by Daniel Harrell
First my apologies for switching Scripture on you this morning. I’m still a little jet-lagged and a bit brain-lagged too. For the life of me I cannot remember why I picked Matthew 14 and the beheading of John the Baptist for an Independence Day weekend sermon. I think I wanted to preach about power and politics. Given the bewildering state of politics in America and elsewhere, seems the church needs to say something. But I think I’ll wait on that until fall once things get really bad.
My jet lag is due to my return this week from a whirlwind of European travel—Italy, Switzerland and a brush with France—most of it with ten high school students and several adults from our church, tracing the footsteps of Galileo. You’ll hear, and see, a lot more about our journey in two weeks when Tony Jones, our trip leader, preaches about it. He’ll probably show you a lot of good pictures and some video, all of it funded by the John Templeton Foundation with the goal of compiling resources to assist students in integrating the discoveries of science within a framework of Christian faith. It’s a challenging venture.
Granted, Galileo never made it to Switzerland or France, but in a way his physics did. Galileo’s rudimentary telescope scanned the heavens in order to better understand the universe. Just outside Geneva, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers probe the fundamental structure of the universe using the largest and most complex scientific instruments available on the planet. Most famous is the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile long ring of superconducting magnets that accelerate hydrogen particles to almost light speed, bending and aiming them at each other with such intensity that the machine has to stay cooled to temperatures colder than outer space— -271º kelvin (that’s -947º F). The accelerated particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 6 miles apart with sufficient precision t0 make them meet halfway. Obviously prayer is required. A collision only happens a few times every trillion or so tries, resulting in data that helps scientists understand the mysterious world of particle physics. Most recently CERN observed evidence of the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” and key to the standard model of particle physics on which our understanding of all reality relies.
It turns out the world we can’t see is as weird as the math describes. Once we descend into the microscopic realm, we discover a random, haphazard house of mirrors where gravity has no effect. Objects behave as both particles and waves, and can exist in multiple states simultaneously. Events in the future affect the past, and all that is certain is that everything is uncertain. Still, the standard model works remarkably well—even though it defies every law of gravity governing the visible universe where we spend most of our time. This baffling disconnect between particles and planets may have been what made Einstein’s hair stick out like it did and continues to drive order-loving physicists crazy.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul speaks of having been “crucified to the world and the world having been crucified to him.” In Christ he’d made a total break with current reality for the sake of new creation. Faith can be as strange as physics. Here’s a
The challenge, of course, as with quantum physics and gravity, is for Scripture and science to sing in the same key. Four hundred years after the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his observation of the earth orbiting the sun, Pope John Paul II finally confessed the church was wrong. His formal apology is carved in stone (and in Latin) at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican, which we were privileged to visit. Writing to the Galatians, Paul said, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” This applies to us all.
Galatians 6 is an assigned passage from the Common Lectionary this morning. We preachers in non-liturgical traditions turn to the lectionary when our previous plans go awry. Throughout Galatians Paul takes dead aim at a crew of legalists who insisted faith meant following a long list of rules, a critique Christianity still suffers. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul claimed in chapter 5. And yet our liberty is not permission to do as we please. This has been another critique against Christians. We say one thing but then do another. “God is not mocked,” Paul warns. “You reap whatever you sow.”
The hard part about world travel is transitioning back. The long list of items you deferred to your desktop, like a sermon, now need attention. On my long list is my car, a dumpy, dented, rusted out Honda Civic with 140,000 miles that hasn’t been washed since the last time it rained. I drive my Civic mostly because I’m cheap. It costs less to insure and less to fill up. Not only that, but on the few occasions I have to parallel park it, I can bang into another car’s bumper and not worry about it. But now my Takata air bag has turned my car into a ticking time bomb. I need to take it in to get fixed. Until then I’m driving not by faith but by folly. I’ve done this before.
Many years ago in Boston I tried doing without a car. The one I owned then finally bit the dust; but after factoring in the cost of interest payments, insurance and parking, I determined that auto depravity for the sake of financial solvency would be worth the sacrifice of mobility. Inconvenient to be sure, but I felt both ecologically and spiritually better, having rebuffed consumerist expectations and embraced the virtue of simplicity. Paul’s warning to the Galatians nevertheless echoed in the background:” if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.”
Before long, however, my noble self-limitation became an undue hindrance: everything I needed to do could not be done via public transportation. I determined to rent a car for a day to run a few errands. Desiring to continue the pace of monetary savings enjoyed thus far, I wanted to keep cheap. The Yellow Pages (remember those?) provided a suitable rental establishment: Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car. Sounded like my kind of enterprise.
Ugly Duckling promised a functional if unsightly vehicle for a ridiculously modest price. I couldn’t resist. I drove out of their parking lot in a beat up pale blue 1980 Plymouth Horizon. After mapping out a route that would steer me clear of anyone I knew, I puttered off to accomplish those stockpiled errands—a stream of noxious fumes in my wake. Approaching an intersection as the yellow light faded into red, I applied my brakes mindlessly, assuming the car would ease to a halt. But apparently, brakes cost extra. Panic ensued and I braced for the certain impact any car so lawlessly flouting the rules of the road would suffer. But by God’s grace, I was spared.
The brakes kicked in once I’d cleared the intersection. I was thankful to still be alive. However, the strain to complete the day’s agenda still pressed. The brakes seemed to being working now. “Take care that you yourself are not tempted,” Paul warned. And yet I decided to flout the laws of physics—disregarding the proven fact that matter inextricably moves toward disorder—a car cannot repair itself. I rounded the corner for a second try at the very same intersection. Again the light faded from yellow to red, and again I sailed right through it screaming for my life. This time I bailed out of the ugly duck and abandoned it on the side of the road.
You get what you pay for. Or as Paul puts it, “you reap what you sow.” Applied to our souls, “if you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Law-keeping and rule-following may be defective as a means of salvation, but God’s commandments remain an authentic expression of God’s moral character. “Let us never grow weary in doing what is right,” Paul writes. In accordance with Jesus, Paul earlier summed up the whole law in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Bear one another’s burdens,” he says here, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” “Let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.” Faith can never fly solo. Love’s very definition makes no sense without relationship. When it comes to life in the Spirit, we’re all tied together.
Gathered over breakfast in Padua where Galileo taught for eighteen years, we thought about light as Galileo understood it and as we would experience it the next day at CERN. Not that I really know anything about particle physics, but I shared with the group how among its novelties is this notion called “photon entanglement.” If two distinct particles of light, photons, enter a state of entanglement—and there’s a few ways to do that—each photon then loses its individual identity and acts with the other as a single unified system. Any change to one is mimicked immediately by the other, whether the particles are next to each other, or get this, even if they are light-years apart. It’s like particle voodoo. There is nothing analogous to this in the physical reality we personally experience. It’d be like you getting a mosquito bite down in Florida with me feeling the itch here in Minneapolis. I scratch and you feel better. It’s so radically at odds with everything we understand about the world that Einstein called it “spooky.”
However it’s not so spooky in the world of the Bible. By way of analogy, quantum entanglement sounds a lot like the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot exist in isolation from each other. When one moves, so do the others. The Son does not act outside the will of the Father. The Holy Spirit does only as Jesus does. Jesus acts as Creator, the Father suffers the cross and the Holy Spirit walks in human flesh. Jesus goes on to say that believers are entangled with the Trinity too. As followers of Jesus, filled with the Spirit, we participate in the life of the Trinity. In Christ the many are as one, with God and each other.
Jesus prayed for as much when he asked “that they (meaning us) may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that … they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” in us. That’s as entangled as it gets. This is why the Bible says of the church, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” even if we’re light years apart.
Therefore we bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ. While an obvious play on words given Paul’s assault on legalism, this law of Christ points to the law of love, the new commandment issued by Jesus at the Last Supper: “love each other as I have loved you.”
All that’s left is to do it. Only like the laws of physics, the law of Christ according to Paul gets a bit paradoxical. “Bear one another’s burdens,” we read, but then a few sentences later, there’s “all must carry their own loads.” The tension that exists between particles and planets also exists between grace and obedience, between freedom and responsibility, within the structure of love itself. As an entangled family of faith, members of one body, we must each do our part. Sometimes we need help, other times we need to help. Sometimes we carry, other times we are carried. Here, however, the context is not as much care as correction. If you’re going to keep driving a defective car through the same intersection, somebody has got to apply the brakes. “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” But confrontation can be dicey and misinterpreted, not to mention misapplied, so Paul cautions that you “test your own work” without comparing to someone else.” “If you think you are something special you only deceive yourself.”
Part of the trouble with being wrong is that it feels so much like being right. And because we like to be right, we fail to heed others’ correction or receive it as love, no matter how gently its applied. This is why confession of sin gets scheduled into communion services. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It’s such a small price to pay given the enormity of the benefits. Confession is not only good for the soul but is essential for our relationship with God and each other. The communion table is another emblem of our entanglement: one cup, one loaf, one faith, one Body, one Lord. We reap what we sow. Bury our sin and our pride and reap a whole new life, fueled by the light of Jesus who bears us into everlasting life.