faith: what’s evidence got to do with it?

A sermon, whose basic themes are informed by a short essay by the philosopher/theologian Jean-Luc Marion on the question of faith and evidence.

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What is faith?

What does it mean to have faith?

How would we describe the experience of faith?

In our culture a very common way of thinking about religious faith is in terms of evidence – or, more specifically, in terms of a lack of evidence. From this point of view, if you believe something is true even without any evidence for it – that’s faith. If you believe something is true even though it can’t be proven and can’t be demonstrated, then that’s faith. In our culture it is very common to think this way – to think that faith just means believing something when there’s no evidence for what you believe. Since there’s no evidence, you’ve got to take it on faith.

So, simple examples:

There’s no scientific evidence that God exists but you believe it – that’s faith.

There’s no evidence prayer works, but you believe it does – that’s faith.

There’s no evidence Jesus rose from the dead, but you think he did – that’s faith.

There are other ways of thinking about faith in our culture, but this is quite a common way. And not only is faith commonly thought of in this way, but in our culture, we should perhaps add, a negative judgment is often attached to this kind of faith. In many corners of our culture, if you believe something without evidence; if you believe something to be true that can’t proven by observation and testing, then you’re considered naïve and foolish – even irresponsible. You shouldn’t take anything on faith.

If there’s no evidence, you’ve got to find evidence.

If there’s no proof, you’ve got to find proof.

And if you can’t find that evidence, or if you can’t find that proof, then you should abandon that particular belief.  To do otherwise is foolish and irresponsible. It’s to just believe a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

What’s particularly interesting here is that we as Christians will also sometimes think about faith in this way. We will sometimes think about faith as something we have to muster because God hasn’t given clear evidence of himself. Faith becomes something we do, something we generate – faith is our response to the fact that the risen Jesus can’t be seen among us. Faith, here, becomes almost an act of the will:

There’s no evidence, but I‘m going to summon up faith in my heart.

There’s no proof, but I’m going to summon up belief in my mind.

All of this serves as a kind of introduction to our scripture reading for today, which is a story about faith.

It’s a story about the birth of faith.

It’s a story about the beginnings of faith.

And this story suggests that the way we often think about faith, in terms of evidence, misses the point in a pretty spectacular way. When we define faith as believing something even without evidence, we are thinking about faith in just the wrong way. Faith isn’t about believing something in the absence of evidence. Rather, faith is about coming to see what is right in front of your eyes.

In the narrative we find two disciples turning their backs on Jerusalem – turning their backs on a city that had come to represent heart-break and grief for them. Jesus was killed in Jerusalem jut a few days ago – killed in the most violent and shameful way imaginable – crucified by the Romans. Not only have these two lost a teacher and a friend, they have lost their hope for God’s kingdom. They were so sure that Jesus was the one who would make things right for Israel, and now he’s dead. They turn their backs on Jerusalem, dejected and at a loss.

We are given the name of one of the disciples, Cleopas – we don’t know the name of the other disciple. Perhaps it is the wife of Cleopas? Perhaps this is husband and wife making the slow and tear-filled journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

As they travel, these two are talking about Jesus and about everything that has happened. They are also, no doubt, talking about the bizarre reports they had heard that very day. A few disciples – a group of women – had gone early to the tomb and came back saying the body of Jesus was gone – saying that they had seen angels.

As we think about these two on their journey, we can perhaps imagine ourselves in a similar situation – we can imagine ourselves in their shoes because we have been there. The experience of these two is such a normal, human experience. We know what it is to lose someone close to us. We know the pain of losing someone we love. We’ve been there, walking through hazy days after a funeral – our heads swimming, our thoughts cloudy, our hearts riven by grief – such a thoroughly human experience.

As these two, heart-broken disciples walk along the road from Jerusalem, toward the village of Emmaus, a stranger travelling in the same direction overtakes them on the road. And as he comes closer and moves alongside them, he says to them: “I couldn’t help but overhear part of your conversation. It sounds like something serious has happened. What is it that you’re talking about?” They reply, either snarkily or in amazement: “Where have you been? How could you not know what has been going on?” And they go on to tell this stranger all about Jesus; about what has happened – everything, all the way up to those crazy stories from this morning about an empty tomb and angels.

If these two disciples had their moment to express amazement at this stranger – “What, where have you been these past few days? Have you had your head stuck in the sand?”, now it is the turn of this stranger to express a kind of astonishment at them: “You two are so thick. You seem to know all about this Jesus; you seem to know everything that has happened these few day – but you also seem to know nothing about him.” And as this stranger walks along the way with them he explains how the whole bible, almost from start to finish, was about Jesus – he explain to them that everything in Jesus’ life was a prelude to a great and awesome glory to be revealed.

Now of course we all know the punch line to this scriptural joke. We all know that it is Jesus himself who is speaking to them.

The one they are mourning;

the one they don’t understand;

the one they are trying to understand;

He is the one speaking with them. And they don’t even know it’s him. He’s right there in front of their eyes and they can’t see him.

Faith isn’t a matter of believing when there’s no evidence to support your belief. Faith isn’t about trying to generate belief in something that can’t be proven or demonstrated.

Jesus is right there in front of the two disciples.

The evidence is in front of their eyes.

Jesus himself explains his own life and identity to them.

The demonstration of resurrection life is speaking to them.

Jesus explains that an empty tomb is exactly what they should have expected.

The one who walked out tomb is there on the way with them.

 All the evidence they need is in front of their eyes. A lack of evidence isn’t the problem to which faith is a solution.

Faith isn’t about believing something even though there’s no evidence. Faith is about coming to see what you had been unable to see.

It’s interesting perhaps to think about what is happening with these disciples as they listen to this stranger walking beside them – as he explains the bible to him and explains Jesus to them. A little bit later in the story, this is what they would say about that walk with Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…”

This must be one of the most beautiful sentences in all of scripture. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.”

These two are listening to Jesus tell the story of Jesus, and as they listen he is somehow breaking through to their distraught hearts. Somehow his words are infiltrating their cloudy minds.

They can’t fully articulate what is happening

They can’t fully grasp what is changing.

They can’t yet see with full clarity.

But their hearts are burning. This language implies an emotional response; it implies a beginning of understanding; it implies that somewhere in heart and mind the deep meaning of his life and words is finding a point of contact.  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.”

The moment of clarity comes; the moment of deeper faith arrives only when they reach the village of Emmaus. The stranger seems to be continuing down the road, but they invite him in for a rest; for a meal. He accepts. And as they sit at the table, the one who is supposed to be the guest, suddenly becomes the host. The one who is supposed to be on the receiving end of hospitality, extends a new and generous hospitality to the disciples. We read: “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Without taking anything away from this as a story with deep historical roots – without taking anything away from this as a story of encounter traced back to those earliest disciples – we can also say that Luke crafts this story for the Christian community of which he was a part. And here is a part of what he is sayhing:

When God’s people gather, the scriptures are read and studied – the story of Jesus’ live is read or told.

When God’s people gather, bread is broken and eaten.

And in these moments there is every likelihood and possibility that faith will come alive – that we will begin to see what has always been there before our eyes:

That the one who was crucified is risen.

That the one who rose lives among us still.

That the one who met those first disciples meets us.

Our response to the story of Jesus; our participation in this meal; it doesn’t always lead to a lightning flash of faith – sometimes we will experience that burning in our hearts. Did our hearts not burn within us when we heard about Jesus; when we shared in the bread and wine.

Faith isn’t about believing something without any evidence. It is about coming face to face with – finally seeing – the one who is our life and our Lord and who walks with us through our every experience in life.

A last word for us this morning is that we can extend the reach of this story. Because this story isn’t only about discovering Jesus through the narratives of scripture and in the breaking of bread. It points also to the possibility that in our everyday we may begin to see that Jesus is present – may begin to understand that he is risen for us – may begin to grasp and trust that his Spirit is at work in our lives and our world.

Our task isn’t to try and generate faith in the absence of any evidence. Our task is to have our eyes wide open for the grace of Christ that is present to us in the everyday.

Frederick Beuchner has written these words about how and when we might encounter Jesus, see Jesus, find our hearts resonating with his presence with us.

Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable moments. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but…at supper time, or walking along a road…He never approaches from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.

Faith means seeing that Jesus is with us.

Faith means seeing that God’s love for us is strong.

Faith means seeing that forgiveness defines us.

Faith means seeing that the kingdom of God is among us.

Faith means understanding we are alive in Christ, for others.

May God give us the grace of open eyes. Amen.

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