Yesterday, I had the privilege of worshiping with the students at the Episcopal Church at Princeton. Here is the sermon I shared.
Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Joshua 5:9-12 (Manna ceases as the Israelites eat produce of the Promised Land)
Psalm 32 (“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven”)
II Corinthians 5:16-21 (“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”)
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Prodigal Son)
Christianity is never abstract. This is one of the greatest and hardest lessons. When we feed people, we feed them using the the tangible, limited food we have. When we tend the sick, we risk infection. And when we forgive, we run the very real risk of being hurt. The elder son in today’s lesson is asking good questions, questions about economy, justice, and equity. I do not fault him for asking those questions. Nor, if I am to be honest, do I fault him for the answers he finds. The father in this story has given the prodigal son more than his share, and maintaining the property is important for feeding the family and the workers – in this case slaves. Shortly before this story, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks “Will a person build a tower, without first counting the cost?” We should know what we build and what we spend. I fault the older son because these were the only questions he asked. What would be fair? What would be reasonable? And, of course, Why him instead of me? He did not ask the other questions. What would be loving? What would be useful? And how does this effect all of our relationships? Jesus talks about the Prodigal Son, and the Tower, and the Lost Sheep to tell us something about God’s extravagant love and mercy, which are not opposed to reason and economy, but always couched within them. How do we make the most of what we have – for the good of the world? I give politicians the benefit of the doubt, both in the church and in the nation, because I know they have to do the very hard work of working out concrete charity, justice, and economy with limited resources. I know that sometimes I will have to go without for others to thrive. I am most distrustful of politicians when they tell me these decisions are easy: that we need only be just and practical or that we need only be kind and merciful. This bothers me most when they invoke Christianity to defend this stance. Christianity is never abstract. It always means making difficult choices, being vulnerable, and working with others. No one said it would be easy. If you only count the cost in terms of money or food or even equity, you will find all of these things are limited. For the ethicists and economists: these are fixed, finite goods. For the biologists and game theorists: we are playing a zero sum game. Someone wins and someone loses. The elder son falls into this last trap, in particular, There is only so much to go around. Why doesn’t it come around to me? And this is all true, when we speak of money and food and equity. Jesus tells us to give up our own food and clothing, money and shelter, even our own claims to justice under the law, for the sake of our neighbors. Turn the other cheek, let them have your cloak also, Do not take your neighbor to court, give all that you have to the poor. With Paul, I can preach only Christ, and him crucified. When we limit ourselves to this discussion, When we limit ourselves to thinking about fixed, finite goods, then the answer is simple. We must give them up, so that others may have them. That is the bad news, but what about the good news? The good news is that these are not the only goods; these are not the only things we strive for. There are other goods: relational goods like faith, hope, and love; open ended goods like curiosity, contemplation, and reason; creative goods like art, humor, and wisdom. We strive for these things, and weigh them against the fixed, finite goods. We choose life and hope, giving up the comforts of money, food, even earthly justice, for the sake of a community in the coming kingdom, for the sake of eternal life. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt. 6:19) But that, too would be bad news, at least bad news for the world, if Earthly versus Heavenly goods were all there were to the story. Give up one for the other. Give up the work of God the Creator, for the work of God in Jesus. That doesn’t really work, for it provides a theology where Jesus saves us from creation, and from the Creator, a philosophy tried in early Christianity and quite firmly rejected. The real good news is both better and more challenging. John and Paul both go out of their way to say that the Spirit of Jesus is the exact same Spirit that was in Creation from the beginning of the world. Let that Spirit be in you. John and Paul go out of their way to say that Jesus took on flesh and blood, so that by that flesh and blood we may be redeemed, and so that we might claim resurrection in the flesh. And so we come to my research as a theoretical and theological biologist. How are we to relate the life of our bodies with the life of our souls? How are we to think of physical life and eternal life? How are they the same and how are they different? One major way they are the same, is that they are both you. And they are both God. You are an organism – but not only an organism – and you have in you the Spirit of God – though, unless you are more saintly than most saints, that spirit is not – yet – your all in all. And the God who walked in the garden at the beginning of time, was also incarnate in Christ Jesus, in the flesh, of the same stuff as Mary. In this way, there is only one life, the life of God that brings us into being and brings us into new life. One major way that they are different – the Earthly and the Heavenly life – is that our physical life is subject to decay, sickness, and death, while our spiritual life will be fulfilled in a resurrection body, incorruptible, imperishable, and whole. And that brings us back to our talk of goods. Near the heart of our faith – our open-ended relationship with God, not our finite store of doctrine – near the heart of our faith is this idea that new life comes on the other side of death. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25) We have been promised death and resurrection, so we must not be surprised to find that we will die, as organisms in death of the body, as societies, even as a universe. We will die before we are resurrected. Beyond that death there will be a greater life, but we must also remember that it will be a life like this one. We do not hope for a different life, but a fuller version of this one. We hope for a life with food and drink, friends and family, unimaginably different, and yet a fulfillment of this our very real, very concrete, biological life. That means we can practice resurrection now, we can bring the kingdom near, we can live into the body of Christ in these very bodies. Christianity is never abstract. We live it out in the practice of charity with limited goods, in the pursuit of love with physical bodies, and in the way we manage our households, our countries, and our world. This Lent, I hope you’ll give some thought to how to use tangible stuff lovingly. It is not enough to replace the economy of the world with the economy of God. It is not even possible. We must fit the world into the economy of God. We must think about how the way we treat our bodies affects our souls, how our physicality affects our spirituality. We must share our physical food in a way that makes it heavenly food, and Jesus teaches us how to do exactly that, at this table. I hope you don’t think that’s a miracle, at least not in terms of a rare event that breaks the laws of nature. That’s not it at all, at least not to my mind. It is an example, a type, and a program for God breaking into the world. It is Christ made flesh so that all flesh might be caught up in the life of God. We are sanctified so that we can go out and sanctify the world, in the flesh. The father of the prodigal son uses earthly food wisely, to bring about reconciliation. “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Each of us can do this, too, bring others back from the dead, with faith, hope, and love, using money and food and medicine, but always asking the bigger questions, of how all things hold together in Christ.