Let me propose for our consideration what I would call a widely established principle that most reasonable people can get behind. I did not make this up. Instead it derives from epistemology, a branch of philosophy which is the study of the theory of knowledge. It states that “the burden of proof regarding the truthfulness of a claim lies with the one who makes the claim. If this burden is not met, the claim is unfounded, and its opponents need not argue further in order to dismiss it.” Here’s another way to put it. When a person makes a claim that is different from or contrary to accepted or common knowledge, it is exclusively their responsibility to provide the necessary evidence to support that claim. Absent that evidence, the claim is dismissed. Yes? No? Still unclear?
As with other established principles, this principle regarding the burden of proof can encounter problems in real life. A week ago, western news media accused the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of dropping a deadly cocktail of chlorine and sarin gas on the rebel-held town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus. Video of the aftermath of the attack as well as firsthand accounts were reported in the evening news in many western countries showing civilians, among them children, suffering in the wake of that attack. After serious examination of shared intelligence between the US, the UK, and France, allied forces last Friday evening launched missiles on multiple military targets in Syria aimed at crippling their chemical and biological weapons facilities. Syria and its allies Russia and Iran dispute this evidence, even suggesting the whole event was staged by their enemies to galvanize international opposition and mistrust toward them. And since both sides in the conflict have established that they do not trust each other at all, any and all evidence provided will also be disputed. Clearly the problem is way larger than this one horrific event alone.
No doubt we live in an age of widespread suspicion and mistrust. What used to be the province of fringe groups that thrived on conspiracy theories and paranoia has slowly gathered increasing mainstream support and credibility. And the meteoric rise in use of social media has easily contributed to this general erosion of trustworthiness of almost every civic authority, including the very platforms themselves that brought them into existence. Who can we even believe anymore? And if we have difficulty trusting our own friends and our own government, then who can we even trust at all?
The community of disciples and followers that had formed around Jesus was in grave danger of total devastation and collapse following the horrific torture and death of their leader. It seemed fear for their safety was the only thing keeping them together now. If they were lucky and their opponents just moved on, now that they had put Jesus to death, his disciples could just slowly fade into obscurity where they came from. And they could finally leave all this unpleasantness behind.
But Jesus had other plans. Like he did in last Sunday’s gospel account, Jesus once again stood in their midst as they cowered in fear behind locked doors. This passage we read today follows the account of two disciples; of how Jesus appeared to them on the road to Emmaus, about a day’s journey on foot; how he explained to them that the Messiah had to suffer and die, but that he would rise from the dead; and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread. Suddenly, he was right there. Don’t you just hate when that happens? You’re telling a story about someone, and as you’re talking, they come up right behind you. Now their story was too incredible to begin with. Everyone listening to them probably still had some major doubts. But when Jesus himself was suddenly standing before them (I like to think he said “Boo!”), they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus still had to prove that it was really him. So he showed them his wounds. But seeing these, and touching his hands and feet was not enough for them. So Jesus asked them for something to eat. They gave him a piece of baked fish. And he took it and ate it in front of them.
What would it take for you and me to believe that Jesus is alive and truly present among us? We call ourselves his disciples. We gather each weekend, and claim that we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that he is present in our midst. But do we really believe that? It is probably safe to say there are some among us who are still not convinced, who still do not believe. We proclaim it out loud whenever we make our profession of faith. “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, [who for our sake] suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day.” But what do we mean by it? When Jesus stood among his disciples in the upper room and showed them his wounds, that was not enough for them. He had to eat something in front of them. The scriptures do not say that this actually convinced them. So in every generation of his disciples, Jesus is always having to prove that he is truly alive, and that he is among us.
So I propose that the community of Jesus’ disciples, then and now, becomes the most essential and crucial evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. How can we ever give convincing proof of what we believe, if we are not deeply convinced ourselves first? If with our words and example we cannot give authentic witness to what we proclaim, then perhaps we do not truly believe. If we proclaim that God is merciful, the mercy of God has to be tangible in how we treat our neighbor, in the way we extend the mercy that we have received. If instead we treat our neighbor with resentment, grudgingly, and without kindness, we would really be proclaiming a God who is resentful, grudging, and unkind. And the claim we make, absent credible evidence, is worthless.
The biggest challenge then for us who claim to believe, that Jesus is truly risen from the dead, is to live our lives consistent with the truth we proclaim. In his first letter, St. John gives a simple measure. “The way we can be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments.” Are we convincing proof of the resurrection to the people who hear us speak and who see how we live?We can truly trust and proclaim that we have been reconciled with God, that Jesus is alive among us, and that he sends us to give witness to God’s love for all people. But until we give evidence by our words and our way of life that we are truly convinced ourselves, how can we expect to convince anyone else?
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
1 John 2: 3