Monday, April 24, 2017

Words of Life

Recently I got an email from a woman who said that she was at the scene of my accident and that she tended to me until the EMTs arrived. I didn't know about her before, mainly because I was unconscious. But I thanked her for coming to my aid. For that matter I don't remember the deputies or EMTs who treated me at the scene, or the surgeons who operated on me that night. Nevertheless I am immensely grateful to these people whom I really don't know.

The reason I bring this up is that I was struck by a sentence in our passage from 1 Peter (1:3-9): “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy...” Last week we were talking about how essential to the spread of Christianity was the fact of the resurrection as well as all the witnesses to the risen Jesus. Christians today are in the same boat as the folks who received this letter: people who never met Jesus. However, the original recipients of this letter at least had a connection with a living witness to Christ. We do not.

But that's not, on the surface, much different than our relationships to past historical figures whom we admire: Abraham Lincoln, Aristotle, Isaac Newton. Not only are they dead but so is everyone who ever knew or even saw them. If you go on You Tube you can see a clip from the old show “I've Got a Secret,” which features 96 year old Samuel J. Seymour, who was in the Ford Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. He was 5 in 1865 and died 2 months after his TV appearance in April 1956. He was the last living witness to Lincoln.

Weirdly, two grandsons of President John Tyler, who was born in 1790 are still alive. But they never met their famous grandfather. He had their father, Lyon Garner Tyler, in 1853, when the former president was 63. Lyon likewise had his sons late in life, when he was in his 70s. They are descendants, but not witnesses to the 10th president.

My granddaughter will grow up in a generation that will see all living witnesses of the moon landing die off. The difference is that video documentation of the event will, we hope, continue to exist, although the original tapes of that have been lost. And just as historically uninformed people say Jesus didn't exist, conspiracy theorists have pointed to the lost tapes as further evidence that the moon landing was faked.

So is that all we have of Jesus? Historical documentation? Well, we do have that and we have more of it than we have for most ancient people. Plato died around 347 BC; the earliest fragments of copies of his writings date back to the 2nd to 4th century AD. That's 500 to 700 years later. The earliest complete manuscripts of Plato date to about 900 AD. That's a gap of about 1250 years. In contrast, Jesus was crucified around 30 AD. The New Testaments books and letters were written between 48 AD and 95 AD. The earliest fragments of the New Testament belong to John's gospel and date to somewhere between 117 and 138 AD. That's within a century of Jesus' earthly life and within 20 to 40 years of the composition of John's gospel. We have at present 18 manuscripts of the gospels and epistles from the 2nd century and one from the first, comprising 43% of the New Testament. In addition we have found more than 5800 copies of the various books of the New Testament and 24,000 early translations. Plus we can construct the entire New Testament, except for 11 verses, just from quotations in the early church fathers. And while some of the copies vary, scholars agree they are 99.5% identical, meaning those who copied them took special care in doing so. Most of the variants are spelling errors. We are more sure of what Jesus said and what the witnesses said about him than we are about Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, Herodotus or any other ancient figure in history. (BTW thanks to Wikipedia and Dave Armstrong's Patheos blog for the statistics.) 

This doesn't prove that what Jesus or the New Testament said was true, just that we can trust that we do have their actual words. But these words validate themselves in our lives. A lot of people find truth in the writings of the past. But they rarely change their lives in radical ways. I love the wisdom of people like Aristotle but not everything he wrote has turned out to be true, nor will I try to work out an entire way of living based on his writings. 

But everyday people are discovering Jesus and deciding to try to follow him in all they think, say and do. His words resonate with huge numbers of people in a way that even the most esteemed philosophers don't. And that's because his words aren't mere words. As he says in John 6:63, “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Jesus' words communicate more than just meaning; they communicate life and the Spirit.

How is that so? Words are a way of changing your mind. If I say “Purple panda,” I can be reasonably sure that you are picturing exactly that. In fact it is impossible for you not to picture a purple panda. And now you are imagining purple pandas playing patty-cake! I have just taken something in my mind and put it in yours. I have immaterially changed the physical connections between certain synapses in the part of your brain that constructs visual images. If I say, “the next time you find it hard to keep your eyes from closing while driving, pull over and take a nap,” I have implanted lifesaving information into your brain. If I give you detailed instructions on how to do CPR, I am enabling you to save someone else's life. Ordinary words can change minds, which in turn can change lives and save lives. How much more can the word of God do!

Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” God's words don't just transmit information about spiritual matters; they communicate the things themselves. Again, here's an example of an analogous situation. I read of an oncology nurse who discovered she had a weird power over her patients. Often before going to their radiation or chemotherapy sessions, they would ask her if she thought that they would be nauseated after the treatments. And she found that if she said that she didn't think so, they wouldn't. Now mind you, the idea behind either of those cancer treatments is to give you something toxic and hope that the rapidly multiplying cancer cells would absorb more of it than your healthy cells. So, objectively, it should cause a reaction and nausea is a common one. But this nurse discovered that her words could counteract the body's physical response to something toxic. Her words gave them a measure of wellness.

God's word gives life. New life. His life. Jesus didn't die just to give us more life but a different kind of life: the divine life shared by the Triune God. By opening our lives to God's word, we are being included in the life of the God who is love.

What exactly do we mean by life, though? According to Wikipedia, “The definition of life is controversial. The current definition is that organisms maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, and reproduce.” Now obviously this is a definition that applies to physical, not spiritual life. But as Jesus found parallels to spiritual things in his agricultural society, I think parallels to our spiritual life can be found in this biological definition of life.

For instance, homeostasis is the ability of an organism to maintain internal balance and consistency in things like body temperature, internal pH, electrolytes, and blood glucose, despite changes in the environment, what it eats and what it does. And certainly a healthy spiritual life requires maintaining an internal equilibrium. There are certain essential beliefs and processes that should not vary wildly, such as our trust in God's love, his justice, and his mercy as embodied by his son, Jesus Christ, and made manifest in us by his Spirit. Our commitment to daily prayer, study of his word, participation in a community of Christians, worship, stewardship, evangelism and obedience of his commandments to love God and love other people have to remain firm. Drastic imbalances in these aspects of faith and practice indicate that something is wrong in our spiritual life, in much the same way that a fever, or a skyrocketing blood pressure, or plummeting blood sugar are symptoms of major problems in one's biology.

All physical bodies are composed of cells and had the microscope been invented, I'm sure that Paul would have incorporated that into his metaphor of the body of Christ. Paul compares us to the parts that make up the body, each with a different function. Swap out cells for larger parts and the parallels hold up. And the point is that unity does not negate diversity of appearance or function. Imagine a church made up of nothing but preachers, or where everyone was a treasurer, or where no one thought of practicalities like coffee and food. A healthy spiritual life means finding your space and functions within the body of Christ and both ministering to others and being ministered to by others.

Metabolism is basically converting food into fuel and into the building blocks of the body, as well as the elimination of waste. We need to nourish our spiritual life just as we do our physical life. In both we need a variety of healthy sources of nutrition. To remain spiritually healthy we need to consume the Bible, as well as good books and articles, not just on Christianity but on the world and people that God loves so much that he sent Jesus. We also need to feed our spirits with worship and prayer and communion. Just as exercise is important to physical digestion and elimination, we need to put our faith into practice in our lives and in the world, which will help us discard from our spiritual life unhelpful approaches and untrue assumptions.

Physical organisms grow and so should we spiritually. And this is not just about becoming larger souls but also about becoming more knowledgeable, wiser and more skilled. In this way, spiritual growth is like the intellectual and social growth of a child. We need to be able to better understand and interact with and work with God and humanity.

Living organisms can adapt to their environment. While a healthy spiritual life requires an internal constancy and balance, it also requires an ability to adapt to the world in which we live. One difference between a sailor and a convincing wax statue of that sailor is that one will be able to remain standing by shifting his balance and footing on the rolling deck of a ship and the other will eventually topple over. Christianity would not have been successful had we all opted to do what the Amish do and pull out of the world and the flow of history. In fact, we won't have much impact on society if we refuse to interact with and adapt to changes in the world. Christians have usually be early adopters of communication technology and in the same way we have to adapt to the language and forms in general use in the world. For instance, in the past we didn't have specialized ministries for single parents, or for victims of human trafficking, nor did we have chaplains for those who work in factories. One reason the church has survived for nearly 2000 years is that we have adapted to the changes in the world by changing how we express the unchanging gospel of God's transforming love in Christ.

Living organisms respond to stimuli. You know where I got that wax statue idea? When my wife and I went on our honeymoon in the UK, we went to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. I was surprised that most of the statues were not roped off from the public. So you could go right up to them and see how lifelike they were. But they also had a few "prank" statues that were made to look like a museum guard and a tourist waiting in line. You didn't notice them at first but thought they were live people. The giveaway was that they didn't blink or respond to anything around them. To have a healthy spiritual life you need not only to be aware of what's going on around you but you need to respond appropriately. 

Of course, we live in a very stimuli-rich world and you can't react to everything, so we do need to filter. For instance, there are lots of videos on the internet of cats freaking out when they see cucumbers. Perhaps they think they are snakes. But the church has been just as bad about responding to things that aren't in fact threats. In my lifetime, comic books, miniskirts, hairstyles, video games, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other cultural artifacts have been denounced by some figures in the church as grave threats to the soul. And to be sure some people go overboard on such things and let them take the place of God in their lives. But we really need to distinguish between false and genuine threats and not just react like dogs barking at everything that moves and setting off all the other dogs in the neighborhood. We need to respond to stimuli appropriately.

Finally a healthy organism should be able to reproduce. Not every individual within a species needs to do so but if the majority don't, the species dies out. And having a healthy spiritual life should beget an interest in helping others develop a healthy spiritual life. However, you don't want to be like the vegan who berates all meat-eaters at every opportunity but rather act like the person who has had a good doctor or therapist change your life for the better and recommends him to anyone who is looking for that kind of help. A lot of people think that growing the local body of Christ should be the primary responsibility of the clergy but as a bishop once said, it's the sheep that make more sheep, not the shepherd. Again if only a few reproduce, extinction looms for all. So as St. Francis is supposed to have said, we all need to be proclaiming the gospel all the time, using our words if necessary.

While Jesus is no longer walking this earth in the flesh, he has left us his word. And this enables us to trust and love him. If we let his word and his Spirit into our minds and heart, he will change us and give us new life. Maintaining that spiritual life in a healthy fashion is essential. We have become new creations in Christ and that means we will meet the one who saved us face to face one day in his new creation. And I'm as sure of that as I am that you are picturing a purple panda in a pink paisley dress driving a Prius.

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