[This sermon was the result of a preaching class that I took last semester. It’s primarily a reflection on the nature of faith, guided by the liturgical movement of Luke 24. Wes kindly referred to it as “a wonderful example of high theology in sermon form.” Enjoy!]
How many of you are familiar with the phrase “faith like a child?” We’ve all heard it, right? We all probably grew up with it. We’ve all heard sermons on how children have some kind of intrinsic quality that makes them believe more readily than we do. We’ve all seen those Christmas specials where the child’s dogged faith in Santa Claus brings a broken family back together or brings a the first Christmas snow in the middle of the Sahara or some such nonsense. This whole concept of “childlike faith” pervades our society.
But did you know it’s not in the Bible? Not that something has to be in the Bible to make it true, but perhaps the venue in which childlike faith is most often discussed is the church, and the church claims this book as an authority. Near as I can tell, the concept is derived from Matthew 18, when Jesus tells the disciples that they have to become like one of these little ones to be great in the kingdom. Now, I could be wrong, but I don’t think Jesus is saying that we should imitate the faith of little children
Why? Because children are inherently gullible. I can do this [grab Wes’ nose] and convince I child that I’ve stolen their nose. I grew up believing that my dad was actually Santa Claus (which was a pretty slick move on his part). Children believe that teachers live in the school and that grown-ups get pregnant by kissing. And yes, I’m a horrible cynic for standing in front of you today and criticizing the faith of children – because sometimes they really do seem to have some kind of special ability to see a world that we cannot access – but I don’t think Jesus wants us to have the faith of a young child. The innocence of a child, sure. Jesus wants us to have a lack of a desire for social mobility and a sort of naïveté when it comes to understanding power, but certainly not the faith of a child.
How do I know this? Because the passage we read just a few minutes ago shows us a different kind of faith. In a lot of ways, this first Easter Sunday has a lot to teach us about the nature of faith. What, then, is a healthy model for understanding the nature of faith?
I admit that as I started to put this sermon together, I was at a loss as to how to tackle this question. Faith. What is faith? How do you define it? How you touch it? How do you know when it’s real? Unfounded? What is it? The text had me so disoriented that I latched on to the first thing that I could think of: faith as the reception of and trusting in some kind of narrative without firsthand knowledge of that narrative. That’s what happens at the tomb, right? The women receive a revelation of sorts from these two beings and then they believe. It’s simple, right? And we want a simple faith.
I stuck with this one for a while because it made a lot of sense. This is the kind of faith we most often hear from preachers and evangelists: “I have a message for you, and if you accept my message without any qualifications you believe.” This is the kind of faith we want people to have in us, and we’re hurt when people don’t have it! “Why don’t you believe me?” we whine. “I’m telling the truth!”
But the text didn’t let me stay with this faith. While it might be a good model for what happens with the women, it certainly fails to describe the experience of the disciples. See, the women come back from the tomb and recount the empty tomb and the angelic messengers and the received wisdom, and the disciples fail to grasp it. More than fail, they crash and burn, dismissing the message of their female counterparts as leros, as the fever-fueled ravings of an addled mind. If faith is simply the belief in a received narrative, then those who should have been the first to believe have let us down, or at least pointed out that there is more to faith.
What else could it be, then? Surely, faith is the preponderance of the evidence. We charge our lawyers with proving their case “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” and doubt is the binary opposite of faith, right? When juries are convinced by the combination of facts and testimonies, then they make judgments. The same is true of Christianity, right? We want to be able to say “prove it,” to demonstrate the rational nature of our faith to those who say: “Show me the facts.” If recent Christian publishing trends are any indicator, this is perhaps the most popular kind of faith. Walk into any Christian bookstore on the planet and you can pick up a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case For [fill in the blank] or other books that lay out the facts for a real and empirical Jesus. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is the kind of faith we really want. It makes a certain type of sense to our post-Enlightenment, materialistic brains. It seems relevant to a world that insists on historical accuracy as the only mode of knowing. But, to paraphrase Rudolf Bultmann, “when have the brute facts about Jesus ever done anybody any good?” This may be the kind of faith we desire, but is it the faith characterized by the first Easter?
I don’t think so. How can these women empirically prove the resurrection? What piece of physical evidence could possibly be offered in a court of law that could prove the existence of a miracle beyond the shadow of a doubt? Not even the star witnesses can provoke any kind of response in these obstinate old fishermen. And for their trouble these devoted women are dismissed as crazy. Clearly, the preponderance of the evidence cannot be the basis for our faith.
If these are not faith, what is? If we cannot find the source of our sacred hope in the receiving of messages or the preponderance of the evidence, where can we find it? How can we begin to talk about the very thing that brought us all here today?
To begin our meditation on what faith is in light of what faith is not, we need to turn to the rest of chapter 24. In verses 13-32, we are introduced to a pair of disciples who are making the dusty journey from Jerusalem to their home town of Emmaus. As they walk, they encounter a stranger. Cleopas, one of the disciples, addresses the man: “‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.’”
Skip down to verse 25: “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Did you catch what just happened? It’s something we’ve already seen, though I didn’t point it out to you. On this first Easter morning, we’ve already seen the proclamation and interpretation of the Scriptures, and we’ve seen it twice! The angels did with the women at the empty tomb and now Jesus does it with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We don’t find out about it until a bit later, but Cleopas admits that their “hearts were burning within…while he was opening up the scriptures.” In this, we see the first part of an Easter faith: it is rooted in and revealed by the hearing of the word.
But their faith is not just sustained by the proclamation of the word. Look at what happens next. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Christ is making himself both present and available to his disciples in the breaking of bread, in the institution of Eucharist. In the broken bread, the disciples encounter the risen Christ and are drawn to belief. The text puts it best: “he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread.”
But the action doesn’t even stop there! The story goes on! Cleopas and his friend run to Jerusalem, to the place where the other disciples are gathered, and they begin to tell them the whole story. Cleopas rushed in and the first thing he hears is that “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” The text continues, “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.” In the middle of their assembly, as they were sharing stories of what Jesus had said and what Jesus had done, Jesus shows up! And not just any Jesus: this is a real, live, flesh and blood Jesus. He can be touched and smelled. The same Jesus who was laid to rest in a borrowed tomb is raised to new life, and is present among his disciples.
It is not until after these things that we can speak of an Easter faith. It is not until the risen Christ has appeared and been experienced by his followers that there is any notion of belief, any notion of trust and faith, and it occurs in this gospel in three ways: the proclamation of the Word of God, the experience of divine presence in the breaking of bread, and the manifestation of Christ in the congregation. These are not just peculiar historical events that remain locked in the past. These events and experiences continue to inform and define our own faith in this world.
Karl Barth formulated a theology of the word that was three-fold: the eternal Word that is Christ, the written word that testifies to the Eternal, and the preached word that manifests both of those things in the same moment. In the action of preaching, in the moment that the scriptures are read and interpreted, Christ is made known to us, and is present among the congregation. In the same way that the proclamation of the words of Christ to the women at the tomb and to Cleopas and his companion elicited a divine response, so too should the proclamation of the words of Christ in the congregation elicit a response.
But it should do more than elicit a response. It should signify to us that Christ is present in our midst. As Barth put it, the act of preaching, drenched in the activity of the Spirit, transforms the words on the page into the living Christ. Thus our faith is not based on dusty old texts, but the Living One within those texts, the Living One who comes alive in the preaching of those texts. We do not trust that Christ is alive because we can prove it or because someone told us so, we trust that Christ is alive because we can experience that life as we come together. We listen to preaching because we know, in some way, Christ will be present to us in the proclamation of his gospel.
But he does not come in the word alone. He also comes to us in the table. Though this morning we will not gather around this table, it is enough that the table stands before you as a reminder. In the bread and in the wine, we encounter a revelation of the person of Christ. In the body rent and the blood spilled, we experience death and celebrate the One whom death could not overcome. And it is by this cup and this loaf that we are nourished. We believe that Christ is life not because someone told us that he is, but we experience Christ as sustainer as we feed on his presence in the elements of Eucharist.
Perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor best communicates it better. In her book Preaching Life, Taylor describes the table as a divine nursing, the means by which the life of Christ is transmitted to us and flows between God and ourselves. Communion is not, she says “eggs benedict and champagne cocktails at heaven’s country club.” The Eucharist is a beaker of cold milk and a stack of buckwheat pancakes for the Kingdom’s day laborers. This food is heavenly food and it is life, and it is in experiencing this divine food that we experience a touch of the divine life. And we believe that the divine does live, that Christ is risen and that in these sacred elements he reveals himself to us and commissions us to his work. Faith is built on the experience of sustenance and preparation that is to be found in the elements of this sacred table.
And like the Easter story, our story does not end with a broken loaf and a half-empty carafe of wine. Our story must involve what came next in the first story: the revelation of God within the blessed community. As the community comes together to tell the stories, as we come together to hear the scriptures and drink freely from Christ’s cup, Christ manifests himself among the community. Just as the disciples experienced Christ in the upper room, we are called to experience Christ in this room, behind these walls, and to experience the same Christ who was dead and buried. The Christ we experience now is the same Jesus who suffered a mockery of a trial, was beaten, was executed in the most gruesome manner possible, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. He is the God who took on flesh, the Eternal One who entered into time, the Deathless who knew death and overcame it. There is a divine continuity between the Crucified God of Good Friday and the Risen Lord of Easter Sunday. He remains the same, and because he remains, he has experienced all that you have experienced. He knows pain and heartache. He knows longing and doubt. He knows disillusionment and abandonment. And he knows that we need him, and so he makes himself available to us now.
As we gather together, we become his body. As we proclaim the scriptures and taste the divine life, he is here among us. And he beckons us to reach out, to touch the edges of the divine, to see that he is still the same, still good, still God. We believe, then, not because the Church has told us so, but because the Church has shown us so. Because we have seen Christ in the love his people exude, in the compassion they pour out, in the hurts they run to heal. Christ is here, folks, and it is upon this reality that we base our faith.
Faith, then, is not a philosophical exercise. It is not a solo venture. It is not based on the kind of evidence admissible in a court of law. Faith is wholly experiential, wholly internal, wholly mysterious, and wholly holy. It revolves around three elements: the proclamation of the word, the revelation in the bread, and the manifestation in the church. Faith is centered on the story of Christ, mediated by the gospels and interpreted by the church. Faith immerses itself in the mystery of Eucharist proclaimed by Jesus. And faith finds its fullness in – and only in – the revelation of Christ in his body the Church.
Some of you have been burned because you thought faith was something other than these. You bought the line that your faith had to be rational and reasoned, or you tried to construct an air-tight legal case only to find holes and leaks and things that cannot be explained. The message of faith to you this morning is good news! The message of faith is that you, like the disciples, don’t have to have it all together. The message of faith is that you, like Cleopas, can be surprised by Christ anywhere, and at any time. The message of faith is that when you come to this place honestly seeking the divine, the divine shows up. The God of Creation and Exodus became in Christ the God of recreation and liberation. He cannot be quantified or explained or rationalized or contained, but he is true to his word and he is true to those who have faith. So come today, come to the word and to the table and to the body and experience the fullness of faith – the fullness of life! – offered to those who believe in Christ Jesus. Amen.