CHRISTIAN IDENTITY THEFT
Imagine if you will a certain man – we’ll call him Joshua – who comes each day to sit on a park bench.
Another man – we’ll call this one Barney – has never actually met Joshua, let alone sat with him on that park bench. Barney lives quite some distance from Joshua. He does, however, know some significant information about Joshua: his name, for instance, as well as his address, his date of birth, his mother’s maiden name, and, his social security number, as well as the number on his credit card. You see, Barney is a computer hacker, and he makes his living perpetrating what is known as "identity theft." Barney routinely speaks on behalf of Joshua, making purchases in his name, and people assume Barney has authority to do so, but he doesn’t.
Now imagine a third man – we’ll call him Omar. Omar often goes to the same park as Joshua, and on several occasions he has sat for extended periods of time next to Joshua on that same bench. As is often the case when strangers find themselves together, Joshua and Omar would fall into conversations, sometimes quite intimate conversations, without ever sharing the kind of basic information that Barney knows about Joshua. Omar doesn’t even know Joshua’s name. But in a certain sense he knows Joshua himself, at least far more than Barney does. He knows of course that there is much he doesn’t know about his bench companion, but Omar has witnessed Joshua’s interactions with the various people who pass by in the park, and he has reached a point where he can with some accuracy predict how Joshua will respond to the variety of people who pass by. He knows him that well.
This little fantasy is all by way of getting at the basic question, what does it mean to say we "know" someone?
In the fourteenth chapter of John, the word "know" used in this sense shows up repeatedly, including these words by Jesus: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." So what does it mean to "know" Jesus, and in knowing him, to know the Father, the Creator of the heavens and the earth?
There are many people in this world who call themselves Christians, which is to say, "People who know Jesus," but what they are actually doing is perpetrating "identity theft." They’ve gotten a hold of Jesus’ name, address, date of birth, his mother’s maiden name and social security number. They know the formulas and the creeds, they can quote certain passages, including these words in today’s Gospel lesson, which they like to recite smugly, in which Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Which for them means, "I know Jesus’ social security number, and you don’t, nani, nani, boo boo!"
But they have never really absorbed who Jesus is. And when Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth and the life," he wasn’t saying that his name and social security number were these things, but rather the whole distinctive way he approached life was the way, the truth and the life. These so-called Christians are out there running up Jesus’ credit card on self-righteousness, when in fact Jesus is putting all of his money into reaching out to the downtrodden.
There are also people in this world whose relationship to Jesus resembles that of Omar to Joshua. They don’t know the codes, the formulas, the social security number. They may not even know the name of Jesus. But they have met Jesus in disguise, like those two disciples we heard about last week on the road to Emmaus, and they have gotten to know him quite well.
Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind as an example of this sort. Gandhi was drawn to Jesus, but never came to call him self a Christian, in part because the Christian Church rejected him for his skin color, and supported the oppression of his people. But Gandhi was like Omar, knowing Joshua in a way that Barney never did with his identity theft. Asked once what he thought of Christianity, Gandhi replied, "I think it’s a good idea. Christians should give it a try," implying that most of the Christians he knew bore little indication in their lives that they actually knew the one in whose names they pretended to act.
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