I Googled “fact check” the other day and discovered that there are a bunch of websites, institutions, and organizations which are in the habit of keeping track of what politicians say and judging the accuracy thereof. One of them has a “truth-o-meter” which ranges from true to mostly true to mostly false to pants on fire. We’ve known for a long time that we do indeed need to check out the claims made by politicians. I used to blame Richard Nixon, but the more we learn about past Presidents and others the more we learn that it may have started with George Washington.
But we also know it’s not just politicians who sometimes stretch the truth. Just read the letters to the editor in the paper. They regularly say, regarding what so and so wrote the other day, let me set the record straight. Unfortunately, we have learned to be suspicious of almost everything we read or hear, unless it comes from a source we know we can trust. It’s just the world in which we live, unfortunately.
All of which leaves us with the question, what constitutes good evidence for what someone claims is true? How do we go about deciding, yeah, I’ll believe that, but not that?
It may be more difficult to answer that question these days, but it’s not a new question. Throughout history there have been those who have, shall we say, failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sometimes people have thought they were telling the truth, but were simply mistaken for one reason or another. Then there are those who knew they were not telling the truth, but said what they said anyway, for one reason or another.
So imagine that you are living around the end of the first century somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea area. You’ve heard talk about a man named Jesus who lived in Israel a few decades ago. You might even have a family member or a friend who believes that this Jesus is someone special, a holy man of some sort. But you’re skeptical. Various parts of the Roman Empire, in which you live, have various gods. Why should you believe what people are saying about this one man?
Or try this. Maybe you are a believer in Jesus at the end of the first century. You live in Corinth or Ephesus or Philippi, and you’ve been going to church, in someone’s home, for a while. You’ve heard some of the apostle Paul’s letters read in worship. You’ve heard Matthew, Mark, and Luke read aloud. But you’ve heard the part where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” And you’ve heard in Paul’s writing the same sort of thing. Paul obviously believed that Jesus was going to return soon. But here it is, forty, fifty years later, and no Jesus. So we ask our self, should I still believe?
Enter the gospel of John. Most biblical scholars hold that John was written significantly later than the other three gospels. The general thinking is that Mark is the earliest, written around 70 CE, Matthew and Luke ten or so years later, and then John in the nineties. So John is essentially addressing the second or perhaps third generation of believers. Not only are all of Jesus’ original followers long gone, there may not even be anyone who knew them, especially if you are living outside of Israel. And since Jesus hasn’t returned, how can you still believe? John writes to answer that question, and the climax of his work is found in today’s reading.
But let’s take a step back and look at the evidence for believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, proposed that there are four sources of evidence for believing in Jesus. The first and most important is scripture. In the four gospels and other writings of the New or Second Testament we have stories and testimonies of what Jesus said and did, and the interactions he had with his followers and others.
It’s interesting that the early church decided on four gospels and the letters and writings we have as “canonical”, i.e. authoritative. There were other gospels floating around, and other early Christian writings. Some even suggested taking the four gospels and mushing them up into one. But the church said no, we’re keeping these.
And the gospels, particularly, do not always agree with each other. For example, we need look no further than last Sunday’s readings from John and Luke regarding the first Easter. The four gospels all have different lists of who went to the tomb that morning. So does that cast doubt on the whole story?
Those who decided on four gospels obviously didn’t think so. They obviously believed that what was important was that a woman or some women went to the tomb and found it empty. The list of names is a secondary detail. And in fact it may make the story more believable. If all four had the same list, we could easily assume that whoever wrote second, third, and fourth simply copied whoever wrote first. But with different lists, we know that the story was in circulation in different versions, telling us it was pretty widely known, at least in outline form. It means different people were probably telling the story, not just one person with one version. And as evidence goes, the more the merrier!
It’s true that the Bible cannot always be taken on face value. By that I mean the Bible contains poetry, biography, history, stories, like Jesus’ parables, and other kinds of literature. When reading the Bible it’s important to know the context, to have some idea of who was writing to whom and why. But through it all scripture does give us evidence of who God is and who Jesus of Nazareth was and who Jesus Christ is.
Wesley said another way in which we can believe is through reason. For instance, is it reasonable to believe the story of Jesus’ resurrection? To someone who hasn’t grown up in the church and been indoctrinated, in the good sense, in the story of Easter, it can seem like a far-fetched tale.
But look at how the story goes. If we agree that this Jesus was put to death by the Romans, and we know from other sources that crucifixion was a common punishment in that time and place, it makes sense, it is reasonable, that his followers would go into hiding. They would naturally think they might be next. So the part about a woman or some women going to the tomb on Sunday morning makes sense, because that would be their first opportunity after the Sabbath to properly prepare the body and/or go to be in mourning. The gospels all agree that the woman/women and the men disciples have a hard time believing that Jesus is alive, even after seeing the empty tomb. Again, very reasonable.
So looking at the Easter story just from the point of view of what seems like would actually happen, it looks very coherent, very reasonable. Nothing about the disciples being in hiding, women going to the tomb, people not believing looks at all out of the ordinary. Something must have happened that morning to convince Jesus’ followers that he was alive again, to bring them out of hiding, to make them believe that he was risen.
The same can be said about much else in the Bible. While some of it seems very out of the ordinary to us today, on the whole the Bible makes sense. The relationship the people depicted in the Bible have with their God hangs together quite well.
Third, there is tradition. The story of our faith doesn’t end with the writing of John, or whatever book in the Second Testament was written last. For the past twenty centuries people have said yes, we affirm what’s in scripture. We have used our reason to make sense of the claims of our faith. Just like the first disciples, we too believe. The tradition of the church universal reminds us that we today stand on the shoulders of generations of believers who have brought the faith to us. We don’t have to start from scratch in our belief, because for two thousand years others have shown us the way.
Number four is experience. This doesn’t mean we have to have an experience like Mary Magdalene or the disciples who saw Jesus and talked to him and ate with him after his resurrection. It means that we have our own experience of how our faith in Jesus, our belief in Jesus, has made a difference in our lives.
Hopefully all of us can say, I’ve never met Jesus in person, face to face, in the flesh, but I do know him as my Lord and Savior. I do know him as the one who directs my steps in life. I do know him because I have tried to pattern my life after his life.
So let’s listen to what John has to tell us in the story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas after the resurrection. Let’s listen in as John speaks to us, those of us who have not met Jesus in person, about faith and belief. See if he doesn’t say, it’s ok that we haven’t seen. Amen.