name of Jesus Christ and to love one another.
Believing in the name of Christ is not too bad. But how, we might ask, can we love one another?
After all, we cannot control our feelings. We cannot simply will ourselves to feel all warm and fuzzy about someone who routinely irritates us.
That is OK. The love the elder means is not the same as feeling warm and fuzzy. The elder is not talking about feelings at all. The elder is talking about a different kind of love.
If we want to reassure our hearts, if we want to know that we are from the truth, we have to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. The love he is talking about is something we do, not something we feel. By loving in action, we will know.
Suppose we want to keep pushing. What, we might ask, does it mean to love in action? What does active love look like?
The elder answers in the first line of our reading. “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Christ teaches us what love looks like. If we want to love in action, the elder says, we should do what Christ did. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or, less dramatically, if we have the world’s goods and see a neighbor in need, we ought to help.
The point of all this is pretty straightforward.
It begins with what Christ has already done. Christ laid down his life for us. That is how we can know what love is, what love looks like.
If we have any doubts about our status before God, the best way to resolve them is to follow Christ’s example, to love each other. By loving, we come to know God better. By loving we come to know that Christ abides in us. By loving, we experience genuine unity and communion with our brothers and sisters. By loving, we spread the love of God in the world.
Psalm 23 is a beautiful expression of the calm, certain knowledge of God that comes with a lifetime of love. It begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” It ends, “Surely [God’s] goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
That Psalmist knows God.
And if the Psalmist had a teen-age son at home, his son probably asked him, how can you be so sure?
To which I picture the Psalmist responding: Try it for yourself. Follow the example of Christ. Live a life of love. By that, you, too, too will know.
May we follow that advice.
In the name of our risen Lord. Amen.
1 John 3:16-24