Two people can experience the same event, yet come up with two different interpretations of it. I realized this when, as a child, I was sitting high up in the stands watching an automobile race with my father and his brother, my uncle Ray. An old ice cream vendor was carefully making his way up the rickety wooden steps selling Fiddlesticks. I who am afraid of heights looked at him, wondering why someone that old was forced to make a living by selling ice cream in such a stressful situation.
In the midst of my reflection, my realistic uncle nudged me, pointed to the man, and said, "Roger, unless that guy's got ice between his fingers, I wouldn't buy his ice cream. He's been holding that same Fiddlestick in his hand for a least five minutes." Ray had seen something I hadn't noticed.
I often remind my students that when one opens the Bible, one isn't dealing with a book of history or science or biology; one's opening a book of faith: a book whose authors aren't concerned as much with passing on facts as they are with giving theological interpretations of those facts, how their belief in God and their relationship with God influence whatever happens in their lives, an interpretation which often differs author to author.
The author of our II Chronicles passage, for instance, interprets Cyrus' decree permitting exiled Jews in Babylon to return to Israel and rebuild their temple as fulfilling a direct command of Yahweh. Some historians interpret it from a different perspective, pointing out that Cyrus was obsessive compulsive about the after-life, fearing one day, on the brink of eternity, he'd come face to face with a god or goddess whose people he'd stopped from worshipping him or her. To overcome this fear, the Persian emperor granted religious freedom to any people he conquered - Jews and non-Jews alike - simply requesting "Say one for me!" in return for the favor.
Did Cyrus carry out Yahweh's direct command, or was he just a victim of his own psyche? It doesn't make a big difference. If we share the faith of the sacred author, we're invited to share his or her interpretation.
As Christians, we buy into the faith-interpretation of Jesus' death which both Paul and John offer in today's second and third readings. Each explains the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning as a sign that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from a death which had cut short his life and ministry. That the tomb was empty is a "fact;" that the empty tomb means its former occupant has risen from the dead is a faith interpretation of the fact.
Yet it's not quite that simple. Even the interpretation has interpretations. What does Jesus' resurrection mean for us?
Fortunately in today's two passages, Paul and John seem to agree on the meaning they offer. Each looks at the life which the risen Jesus provides as something we could never earn by our own "works." Paul believes such life is a sign of the "great love God had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions." In the same way, John states, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."
Instead of just taking a few steps back and thanking God for the favor, each author gives us some of the implications of living that new life. For Paul, "We are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them." For John, "Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that their works may be clearly seen as done in God."
For each of these first century Christian theologians, faith is more than just believing in the "things" God has done. They also interpret it as demanding we live our lives in a different way because of those things.