Knowledge as God’s gift to us

A reflection by Revd Trevor Thomas

We long for knowledge – not to answer quiz questions, but because our lives depend on it!

And sure knowledge is what we currently are denied. Here’s an extract from last Saturday’s paper: ‘How many people have Covid-19 now and how many people have had it? The only thing we know for sure is that the daily number of positive tests announced by ministers is inaccurate. Knowing the infection level is important to work out the level of pressure likely to be put on the NHS and how feasible plans to track down cases and isolate contacts will be. When a reliable blood test for antibodies becomes available, it will let us know how far the virus has spread and give us more information on how dangerous coronavirus is by letting us work out what proportion of infections need hospital treatment.’ (The Times, May 9, 2020 – my italics)

There is another side to this which, in itself, should give us some reassurance. The commitment in modern medicine to evidence-based practice is a foundation of the health professions. Last Sunday, and again last Tuesday, we were reminded of the great contribution to the development of nursing which was made by the committed Anglican Florence Nightingale – ‘the lady with the lamp’. She worked tirelessly with injured and sick troops during the Crimean War. In the years and decades that followed that conflict Nightingale insisted on the highest standards of hygiene in hospitals and a rigorous commitment to the collection of reliable data in public health. So, today the lamp that is passed on from one nurse to another is the lamp of knowledge. And we recall the way in which hospital patients today are subject to regular and careful testing, with the data passed on from one practitioner to the next. Knowledge is precious, so when it is missing, or knowledge claims are unreliable, we naturally register great concern. But the concern itself is evidence that responsible professionals are ‘on the case’, and with a sense of urgency.

Next Sunday’s New Testament passages for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (17th May) are also concerned with knowledge. According to Luke’s account in Acts (chapter 17, verses 22-31), Paul found an altar in Athens with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ The apostle went on to fill in the gap in knowledge as he addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill, speaking of God the creator, Jesus, and the resurrection.

In the Gospel passage Jesus also speaks about knowledge in his conversation with the disciples. After his departure in death, at Easter they will see him again. On that day, as he says, they will know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14: 20)

In his brief address on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on May 10th Rowan Williams spoke of the eternal purpose of God; at its heart is healing and life. But, how are we to know that this is a reliable foundation for ourselves? John’s Gospel offers us the answer. The evidence that God is real comes from the promise of Jesus to take us up into the relationship with his Father that he already enjoys, and from the fulfilment of that promise in the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth.

This is what underlies the knowledge of the believer. It is not something we work up for ourselves; it is God’s gift to us. And God’s gift also to those with whom we are called into dialogue (the Greek word that describes Paul’s work in Acts 17: 17 is ‘dielegeto’). Some of those dialogue partners will come with their own awareness of the Divine, and their own desire to bear witness to what they have received and to listen to what we have to share. Many others will be open enquirers, though not all of course.

In the Acts passage (chapter 17, take as a whole) dialogue is what is going on in Athens, in the synagogue with Jews and in the marketplace with others. There is plenty of ‘cut and thrust’, but also serious attempts at discernment. For Jesus and Resurrection are not ‘novelty’ idols, but the key to what Paul has to declare about God and God’s eternal purpose.

In all our uncertainties today this remains absolutely ‘solid ground’.

Trevor Thomas (13th May 2020)