What to do when we find our Faith no longer matches up with the facts as we now know them?
For thousands of years people have found the bones of huge, weird animals – unlike any creature now on Earth – embedded in rock. They are often very lizard-like, sometimes even have wings. So, many of our ancestors believed they were dragons that lived in rock, and had perished in Noah’s flood.
A certain kind of these remains are easy to find, often eroding out of shale cliffs near seashores. People thought they looked like a tongue, and so once called these fossils “Dragon’s Tongues.”
Now, in the year 1666 a Danish scientist named Nicolas Steno was dissecting a Great White Shark. And, he realized that the shark’s teeth were identical to the things that people knew as Dragon’s Tongues – only they were much smaller. He realized that these could not be from a creature that lived in rock. They must be from a shark, but a shark far larger any anyone has ever seen. Nicolas proposed that their teeth had fallen out – as shark’s teeth constantly do – then became embedded in mud, and then both mud and teeth then eventually changed into rock.
Steno the first to show that the Bible’s story of Creation was not literally telling us the earth had been created in exactly 6 days, a few thousand years ago. He realized that the layers of rock within which these fossils were found told us that the world must be far older than anyone realized.
These revelations helped change our understanding of the world around us. That fossil really is a Shark’s Tooth – from a type of shark that lived around 25 million years ago named “Megalodon” – the largest predator that ever lived: almost as long as a tractor trailer truck. People panic when Great Whites swim off the coast of Cape Cod. Can you imagine the reaction if they saw a Megalodon?
Steno helped open the door to the many future truths and revelations that are the foundation of our knowledge of the evolution of the world and universe as we now see it. The facts did not change, but our understanding of them did because we realized that our old way of looking at things didn’t work well with these new revelations. Our perceptions about these facts had to change if our beliefs were to remain relevant and useful in this expanded world. Through the work of Steno we have come to realize that God’s Creation is far vaster, more wonderful, and more interesting, than we’d ever imagined before.
So, what does all this have to do with this evening’s scripture readings?
Let’s begin by remembering that the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts were both written by Luke.
His Gospel was written a few years after the crucifixion. At that time, believers were certain, based on their knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and Jewish Scripture, that Christ would come back soon. Luke’s Gospel clearly reflects this belief. And, it tells us the resurrected Jesus was with the disciples for only a very short time – just a day or two – before he ascended into Heaven.
But now several decades have passed. The last few members of the generation that directly witnessed the ministry of Jesus are quite old, or perhaps none are left. That Jesus would return before they are entirely gone is no longer possible. Believers are panicking, since some of their foundational beliefs are clearly not in line with what they see around them.
Their perception of the facts had to change, and so Luke wrote a sequel to his Gospel, which we now know as the Book of Acts of the Apostles. And he starts out by reframing his entire narrative of the Ascension in a way that seems to conflict with what he wrote down years earlier, at the conclusion of his first book, beginning by saying (in Acts) that the day of Christ’s return is known only to our Creator in Heaven, repudiating the belief that the previous generation would live to witness it.
The short period of time between the Resurrection and Ascension in Luke becomes a period of 40 days in Acts – a number that reflects the Bible’s oft repeated metaphor for a time of contemplation and spiritual rebirth.
Luke also re-frames the second coming of Jesus, taking his original but vague statement of their “being clothed with power from on high” and turning it into the more explicit receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit” which will indwell and empower all who believe. Luke then says this Holy Spirit calls us to bring the Good News to all the world. He also repudiates his theme at the end of his Gospel where he says they are to stay in Jerusalem and wait in the Temple: continually blessing Him while waiting for Jesus to do as he promised. Instead, in Acts Luke says the Holy Spirit has already come – in fact, Acts chapter 2 relates that event – and so now it is time to act, time to go forth, time for us to do the work of the Gospel. He’d said this was so in his Gospel, but now he makes it clear this call to witness is not to wait for the second coming.
The crisis Luke and his fellow Christians faced was resolved by achieving a deeper and more complete understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and scripture. The facts did not change, but how we understood them did.
Christianity (and Judaism too, for that matter) has reinvented itself over and over since that time, as we often do in our own personal faiths as well. Whenever a Spiritual Crisis occurs, we – either individually or as a Body – and usually both – dig deep into scripture and our understandings of our Faith, and find a new perspective: a new way of looking at the facts, a new way of seeing ourselves in relationship to those facts, and so we come to a new and more complete understanding of what Christ’s teachings call us to do and to be.
Now, that’s pretty much it for my thoughts this evening. It seemed appropriate at this point to turn to considering what our crises are now, and how re-examining our faith can help us navigate them in a Christlike way.
Some of us are trying to resolve these crises by changing or denying facts – which is an old story, and one that is inescapably doomed to failure; but it’s understandable since repudiating that which we thought solid and secure and then affirming often challenging and uncomfortable facts can be really scary.How do we deal with that fear – both our own and that which we see in others? What needs to be re-examined and changed within our own hearts so that we are more Christlike in our relationships with others? How do we change our understanding and presentation of the Good News so that it remains a message that heals; and continues to be effective in strengthening our relationships with each other, with the World, and with our Creator?
Luke 24:44-53 (NRSV) “The Ascension of Jesus”
Acts 1:1-11 (NRSV) “The Promise of the Holy Spirit and the Ascension of Jesus“
Delivered at Memorial Congregational Church UCC in Sudbury MA, July 28, 2021 (Wednesday evening service)
Copyright 2021, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.