A friend of mine says, it takes God to know God. We can get a certain distance toward the divine on our own, but eventually we need supernatural help. It takes God to know God. If that’s true, and I think it is, knowing God requires a bit more than the techniques we use to learn things in most of our life. If we need to familiarize ourselves with something, we might read about it, talk to someone who is an expert in it, Google it.
And of course, people read and talk and google Christianity, as they should. The world is full of skeptics who researched the historical data on the Resurrection and came to think it was plausible – there are enough books telling that story to fill a whole bookshelf. And in the Episcopal church, at our best we place a high value on that kind of thing – intellectual inquiry, encouraging asking questions, hoping people will think things through and not just blindly accept what someone else says.
At our best, this is a great trait. Sometimes among our denominational family though, it turns into condescension towards others, or intellectual laziness that is content to applaud questioning as an end in itself, and resists actually reading and thinking historically and textually about doctrine and Scripture. I’ve noticed in discussions of the Bible that as our culture has shifted steadily to emphasize self-expression as the highest good, folks seem to want to jump straight to how they feel about a text, or how they feel about other people’s actions related to the general topic of the text, rather than beginning by using our brains to read and absorb and interact with what it actually says.
The Gospel we have this morning is like that. We lose so much if we jump straight to how it makes us feel without noting that it’s full of perplexing details. Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Excuse me; how did he get in the room? They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. But you just told us that not five minutes ago, they were discussing the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What’s with the "ghost" remark? And startled I can understand, but if it’s they know it’s Jesus, why are they terrified?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Why does he tell them to touch him when he told Mary Magdalene not to? Is he proving his identity by showing them the marks of crucifixion, and if so why are there still wounds in a risen body? Does being raised not fix that? They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Do risen bodies have to eat? How often? Is this some kind of stunt? If we don’t consider the text closely enough to feel disturbed by it and ask questions about it, we are never going to receive its benefits. We have to start by observing what the text actually says.
And then Jesus tells them, I told you “while I was still with you: everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” And here comes the moment where, as important as data and observation are, we go beyond it as we’re confronted with this startling sentence: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
Don’t jump over that. Look at what it says. Note that this is not a claim that the disciples thought harder or the disciples changed their opinion or the disciples heard some new information. It’s claiming there was an act of God. He opened their minds. It starts with their already being aware of what’s in the Scriptures – you can’t understand something you’re not even aware of – but it goes beyond that, because at this moment Jesus supernaturally changes the way they are able to absorb and conceptualize something they had naturally observed and learned. It takes God to know God.
Some of us have been in good Bible studies, ones where people both intellectually observe the text and are open to the Holy Spirit, as opposed to one where people just share how they already feel about things loosely related to the theme of the passage. If you have been in a good Bible study, I will wager that you have had this happen to you. You have had God open your mind to understand the scriptures. You saw things one way, and then something happened inside you that you weren’t the cause of, and everything looked different. It takes God to know God.
In the spiritual life, it’s definitely not that we don’t use our intellect and our powers of research. It’s that we do, but God adds something to them that we could never achieve on our own. He reveals himself. When we carefully consider what the Scriptures say, God steps in with the next step: He opens our minds, in the words of today’s Gospel, to understand them. Or in the words of the Collect prayer for today, he opens our eyes to behold him at work. God gave us intellects so that we could use them. But God also acts upon us and reveals himself, to bring us closer to him than mere human powers can get. Both these things are true, and in the Christian life neither stands alone.