The sentence that interests me is this: “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” What fascinates me about the sentence is Luke’s contention that Jesus presented himself alive by “many convincing proofs.” Convincing proof is not something most people would think of in relationship to their faith in Jesus. And skeptics would point to discrepancies between the gospel accounts as proof that the stories themselves are not very convincing.
Several years ago I read an article in the Arts and Ideas section of the New York Times, of all places, titled “So God’s Really in the Details? (question mark?)” It reported on a conference at Yale University where about a hundred scholars gathered to talk about ethics and belief. The article focused particularly on a man named Richard Swinburne, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, who’s written a book using something called Bayes’s theorem to defend the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Now numbers are definitely not my thing. I took a required statistics course one summer in college that felt like it lasted at least a year and a half, and all these years later I’m still amazed I made a B minus. But I digress. According to the newspaper article, Swinburne assigned probability values to various factors around the resurrection, plugged them into the probability formula that is Bayes’s theorem, did the math and came up with a whopping 97% probability that the resurrection actually happened.
Apparently this conference is just further indication that a lot of academic work is going on these days to refute the philosophical assumption in vogue since the Enlightenment in the 1700s that belief in God is logically indefensible. Other scholars are approaching the problem from different angles, but the point is to somehow prove the existence of God, and I suppose, by extension, the claims we make about Jesus. And I suppose it’s important any time people talk about God, and it’s important that some people may engage with faith matters because of this kind of work who would otherwise not be interested. It’s not a particularly appealing approach to God for me, but it does raise the perennial issue about faith, about the act of believing: Howdo we know what we know about God?
I can only speak for myself, but one of the ways I “know” that Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead is the fact that we have four different accounts of that life, death and resurrection which we claim are authoritative…the very thing that convinces other people that it’s all a bunch of superstitious nonsense or wishful thinking. What four different gospels prove to me is that something so astounding happened with and to an uneducated Palestinian peasant over two thousand years ago that people felt compelled to record it in a way that made sense to them…the same way you and I do with astounding things in our own lives. And just as with the gospel writers, our compelling stories of the same event are almost never identical.
Another way I know that the story we hear this morning about Jesus taking leave of his disciples and telling them to wait for the Spirit to come upon them so they can get busy and do the work he’s given them to do is true is because I’ve felt the power of that same Spirit in my own life and work. Other people can listen to me talk about this and decide I am seriously deluded, making sense of things the way I choose to, the way I want to. They can dismiss my personal knowing as a figment of my imagination…but I know what I know.
This doesn’t mean that I never have doubts. It doesn’t mean that once in a while the absurdity of what I believe doesn’t wash over me in great painful waves. It doesn’t mean that I’m not occasionally paralyzed by the cold disdain that some people have for what is the center of my very existence. What it does mean is that in the very fiber of my body and energy of my intellect and passion of my soul the knowledge of God is present. It can’t be verified numerically using probability theories. It can only be lived out and witnessed to, however imperfectly, in the minutes and hours, the days, weeks, months and years of my life.
The great mysteries of faith: a God who loves without end, a dying and rising and ascending Savior, a Spirit who enlightens hearts and minds and gives courage to act, a promise of eternal life in the Divine Presence; these great mysteries of faith can never be explained. They can and should be talked about and examined with no line of thought or avenue of exploration considered out of bounds. But when the talking is over, the experiments concluded and the calculator put away, the way we will know for sure that God is God is to live the mystery of love and salvation, of knowledge and action, of the promise that this life is not all there is…but also that this life is infinitely important.