Today, I bear witness to you that I saw something incredible. Something fantastic. Something amazing. Something Dana still doesn’t believe I actually saw.
While a student at Berry College, I went for a run one afternoon. It had been raining for days and it was a break so the gym was closed. I was itching to get outside and move. Once the rain finally cleared, I immediately laced up and went outside.
Now, what you need to know is that Berry’s campus sits next to 26,000 acres of a wildlife preserve. So it’s common to see all sorts of animals on campus, especially deer and skunks.
As I was running down a road with a field on either side of me, I glanced over to see a surfeit of skunks running next to me. I’d seen skunks before on campus quite often. I’d almost been sprayed a few times when we would surprise each other. But here, this was a herd. There were probably twenty or so skunks running in this wet field, looking soaked.
And not only that, but this was my first time seeing skunks that weren’t black with a white stripe. Some were, to be sure, but others were white with a black stripe, some were black with white circles and some were white with black circles. A few were solid black or solid white. And they were all running, in the funny hump-backed way skunks run, keeping pace with me as I ran down the road.
I bear witness to you today that it’s true. Regardless of what Dana says.
For I cannot prove to you that I actually saw it. I cannot logically reason that its true, even though we’ve looked it up and skunks do come in the coloring variations I witnessed. I cannot use science nor any other means to definitively demonstrate that what I saw is true, what I experienced is true. All I can do is bear witness.
And isn’t that true of the life of faith?
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. We begin in Luke 24 with verse 36:
The disciples can’t believe their eyes. Jesus is standing in front of them! They’re in such disbelief that they think they’re seeing a ghost or some other apparition. They’re scared out of their minds. Jesus proves that he’s not a ghost. He shows them his wounds, he allows them to touch him, and then he eats. Ghosts definitely don’t need to eat, nor do any other apparitions. This is Jesus, in bodily form, among them, according to Luke.
The disciples seem to settle after that, but are still amazed. Jesus sets about doing just what he did before: he teaches them. He says that, “‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” Jesus is demonstrating through scripture why he had to die, why he rose from the grave, how God is fulfilling promises made long ago.
Not just a few promises, but all the promises. Remember that, at this point, there’s no such thing as the New Testament. What we now call the Old Testament was the entirety of the scripture they had at this moment. Jesus, in referencing the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, is referencing the entirety of scripture for that’s how the scripture was organized by Jewish tradition and how the Jewish Bible is organized today: the law, then the prophets, then ending with wisdom literature like the Psalms.
So Jesus is telling them that he’s the fulfillment of all of scripture. Any promise made, Jesus has fulfilled. He walks them through all of this, teaching them, showing them, proving to them, using reason, religious tradition, and scripture to demonstrate that he has come to save, as Paul puts it, first the Jews, then the Gentiles.
Thus the disciples will begin their ministry from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religion and culture, and then move by various radii out into Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, reaching the Gentiles. The disciples are commissioned here, by Jesus, to go and spread this good news that Jesus has brought salvation, Jesus has fulfilled the scriptures, Jesus is who he says he is.
They will do this once they receive the Holy Spirit, which happens fifty days after the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, which we’ll mark together on May 23, roughly fifty days after Easter.
So of course Jesus tells them to go and teach others about the scriptures. Of course Jesus tells them to go and teach others about the how Jesus relates to Jewish tradition. Of course Jesus tells them to go and use logic, reason, to prove to others that he is who he says he is.
Of course Jesus says to go into all the world and prove Jesus, reason with people, use scripture to definitively demonstrate that salvation has arrived for everyone who believes, who calls on his name.
Of course that’s what Jesus does.
Because that’s what we would expect. In fact, that’s what we do. We’ve all been in heated arguments about religion. We’ve all been with people who try to disprove our faith. Which just leads us to try and prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. As a pastor, I have people try to engage with me in that way frequently. I remember one day sitting down at my neighbor’s house, back when we lived in Macon. One of her gym mates was sitting at the table, too. She asked me what I did for a living. I told her. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “How do you believe that stuff?” although there were two expletives included in her question.
I was taken aback to be sure! But in those moments, whether the person is hostile like that day at my neighbor’s house, or just inquisitive, or friendly; whether that person wants to bait us, wants to disprove us, or honestly wonders about faith, where do we begin in talking about faith?
Do we start with the scriptures, quoting things like John 3:16? Do we start with the tradition of the church, that our church teaches us that salvation is by grace, and that God gives us grace in abundance? Do we start with logic, reason, trying to prove that we’re right?
Those three means: tradition, reason, and scripture, are the ways the church has historically taught we should approach religion and learning about God. They’re officially called sources of theology. How do we understand who God is? Through reason, logic. Through the tradition of the church. And through scripture; primarily, in fact, through scripture.
So church tradition even teaches that we are to use those three resources when doing theology. And by doing theology we just mean when trying to understand God and when talking with others about God.
I learned all about these in seminary. I utilize them frequently. I appeal to all three when I’m writing my sermons.
So this is how we’re supposed to evangelize, right? This is how we respond when challenged about our faith, right? This is what we’re supposed to do, right?
Let’s consider those skunks again.
Tradition, or common knowledge about skunks, says they only gather in groups, what are called surfeits, when they are mating.
Scientific literature concurs, saying that they only gather when mating. Yes, I actually looked up the scientific literature. So, tradition and their version of scripture disproves my experience.
I can’t really use reason to prove my experience except to say that, maybe, the flooding on campus, for there had been a ton of rain, had washed out several habitats and those skunks all gathered to go find a new one. Maybe?
I can’t prove my experience through tradition, reason, or literature. All I can do is bear witness to my experience.
And in fact, that’s what Jesus says to do here in the scripture. Bear witness.
He goes through the scriptures, he proves himself, and then he doesn’t tell them to go and prove it to others, he doesn’t tell them to go and reason with others, he tells them instead to witness to what they’ve seen. They’ve seen the risen Christ! They’ve touched his body. They’ve watched him eat. They know that Jesus is back, and not as a ghost. Jesus tells them to go and witness to what they know.
And, once empowered by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, that’s exactly what they do. Before appealing to scripture, reason, or tradition, they bear witness to what they’ve seen and experienced.
And so it is for us today.
Faith cannot be proven. If faith could be proven, it would be science. Faith is not science. No amount of scripture nor church teaching nor logic will ever prove to someone that God is real and that they should be a person of faith, too.
Because faith isn’t real unless it’s experienced. Faith isn’t real if our faith is only grounded in believing the scriptures or the teachings of the church. We must experience the love of the Father, the presence of Christ with us, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit inside of us.
Faith is primarily about experience.
This does not mean there’s no room for the others. In fact, the Methodist Church teaches that there are four sources for doing theology; which is the fancy way of saying there are four means by which we get to know God: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
We add experience because it’s essential that we have experienced God in our hearts and souls. Scripture, tradition, and reason provide a means by which to check our experience. For example, God will never call us to commit an evil act. If we feel like God is calling us to do something evil, we have scripture, reason, and church tradition to tell us that our experience is misguided or just plain wrong.
The other three are essential. We should know the scriptures, we should understand what the Methodist Church teaches, we should use logic to think about and reason about our faith. But we must also have had experience. For then, we truly know God, when we have experienced God in our hearts and souls.
Witnessing to what we know to be true in our hearts and souls is the best way to share our faith. We often might think that we’re supposed to be better versed in the scriptures than the people who challenge our faith. In fact, the people who challenge our faith are sometimes better versed in scripture than we are. I am 10 days away from finishing a doctorate in the Bible. I have been in debates with people who know scripture really well. I have proven to them that I know scripture better than they do. Have they been converted because I can deconstruct their arguments and prove they’re wrong using scripture? Have they been converted because I know scripture better than they do?
Where conversion has happened, where people have confessed Jesus Christ as savior, it’s been because of the sharing of experiences, of witnessing to what I know to be true and creating safe space for them to witness to their experiences.
And that is what Jesus calls the disciples to do. Witness to their experiences and create space for others to witness to theirs.
And that is what Jesus calls on us to do today: witness to our experience of Christ.
So the next time you find yourself being challenged about your faith, or the next time someone wonders aloud if God is real or if God cares or anything of that nature, reject the impulse to try and logically prove something, or use scripture to prove, or use teachings of the church to prove that you are right. Instead, simply share your heart: witness to your experience of how God is real, how God cares, and why you continue to have faith.
And if you’ve not had an experience of God this morning, let’s talk. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong or bad or in some way flawed; it means that perhaps it’s time to confess, or its time to find a spiritual practice that works for you, or we need to work through some issue in your life. I’m happy to do any and all of those things together, confidentially.
Witnessing to our faith is the call on our lives; not proving, not demonstrating, but witnessing. Scripture, reason, and tradition are essential for checking our experience to make sure that we’re understanding God correctly from our experience. But they do not replace our experience, which is the grounding of our faith.
Go, then, and witness to what you know to be true: that God is real, that God loves you, and that God will always be with you.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.