by Daniel Harrell
I always think the most remarkable part of this passage from Ephesians is the way Paul confuses his verb tenses. Rather than a future resurrection post mortem, Paul speaks of our having been raised up from the dead and seated in heaven already! New creation starts now. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus declared, “Everyone who believes in me never dies forever.” This is an audacious assertion we preachers make every Easter, and billions believe it. Why not? Who doesn’t want to live forever?
The challenge, of course, is the proof. Paul says we’re saved by grace through faith; so there’s nothing we can do to prove or to attain immortality. It’s all up to God. For many, however, faith in invisible beings who occupy invisible seats in invisible heavens feels way too flimsy. The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike. Are you sure you want to risk eternity on something you can’t see and control?
Journalist Tad Friend recently wrote about a gathering of Silicon Valley elites who are coming at immortality from a different angle. Loaded with intelligence, technology, cachet and a whole lot of money, these Californians are convinced they can hack the code of carbon-based humanity, design an app, alter aging and finally eliminate death. Already in the fridge are prototypes of replacement organs you can regenerate on polymer frames from your own genes. New and remarkably easy techniques allow for diddling with your DNA. A whole host of medical tweaks are in the pipeline, along with the Matrix-like possibility of melding your mind to that big artificial singularity up in the computational cloud—you can get saved and download you personality from Dropbox. Some researchers are very confident they can accomplish immortality sooner rather than later. Google is investing billions of dollars and countless hours into the quest. Founder Sergey Brin has gone on record as saying he has no plans to die.
We humans have spent much of our existence trying to make sense of our own eventual nonexistence. We rationalize about death being natural and the thing that gives life its meaning, but that’s never how it feels when you’re terminally ill or old or when you lose somebody you care about. The apostle Paul called death an enemy to be destroyed. And yet, humanly speaking, this is nearly impossible to do. Even if we managed to slow down all we know about aging, cure cancer and rid ourselves of every disease known to man, we’re still only talking about 5 to 10 more years, tops.
A long line of theologians and philosophers, poets and prophets all caution against grasping for immortality. The ancient Greeks coined the word hubris as a name for this quest, which if you Google it, means “excessive self-confidence, a defiance of the gods which always leads to one’s downfall.” Christian tradition labels pride as the mother (and father) of all sins.
The first mention of the word sin in the Bible may have been all about envy: Cain murdered Abel his brother because God liked Abel better. But Cain’s parents were the proud ones who thought they could know better than God. Tempted by Satan to know it all, Adam and Eve bit off more than they could chew. Confronted by God, Adam pointed the finger at his wife—pride resists every indictment—and Eve, in turn, pointed to the serpent. And God was like, “Really? A talking snake?” and tossed them all out of paradise.
We’ve been discussing sin a lot this Lent at Colonial, specifically the seven deadlies: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy and pride. While likely not something you wanted to hear about just before Easter brunch, sin always serves as the first course before you can say grace. We’re dead before we die, the apostle Paul writes, “having followed the course of this world and succumbed the spirit of disobedience, obeying the devil” who became the devil all because of pride. Satan is an arrogant angel fallen; goodness gone terribly bad. Sin gets its energy from the good things it perverts. Hubris sounds a lot like humble, and this is on purpose. Gluttony perverts the goodness of food and nourishment; lust the goodness of sex and intimacy. Greed perverts contentment and satisfaction. Anger perverts the passion of justice. Sloth subverts joy and sucks the life out of everything—it just doesn’t care—while envy only cares enough to ruin—it eats out your heart.
Pride fuels them all; it is healthy self-worth gone awry, leading to an illusion of being great and in control and in charge of your life: I’ll eat what I want, have what I want, want what I want, act however I want, do and not do what I want, hate who I want because I can and am right and have the right.
Pride and greatness are the American way. Management gurus tell us “good is the enemy of great.” For Christians, however, it’s just the opposite. Forged into the gospel is a deep suspicion of any who would want to be great. Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, once awarded a prize for “Best Theologian in America,” thanked Time magazine for the honor but then turned it down. “We Christians don’t consider ‘the best’ to be one of our categories,” he said.
Pride may begin as proper satisfaction for hard work and achievement, a virtue of the diligent, but it so easily twists into self-congratulation and entitlement, the vice of the pompous. I remember attending my nephew’s Eagle Scout ceremony some years ago—which for the Boy Scouts is a big deal and a reason for pride. The Scouts had initially named their highest rank not Eagle but Turkey—following in the manner of Benjamin Franklin (if you remember that history). As you’d expect, not a single Turkey was ever awarded. Nobody wanted it. Only after they changed it to Eagle did the boys line up. A longtime Scoutmaster lamented the change. He wished the scouts had kept it Turkey since that would have kept the kids who earned it a little more humble.
Speaking of kids, I was over at my squash club the other day (I always like how pretentious that sounds). I was waiting for my playing partner when this young man stepped onto the adjoining court. He was practicing by himself, so I asked whether he’d like to play a quick match, presuming, patronizingly so, that I might teach the lad a thing or two. What I really wanted was to trounce the tyke so to make myself look better than I am; for you see, I am a terrible squash player. Had this schoolboy been a bit older, I would have never risked the humiliation, but this child hadn’t even started to shave and my ego was due for a good stroke. Talk about squash. That kid spanked my butt all the way to Wisconsin. Sweating profusely, hazarding a heart attack, I didn’t score a single point. The squash pro frantically ran onto the court and called a halt to the charade. Turned out he wasn’t worried about my coronary risk. He yelled at his protégé for risking a diminishment in his skills by scrimmaging with me.
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,” Jesus said.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. refers to pride as “a kind of phantom wisdom” a prominent display of humanity’s most wondrous combination: ignorance plus arrogance. The proud are often in error, but never in doubt. When our foolishness is challenged, we increase it, giving others a piece of our mind we can hardly afford to lose.
Because I’m so lousy at squash I took up kayaking. Most of you know (how could you not?), that I built my own sweet mahogany and spruce stripped boat with a Kevlar hull, pictures of which I post all over Twitter and Instagram and rack up the likes. One of the advantages of having a homemade boat is that even if you’re as bad at paddling as you are at squash, you still can score big points in the eyes of those who care about kayaks. Every summer, wherever I paddle, someone inevitably admires, then inquires, “Did you build this yourself?” and before I can lie, he or she usually adds, “You’re an incredibly gifted craftsman.” To which I just smile and say, “Thanks,” as if this were true, which it’s not, because I’m not a skilled craftsman at all. Mostly I just made the coffee for the boatbuilder who helped me build it. Why don’t I just say that? Then again, why would I?
We live in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Validation, not virtue, measures one’s worth. Ours is an economy of recognition predicated on feeding our pride. I read only yesterday how American Express—suffering its second year of declining revenue—is losing the battle for credit card awesomeness. Coveted millennial customers prefer for their plastic the Chase Sapphire Reserve: “An Amex card says you’re rich, but this card says you’re interesting.” “For decades, American Express essentially sold snob appeal. But snobbery isn’t quite as appealing as it once was. Or, more precisely, snobbery has to be camouflaged as something else—an Instagram post from an Iceland spelunking adventure or the tragedy of not finding a charging station for your Tesla.”
“Whoever exalts herself will be humbled,” Jesus said. Humility as antidote to pride requires a brutal honesty with ourselves even if we are unhappy with what we see. Humility admits guilt and takes correction, especially from enemies, because enemies don’t care about padding your self-image with fake compliments. However, if you end up excessively (or dramatically) blaming yourself for your faults and shortcomings and bad squash playing, that’s not humility. That’s just being proud of your humbleness. To overly incriminate yourself is as self-obsessive as smugness. Pride is inordinate self-concern whether cloaked in congratulation or culpability. Both attribute more power and importance to yourself than you actually possess. Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once asked, “How can you be humble if you are always paying attention to yourself? If you were truly humble you would not bother about yourself at all.”
But who can do this? Humility is so hard few ever pull it off. Thus the only workable antidote for pride is the one thing we all can’t help but do, which is die. “You must lose your life to find it,” Jesus said. But pride fiercely pushes back against loss by demanding control and asserting autonomy. Independence and freedom from need—this is the American way. We betray our preference for this freedom in the ease with which we greet one another. “How are you doing?” “I’m fine,” we reply, “just fine.” Pride refuses to reveal anything real about ourselves—no failure, no worry, no neediness—we concede to the social pressure of concealing our humanity behind a fake front of godlike sovereignty—separate, distant and finally alone. Psychologist Richard Beck labels this, “the dark and pathological side of American success.” We strive for material and emotional self-sufficiency so as to eliminate every trace of vulnerability. We strive to be like a God who does not actually exist.
Instead, the God whom we worship this morning took on human flesh. Easter celebrates the resurrection of the body—specifically Christ’s human body, subject to aging and genetic error, sagging flesh and diminished sight, clogged arteries, declining memory and death. Christians believe Jesus to be fully God but also fully human, and nowhere is full humanity more manifest than in its vulnerability to death. The forces of decrepitude and decay, always at work in us, constantly bear witness to our neediness. But pride cannot accept this. “I’m fine. Leave me alone. I can take care of myself.”
Some will remember my story about a brilliant physician, an immensely talented and proud doctor who retired from decades of meaningful medical practice, and whose wife secretly wrote to many of his longtime patients asking them to write letters of appreciation. Over a hundred people wrote back–beautiful, loving, handwritten letters, kind and crammed full of gratitude, which his wife gathered up and tenderly wrapped and as a precious gift to her husband. Showing off this box of letters to a friend eight years later, the old physician confessed, with tears in his eyes, how he’d never read a single one.
It is very hard for the proud to tolerate being loved.
But God—because of his immeasurable mercy and love— though you are dead and dulled by your sin and your pride—God raises you up with Christ. By grace you are saved, not by anything you do, but solely as precious gift. God’s mercy is costly. Christ’s love entails loss; it flows not from some surplus; it is not a spilling over but an emptying out. To presume you can meet another’s needs while retaining everything you need for yourself is to presume to be better than God. No, true love, God’s love in Christ drains and destabilizes, it renders needy and vulnerable, hung up to die but ready to rise, wide open to resurrection that fills with a capacity to love back with abandon and abundance, making the sacrifice worth every ounce of depletion yet so full of joy and beauty and glory. This is what it is to be like God: The Father empties himself into the Son. The Son then gives glory to the Father. A dynamic and reciprocal spirit of love that is the dynamic of life—living and losing and dying and rising and living again.
Creation testifies to this dynamic. The process of life is inextricably bound to the process of dying. At that elite gathering in Silicon Valley, one participant, a biologist, spoke about how in nature, that which makes us also unmakes us. “To repair tissue, you need to rejuvenate stem cells. And to do that, stem cells need to divide and reproduce, but reproduction invites random mutations—which drive cancer and kills us.”
On the other hand, theoretically speaking, nature does allow an exchange of reproduction for longevity. So Choice One, mused the biologist, you are immortalized, but there is no more reproduction, no pregnancy, no first birthday, no growth, nobody to love but yourself and others like yourself doing all they can do just to avoid a fatal accident. Choice Two is to live long and get old but stay as healthy as biology and medicine allow, and then one morning you just don’t wake up. Which choice would you choose? At that mighty gathering in Silicon Valley the vote was decisive. Choice One got a few hands from the crowd, but everyone else raised their hands for Choice Two.
Easter offers Choice Three. One morning you don’t wake up. But then you do. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Those who believe in me will live, and even though you die—utterly humbled by God—you will rise and never die again—utterly loved, with the precious gift of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”