Easter 3 B: Ambiguity and the Sense and Sensibility of Faith

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading         Acts 3:12–19

Psalm                    Psalm 4

New Testament     1 John 3:1–7

Gospel                   Luke 24:36b–48

Ambiguity drives us to distraction. We want black and white answers to questions like “How did the pandemic start? Who is to blame? When will it all end? What do we do now?”

This agitation can also make us enemies of faith. If the fundamentalist assertions of absolute certainty repulse us, the only alternative is atheism, whatever that is.

The New York Times recently featured a  son, Abraham, of is a prominent evangelical pastor and theologian named John Piper. The son has posted over 300 videos on the platform TicToc and has gained close to a million followers there. These videos are characterized as “…irreverent critiques of evangelical Christianity aimed at others who have left the faith.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/us/abraham-piper-tiktok-exvangelical.html?action=click&module=In%20Other%20News&pgtype=Homepage

The online world has become a prime breeding ground for ever more entertaining and simplified attacks on fundamentalism, but also on the Christian faith and on religion in general. This genre is surely trending.

But I wonder if this trend is not also beholden to a concomitant feature of our digital existence. If today we can work miracles with CGI in the movies, and produce convincing fakes of voices and faces, tomorrow won’t we discover that every real and true thing must be reducible to ones and zeroes—either yes or no? And if this is so, are we not warranted in cancelling and tearing down any notion that feels like both yes and no at the same time?

Ambiguity drives us to distraction.

Enter 1 John, admitting ambiguity from the get go: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.And boy, is this letter full of ambiguous stuff, such as that anyone who says they have no sin is a liar, soon followed by the assertion that no one who abides in God sins.

In the memory of the Gospel writers the risen Jesus did something to give peace to his followers after his death. He was dead, you see. But he also reached them with peace. How did he do it? Yes, he spoke words that they heard. But John’s Gospel tells us he also breathed on them (John 20:22). And our reading from Luke and John (20:27) agree that Jesus also invited disciples to touch him—especially his wounds. He also ate with them, and in breaking bread the eyes of their minds were opened to understand obscure things hidden in writings from centuries before (Luke 24:35, 41-45) Then we have Paul, who has the audacity to claim that he too is an apostle, and that at the time when he was a raging hater of the Christian heresy he had the same kind of experience that the original disciples had when Christ “appeared” to him (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). But what kind of empirical experience could that have been? Give me an answer—a yes or no I can wrap my little head around.

Peace through words, tastes, touches, and breath itself. What kind of peace? And so, what sort of truth claim are these Gospel writers making?

All this “new atheism,” whether it is in imposing books or TicToc videos, seems to me to be blind to nuanced spirituality—to the universal journey of believers who have the capacity to suspend suspicion long enough to be changed in many ways by new experiences and new narratives of reality.

One irreducible truth of human life is ambiguity. We want things we can touch, smell, taste, see, or hear right now—things that can give us absolute assurance. Yet we must learn to with and through the sensibility that comes through channels that run deeper. Sensibility must tap into our instincts, not about what and where and how, but who. Sensibility tells us whom we can trust with our lives.

Yes, fundamentalism’s real weakness has a great deal in common with the digital desire for certainty. It pretends a great deal of certainty. But the heart of the Christian faith—the part that saves—that lifts us out of the prison of our own need for certainty and control—relies on sensibility as an insight to get us through this life so full of ambiguity.

Jesus speaks, breathes, and opens his wounds to us. And so there is much we don’t know. But we follow someone we can trust.  

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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