Righteous Father, the world does not know you but I know you and these know that you have sent me.[i]

Dr Johnson’s assertion that ‘if a man is tired of London he is tired of life’ implies an infinite complexity and variety of opportunities and entertainments to be had in that city. It is indeed a large and complicated place and it takes the average London taxi driver – if such a thing exists – about five years to acquire ‘the knowledge’ – a mastery of routes and shortcuts from anywhere to anywhere, rather like being a living, breathing SatNav but without the novelty voices. Any would-be cabbie will spend years whizzing around the capital, memorising roads, shortcuts, interesting landmarks and, of course, the all important conversational openers: ‘I had that (fill in the name of your choice) in the back of my cab once...’. After an initial written test there is something like a viva – known in taxi circles as an ‘appearance’ when the candidate is given a start and end point for an imaginary journey and must be able to give a precise account of the shortest route between the two.

Remarkable indeed – but possibly not so different from some Biblical perspectives on knowledge, or indeed appearance – although we might call them by different names – gnosis and shekinah.

The period where we are now, between Ascension and Pentecost, is an odd and unsettling time – a sort of limbo. We have celebrated Christ’s resurrection and glorious ascension and we are ready to greet the Holy Spirit as the Church is inspired at Pentecost (but not yet). We are still in Eastertide but possibly feel it should have run its course. So what is going on?

It all seems just a little bit messy. For those of us who are bordering on the control freaky, that is a problem. Some people may be content to work in studies with piles of paper, picking their way between the door and the desk, or to sleep in bedrooms with dirty socks on the floor but others of us like linen with perfectly ironed creases, we like candles which are symmetrical and, above all, we like spreadsheets, to order our lives. Whoever would have thought that the spreadsheet could do so much – from the cross-referenced index of sermons preached when, where and on which passage, to the list of Christmas presents bought for all friends and relatives over the past five years. Do you know, you can even do a handy drop down menu with the dates of birth of all your godchildren so that gifts are always age appropriate and never repeated?

However, even if you are a sock-dropper or a paper-piler, the likelihood is that you probably like life to be neat and tidy and well-ordered. As human beings we do not cope well with uncertainty and we want to know what is going to happen next. We see this when we worry about moving on or new experiences and we see it also with the fortune teller in the Acts of the Apostles – no different from the horoscopes or tarot readings of today. For what do they say of the human race? A fascination with the occult? Perhaps - but more often a desire simply to have knowledge and to control what we think is our destiny.

John’s Gospel is particularly concerned with knowledge – we see this from its prologue through to its postscript and the author’s final assertion that he has witnessed to the truth, facts, knowledge. In the passage from the farewell discourse which we heard a few moments ago, knowledge is again part of the picture, as Jesus intercedes on behalf of those who believe – those who have ‘the knowledge’. For it is one of those strange linguistic quirks that what John calls ‘knowledge’[ii] also includes ‘insight’: that state of being which is empirical, intuitive and experiential, knowing oneself and ultimately knowing the divine. Whereas what John calls ‘faith’[iii] also includes the academic and intellectual – the acceptance of a proposition and a truth which is God.

Like the Gnostic heretics, Christ appears to present knowledge (in its broadest sense) as the key to salvation but, unlike the Gnostics, there is no incompatibility between the subjective appreciation or comprehension of Our Lord, the ‘knowledge’ of his salvific role by the believer and the saving grace which we receive through the objective work of Christ, whether we know him or whether we don’t. Likewise there is no incompatibility here between the incarnate Christ and the pre-existent or indeed post-Ascension Christ, for all are one and one with the Father, worthy of equal worship both by those who knew and experienced Jesus as a contemporary and by those who ‘will believe’ in the future without any direct ‘knowledge’ at all.

Yet the farewell discourse and this time in the liturgical year are still undoubtedly messy.They are messy in part because there is no closure. For however much we give thanks for the mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, we have to acknowledge that for the disciples (and perhaps also for us) this was and is also a time of bereavement, loss and deep uncertainty, for the risen Christ has gone and we do not yet have the consolation of the Spirit or the joy of Pentecost.

So how do we cope with the messiness? How do we cope with our misplaced desire for knowledge and order and control? How do we cope when we want to have our lives planned and neat and tidy, our curacies sorted out, our houses decorated, or our rota for the next week fixed up? How do we cope with those earlier parts of the farewell discourse, where Thomas complains that he does not know where Jesus is going,[iv] and Philip goes so far as to try to bargain with Our Lord – saying that his curiosity would be satisfied in an instant if only Jesus were to give him ‘the knowledge’ and show him the Father?[v]

For the Christ and the narrative of John’s Gospel are indeed messy – there is uncertainty and confusion and probably despair at the prospect of impossible tasks. How can we know the way? How can we all be one? How can we ever tie up the loose ends presented in this limbo land?

Of course we can’t.  We value study and reflection and prayer but we will never in this life have ‘the knowledge’ of our God whose infinite complexity makes the navigation of London seem like child’s play. Instead, we must hope to receive grace through something else – perhaps through appearance.  

This time it is not the appearance of the London taxi drivers, revealing their knowledge under exam conditions but the appearance of glory which reveals God’s presence. For just as knowledge runs as a seam through the fourth gospel, so too do revelation and glory – the shekinah – and especially in this passage of John. In one respect glory is used as an indication of Christ’s divinity – for glory is in part ‘praise’ and only God is worthy of that. Glory is also about presence and indwelling and appearance – it is very specifically where God can be seen and where God is to be found. As in the Ascension, as in the prison with Paul and Silas, as in the mystery of the sacrament.  

So, in the light of the mighty resurrection and glorious ascension and looking in this time of uncertainty for his coming in glory, let us pray that we may find Christ not in the neat and the tidy or in our desire to know and control but in our great big human mess of frailty and disunity and confusion.   

For it is most certainly there that he will find us.

The Revd Dr Rowena Pailing, Director of Pastoral Studies, College of the Resurrection.

[i]John 17.25

[ii] gnosis

[iii] pistis

[iv] John 14.5

[v]John 14.8