Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            According to the biblical account, and as seems appropriate, right after the Resurrection there was a whole lot of believing that went on. According to Luke, on the day of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disciples who were leaving Jerusalem, apparently heading home, thinking everything was over. In the course of the breaking of bread with him, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. They returned immediately to Jerusalem and told the other disciples. The telling just kept going on. According to Acts, also written by Luke, immediately after the gift of the Spirit was given, Peter began preaching and interpreting the scriptures for the people. Many believed, as a result. According to Acts this was just the beginning, as that book then traces the journeys of the apostles as they continue to go out and preach to the whole world. Many more believed, and by the end of the book, Paul, who is a special focus of Acts, is traveling to Rome itself, the center of the ancient world, with the Good News.

            How very different that is than today! Although Christianity continues to grow worldwide, that growth is not happening in the lands of the North Atlantic where Christianity was once the prevailing, and nearly sole religion. The message of the Resurrection that says that the reign of sin and death are now over, and that God’s kingdom is dawning is falling on deaf ears around these parts. Whatever was said in the churches across the land two weeks ago has resulted in fewer, not more ears this week, and seemingly fewer ears every year. Fewer eyes are being opened. What has happened? Why is this the case?

            Such phenomena do not remain unstudied, so there are, of course, plenty of opinions as to why this is the case.  Chief among them is the theory that in the course of the advancement of knowledge, mainly scientific knowledge, religion has been rendered incredible. “A dead man coming to life! Don’t put me on!” There seems to be a fair amount of this appeal to science to bolster unbelief right now, but it is not clear that it is actually science itself that is the problem. A lot of people who have educations that required taking science courses claim that it is, and that they are scientists, but, of course, few of them have ever really looked for the evidence or even considered what the appropriate evidence might be for their claims. Instead, they have uncritically accepted the tribal faith that science is incompatible with faith and they have passed it on. They have not looked at why people actually believe, or what they really believe. Even the few that have, have then rarely asked, upon looking, whether science has anything to do with it anyhow.

            That last question is an important one. We hear of the two disciples’ eyes being opened. Those of you here I am going to presume have in some way had your eyes opened also. Maybe you might wish that things seemed clearer, but if you hold and practice the faith, if you have any sort of reason for being here, then I suspect that they have been opened. I would also venture to guess that when they were opened, that science played little role whatsoever in the experience or in your subsequent faith. I dare say it just wasn’t an issue at all.

            So, what was? What were your eyes opened to? Let me give you an example of what it might have been. It is the story of Leo Tolstoy, the great author. Tolstoy late in life wrote a book,  Confession, describing how his eyes were opened. It may not be everybody’s experience, but what he talks about does go to the heart of the issue of why we believe, of what our eyes are opened to, and what sorts of things actually have little to do with faith.

            Tolstoy describes his early life as conventionally religious. But, by the time he was a sophomore at the university, that childhood faith was gone. He describes his lapse from faith as the sort that was (is) usual among people of his level of education. That is to say, he lived like everybody else, and how he lived, no matter what he might have said, had nothing to do with religion. Religion was “professed,” he said, “far away from life and independently of it.” So without educating himself in the faith on the same level as the rest of his education, and living a generally selfish life-style, one lived in the pursuit of money and recognition, it was no surprise that faith disappeared for him. That is the way it disappears for most people when it does disappear.  Tolstoy illustrates the point in a story he tells of a young man who, due to his conventional religion, was seen saying his prayers at night. His friend watching, simply said, “So you still do that?” That was the last time he did.

            Once he lost his faith, Tolstoy says, he began living a generally vain sort of existence. “I killed men in war, and challenged them to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people....There was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered me to be a comparatively moral man.”

            Now, you don’t write long, successful novels as Tolstoy did without some kind of work ethic. So, his life wasn’t entirely irresponsible. He was an energetic and ambitious man, and so, applying himself to his writing, in time he became famous. That gave him a new purpose in life. He began to believe that art was prophetic and that he and other authors had a lot to teach people. However, once he began to look at how he and other artists lived, doubt was cast on this as well.

            Finally, in time, drifting from one purpose to another, he hit a dead end. All the purposes he could imagine became disappointments even when fulfilled. He began to wonder whether life had any meaning whatsoever. He considered suicide. He lost the desire for everything. If he had been granted three wishes, he wouldn’t have known what to ask for. Now, he didn’t kill himself. Something stopped him, and it caused him to start looking for meaning in life.

             He began asking everything he could put in front of him about purpose and whether it served a purpose. A modern, educated man, he particularly interrogated science. But, somehow, every answer he got from science about life didn’t answer the question he was asking. He wanted to know about the infinite; staying stuck on the finite as science does wasn’t going to do it. Life still seemed vain, as Ecclesiastes said it was.

            So, not finding the answer in science to the purpose he needed, he began to look for it in life. At first, he looked for it in the life of people of his own circle. Everybody has to deal with the question, but among the people of his class, most found ways to avoid really facing it. Some preferred ignorance; others, figuring life was meaningless, sought pleasure. Some just worked hard. That seemed to be the preferred option. Others chose weakness and resignation. None of those things, though, worked for Tolstoy. He saw their vanity. Yet, he still couldn’t kill himself. “Why?” he asked. Something greater pulled him on. It was when he finally looked, not at the people of his class, but those whose lives he had dismissed as insignificant, he began to see what faith is. He called it an irrational knowledge, and that irrational knowledge is faith.

            That troubled him. He wanted to be known for his mind; he did not want to be thought to be irrational. But he came to realize that the issue of knowledge as it is normally defined actually had little to do with what he was asking, and that faith did. Only in faith was there a relation between a finite being and the infinite. Only in faith is there a meaning for life and a possibility. Faith then is, he says, “…a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life.” If that was irrational, then faith was actually the knowing way to go, as paradoxical as that may seem. Now, it took some time for this to penetrate deep down within him and for him to fully embrace faith. I won’t go into further details. But what is important to note is that when it did, when his eyes were finally opened, it was when he began to appreciate ordinary people and the lives of faith they lived. His eyes were opened when he saw that God was present in the lives of very ordinary people who lived by faith. His eyes were opened when he began to care about those people and not just about those of his circle. His eyes were opened and as a result he saw more, not less. Faith, not science, caused him to see more. It can hardly be called irrational to believe, if that is what faith is.

            The German-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once described trying to talk about faith, or values, in factual language as being like trying to pour a gallon of water into a quart sized bottle. The bottle can’t contain it; the water overflows.

            That is the way it is with faith and with faith in the Resurrection. It is not based on a lack of evidence that science will someday fill in, perhaps even destroying the grounds for faith.  It is not believing with little or no evidence or despite the evidence, or at least what science calls the evidence, either. There are more kinds of evidence than just scientific evidence, you know. Faith really is a matter of responding to what it is about the life that overflows the lives we normally try to live, or that overflows the fine ways that we have tried to think and thereby to gain dominion over the world or others, or even to control our own lives.

            So, to ask the question of when were your eyes opened, we are asking about when you realized the overflowing goodness in life that created life, that directs it, and that brings it to its perfection.  Because that is what the question of faith is really about; it should not, therefore, be surprising that eyes are opened in some very unusual ways.

            Consider some of them. I think of the life of Simone Weil and her conversion. She says that, intellectually, she thought that the evidence for God could not be obtained. So, she adds, she left the question alone. That seemed the intellectually responsible thing to do. But then she says one time, when in the midst of great pain, listening to Gregorian chant, Christ himself came down and took possession of her. That personal touch was not something she ever anticipated or even believed possible. She couldn’t defend it. Her reason was still unsure. But, she also couldn’t doubt it; it was like the smile on the face of one who is beloved. When somebody smiles at you in a certain way, you can’t doubt that the smile means she cares. There is no physical evidence for it, but you would be a fool if you weren’t certain about it. There was even more to the experience, though, than even that. It was also, she says, a breakthrough, for she suddenly realized how love could exist even in the midst of suffering. That, too, is a matter of eyes being opened because of an overflow of goodness. It is not a lack of knowledge.

            In the same vein, consider those who listened to Peter preach on that day of Pentecost. Did they ignorantly believe? Did they just skip over the evidence, or were they the dupes of their insufficiently scientific ancient education? Or, as Peter patiently explained, how in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ God was bringing about the kingdom that he had promised since Creation, did they suddenly see in that one act an infinite purpose that tied all history, that tied all their history under God together and gave it purpose? Did they close their eyes, or did they suddenly see the overflow? Did it give them meaning?

            Or, consider those two apostles who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus that first Easter afternoon. They seemed defeated. They were leaving town, although they were still talking about the rumors. But then a stranger, or one they thought was a stranger, caught up with them. They thought they were filling him in by telling him all the Jerusalem gossip. But soon he began explaining to them, as Peter was to do later, how this supposed Resurrection was what filled out the promises of God. Their hearts burned. And then, when they sat down to supper, and he broke bread, their eyes were opened. How were they opened? How did they recognize him when they didn’t before? By new evidence that suddenly came to mind? No, by the same way that it comes to us each Sunday. It comes by bread being more than bread, and wine being more than wine, by life being more than your daily bread. It comes from the overflowing of life in some very strange and odd ways.

            So, why are there fewer ears now? Why are so many more fewer eyes being opened? Not because science has actually shown us that what we are talking about is incredible. Science can’t really have anything to do with what overflows it, with what it cannot contain, although many science buffs may not recognize that.  We need to realize that if we are going to have open eyes. But even more than that, we need to think about, as Tolstoy once did, and as so many people no longer do, about the goodness that overflows our lives, and not just the goodness that fits us. Life does have a meaning, it does have a purpose, and it is more than science, it is more than money, and it is more than the shallow applause of our peers. We have souls, and they are meant for purpose. That is what the Resurrection is for. That is what I hope your eyes have been opened to. That is the eye opening that is our task to proclaim when we say, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”