How would you prove to someone that God exists? Have you ever had that conversation with someone? Maybe you’ve had it with yourself. It certainly isn’t a ‘new’ conversation – people have been attempting to prove that God really exists for centuries, sometimes just as an interesting philosophical exercise, sometimes in an effort to convince someone else, sometimes in response to scorn or derision, to justify their own belief.
But if you’ve ever HAD that conversation – then you know. It can’t be done. No matter how carefully and rationally you build up layer on layer of logic or evidence or testimony, there is always going to come a point at which those tools no longer serve. Empirical evidence may get you this far – but it’s never going to get you all the way.
On the other hand, sometimes even getting PART of the way there can be enough to make us take that final necessary leap PAST the rational and provable, into just believing. And thus arose the three philosophical proofs for God’s existence: cosmological, teleological, and ontological.
Some people, for example, would use as their ‘proof’ the astonishing breadth and beauty of creation – if it is here, it must have been made. And so –how else could it have been made unless there was a Maker? That’s called the cosmological proof, in the philosophy of religion. But others find ‘proof’ not in the mere fact of the existence of creation, but in the logic and orderliness of the systems that govern it – the universe is so complex and yet so carefully designed. And so –how else could it be so designed unless there was an Designer? That one’s called the teleological proof.
And it makes perfect sense to me… but I can tell you from experience that if someone asks you for proof? Those answers aren’t going to do it for them. And if those answers aren’t going to do it for them, then the third philosophical proof – the ontological proof – REALLY won’t. Because of the other two philosophical proofs need a leap? The ontological proof sort of needs some kind of convoluted yoga pose. Because basically it goes like this: “imagine the greatest possible being. Now, if you can imagine it, it must exist, because anything that exists is greater than what we can imagine and you just imagined the greatest possible being. Now recall, if you will, that the name we have for the greatest possible being we can imagine is God. And we just proved that the greatest possible being we can imagine HAS to exist or else it wouldn’t be the greatest possible. Therefore God exists.”
Isn’t that a convincing proof? I’m not sure what St. Anselm was canonized for, but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t that proof.
And ultimately… unassailable, tangible, physical, material, empirically evaluate-able evidence – at some point no matter what we say, when it comes to “Is there a God?” there is always going to have to be a moment when any attempts at proof are transcended and it’s just… believing. Or not.
“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Jesus’ famous words, according to John’s gospel, to his disciples gathered together in that upper room immediately after his resurrection. Because what was not yet an issue on Easter Sunday is about to become a serious issue.
Because within a matter of weeks? No more seeing.
And seeing, in those first few days and weeks after Easter, has been everything!
For Mary Magdalene, for Peter, for John, for the disciples in the upper room, for Thomas, on the road to Emmaus, when they’re out fishing again – it’s all about seeing. They all see him, they recognize him, they watch him walk, they hear him talk, they see him eat. And that’s why, that’s HOW, they believe.
And then they get some disturbing news. He’s not planning to stick around. At least, not visibly. Which, in the grand scheme of his disciples trying to spread around the word that he’s risen, that this is God’s Messiah ‘who has broken the bonds of death, believe in him’, is not going to make things too easy. It’s one thing to proclaim that news when he’s standing right there. It’s quite another altogether when all you can say is “Well, I know he’s gone again, but I really did see him!”
So by the time we get to the book of Acts, mere weeks after the resurrection, the disciples really have their work cut out for them. They’re a motley scruffy band of somewhat disreputable wanderers, their message is outrageously strange, and they have no proof. Well, he was here for a bit, but now he’s ascended into heaven. Can you just take our word for it?
Sometimes I think that if the resurrection itself was a most awesome and excellent miracle, it pales in comparison to the fact that the disciples actually managed to convince other people to believe that it had happened.
Because they did. This motley scruffy band of men and women who followed this teacher from Galilee, their message is outrageously strange – that he rose from the dead — and they have no proof. Well, he was here for a bit, but now he’s ascended into heaven. Can you just take our word for it?
And people did. It’s really quite extraordinary. Not only did they stop on the street and LISTEN to these men and women who had followed a man condemned as a criminal and crucified, but they actually took their word for it that he’d risen from the dead. And even when what they had learned to believe without seeing started to put their actual lives in danger, they stayed steadfast. It’s kind of amazing. And looking back on it from two thousand years later, at a time when the faith necessary to believe in what can’t be seen is more often ridiculed and sneered at than celebrated, it’s also kind of mind-blowing. How on earth did faith in the risen Christ EVER take root. It almost seems…miraculous.
And maybe it was.
In the passage from Acts that Shannon read for us earlier, what we’re seeing is Peter, John, the other disciples, really at the very beginning of this ‘getting people to take their word for it’ enterprise. And it’s going kind of mind-blowingly well! There are crowds! They’re impressed! There are crowds that are large enough and impressed enough that the authorities are getting seriously alarmed!
Jesus WAS, after all, executed as a criminal. Even just mentioning him is not a benign act, never mind preaching he rose and is the Messiah.
So the authorities take action. Peter and some of the other disciples get dragged in to be questioned about what they’re preaching – and when they refuse to back down, when they refuse to STOP preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead because he’s the Messiah, the council prepares to also execute them for blasphemy.
Until one of the council members has a thought. Gamaliel. Not exactly a well-known bible figure – although he was apparently the grandson of the great Rabbi Hillel, whose reputation for wisdom is still revered today in the Jewish community. And I think Granddad would have been quite proud of his grandson Gamaliel, because in this case at least he really displays quite remarkable wisdom. In fact, he sort of saves the day – maybe even the whole future of the church.
Because Gamaliel stops the council from executing Peter and the other disciples, and he stops them by saying this.
“You know what? There are all kinds of groups in this country who claim this and that and the other – remember that fellow Theudus who claimed to be ‘someone’ and had all those followers? And the other one, Judas the Galilean who got a big crowd to riot during the census? After a while, their so-called ‘movements’ just kind of petered out. Which is usually what happens. So why get so worked up about this Jesus Movement? It’s probably going nowhere, in a year we won’t even remember the guy’s name, why even waste our time trying to get rid of it when it’ll play itself out in due course anyway?”
And then the clincher. “And if it doesn’t,” Gameliel goes on, “then it really IS filled with the power of God, and no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to silence it.”
Indeed. A remarkably practical fellow, that Gamaliel.
But let’s not romanticize him as a Christian hero – he may just have had other plans for the weekend, or he might truly have inwardly struggled with the notion of capital punishment – but I really don’t think it’s possible to claim Gamaliel spoke out for the apostles because he really BELIEVED what they were doing was “of God” as it were. I think he probably assumed it would play itself out, like the other movements he’d mentioned, like umpteen other movements he’d seen.
Which is why one of my great regrets is that we never hear from him again. Oh, there’s a whole branch of medieval legends about him, in which subsequently fell to his knees before the apostles and begged to be baptised, but those really are legends.
There’s no evidence he ever really DID convert – there’s certainly none in the bible stories themselves, and if he had – well, the grandson of Rabbi Hillel converting is something that definitely would have gotten noticed. There’s no way it happened, but didn’t make it into the bible stories. We never hear about him again.
And I think that’s too bad. Because what I really would have liked to know from him is, how exactly does that rule work? That if it really IS filled with the power of God, it can’t be silenced. Is there some kind of time gauge on that? Because it sounds really good, doesn’t it? And we can look back at what really does seem to have been miraculous – the apostles being able to convince people Jesus had risen when they couldn’t even point to him, and people really believed, and we can say “See, it really WAS of God, it COULDN’T be silenced”…
But how long does it take before that is, in and of itself, definitive proof? Have we arrived at that point? Our own opinion, presumably, is that it’s been two thousand years! Of course we have! But not so fast – because just as surely as those first apostles, we’re now again living within a culture that’s demanding we consider ourselves afresh alongside Gamaliel’s standard.
Assuming we’re just flakes or throwbacks, and eventually it’ll all peter out — Or else this really is of God – because it’s not been silenced yet. And everyone can tell. Because we’re not silent.
And I’m not talking about literally making noise. Churches have been literally making noise for two thousand years – and to be honest, if some of that noise has been justicemaking and positive (and it has), some of that noise has been filled with ugly and all about hate. Which frankly, has been tragic, in the grand scheme of “if it’s from God it can’t be silenced” because God’s taken the rap in popular culture for all of that ugly and all of that hate.
So I’m not talking about “this is of God and so it can’t be silenced” in terms of actually making noise, although any and all noise in the service of justice and fulness of life IS part of our calling as people of faith.
What I’m talking about is in some ways the really hard part.
Because it’s really hard to obviously and intentionally – and not only that but inwardly and sincerely! – follow the way of Jesus in our living. It’s hard to be forgiving. It’s hard to always be kind and compassionate, to figure out how to balance this need with that need knowing that anything that disappoints might be met with “Ha! I thought you were a Christian”.
But I think the hardest way of all in which our faithfulness can’t be silent, it is of God, but it is SO difficult to gather it up with enough strength to deal, is in the face of real tragedy. A terrible diagnosis. A terrible loss. Because those are the moments when God stands or falls for someone, in part based on us. Those are the moments when “is this really of God” comes down to “has it helped?”. Has it found a way to respond, has it been present to anger and outrage, has it mitigated fear?
In effect, it’s the ultimate moment of testing Gamaliel’s standard: “If your faithfulness is REAL, show me. If your faithfulness is REAL, it’ll have a worthwhile response to this. Show me.”
Increasingly, in my experience, this is the so-called ‘proof’ that’s probably most demanded of us on a day-to-day basis. Not only that our faithfulness is reflected in kindness and compassion, but that it has something worthwhile to contribute to a culture that’s feeling more and more under siege by randomness and fear.
And do we? I believe we do. I do believe that if this weren’t of God, it’d have fallen silent by now. And I think that amongst us all, we’ve accumulated in the course of our lives a great deal of wisdom. And we can learn from each other.
Which is why, at the risk of getting into trouble with the Worship Committee, what I’d really like to do – in the spirit of Gamaliel’s standard – is to look ahead to our Potluck Church that’s scheduled for April 23rd, because Potluck Church is always informal and conversational and it’s all about the shared wisdom of community, and to say let’s make that gathering about honestly talking about how our faith deals with real and tragic bodyblows. How do we stay on course when it gets knocked around, how can we be helpful to people dealing with the fear. What do we have to offer by way of helpful response?
This is really of God. It won’t be silenced. And maybe I’m the only one, but frankly I really doubt it – I’ve been knocked sideways myself not knowing what to say. We can learn from one another, and I hope we will. Because in some ways, that’s one of the most faithful ways in which we, two thousand years later, proclaim that this is good news and it’s real.
Thanks be to God. Amen.