Sunday, June 17, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye

The Scripture referred to is 2 Corinthians 6-17.
It sounds like the premise of a movie but what if a loved one was convinced that you were not who you said you were but an impostor? If questioned, this person would admit that you looked and sounded and moved just like their father, mother, spouse, etc. but they just knew you weren't really that person. It's called Capgras Syndrome and it can be the result of schizophrenia, dementia or brain injury. Unlike prosopagnosia or face blindness, patients who suffered from Capgras Syndrome recognize the faces of family and friends but the usual emotional response to them is absent. This leads some neuroscientists to postulate a disconnect between the temporal cortex of the brain, where facial recognition is performed, and the limbic system, where emotions are generated. Because the person's spouse, for instance, looks like the spouse to them but just doesn't "feel" like their spouse, they reason that he or she must be an imposter. Thank God this is a rare syndrome.

The reason I bring this up is that when we see things or people, we perceive them not just as random objects but in some cases as more than that. A child learns to differentiate between toys in general and his toys, dogs in general and his pet, people in general and his family. We tend to remember events that evoke an emotional response in us better than, say, a routine visit to the store. Yet in an objective sense, our eyes see no more than a stranger would.

One of the wonderful features of the updated Sherlock Holmes TV series from the BBC is what we might call "Sherlock vision." At times, we see crime scenes through the great detective's eyes. In the first episode, as Sherlock examines a body, he pulls off the victim's wedding ring. Above the exterior of the ring floats the word "dirty." He looks at the interior and the word "clean" appears. Other signs indicate that she is from out of town. He later announces that she was a serial adulterer, based on the fact that she did not value her marriage enough to keep her ring looking nice but removed it so often that the inner side was smooth and shiny. The effect is humorously highlighted when he is confronted by a naked Irene Adler. When Sherlock looks at John Watson, words pop up indicating from the unevenness of his shaving which side his shaving mirror must be on and from the state of his clothes whether the doctor changed after coming home from a date. But when he looks at the unclothed woman, Holmes sees only question marks!

In our passage from 2 Corinthians Paul writes that "we walk by faith, not by sight." Skeptics take this as a statement of opposites. "If walking by faith is the opposite of walking by sight, then it must mean faith is blind." They think that faith means shutting your eyes to reality or at least certain parts of it and find it strange that we should brag of navigating in an impaired manner. But that is not what Paul means. He is saying that walking by faith is not the opposite of walking by sight but perceiving more than is seen by the naked eye. There is a logic to our spiritual approach that reveals dimensions mere materialism cannot fathom.

For reasons known only to the people who prepared our lectionary, our reading begins in the middle of Paul's discussion of life and death. In the verse before the one we start with, Paul says that God has given us his Spirit as a down payment or guarantee of what he has promised us. It is because we have God's Spirit in us that we are confident that whatever lies beyond this life is better, offering a greater intimacy with God than is possible in this life. It is in this context that he talks of walking or navigating through life by faith rather than by mere sight. In the light of our having eternal life, things look different.

Obviously, knowing that we have eternal life means we need not fear death but it also means we want to live in a manner that will please Jesus from whom we receive such life and whom we will meet face to face when we die. It is the relationship of trust and love we have with Jesus that makes us see the world as we do. While we may not exhibit the deductive ability of Sherlock, through faith, our trust in a creative, loving, redeeming God, we see that there is more to the world and to people than just a collection of atoms, chemicals and biological drives. Just as recognizing a person to be our father or mother causes us to greet that person more warmly than we would someone we are meeting for the first time, so recognizing Jesus in the people we meet every day will affect how we treat them.

Ideally, we should treat everyone as Jesus in disguise or in distress. That can be hard. The person we meet may be morally repugnant. How can we see Christ in someone who gives free reign to his rage, or is prejudiced, or is dishonest, or is always coming on to people, or who is always under the influence of drugs or who is arrogant?

If you're hunting for treasure, unlike movies, you're not likely to find it in a cave, all shiny and alluring. Those who dive wrecks and seek valuables that have been underwater for centuries look instead for unnaturally shaped lumps under layers of muck. They know that precious coins and the like are probably covered with growths and corals and corrosion. They don't look like much to the untrained eye. But the salvors gather them up and send them up to the boat and later, in a lab, people will patiently work to gently remove all of the dirt and accretions until a golden goblet or a bejeweled cross is revealed. Hidden treasures have to be salvaged.

Or to change the image, think of a sea turtle who is disfigured or disabled by fibropapillomas. They will suffer and eventually die unless someone rescues them and takes them to someplace like our Turtle Hospital, so the growths can be removed. That's how we have to look at people who appear to be unChristlike. The precious image of God is there. Our job is simply to identify and acknowledge them and lift them up to God. If that person lets him, the Holy Spirit will work to remove those things which obscure and distort God's image in them and bring out the likeness of Christ. And of course, the same process applies to us as well.

Looking at your life through the eyes of faith, you will see that it is more than just a period between birth and death in which you work in order that you may eat, sleep, and procreate in relative comfort. Instead, life is a mission. But unlike James Bond, our mission is not to keep secrets and kill people, but to spread the good news and help people. It is unfortunate that our heroes today are so ruthless that they can only be identified as good guys by the fact that they kill bad guys. Jesus had a different way of getting rid of bad guys--he transformed them into good guys. If he were to come back now and, as some desire, scour the earth of all who were evil--not just murderers but those who lie and gossip and don't forgive and commit adultery in their hearts and don't use his gifts for his purposes and don't give to the poor or help the sick and aren't hospitable to the alien and don't visit those in prison and don't feed the hungry and don't stand for justice for the oppressed--well, none of us would survive. Our only hope is in being saved from those things that we do and which have become our habits by God's grace in Christ Jesus.         

And our talents and skills are not simply for advancing ourselves in this world but through faith we see they are gifts from the Spirit to use for furthering and fulfilling our mission.

Our mission as Jesus articulated it is to go and make students and followers of him in every nation, baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them to keep his commandments. We are not to use laws or force to bring new people to Christ but words of wisdom and acts of love. Which means learning more about the Bible and Christianity ourselves so we can pass it on. It also means we must be living examples of Chrislike behavior. We can't let ourselves off the hook by saying "do as we say, not as we do." That's hypocrisy.

It also means we see everyone we meet as either a brother or sister in Christ or as a potential brother or sister in Christ. Which helps us in carrying out our mission by giving us motive. As Paul says, "For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all." Everyone we know, everyone we meet is someone for whom Christ died. But it does no one any good if they don't take advantage of it. After the Civil War, all slaves were free. But some did not act on that good news. They were afraid of freedom, its choices and responsibilities. They stayed on the plantations where they had lived and worked for wages that, after paying for food and lodging, left them as little better than slaves. That is the lot of all who do not respond to the fact that by his death Christ has freed us from enslavement to sin. All who are dead to the fact must be awakened.

In a sense it is as if we died to sin. "Therefore all have died," as Paul put it. We are as free from the penalty of sin as death would render us for any earthly crime. But it was Jesus who died for us. He took our penalty and we owe him our lives. Again, Paul says, "And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." So we do not see ourselves as free agents who only have ourselves to answer to. We belong to Jesus and our lives are now in Christ. We are to put on Christ, which means our focus is not on ourselves but outward toward others.

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view," says Paul. The human way to look at people is to classify them as family, friend or foe. There is a reason why we prefer people who look and talk and act like us. When we lived in extended family units and clans, those are the people you could usually expect to look out for you and help you. Folks from other tribes might be friendly, might be potential allies, but they could just as easily be rivals for resources.

It is not unusual for animals to be friendly and even forgiving towards members of their own family unit. But meercats will battle other families of meercats, chimps will wage war on other groups of chimps, ants will march into the territory of other ants and fight to the death. That's natural and normal for them as it was for most of human history. But Jesus wants us to love not only those who already love us but those who don't. Because when he died for all, he died for them, too, of course. So we see them differently.

We see Jesus differently, too, Paul reminds us. The popular idea of the Messiah then was a holy warrior who was to free his people by killing those who were not his people. Instead Jesus destroyed the idea of a partisan God and a partisan savior. We don't see him as most of his contemporaries did. We see him as God-with-us, God who knows us all to be flawed and sinful and who died for us all anyway. He see him not just as a special human used by God but as God incarnate. We see him as the supreme exemplar of God's self-sacrificial redeeming love.

And so because of who he is and what he's done and for whom he has done it, we don't regard the people to whom he's sent us with this good news from a merely earthly point of view, especially if they respond to Christ. Those of us who let Jesus clean away those moral accretions and remove those spiritual tumors that obscure who he created us to be know there is more here than meets the eye. We are not who we were, who we once let ourselves become. That version of us is dead; God means to resurrect us and his whole creation to be something startling, something unanticipated, something groundbreaking. As Paul puts it, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" Walking by faith, we see all people, this whole world in fact, as a work in progress. The mess around us is that of the new creation under construction, the new heavens and the new earth in embryonic form, new men and new women in the process of being born anew. Through the eyes of faith, we see the old paradigms falling apart and the new ones being built up, one principle and one person at a time. Walk by sight and you will stumble over the unseen and the imperceptible. Walk by faith and you will see a new temple being built of living stones, a more comprehensive image of God, comprised of all of us mirroring certain facets of our creator, coming together like a mosaic to show the full glory of our God our Father reflected in the face of his son Jesus Christ, whose body we are called to be.

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