One of the problems that many people have with Christian beliefs is that they do not 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 often they understand what they are for and how they work. For example, suppose a friend of yours or mine, whom we know and have trusted, is accused of a crime or some offence–and 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 an act of trust, a conviction about the character of another person. And that belief can be tested; it can be verified or proven false. I used as an example a person named Ed. And the real Ed was a friend of mine. 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 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 vindicatged–he was found guilty, and my trust in him was broken. What happend in this relationship is that I knew Ed and believed in him, and I know that his being found guilty destroyed my belief in him as well as our relationship and our friendship.
So there is a logic behind belief in people which we can all understand: it is about our ability to trust or not to 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 the, the knowledge we have built up of them.
And it is this kind of trust that underfirds all of our important relationships. Comt 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 the acts of trust or 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 because 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 the airlines. We trust that when we get on a place in Eugene 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 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, of our chosen airline-we are prepared to put ourselves in their hands for a successful heart 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 seem easy to either falsify or to verify these beliefs. I could have taken steps to verify my friend Ed's honesty; we can test the trustworthiness of a surgeon by variious 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 falsify that belief? That's the first difficulty. We can get around it by saying that we trust our intuition, or swe're persuaded by the theological and philosophical arguments for 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 spin was somewhat the same when C.S. Lewis was asked what would happen if belief in God was proven wrong. Lewis replied, "Why then you would have paid the universe a compliment it doesn't deserve. Your error even so would be more interesting and important than the reality. And yet how could that be? How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are some much stronger, better, subtler than itself?"
So what is the point of a particular belief–what difference does it make, what's the payoff?
Take miracles, for 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 me? Will it make me a better person if I 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 oursleves to entertain miraculous possibilities? Do our beliefs make the slightest difference to our actual lives?
But there is a second test–the test of beliefs that make a difference–the payoff test. In this morning's gospel lesson Jesus says, "…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 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 spare little poem called "The Presence Tense" that puts this point very well:
"Your holy hearsay
Is not evidence:
Give me the good news
In the presence tense.
Nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened
How am I to know?
The living truth
Is what I want 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 this test, the Resurrection does seem to have made a difference to people's lives–there has been a payoff–and from our study of Paul, the resurrection has power to do 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 anf who fled from his dying, somewhere found the costly courage to proclaim the meaning of his life. And that transformation, that turnaround, is part of what we mean by Resurrection.
I would go so far as to say that one of the meanings 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." This is one of the resurrection voices that calls us from despair and all of its defeats to the possibility of transformation and the gransformation begins in our hearts and minds and attitudes.
Let me use an example to make my point. The campaign to give African-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, Rosa Parks, refused to go to the back of the bus. She was sitting in 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 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 7pm at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instructions." This was the beginning of the famous bus boycott that changed American history. It was as simple as that. And the Black citizens who attended that meeting knew that they would have to pay for threir refusal to submit any longer to their own daily humiliation. They knew that 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, because a woman had the courage to refuse to go to the back of the bus. That was a resurrection moment.
Resurrection, by any of us, is the refusal to be imprisoned any longer by history and it's long hatreds. It is the determination to take the first step our 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 contronts us–whatever it is, we simply refuse any longer to accept it because the logic of resurrection calls us to action.
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 coompanies this belief–action is the proof of the belief.
So let me finish with what may appear to be a paradox: I believe in that resurrection, the Jesus resurrection, because I see resurrection now. I see stones rolled away and new possibilities rising from old attitudes.
My own belief in resurrection means that I must commit myself to the possibility of transformation and, however feeble I feel, take the first faltering steps towards change. That means continuing to struggle with my own human nature. It means joining with others in action to bring new life to human communities that are still held in the grip of winter and there are lots of frozen churches and deep frozen human institutions that need thawing out with resurrection fire.
Engaging in that exhilarating action–proving the power of the Resurrection.
Only that will show people how:
The Christ we talke about
is living now.