Recently I was driving across town at rush hour and scanning on the radio for a traffic report when the dial happened to pause on a Christian talk-radio station. The talk show host was taking telephone calls from the listeners that day and a woman named Barbara had called in. Barbara had problems; Barbara had a lot of problems. She had problems with her boss at work. She complained about trouble in her marriage. She was at odds with her teen-aged children. She said she had occasional bouts of depression. Barbara had problems.
As she unfolded her litany of troubles and woes, suddenly the talk show host interrupted her. "Barbara," he said, "I want to ask you something. Are you a believer? You know, you're never going to solve any of these problems unless you're a believer. Are you a believer?"
"I don't know," said Barbara hesitantly.
"Now, Barbara," said the host, "either you are a believer or you aren't. If you're a believer, you know it. You know it in your heart. Now, Barbara, tell me, are you a believer?"
"I'd like to be," Barbara replied. "I guess I'm just more agnostic at this point in my life."
The talk show host reacted quickly to that. "Now, Barbara, there's a book I've written that I want to send to you. In this book I prove that Jesus was who he said he was and that he was raised from the dead. Now, if I send you this book and you read it, will you become a believer?"
"I don't know," she said. "I've had a lot of trouble from preachers."
"We're not talking about preachers," the host said. "We're talking about proof. I've got proof-irrefutable proof that Jesus was raised from the dead. Now if I send this book to you, will you become a believer?"
By this point, Barbara was becoming frustrated. "I don't think you're listening to me," she said. "I'm having trouble trusting at this point in my life."
"Barbara," he said, "we're not talking about trust. We're talking about truth. I have unassailable proof that Jesus was raised from the dead. Now if I send it to you, will you become a believer?"
"I guess so," Barbara said. "Yeah, I guess so. I'll become a believer."
Now, I know this may sound strange for a minister to say, but I'm a little sorry that Barbara threw in the towel so quickly. Don't misunderstand?I, too, would like for Barbara to believe the Gospel, and I, too, would like for her to find some help for her troubles in the Christian faith, but I also know that this talk-show host stepped way out of bounds in what he said. He doesn't have any irrefutable proof of the resurrection. The fact is there isn't any. There is no logical, scientific proof of the resurrection. We don't have a videotape of the empty tomb. We have no seismograph of the Easter earthquake. All we have are the stories-the stories of Jesus' resurrection passed down by people of faith from generation to generation.
Of course, I suppose that many of us would love to have some proof. Someone once quipped that Christianity is a religion in which you have to believe 10 impossible things before breakfast every morning, and surely one of those impossible things is the resurrection-Jesus' resurrection from the dead and the promise that we will be raised from the dead, too. The central claim of the Christian faith that a young rabbi named Jesus who was dead as a door nail on Friday afternoon was full of life on the following Sunday, raised from the dead, walking and talking and eating fish with his disciples, shatters logic, breaks the mold of our previous experience and stretches the bounds of our ability to believe. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have some evidence, some proof of the resurrection?
This hunger for some evidence, some proof of the resurrection, undoubtedly caused all of the excitement some years ago over the Shroud of Turin. The shroud, as you may remember, is an ancient piece of cloth on which there appears to be the image of a crucified man. Some people claimed that the shroud was the very burial cloth of Jesus and that the image was created by nothing less than a miraculous burst of energy from the resurrection. If that were true, then the shroud would be a kind of photograph of the resurrection, exactly the sort of physical evidence and proof that many are looking for.
Now, most scholars today are convinced that the Shroud of Turin is not really the burial cloth of Jesus at all but a clever piece of art; maybe it could even be called a forgery created in the middle ages. But we can understand the appeal, can't we? Wouldn't it be great to have a photograph of the resurrection? Wouldn't it be great to have some proof? But the fact of the matter is there is no proof. All we have to go on are these stories told down the years by faithful people from generation to generation.
That seems to be the point of this anguished word in First Corinthians when Paul is writing to a congregation he has known and loved, to people to whom he had preached the Gospel, but people who had come to have doubts about the resurrection. Paul virtually cries out in exasperation, "How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?" Well, to tell the truth, it was probably easy for the Corinthians to say there is no resurrection of the dead. You want me to believe in the resurrection? You want me to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? You want me to believe that when we die we're raised from the dead, too? Well, show me some evidence. You know, the graveyards are full of bodies moldering away. Show me some proof of the resurrection.
So Paul tries to persuade them to believe in the resurrection, and, at first, what Paul says sounds a lot like that radio talk-show host, like he's trying to offer some proof. He sounds at first like a philosopher, a logician-"If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile?." That sounds like logic, doesn't it? That sounds like an argument, a philosophical proof. That sounds like "Socrates is a human, and if all humans are mortal, then Socrates is mortal."
Case closed. Logic. Proof. But if we listened more closely, that is not really what Paul is saying at all. What he is saying is basically, "Maybe you're right. Maybe you Corinthians are right and all this resurrection talk is a bunch of baloney. Maybe when I preach to you that Christ was raised from the dead and that you who belong to Christ will be raised too, maybe I was way out of bounds. Maybe I was even lying. But if I was, then your faith is in vain."
You see, what Paul is doing here-he's throwing them on to the present tense. Throwing them on to their experience. Throwing them on to their own faith. "If you want to know if the resurrection is true," Paul says, "look around you. Can you see the risen Christ in your own experience? Look with the eyes of faith. Can you see the risen Christ out there in the world? There are no proofs. There is only what you can see when you look with your faith."
The novelist Frederick Buechner once wondered what would happen if God, instead of depending upon our faith, did decide to give us a proof. What if God did decide to clear all this religion business up and give us something scientific, something tangible, that would be beyond the shadow of a doubt. "Suppose," Buechner imagined, "that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way - stars flowing across the night sky -- and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual haphazard scattering of stars, but written out in letters light years tall the sentence:
I REALLY EXIST.
What would happen? Well, the reaction would be dramatic. Churches would spill over into football stadiums, crime would cease, wars would suddenly stop, an uncanny hush would fall over the world-for a while. But, then, there would be the message in the stars night after night, month after month, year after year. Every night the sky would proclaim "I REALLY EXIST," and it would become a normal part of nature. "I REALLY EXIST." So what? What difference would that make?
For, as Buechner says, what we really want in our deepest need is not proof that there is a God somewhere who exists or even scientific evidence that a resurrection happened some time ago in history. What we need is a God who is right here, knee-deep in the mud and mire of human existence-a risen Christ who comes to us every day to give life and hope. That is a God who comes not in evidence but in the relationship of trust we call faith. God cannot be seen when we draw a line in the sand and say, "Give me proof or I don't step over the line." God can be seen only by those who already step over the line in trust. When we do, our eyes are opened, and the world is full of resurrection light. When we encounter that Christ, when we experience the power of that presence, then we know in faith that Christ is raised from the dead and our faith is not in vain.
Do you want to know if there is a resurrection? Well, I know an older, retired couple who have every reason to let their lives slip safely into some predictable groove. They are politically conservative, socially cautious by nature. Their income is comfortable, but fixed. Their children are raised and gone. They have every reason to pat themselves on the back, turn on the television and relax. Through a ministry of their church, however, they began sometime ago to write letters of encouragement and support to a man in prison. It began slowly-a chatty letter to the prisoner every now and then, a card and a box of cookies on his birthday. Then they took the next step and actually visited the man in prison. One visit led to another and then one day, the man is paroled, out, free, a human being to be faced and dealt with.
So, on the following Christmas Day, when most retired folks were spending a quiet day carving the turkey and taking pictures of the grandchildren, this couple said grace and broke bread in their home with this newly released prisoner, their new friend in Christ. "I think he was convicted of armed robbery-we're not sure," one of them told me. "Anyway, it was good to have him in our home on Christmas." What do you say about such people? I say, this kind of hopeful ministry happens because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, and their faith is not in vain.
Historians tell us that Charles DeGaulle was a World War II hero and later president of France. What the historians do not so often tell us is that Charles DeGaulle and his wife, Evonne, were the parents of a Down Syndrome child, a little girl named Ann. Charles and Evonne would spend time at the end of every day with their children, making sure to spend some extra time playing with this very special child, Ann. When they would put her to bed, Evonne would sometimes say, "Oh, Charles, I have often prayed that she could have been like the other children. Why was she not like the others?"
When Ann died at a very young age, the DeGaulles had a private graveside funeral service. When the service was over, everyone left the grave except Evonne. Grief-stricken, she could not pull herself away from Ann's grave, but stood there sobbing. Charles went back to her and touched her arm gently. "Come, Evonne," he said. "Did you not hear the promise of the resurrection? She is now like the others."
"How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?" Paul wanted to know. Well, if we keep God's mystery at arm's length, demanding signs and proofs, we will see nothing. But if we open the eyes of faith, the world is full of resurrection light, and we will see signs everywhere of Christ's victory over death.
Behold, I tell you a mystery, Christ has been raised from the dead. Open your eyes to see him. Open your hearts to receive him. And your faith will not be in vain.
Let us pray.
In a world that is cautious about believing anything it cannot touch and measure, help us, O God, to be people of faith. Open our eyes, open our hearts, let us see that the tomb that held Jesus is empty, and the tombs that threaten to hold us have their stones rolled away by the power of Christ our Lord. Amen.