Today we’re beginning to close in on the sermons for Lent. And Holy Week and Easter begin just a week away. Last week I spent some time talking about several spiritualities that are helpful and even crucial to our life together as a Christian community. And I suggested that certain beliefs that we have as Christians are also crucial in moving our lives to Christian action.
One of the problems that many people have with Christian beliefs is that they don’t know what those beliefs are for. They may know what the belief is, but are not sure what the belief itself is meant to do or why it is important to hold that belief. After all, everyone has beliefs of one sort or another and in many ways we do not often understand what they are for and how they may work.
For example, suppose a friend of yours, or mine, whom we know and have trusted, is accused of a crime or some offence. We might find ourselves saying—“I know Ed and I know he is incapable of an act like that.” A belief of this sort is essentially an act of trust—a conviction about the character of a friend or colleague. And that belief can be tested: it can be verified or, alternately, proved false. I used as my example a person named Ed. And there was a real Ed who was a clergy friend of mine for many years. We graduated from seminary together. But he was accused of molesting some children in the parish where he served—and, of course, I didn’t want to believe that he would or, even could, do such a thing. If Ed had insisted that he was innocent and I trusted him, his innocence would have been vindicated for me. But he was not vindicated—he admitted his guilt, he was deposed as a priest and sent to prison. My trust in him was broken. What happened in this kind of a relationship is that I knew Ed and believed in him, and I know that his being found guilty destroyed my belief in him--it destroyed our relationship and our friendship.
So there is logic behind belief in people which we can all understand: it is about our ability to trust or not trust.
Trust is important in day to day living. We can’t spend our time constantly testing the honesty, the trustworthiness of our friends, so we go on intuition—our hunches about them—our experiences with them and the knowledge we have built up of them.
And it is this kind of trust that undergirds all of our important human relationships. Come to think of it, it is the basis of almost every aspect of our lives. Many of the things we do are based on assumptions that are acts of trust and belief.
Apart from trusting in our friends, we put our trust in surgeons when we have an operation—that’s a pretty radical sort of trust. We allow the surgeon to put us to sleep and cut us open with a knife and mess around with our insides.
And we trust airlines. We trust that when we get on a plane in Portland to fly somewhere, that we will be safe and the airlines will take every caution to be sure that the plane is safe, the staff is trained and competent and that everything will be done correctly and well.
In each of these examples our belief is based on experience—experience of the trustworthiness of the surgeon and hospital, or our chosen airline—so that we are prepared to put ourselves in their hands for a successful operation or an uneventful flight to some other location.
But how do religious beliefs operate? How do they work? There seems to be two difficulties with religious beliefs. First of all, it doesn’t appear to be easy to either falsify or to verify religious beliefs. I could have taken steps to verify my friend Ed’s honesty; we can test the trustworthiness of a surgeon by various means; and we can study the claims made by an airline about how many of their planes make it to a safe landing.
But how do we verify the existence of God, or even deny that belief? That’s the first difficulty. We can get around it by saying that we trust our intuition, or we’re persuaded by the theological and philosophical arguments for belief in God—or maybe even bet on the possibility of belief in God. I think it was Pascal who said that it was worth a gamble on the possibility of God on the grounds that if you win, you win everything. But if you lose, there is nothing to lose.
The same idea was applied when C.S.Lewis was asked what would happen if his belief in God was proved wrong. Lewis replied” Why, then you would have paid the universe a compliment it doesn’t deserve. Your error would be more interesting and important than the reality. And yet, how could that be? How would an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, (and) subtler than itself?”
So, what is the point of a particular belief, what difference does it make, what’s the payoff?
Take miracles as an example. Leaving aside whether Jesus actually performed any miracles, what is the point in believing that he did—what is that belief for? Will it make any difference to you? Will it make us better people if we believe in them? Is there some virtue in believing things we can’t prove? Is there a believing part of our brains that we exercise by persuading ourselves to entertain miraculous possibilities? Do our beliefs make the slightest difference to our actual lives?
But there is a reason—the test of beliefs that makes a difference—the payoff test. In John’s gospel Jesus says “….and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn.12:32) I take this to mean that Jesus was saying something about his resurrection. And we are asked to believe in the resurrection as one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity—but the resurrection is surely beyond any possibility of historical recovery.
Sydney Carter wrote a little poem called “The Present Tense” that puts this point well :
Your holy hearsay
Is not evidence:
Give me the good news
In the present tense.
Nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened
How am I to know?
The living truth
Is what I long to see:
I cannot lean upon
What used to be.
So shut the Bible up
And show me how
The Christ you talk about
Is living now.
By the test of Christ’s living now, the Resurrection has made a difference to people’s lives—there has been a payoff. And from our study of Paul, the Resurrection has a unique power to do several things. The impressive thing about the Resurrection is not what was claimed, but who made the claim. The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and who fled from his dying, somewhere found the costly courage to proclaim the meaning of his life—and that transformation, that turn around, is part of what we mean by Resurrection.
Such a meaning of the Resurrection is best understood as a symbol or sign of the human possibility of transformation. Albert Camus wrote that, “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” There are resurrection voices that call us from despair and all of our defeats to the possibility of transformation and that transformation begins in our hearts and in our minds and in our attitudes.
For a moment, let me use an example of the transformation of our hearts and minds and attitudes:
The campaign to give Black Americans full civil and human rights began as an act of personal transformation in the black community itself. It all began when one tired black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to go to the back of the bus. She was sitting on the front seat of the black section and was asked to give that seat up to a white man who got on at a later stop. She refused. The police were called and she was arrested. The day after Rosa Park’s arrest, Martin Luther King Jr. called a meeting. A leaflet was sent out to 50,000 black people. It said: “Don’t ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place on Monday, December 5th. A Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat. Come to a mass meeting on Monday at 7 pm at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instructions.”
This was the beginning of the famous bus boycott that changed American history. It was a simple as that. And the black citizens who attended that meeting knew that they would have to pay for their refusal to submit by their own daily humiliation. They knew they would have to face hatred and persecution. But something dropped away from them—some burden of fear or timidity or resignation. In Resurrection language a whole people walked out of the tomb of segregation—all because a woman had the courage to refuse to go to the back of the bus. For a whole culture, that was a Resurrection moment.
Resurrection, by any of us, is the refusal to be imprisoned by history and its long hatreds. It is our determination to take the first step out of the tomb.
Resurrection is a refusal to be gripped forever by the fingers of winter, whatever our winter may be. It may be a personal circumstance that immobilizes us, or a social evil that confronts us—whatever it is, we simple refuse to accept it any longer—because the truth of Resurrection calls us to action and we’re called to move forward.
If we say we believe in the Resurrection, it only has meaning if we are, in fact, Resurrection people—people who believe in the possibility of transformed lives and transformed attitudes and a transformed society. The payoff comes in the action that accompanies this belief—action is the proof of the belief.
So let me finish with what may appear to be a paradox: I believe in the Resurrection, the Jesus Resurrection, because I see Resurrections now. In this community I see stones rolled away and new possibilities rising from past attitudes.
My own belief in Resurrection means that I have to commit myself to the possibility of transformation and—however feeble—I must take the first faltering step towards change in my life. That means continuing to struggle with my own human nature. It means joining with others to bring new life to human communities that are still held in the grip of winter. And it means so because there are a lot of frozen churches and deep frozen institutions that need thawing out with Resurrection fire.
Engaging in that exhilarating action is what proves to all of us the power of the Resurrection.
Only that will show people how: The Christ we talk about—the God that we worship-- is living now.