|Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
West Point, Mississippi
The Fifth Sunday in Easter (A)
Acts 7.55-60 Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16 1 Peter 2.2-10 John 14.1-14
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The answer to this rhyme is given in its seldom-heard second couplet, “A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” This harmless tongue-twister ignores the fact that the large ground squirrels Marmota monax do not gnaw on wood, let alone chuck it. The name for this member of the Sciuridae family derives not from any connection with wood, but from the Algonquian name for the animal, wuchak. But the question and answer are a good example of a question known to involve faulty reasoning, which is answered by the application of what is known in psychology as formal reasoning.
As demonstrated famously by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, before a certain age children do not engage in formal reasoning. Asked the question about woodchucks, a young child might have fun with the tongue-twister, but if he or she knew that woodchucks don’t handle wood, he or she would then not get past the absurdity of the premise, but would point out that woodchucks don’t chuck wood. A very young child has to experience a postulate in order to use that information in reasoning.
In the epistle St. Peter instructs us that as Christians we are like newborn infants. To grow in salvation we cannot engage in formal reasoning, adopting the viewpoint and experience of another as our own for purposes of working out a problem, but have to experience the “pure, spiritual milk” of faith. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that faith cannot proceed from reason. I am not saying that faith is irrational. What I am saying, and what St. Peter is getting at, is that how we grow in knowledge of God depends on non-rational constructs. Notice that I didn’t say irrational, but non-rational. This means a number of things, but one of the things it means is that I have to be careful about how I look at evidence.
For example, I can look at the stoning of Stephen in our lesson from Acts, or Jesus’ death on the cross, and conclude that God has not vindicated His servant; God has not glorified His Son. I can read in the epistle that God has laid a new cornerstone in Zion, but this will be an absurd statement to me if I have not experienced the faith built upon Jesus’ sacrifice. In St. Paul’s words, “the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1.18). And then we get to statements like those of our Lord in the Gospel: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me; “I am in the Father and the Father is in me; and “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Are these statements absurd or merely metaphor?
When Jesus says “I am the way,” is He being metaphorical, or should we take Him at His word? It’s not enough to point to anything we don’t understand in faith and say, “Well, it’s a mystery” or “Well, you need to have faith.” If we claim with St. Peter to be those “called ... out of darkness into [God’s] marvelous light,” we need to be able to shed some light on the why’s of belief, the reason of belief.
Let’s go back and look at formal reasoning. Before a certain age a child cannot get past the absurdity of the premise of a question divorced from reality to work the problem, because he or she cannot yet adopt the viewpoint of another. The only viewpoint he or she can use to solve a problem is his or her own, and if he or she knows about woodchucks, well, the child will just answer that woodchucks don’t chuck wood. But suppose the problem doesn’t involve the supposed material handling skills of an example of Marmota monax? Suppose it involves accepting that there is someone in this room with you, right now, who knows you and loves you? Whether you are a young child or one practiced in formal reasoning, you now have a different problem to examine. First, you are faced with the fact that you want there to be someone who knows you and loves you, and so in looking at evidence you have to be careful to not just engage in wishful thinking, finding evidence where there is none. Then you are faced with the fact that unlike a woodchuck chucking wood it is possible for someone to lead you to God, to give you life and truth, even if you can’t explain how this can happen. So where does this leave us? Stuck, saying, “Well, it’s a mystery”?
That’s where a lot of people stumble, even if they have accepted the possibility of faith. They stumble because they can’t accept the testimony of another, whether this other is Jesus, St. Peter, or their church-going friend. But–and this is a big “but”–once we can accept the testimony of another then we can get beyond faith being a mystery to faith being lived; we can get beyond God being a mystery to God being someone we know and love. When St. Peter says in the epistle that we, like newborn infants, are to “long for the pure, spiritual milk,” he is saying that we are to seek the testimony of faith that is offered in the testimony of the Church, of Scripture, and of all those who know and follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He is saying that we are to come to God and “let [ourselves] be built into a spiritual house;” that we can be built, we can grow in faith as we experience faith. We must be fed by others first, but then as we gain experience in faith we find that we can “solve the problem” and find the answer by adopting the viewpoint of another, the insight of another who tells us that He is the way, and the truth, and the life.
In the Gospel Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” That’s when Jesus says He is the way. Philip then asks Jesus to “show us the Father,” and Jesus replies “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Like children, the disciples can’t solve the problem; they can’t understand God because they lack direct experience. In effect Jesus tells them to not get hung up on the postulate, a premise like “the way to salvation” or “God as Father,” but to adopt His viewpoint, His experience. And in adopting this viewpoint and experience the disciples then experience God themselves, and gain knowledge of Him, to solve what has been to them a mystery. Like the disciples, we must first adopt another viewpoint, and accept the postulate stated by Jesus, before we can experience that He is the way, and experience truth and new life in Him.
Notice that I just spoke both of viewpoint and knowledge, of reason and experience. We have to be careful to avoid the trap of ever thinking or acting like a life of faith can be approached as an intellectual exercise. If we ever treat faith as a matter of intellect only, we find that faith is as unreal as a material-handling Marmota monax. To make it beyond this unreal world and into the truth which Jesus promises we have to confront three barriers. The first is intellectual, and that is what we’ve been talking about today; growing in faith by adopting the testimony of others. The second is experiential and personal; it’s about how we grow by doing, and we have also talked a little bit about that today. But the third is social. It’s a matter of community. It’s about how we live our faith together, experience our faith together, and build on each other’s testimony in faith. Getting through these three barriers involves a journey, but it is a journey for which we have a guide.
We’re on a journey and not just wandering. In St. Peter’s words, “now you have received mercy”. We are not left groping for truth. We are not left in life as a zero sum game in which we have to try to figure out and then effect our own salvation. Now we have the testimony of all those who have gone before us in faith. Now we have our Lord’s testimony of what God wills for us. Now we who have fed on the spiritual milk of faith do grow in salvation, for our knowledge of salvation grows in our experience of salvation. We can’t show anyone a pile of wood chucked by a large ground squirrel, but we can show them a life of faith. We can walk in the way of salvation and invite all others to walk with us. We can testify to the truth of the kingdom of heaven. We can testify to abundant life in Jesus, to Jesus who does answer our prayers when we follow in His steps. We can let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, knowing that “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Ps. 127).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.