The Empirical Element’s of Faith

People who will believe only what their eyes have seen, and their ears have heard, and their hands have touched, are seldom comfortable with the uncertainties of faith.

Take the example of the man we call “doubting Thomas.” Thomas was not with the other disciples in the house in Jerusalem the first time that Jesus appeared to his disciples. When Thomas returned, and the other disciples said to him in what must be the understatement of the ages, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Eight days later, when the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them, and the Lord appeared to them, Thomas finally believed. In fact he fell at the feet of Jesus confessing, “My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” John 20:19-29

You are among those who have not seen and yet believe, so we receive the blessings. We are those about whom the apostle was writing in 1st Peter 1:8 when he wrote:

Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.

Now this morning I want to talk to you about the empirical elements of faith. What can we prove to our most skeptical neighbors and friends?

We are not always in agreement on what is, or is not, empirical. Take this matter of the resurrection of Jesus. There is lots of evidence to suggest that Jesus rose from the dead. There is the eyewitness testimony of Paul in 1st Corinthians 15:8-11, and the eyewitness testimony of the man we call John in 1st John 1:1-4. In addition we have the list of witnesses named by Paul in 1st Corinthians 15:3-11, and the testimony of the gospels themselves. More than anything else we have the witness of the entire New Testament, for every line in the New Testament was written in the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, dead and buried, and, on the third day, God raised him from death, vindicating his life, and ministry, and making him the universal symbol of hope for life after death.

Can we prove the resurrection of Jesus according to the laws of historical research? Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the most sophisticated and respected theologians of our day, and he says that we can. He says that if examine the New Testament evidence by critical method, it is so convincing, that anyone who approaches it without bias must regard the resurrection of Jesus as an established historical fact, and here is the kicker, even without the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.

I am not sure about that last statement. The Easter Morning Liturgy declares:

“I believe that by my own reason and strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but that the Holy Spirit calls me by the gospel, enlightens me with His gifts, sanctifies and preserves me in the true faith…even as he calls, gathers and enlightens… the whole church on earth.”

I believe that faith, especially faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the gift of God, and I am not sure it can be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. As the apostle writes, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2:8

So, what can be proved about our faith? There is more, but I would mention four things:

First, I think we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ lived, and ministered, and did things that absolutely amazed the people who lived at the same time he did.

I was on an Internet forum on which a man posted the statement that, “You can’t prove that Jesus Christ even existed.” That is pure bologna. By all the canons of history, Jesus is one of the best-attested individuals of the ancient world. If we accept that Plato lived and that Julius Caesar lived, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus lived.

Likewise, we can certainly prove the influence of Jesus in the world. I am quite sure you know the poem, “One Solitary Life.”

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was 30. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held political office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never traveled more than 200 miles from the place He was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He was only 33 when public opinion turned against Him. His friends deserted Him. He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. When He was dying, His executioners gambled for His clothing, the only property He had.. . . on earth. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race, the leader of humankind’s progress. And all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on earth as much as that One Solitary Life.

Today, more than two billion people call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. His influence is palpable; the church has not always done right, but we have done the world far more good than ill.

So, what else what else can we prove? I think we can prove Jesus’s doctrine of sin. Even people who don’t believe in God believe in sin. I think we can prove that all of us are guilty. Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) The apostle cried, “None is righteous no not one, no one understands, no one seeks for God, all have turned aside, together (we) have gone wrong.” (Romans 3:10-12)

In his book whatever became of sin, Dr. Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic tells the story of a wild-eyed man who once stood on a blustery, cold Chicago street corner. As people approached he would point a bony finger, and say, “Guilty!” Menninger said that without fail everyone so addressed would hang their head, as if in shame.

I think we can prove that sin is seductive. The Japanese Buddhists have a saying about their powerful liquor saké: “First a man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes a man.” Sin may be sweet in the beginning, but it yields a bitter fruit.

I think we can prove that sin is a power. Sin is infectious. It spreads from person to person, casting a net over us all. The Bible teaches that the world is filled with principalities and powers. Sociologists call them “vicious circles of evil.” Sometimes, in the New Testament, these powers are described as the spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places. Sometimes they are described as having an empirical, this-worldly expression. Jesus said, “You can’t serve God and mammon.” St. Paul called the Jewish Law a power, and Death a power, and the Roman government a power. I think it is interesting that according to Colossians all the powers are created in Christ, and therefore potentially good. The trouble is that powers like individuals fall into sin. For instance, at one time, Paul considered the government of Rome a benevolent power that allowed the spread of the gospel over its good roads, and protected him because of his Roman citizenship. In Romans 13, he tells Christians to be subject to the authorities, meaning the Roman authorities. He says that the authorities are a terror to bad conduct not to good. Unfortunately, Paul never got a chance to retract that statement, when the Roman soldiers led him from his prison cell, and lopped off his head with an ax. If he were writing today, I bet he would.

The powers were created good, but like us, they have fallen into sin. The powers have exercised monstrous control in our world. Nazi Germany provides a ready example. Our church has roots in Germany. What would make those good German people follow Hitler and the Nazis? Eric Fromm said that good Germans were drawn into the vortex of Nazi evil through their desire to escape from the freedom of making decisions for themselves. Then, having ceded their power to make decisions to Hitler, they were caught in the grip of fear. Hitler Youth turned in their parents for telling jokes about Hitler. People who failed to return the Nazi salute were often beaten to death on the street. Everyone was afraid, and no one was safe. In one purge,in 1934, Hitler killed more than 700 members of the Storm Troopers which had helped to bring him to power, including his friend, the leader of the SA, Ernst Rohm. Even good people and good nations were taken in. In his book “In the Garden of the Beast” Eric Larson tells the story of William Dodd, the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. Dodd was born in North Carolina, owned a farm in Virginia, and taught history at the University of Chicago. In the beginning Dodd wanted to believe that Hitler was a friend to the German people. After all, he gave them purpose and reduced unemployment by half. In the end Dodd was so repelled by the fanatical hatred of Hitler and the Nazis that he refused to attend Hitler’s rallies, even when his job as Ambassador demanded he be present. Ultimately, Dodd was recalled by the State Department. Bureaucrats in the State Department were more concerned with the debt Germany owed us as reparations for the 1st World War, than with the dangers of Hitler’s fanaticism. When Dodd came back to the United States he warned in plain English that Hitler intended to kill all the Jews and conquer the nations of Europe. Dodd died before the war began, but he was vindicated in his opinions.

We live in a land of relative freedom. One of the reasons that we have that freedom is the balance of power provided by our two-party system of government. I would not want to live in a country with only one party. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is one of the lessons of history.

We can prove certainly Jesus’ s doctrine of sin. We can also prove his doctrine of love. Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and, the second greatest, was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. He said that all the Law and the Prophets were based on these two commandments. (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10)

The Hebrew Bible, our old testament, speaks of the steadfast love of the Lord for his people—that would be us, more than 200 times. It exhorts us to love God more than 100 times. We love because God first loved us; but we must not miss out on the importance of loving back. St. Francis of Assisi wrote that it is better to love, than to be loved. The hardhearted among us can ignore the love that someone has for us, but if we love someone, or something, that love can change our lives.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Sometimes the sacrifice of love is total.

Perhaps you have heard the story of four chaplains, a Catholic, a Jew, and two Protestants. They were on the troop transport ship, The Dorchester, when the ship was struck by a submarine’s torpedo on February 3rd, 1943. The four chaplains quickly rallied together, put on lifejackets themselves, and began handing out lifejackets, and directing people to safety. When the lifejackets ran out, they gave away their own. When the ship went down, the four men linked arms and sang hymns of faith to God.

Perhaps you have heard the story of Arland Williams. On January 13th 1982 the plane on which he was a passenger smashed into a bridge over the frozen Potomac River. There were more than eighty people on the plane and all but six people were killed. Some twenty-minutes later, a helicopter arrived to rescue the survivors. After getting one man to safety, the helicopter threw a life-ring to Williams. He gave it to the passenger next to him. When the helicopter came back for a third time, he did the same thing again, and again. He was the last survivor in the water. When the life ring was dropped at last to him, Williams was dead. Investigation later proved that he had used his last ounce of strength to save a complete stranger.
 He had known no one on the plane. If you doubt this story, there is a bridge over the Potomac that was renamed in his honor.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Sometimes love demands one great sacrifice. Sometimes love demands a series of small sacrifices.

A group of professionals asked a group of children 4 to 8 years old the question, “What does love mean?” The answers given by the children are revealing.

One said, “Love is when my grandfather, clips my grandmother’s toe nails. He has arthritis in his hands, but she has it in her back.”

Another said, “When somebody love you, your name sounds different in their mouth; you know your name is safe in their mouth.” Profound!!!!

Another said, “Love makes you smile when you are tired.”

Another said, “Love is a little old man, and a little old woman, who are still friends, even though they know each other so well.”

Another said, “The best way to learn to love, is to pick out someone you hate, and start with them.”

Leo Buscagilia the well-known author tells the story of judging a contest to find the most caring or loving child. The winner was a four-year old. His neighbor was an elderly man who had just lost his wife. Seeing the man sitting in a chair in his yard in tears, the little boy went over to the man, and crawled into his lap. He sat there for a long time. When his mother missed him, and came for him, she saw and was please. She asked her son what he had said to the man. He answered, “Nothing. I just helped him cry.”

I was going to close this sermon by reading 1st Corinthians 13 in its entirety. I decided instead to simply sum it up for you. In 1st Corinthians 13 Paul tells us that:

“We can sacrifice without love; but we can’t love without sacrifice.”

You know, I am not a particularly caring person. I can be pretty hard, yet I know that I have been made more caring by my relationship to Jesus Christ. Thankfully, he just won’t let me be.

I do believe that Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe that he died for my sins, and rose again to give all of us a future and a hope. I believe that anyone who steps out in faith will know this in ways that I cannot fully explain. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

That said, I believe that the church will have a lot better time reaching those who are still waiting for proof, if we provide them with the proof of lives changed by a living and vital relationship to Jesus Christ.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.