Sunday, 7 February 2010

What is Faith?

Epiphany 5 year C Sermon 1 Cor 15:1-11

Title slide

Have you ever struck up a conversation… sitting next to someone on a long flight? Or chatted about life… over a cup of coffee in a local cafe? Or yarning in the pub with the guys after a long days work?
Or got to know someone over the internet?

If they told you their life’s story…how did you respond?

how much could you believe?
How much faith did you put…in their version of events?
Especially if what they said happened …
struck you as unlikely…or impossible.

The same questions can arise for us in reading the Bible.

Particularly in Paul’s papyrus email to the churches in Corinth…where he recalls his encounter with the risen Christ…

Slide words

He appeared to me too

Blank slide

Paul’s writes from Ephesus to Corinth…primarily to resolve conflict and correct what he sees as their misguided views. At the end of his long letter Paul finally… makes his case…for the importance of Jesus’ resurrection to their faith…

Blank slide

Paul plays a strong hand… jolting their memory banks… reminding them what he already taught them about the resurrection…reminding them it’s right there in the words they received at their Baptism…words they recited together in worship.[i]

Slide words

That Christ died for our sins.. according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures

Even if you think the world’s coming to an end...and Paul expected that in their life time…he’s telling them the resurrection shows… that God’s love is stronger than death…and says

Slide words

by this good news you’re saved… if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you’ve believed in vain.

And if you don’t believe me… Paul writes… then believe the ones you do trust…who claim to have met the risen Christ.

Slide words

he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. After that, to more than five hundred at the same time …Then to James, then to all the apostles,

Slide words [reveal quote then Translation and Greek]

and last of all… he appeared to me also…
as to one abnormally born. Here, Paul writes the Greek word for miscarriage
ἐκτρώματι …and places himself as the leastprobably as a way to humble himself…
for his earlier persecution… of Jesus’ followers.

Blank slide

Please… don’t just take my word for it… Paul writes …why I don’t even deserve to be called an apostle after what I did…but whether it’s my word or theirs…
an encounter with the risen Christ… is part of our
lived experience.

Slide words

this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. [pause]

Blank slide

So let’s return to my original questions in relation to Paul’s life story…How are we to respond …
how much can we believe? How much faith can we put in his version of events? Especially when what Paul says happened… strikes us as inconceivable…even impossible…at best an enigma…and a mystery.

What should we believe? How can we be certain?

And is striving for certainty even appropriate…
in matters of faith?

You see this book…it’s called Jesus Remembered…well one of the perks of being a minister is that people give you books…sometimes very weighty books…and our dear Professor Graham Hill gave me this one…

It’s about the origins of Christianity…about the evidence we now have …to help us decide what to believe….

So I started reading it…and discovered some very helpful tools…for talking about faith and biblical history

The author…James Dunn…is Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in England.

This respected biblical historian recommends…in creating a foundation for our faith… in which we can be confident…first and foremost we all need to learn the difference between

Slide words

events, data and facts.


Because Dunn says, ‘historical events belong to the irretrievable past’[ii]. We can’t examine them.

In coming to conclusions about any historical event including those in the Bible….Dunn says… all we have available are the data… which have come down to us through history …data in the form of personal diaries, recollections of eyewitnesses, and reports constructed from people who were present at the event. And of course there’s the data of archaeological discoveries and retrospective electronic analysis of climate and astronomical patterns…And there’s the non-biblical data about political and economic practices surrounding an event.

And from all this data…Dunn says…

biblical historians try to reconstruct the ‘facts’.

And he warns us that if we’re really taking history seriously… its very important…
not to confuse the ‘facts’ with the data. Why?

Because facts are always…always…

an interpretation of the data. There are no un-interpreted facts. He says that’s why serious biblical scholars qualify their research… with words like ‘almost certain’, ‘very probable’, and ‘likely possible’. Among historians a judgement of probable…
is a very positive conclusion indeed.

And biblical historians are always having to re-interpret their interpretation of the data… in light of new discoveries…because more data’s always emerging… like the Dead Sea Scrolls …

And if we’re serious and humble like the Apostle Paul we gladly admit our interpretation of the data…
is provisional and subject to revision and reformation. For now we see as through a glass darkly. [pause]

But three hundred years ago… during what’s called the Age of Enlightenment…people began to demand unshakeable certainty before taking anything on faith.

All over Europe and England Scotland Ireland…and in the colonies of the pacific and the americas…
people began to question everything.

Especially those things that had always been regarded as absolute truths…including the authority of the Church and power of Kings.

In the salons of the intellegencia …it was highly respectable and even fashionable… to call for revolution against the monarchy…

and insist on proof beyond dispute… for things like miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection.

Well meaning Christian
thinkers wanted to liberate people… from what they saw as enslavement to the ‘un-provable claims’ of the Church.

Political rebellion was stirred up leading to experiments in democracy and equality… and so too…a kind of religious rebellion leading to a crises of faith where many came to reject the claims of the Church.

This crisis of faith and subsequent denunciation of anything ‘spiritual’ is still evident in mostly older generations today…

But in of the Age of Enlightenment …Professor Dunn says a ‘crucial question was rarely asked:
“should we expect certainty in matters of faith? Is unchallengeable certainty… appropriate language for talking about faith?’

Dunn suggests words like trust and confidence…are more appropriate in talking about faith… than certainty. And today our faith has to live in dialogue with doubts and questions and with other faiths… as our knowledge of physics and medicine expands.

But Dunn believes ‘doubt is [actually] the inoculation which keeps faith strong in the face of unbelief.’[iii]

And says ‘a craving for certainty’ is what leads fundamentalists of any persuasion…and that includes atheists… to proclaim the absolute truth of their own faith claims…while dismissing the claims of all others… even in their own religious tradition.

The reality is that… faith without doubt is a rare commodity… which few people experience…for any length of time.

So with regard to our faith in the claims of the fifteenth chapter of first Corinthians… we have no video record of the events and they could have been digitally fudged… even…the original papyrus on which Paul wrote… no longer exists.

But what we do have is data.

While the desert sands of Egypt may not make for comfortable living, they do preserve ancient parchment rather well. We might not have Paul’s actual letter, but we do have copies discovered in the ruins of Fayum…dated around the turn of the first century. [iv]

And we have independent data from the Romans about the culture and economy of Corinth… against which to check Paul’s account… of his time there. And we know by comparing Paul’s letter to other ordinary letters preserved from that time…the styles are very similar.

And the data we have in the collections of universities, tells us… Paul wrote at least four… or more… letters to Corinth while living in Ephesus, only two of which are preserved in the New Testament.[v]

The data from Paul’s letter reveals that new congregations in Corinth were facing enormous difficulties of social adjustment… because the idea of equality between people of different rank was so foreign. And because these early churches were so diverse… Paul’s often… trying to mediate disputes… or calm the tensions that crop up.

And we have the data of Paul’s belief in the importance of Jesus’ resurrection…in making sense of the Christian faith…and for comforting people… who like Paul anticipated end times in their own life.

Our faith in Paul’s assertion of the resurrection…can only be based on the data we have…and what we believe depends on our interpretation of this data.

Scholars like James Dunn suggest it’s OK… to take Paul’s letters for what they are…data…instead of trying to domesticate, or muffle or modernise their meaning.[vi]

and he warns… ‘if Jesus doesn’t come to us in some degree as a stranger and enigma… then we can be sure we have modernised Jesus… and to some extend failed to understand…what Jesus of Nazareth was about.’ [pause]

The event of a bodily encounter with the living Christ can’t be examined under a microscope and will forever remain shrouded in the mists of time…

a mystery will remain.

Your faith and mine is ultimately a decision… based on our interpretation of the Biblical record and other data.

If we reject the Biblical record…we’re in danger of denying the humanity and teachings of Jesus.

So the question for our faith is ‘how will we interpret the data… and how much mystery are we prepared to embrace?

[i] Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) p. 47

[ii] James DG Dunn, Christianity in the Making Vol. 1 Jesus remembered, 102.

[iii] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Dunn ibid 106