Knowledge of God: Where does it come from?

A Reflection on Luke 24:13-35.

“Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen... [Is Christian belief hope or delusion?] In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer.”

— Thomas Merton

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

— Don Quixote

 

I helped start a ministry at Caltech last year that works with Christian student groups there to do monthly events where we examine major questions on topics of faith and science. Each event includes a talk by a scientist or philosopher and break out discussion groups where the students can air their thoughts and questions openly. And it’s been surprising to see how much interest there is in these topics. We’ve had a lot of non-Christian student turnout. So I flew down to Pasadena last Saturday to help organize our latest event and lead a discussion group (which is my favorite part).

My group this time was mostly agnostics and atheists. And what stood out to me was the extent to which our culture’s postmodern doubts had influenced people’s thinking about truth. Most of the people at the table seemed very wary of religion’s claims to truth (they were even a bit wary about science’s claims to truth, but more so about religion.) It seemed they didn’t understand how a truth claim about God could be established, and most seemed to think that the Bible was not reliable. Unfortunately, I think this kind of thinking is increasingly common in America today.

So, in light of our current cultural discomfort with truth claims, it seems to me to be an important question to ask: how do we derive knowledge of God? And for us as Christians, specifically: how is God revealed in Jesus?

So, I found it very timely that our gospel passage today shows us three ways that we can gain knowledge about God. What we will see today is that: 1. God is known through His witnesses. 2. God is known through His story.  3. God is known through His revelation.  

Witnesses

First, God is known through His witnesses.

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a story that would seem like a tall tale to many modern readers, and it would have seemed no less far-fetched to its first century Jewish Christian audience. Jesus has come back from the dead; his disciples don’t recognize him at first; and then he disappears. And it used to be that many biblical scholars would simply write this kind of story off as a legendary tale largely or entirely invented by the church decades, if not centuries after Jesus’ death. But recent historical biblical scholarship has challenged that a great deal.

One important recent book is called “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” by the Cambridge historian, Richard Bauckham. Over 508 pages, Bauckham points out a number of clues that show that the gospel accounts contain eyewitness testimony. And one of the most important marks of eyewitness testimony is right here in our passage. Why is Cleopas mentioned by name, while the other disciple is not? Bauckham shows that the gospel traditions tended to omit names over time. So, Mark’s gospel lists blind Bartimaeus by name while Matthew’s gospel, written ten or so years later, does not.  This suggests that the most likely reason Cleopas’ name is retained in this story, while the other disciple is forgotten, is that Cleopas was known to Luke and his readers, while the other disciple was not. Furthermore, Bauckham says:

“[Named people, like Cleopas, in the gospels] were themselves the eyewitnesses who first told and doubtless continued to tell the stories in which they appear and to which their names are attached.”

So, how does this story of Cleopas come down to us? Cleopas himself told the story to the church as eyewitness testimony. And even though after Jesus’ death the disciples would have been almost as inclined to doubt Cleopas’ story as modern people are, they found it convincing because they found him to be a reliable person, and his experience was like that of others who also saw Jesus. This was one of many eyewitness stories of Jesus’ resurrection that all had similar features.

For this and other reasons, I think we can be reasonably confident that the gospels contain the collective eyewitness testimony of the earliest Christian community. But it is still quite fair for skeptics to ask why should we take this community’s testimony seriously?

There are several reasons, but I’ll give you just one. The New Testament provides us insights into the type of people who were leading and active in the early church. It contains their writings, teachings, and testimony. And what we find there is not a group of naïve and fanciful people. Instead what we find is a group of highly rational and philosophically insightful minds. These were people who passionately preached a revolutionary ethic based on concern for the poor and love for enemies, and who believed in the importance of reliable eyewitness testimony and historical facts. In other words, these aren’t the kind of people who are likely to believe unverified stories or invent a hoax.

And so, the witness of the early church gives us eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and compelling reasons to believe it. That’s a part of how we gain knowledge of God and His revelation in Jesus. We’re indebted to that apostolic witness.

His Story

Jesus also reveals God to us by coming in the context of a particular history. There’s an old Evangelical cliché that history is His story, and I think that’s right. But the historical story the Bible tells is not the generic, supposedly unbiased history from your high school world history book. It is a particular history of a particular people told from a particular theological perspective. To bring about our salvation, God didn’t just become any human being. He became the son of David at a particular time and place in the history of Israel.

Jesus comes to us as the fulfillment of the purposes and promises of what God had already been doing in Israel for 1500 years or more. Without that backstory, how could anyone have taken Jesus seriously or understood him? Without the long history of Israel’s encounter with the God of Abraham, how could they or we recognize the Creator God in the person of Jesus? Jesus doesn’t come to us as the alternative to God’s plan to restore the world through Israel, he comes as it’s fulfillment.

But it’s interesting that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were convinced that they knew the story of Israel and the Messiah, and that the crucifixion meant that the story of Jesus had now come to a disappointing conclusion. They had thought Jesus was the Messiah, but now that he’s been executed by the Romans, that can only mean that his messiahship has failed. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21:23). And notice that the story of the empty tomb only added to the disciples’ confusion and dismay.

But when Jesus encounters them, what he basically says is, you guys have gotten the story wrong. And he then gives them a new way to read the story of Israel that reveals how the sacrificial death of the Messiah was part of the divine plan all along. Commenting on this passage, NT Write describes the disciple’s moment of enlightenment like this:

“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not the clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax? Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all? Suppose this was, after all, how the exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven and how the kingdom was to come? Suppose this was what God’s light and truth looked like, coming unexpectedly to lead his people back into his presence?”

Jesus reveals how his story and the story of scripture are one and the same, and suddenly it all clicks for Cleopas and the other disciple. This is the story God has been unfolding in Israel all along. Wasn’t Joseph as good as dead when he was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt? But through his suffering he returned to save all of Abraham’s descendants from certain starvation. Wasn’t Israel itself as good as dead when they were enslaved in Egypt and oppressed by the Pharaoh? But God brought them through the waters of death and out into new life and freedom. Didn’t Isaiah tell of the suffering servant of God who would suffer for the sins of God’s people and be raised to new life?

People today throw their hands up in the air and say, there’s no evidence, how could we ever believe in God. But the very long history of Israel, and now the church too, gives us more than three millennia of evidence of God’s consistent interaction with his people and working out his divine purposes among them.

Special Revelation

Finally, it’s important to recognize that we ultimately can’t know anything about God unless God reveals himself to us. One of the guys in my discussion group said that he might be able to believe in God if knowledge of God could be derived without reference to the Bible. But I had to tell him, sorry, no, that’s not the way it works. The God of the Bible is a Creator who is totally distinct from His creation. His relationship to us has been compared to Shakespeare’s relationship to Hamlet. Hamlet could never know anything about his creator unless Shakespeare somehow wrote himself into the story. In order for humanity to know the God of the Bible, God must reveal himself to us.

And that’s what happens in the road to Emmaus story. Jesus’ identity is hidden from the disciples until he makes himself known to them. And he does so in a very particular way. Though he is a guest in their house, he himself plays the part of the host, blessing and breaking the bread. And I think we’re meant to make the connection here with the Lord’s table. “This is my body, given for you.” Jesus reveals himself in the symbol of his self-sacrifice. And that is what makes the whole story click for them. “Were not our hearts burning?” The exposition of Scripture and the revelation of Jesus in the sign of communion are how the disciples finally recognize their Lord among them.

Therefore, this story lays down the normative means by which the church will encounter Jesus and know God in worship: through exposition of the word and through eating the communion meal together. Incidentally, that’s the basic framework of our Anglican liturgy.

Conclusion

Tomas Merton once wrote a paper in which he asked “Is Christian belief hope or delusion?” And in commenting on that question, he made this insight which I think is right on: “In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer.” In other words, in our day, skepticism has become much easier than belief. We’ve become so practical, that it’s hard for us to believe in anything that doesn’t hit us on the nose. But as Miguel de Cervantes once said through the character, Don Quixote, too much practicality becomes its own kind of madness. At some point, we must become skeptical of our own skepticism, and allow God to open our eyes to the reality of the unbelievable things He has done for us.

God has made Himself known to us through the deposit of apostolic eyewitness testimony, through the long record of His interaction with Israel and the church down through the centuries, and above all, through His self-revelation to us, both in the past and in the present through the power of the Holy Spirit. All three of these focus our attention on the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. And taken altogether, they provide a powerful witness to the hope we have in him. But it takes real courage and faith to believe, especially in an age like ours.

Therefore, let us not be led to despair by our society’s postmodern skepticism. Let us be brave to hope in the One who is truth himself, come to tabernacle among us and make Himself known in the breaking of bread, which is the sign of His gift of grace to us, forgiveness of sins, and hope of eternal life in Him. Amen.