Life and the End of Days

I had the privilege of worshiping with the Harvard Episcopal Chaplaincy this past Sunday.  Here’s what a copy of the sermon I gave.

Readings for Proper 28 C

Isaiah 65:17-25 (“new heavens and a new earth”)

The First Song of Isaiah   (“Surely, it is God who saves me”)

II Thessalonians 3:6-13 (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”)

Luke 21:5-19 (“all will be thrown down”)

Collect

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon

This may be my favorite collect of the year.

This Sunday, we get to hear Cranmer’s admonition to turn to the Scriptures,

to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,

that we may embrace and ever hold fast

the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

It speaks to me about scholarship

and engagement with the material.

And I, being an academic, love that sort of thing.

Today, however, I want to focus on the everlasting life bit.

Our readings speak of lifetimes and living,

eating fruit and eating flesh,

about the end of days and the beginning of eternal life.

The concept of life is so common in scripture, so ubiquitous,

that sometimes we forget it’s there;

sometimes we jump immediately to the thing it represents,

existence or salvation or health,

but I believe all of these things are intimately tied up

in a very basic understanding of what “life” is.

My name is Lucas Mix, and the definition of life is my business.

I am a hopeless academic.

There was so much I wanted to study

that I spent 15 years in college,

and even managed to come back here when I was done.

As an undergraduate, I studied Biochemistry and comparative religion

at the University of Washington (Go Huskies!).

Then I came here to Harvard to get my PhD in Evolutionary Biology.

Finally, I went to seminary in Berkeley, California.

While in seminary, I worked with NASA on interdisciplinary communication

in astrobiology, the search for life elsewhere

and the overarching story of life here.

So, I’ve spent a good deal of time with this question: What is life?

and looked at it in a number of different ways.

In biology, we want to know what differentiates life from non-life.

How did life arise?

Could it arise again?

Has it arisen before?

Does life follow any particular rules?

Curiously, we don’t have a very good definition of life in science.

We know that it has something to do

with drawing energy from the environment.

We know that it has something to do

with evolution and adaptation.

But we’re stymied when it comes to details.

I can tell you a great deal about life on Earth,

what it’s made out of,

how it operates,

and how it all fits together,

but I can’t tell you how much of that is true of life in general,

and how much is just a property of local life,

a historical accident arising from the conditions

here on Earth.

I can’t even tell you if there is any life elsewhere.

Still, “life” happens to be a very useful category in science.

Life is an even more useful category for Christians,

though I’ll repeat, we use it so often,

I think we miss the significance on occasion.

In the Bible, life and breath and soul all get used interchangeably.

The Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche

words we usually translate as “soul”

do not refer to some supernatural substance

imposed upon the physical world,

at least not in scripture.

They refer to an occasion,

the indwelling God’s breath in our lungs.

To be ensouled is not to possess a thing,

it is rather the very nature of existing,

which comes from a union of Divine breath

and created dirt.

In Hebrew, adamah means ground.

As we recall every Ash Wednesday,

we are dust and dirt, mud and ashes,

that have become human through the breath of life,

through having God’s breath in us.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What’s more, it is not just us.

We say that Creation has been breathed into existence.

In the NRSV, which we usually read on Sundays, we have this for Genesis 1:1:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

It’s better in the King James Version:

“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

But that still doesn’t quite capture it.

The Hebrew is ruach Elohim, the breath of God.

Think mouth to mouth resuscitation,

but instead of re-suscitation, this was just “suscitation.”

It was God breathing life into the world for the first time.

And again, when God brings forth the living creatures,

the Hebrew words are nephesh chey, life with breath in it.

And again at Pentecost, the church was filled with

the pneumatos hagiou, the holy breath of God.

Some Christians are careful to distinguish

the life breath of the world

from the breath of animals

from the soul of humans

from the Holy Spirit,

but scripture does not set those up as distinct categories.

If we are to inwardly digest scripture,

we must recognize that we have only

breath (ruach, neshahmah, pneuma, spiritus)

and “to have breath” (nephesh, psyche, anima).

Those two ideas stand for the whole range of Biblical notions of life.

[Mind you, there is another word for life, chay in Hebrew, zoe in Greek, but breath gets translated as soul or life surprisingly often.]

It is only once Christians embrace Platonic philosophy

that the idea of eternal breath-full-ness becomes

an independent, “subsistent,” everlasting soul.

But don’t take my word for it.

I’d encourage you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” for yourself.

In short, though, my perspective is that,

in one way or another,

everything participates in the breathing of God.

To exist, to be an animal, to be human, to participate in the New Covenant –

all of these mean neither more nor less

than having the Holy Spirit moving in you.

But what does this mean for us practically?

And where is the good news in this for us?

First, I believe it means we are all connected.

In some mysterious way,

we are all one.

We are all one in the Body of Christ, even,

which breathes life into the world.

Second, I believe that we need to reevaluate

what it means to be human.

For about 1700 years we have bought into the Platonic idea

that we are souls, unitary beings from eternity to eternity.

And I understand the value of that kind of thinking,

but it has some drawbacks.

It leads me to imagine the Apocalypse,

as a great re-boot of the universe,

in which the whole system gets shut down,

and Jesus replaces the bad components.

In this model, the reality lies in the hardware,

with the software only running when the system is on.

In this model, the burned out circuits outlast

their time in the computer,

and must be cast into the trash.

I think it forces us to see our souls as the components of the system.

There are even a few passages in the New Testament,

where Gehenna, the trash heap of Jerusalem,

has been rendered “Hell.”

Does that sound familiar?

But what if that is not the case?

What if our reality comes not from being hardware,

but from being integrated

with one another,

from constantly breathing in and out

that same spirit of life that enlivens the world?

What if the resurrection really comes in the flesh,

as Paul promises,

and our very breath finds itself moving in new components?

It makes us less than we were,

because we cannot say that we are independent –

but I don’t think God ever promised us independence.

God promised us relationship.

What if we exist more fully, more deeply, more truly,

the more we are connected to one another,

to God and to the world?

It’s a different way of looking at the universe,

to keep your eye on the process and not the parts,

but I think it is a better way – and a more biblical one.

I think the concept of self as independent and alone

for all eternity has led us astray.

That is not to say that I don’t believe in heaven or hell or everlasting life.

I do.

I think that at the end of days, the world will be shaken,

and all the pieces that are not tied in,

connected through curiosity, compassion, trust, and creativity,

that is connected through love,

will fall off, like the skin cells we slough off every day.

What is most truly us,

our hearts, our souls, our very selves,

will be that which remains,

the connections we have to one another,

to God and to creation.

What does “life” mean?

It’s a bit of a tricky question

because we can get tangled up in some very abstract thoughts

about “the meaning of life.”

I want to ask you the very pragmatic, day to day questions.

What is the air you breathe?

What is the food you eat?

What makes you grow?

What is at the very core of you that cannot be shaken?

This week I would encourage you

to find out where your roots are planted.

I think you will find,

that your life and breath, your very soul,

cannot be separated from the life of the world.

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