What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands,
concerning the word of life––
this life was revealed,
and we have seen it and testify to it.
(1 Jn 1:1-2)
The 13th century Zen patriarch Dogen told the story about a Zen priest and master named Tokusan who was the greatest scholar of his era on the Diamond Sutra. One of the most famous teachings from the Diamond Sutra is from Chapter 18, when the Buddha said, “Mind in the past, mind in the present, mind in the future, cannot be grasped.” Well, Tokusan heard about another master in another part of Japan who had a great reputation, and he set out to go meet him loaded down with a huge bag containing his commentaries. Along the way, he sat down to take a brief rest, and he felt hungry and wanted to take a small meal. Along came an old woman who sat down beside him. He asked her who she was and she replied that she was a rice cake seller. He said, “Good, I’d like to buy some.” But before she would sell him one, she asked him what was in his great bag. He told her that he was a great scholar on the Diamond Sutra and that the bag contained all his commentaries. On hearing this the old woman said: “I have a question. If you can answer I will sell you one; if not, you must go hungry. I especially remember the verse,” she said, “‘Mind in the past, mind in the present, mind in the future, cannot be grasped.’ If you buy a rice cake from me what mind will you eat it with?” Tokusan was completely flabbergasted by this question and too surprised to say anything, so the old woman brushed herself off and went on her way leaving Tokusan empty handed––and hungry. Dogen comments that the old woman should have hit him with one of the rice cakes and shouted, “You stupid priest! Stop being an idiot!” And then he goes on to say that it is truly regrettable that such a great Buddhist scholar who had studied thousands of volumes of commentaries and explained their theories for so many years could not answer an old woman’s simple question. “There is a big difference,” he says, “between acquiring knowledge through books and acquiring knowledge through experience.”
There is a big difference between acquiring knowledge through books and acquiring knowledge through experience.
Today we celebrated the feast of Saint John, the beloved, the evangelist. More than the other apostles, I envy John this experience that gave him such knowledge, because his was definitely knowledge gained through experience, not knowledge through books. It was knowledge based on what he heard, what he saw, what he touched. Our knowledge of God is often so notional, intellectual, and abstract. John’s was knowledge based on what he learned from laying his head on Jesus’ chest.
What I find amazing about John is that while from him we have the most sublime articulations of the theology of the logos in the prologue to his Gospel, the loftiest of Christologies in the New Testament, soaring to the heights of divinity on the wings of an eagle, at the same time we have such great tenderness especially in his first letter from which we read today. Somehow we know as we read him that his teaching––as lofty as it is––is not dis-incarnate, not a philosophical flight of fancy, not speculation, not just notional: it is what he heard, what he saw with his eyes, what he looked upon, what he touched. There is almost not a phrase in this first letter that isn’t heartbreakingly beautiful with its paean to love, addressed not to friends and fellow Christians, not even to brother and sisters, but to the readers as “little children.” I think of him having the authority of intimacy.
And then, of course, there is the Book of Revelation. It’s almost as if he had to keep switching literary genres to try to express this powerful experience of his: from the high Christology of the Gospel, to these tender admonitions of his letter, to the archetypal imagery of the Apocalypse, as if he had to engage the head, the heart and the gut all to convey the depth of this mystery. But what else could we expect from someone who had learned the secret of Jesus’ heart? How many ways can you write about love and it is never adequate? What we have seen with our eyes! What we have heard! What we have touched! You can almost hear him still marveling over it all, with the firm conviction that this man was the logos made flesh, and “I laid my head on his chest!” And from experience that he draws the simple conclusion that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.
There is also something quiet about John, something humble, something that does not need to put itself first. Much is made of the fact that in the story of he and Peter running to the tomb, even though John arrives at the tomb first he lets Peter go in ahead of him, and how that is a sign of the primacy of Peter. But I like to think of it as the humility of love, that he has learned from resting on the breast of Jesus that love is like that––that it puts others first, that it does not seek the first place, that there is a kind of strength that doesn’t need to put itself forward. That too is the authority of intimacy. And it is from that vantage point that one gains access to a whole new way of knowing. His experience of the self-emptying love of Jesus taught him how to act. And so then he can teach from the authority of intimacy simply this: “love one another.”
And that experience that John had was not simply that Jesus loved him, but that John was open to that love and loved Jesus in return, in vulnerability, faithfulness and courage: vulnerability––laying his head on the chest of Christ and asking just the right question; faithfulness––even to being entrusted with the care of his mother; and courage––even to the foot of the cross. And his authority is based on that love, the authority of intimacy; it is that love that can recognize the Lord on the seashore when no one else can.
It would be truly regrettable if we who have studied volumes of commentaries and explained our theories for so many years would acquire our knowledge only through books, ideas and notions, and not through experience. How can we see, hear and touch, how can we experience Christ today? How can we gain this authority of intimacy? In the sacraments, in our prayer, in the Word, in each other, in the beauty that surrounds us. Let’s lay our heads on the breast of Jesus today, and, through the example and intercession of St John the beloved, the evangelist, pray to be vulnerable, courageous and trustworthy in love, love for Christ, love for one another, so that we too may have the authority of intimacy.