There’s a wonderful song that the singer John Mayer came out with a number of years ago. The song is entitled “No Such Thing.” Part of the lyrics from that song read:
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above.
That song is about a teenager coming to an understanding of his own reality in the world. After having been told for years what it means to be successful, he discovers that, guess what, . . . there’s no such thing as one definition of success. There is no such thing as one definition of a meaningful life. He discovers that life is what you make of it. He discovers that, to varying degrees, we all define our own realities. Our own “real worlds.”
It’s a powerful song . . . especially for teenagers who are questioning everything about themselves and the world they live in. But I was also thinking this week . . . it’s true for us too. And by “us” I mean Christians.
We have all, I’m sure, come to points in our lives when we have wondered whether all that we proclaim by our faith is really true. Wondered whether it might all really be an elaborate made-up story. Those times are difficult. They’re definitely difficult. But what I have discovered is that it’s by coming through those times that we are, in fact, able to shape our faith. To define our own reality in terms of what is “real” about our faith.
Today’s Gospel reading has the disciples faced with the same challenge. It ‘s a few days before the crucifixion and Jesus is walking in the temple. The people are gathered around him questioning him, perhaps even taunting him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you’re the Messiah, tell us.” And to their question, Jesus responds, “I have told you and you don’t believe.” And the question I can’t avoid asking is . . . why are we given this reading today? Why, in the midst of the Easter season, are we yanked back to a time before the crucifixion, when Jesus is questioning the faith of his followers?
The answer, I think, is, as it often is in the Gospels—because we’re human. We forget. We grow complacent and overly comfortable. We start taking things for granted. And when we start taking things for granted, we aren’t really engaging those things. And that’s especially true when it comes to faith.
When I looked at it this way, I started thinking, well, what better time for us to step back and challenge ourselves than in the midst of the most confident time of the church year. So, this morning I ask you in the context of that John Mayer song and with what we are given from the Gospel today . . . do you believe? And if so, what do you really believe and how does it make a difference in your life?
Most of us were educated with the very western notion that belief is based on evidence. The scientific method relies on forming a hypothesis, which we then test by experimentation. If the data from the experiment confirms the hypothesis, we are reasonably certain it’s true. If the evidence fails to confirm the hypothesis, we must revise it or create a whole new theory.
A scientific belief is firmly rooted in the observation and evidence that is in support of that belief. But the more mystical traditions of Christianity say that even this is not enough. That even with miracles for proof, we just cannot be confident that our faith will remain sure. In fact, even Jesus acknowledged this when he pointed out that even his miracles were not enough to insure the belief of his disciples.
So, if this is the case, then how do we get to be one of those sheep who knows the Master’s voice? A member of the flock that cannot be snatched from his hand? We do it the way John Mayer said . . . by moving beyond what we have been taught to actually living it out.
I heard an interesting example of this on a radio talk show. A woman was asking the talk show host how she could learn to be a more compassionate person. The host’s answer was, I thought, an inciteful one. She said, “You don’t learn to be compassionate you just do it.” It isn’t by going off and contemplating how to be compassionate that you somehow magically learn to be compassionate. It’s by going out and living a life of compassion that you, in fact, become what you do.
We’re always going to be able to think up new challenges, new questions, new angles with which to poke holes in the fabric of our faith. But if we’re really going to call it a faith, then eventually we have to realize that we can only bridge the gap between what is known and what is possible by choosing to act based on that faith. To live by faith is what makes it true. Now, I know that statement is going to drive some of you crazy. To live by faith is what makes it true. But it’s the only choice we have. Because there is no way to “prove” faith otherwise. Even scientists tell us this is true.
Science is based on theory. Theories that, yes, we find empirical data to support. And the more empirical data there is to support that theory, the more we believe in it. But we only act based on those theories until another theory comes along with more empirical data that proves the former one to be less likely or less supportable. There is never real “certainty.” Only a strong probability.
Surprisingly, that is much the way our faith works. This’s why I have said many times that scientists often make the best Christians. The scientific approach of living with ambiguity, of relishing the experience of gathering information and discovering new things rather than only being satisfied by finding the answer is what scientists do. And it’s also what all Christians need to do at some point in their journey of faith.
If what you need to live as a Christian is proof that the resurrection happened, I’m here to tell you that you likely will never live as a Christian. At some point we simply have to cut through all the uncertainty and decide what it is that we’re going to base our actions on. And by doing so we will define what we believe. This is what enables us to move from having a theology about God to having a faith in God and a life based on that faith.
Now, I want to make one, important clarifying point here. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not suggesting that we each need to go out and define our own version of what the Christian faith should be. One of the really important tenets of the Christian faith is that God’s truth is always revealed within the context of community. In understanding our faith, we need to remember that the truth that I believe God has revealed to me has to be shared with the truth that you believe God has revealed to you, and our truths need to find a way to not only live together, but blend. Because it is only through that blending of revelation that the Church has come to formulate what we believe our faith in God should be. How do we know that? Because that is how Jesus revealed himself to the disciples. Everything Jesus did was within the context of community and with the guiding principle of our mutual love and responsibility for each other. The truth that was revealed to Peter had to be blended with the truth that was revealed to Thomas, and the truth that was revealed to Mary Magdalene, and to James and John, or to Martha and Mary. That is what our shared faith is. The faith that has been handed down to us. And what we need to do individually is, we need to take that faith and move beyond just the learning of it to a point where we define how it is that we will live it out in our own way. Because how you choose to live out our faith will influence what you believe our faith says about the world.
If you live out our faith as a champion for social justice, that will influence your personal faith in one way. If you live out our faith through quiet contemplation, that will influence your personal faith another way. We each must, within the boundaries of the faith we have received, strike out on our own and define the life that that faith calls us to live.
And what’s wonderful is, however we choose to live out our individual faith journeys, as a community we have the joyous opportunity to live through these 50 days of the Easter season together each year. It’s the memory of these days that sustains us for the rest of the year. These are the days when we have the flame of the Paschal candle close by to guide us and remind us of the brightness of Christ’s light in the world. These are the days when we get to bathe in the afterglow of the resurrection.
Today, in the midst of Eastertide (or the Season of Easter), we are called to remember that the miracles made possible by God and told to us in scripture are not there as “proof” for why we should believe. They are there to remind us that it is only by choice that we can believe. Whether it is Paul raising a young woman from the dead or Jesus performing wondrous acts for his disciples, miracles are ours to believe in by choice. A choice that calls us to make Easter, and a sense of the presence of God, alive not just for fifty days but every day. It is a choice each of us will carry with us as we leave today, a choice to live each day spreading the joy and vitality of the love of God to all people for all time! A choice that will impact now just how we live, but that will help shape who we are and who we will become.