Growing from Strength to Strength

This morning, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Michael and All Angels’ Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ.  Here is the sermon I gave.

Collect for 6 Epiphany

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (“Choose life”)

I Corinthians 3:1-9 (“Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”)

Matthew 5:21-37 (an intensification of the law from the Sermon on the Mount)

Sermon

Last year, I headed off to study the definition of life;

a few of you asked me to come back and report on what I discovered.

Fr. John in his wisdom,

or God in his grace, (or both),

have seen to it that I came back and visited

on the sixth Sunday in Epiphany,

when we hear from Moses, “Choose Life.”

So life is the topic of the day.

 

For those of you who don’t know me,

my name is Lucas Mix

and I am currently a researcher at Harvard,

working on the history of definitions of life,

in theology and biology and how they interact.

At the moment, I’m paying close attention to the works of Aristotle

and what he had to say about life,

alongside the words of the Bible.

This morning I have two insights to share with you,

both Biblical, but with a very Aristotelian flavor.

And, since Thomas Aquinas tread similar ground,

reconciling Jerusalem and Athens, as it were,

I figure, I’m in good company.

The two insights are:

“Life is Good” and “Life is Growth.”

They may seem fairly simple,

but I think there is a depth there that is worth exploring

“Life is Good” and “Life is Growth.”

 

First, life is good.

All life is good, but we forget at times,

just how pervasive that goodness is,

just how far down it reaches – and just how far up,

and we can neglect the one good in favor of another.

In the Bible, life and breath are identified with one another.

To have breath is to be alive, and to be alive is to breathe.

And we can see, if we look closely,

that this breath, this spirit,

moves in everything that is.

 

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form and void;

and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

And the Spirit [the breath] of God

moved upon the face of the waters.”

God’s breath moved over the face of the deep

and reality sprung into being.

The very cosmos is alive because of God’s breath

moving in and out of it.

To be is to be enlivened by the spirit.

 

Later in that first chapter of Genesis,

we hear that God caused the animals to

spring forth from the earth,

but if you read it in the Hebrew,

you will discover that God made to come forth

everything that has breath.

And, in the second chapter of Genesis, we hear:

“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,

and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;

and man became a living soul.”

Our humanness, our being in the image and likeness of God,

also happens because of God’s breath moving in and out of us.

 

This is our story,

the story of God’s Spirit alive in the world.

This is who we are and what we are doing.

This is the very context and setting of the Bible,

and on this foundation rests all the rest of the story.

Never forget that existence and life and breath

are all about God moving in the world.

Life is Good.

 

Now, let us jump ahead to the New Testament,

to Jesus Christ who brings light and life,

who asks that we clear out all the other spirits in our heart,

so that the Holy Spirit may take up residence.

Let us remember that glorious day of Pentecost,

when the Holy Spirit descended on the church,

not as a collection of individuals,

but as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

 

This too is our story.

This too is God’s breath at work in the world,

the context of our faith,

and, hopefully, the context of our lives.

Life is Good.

 

 

It all sounds rather nice,

and, dare I say it, Polly Anna:

too simple and too hopeful to be practical.

That was not my intention.

As wonderful as this realization is – as profound –

it begs us to ask some very important questions.

 

If existence, and life, and intelligence, and salvation

are all about the Holy Spirit,

who is to say that one is better than another?

What does it mean to seek new life,

when we already have abundant life?

What does it mean to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit,

when that spirit already abides in us?

 

Here is where Aristotle comes in handy,

because Aristotle uses the word soul

in a way unfamiliar to most of us today,

though perhaps not to the writers of the Old and New Testaments.

For Aristotle, every living thing has a soul.

The plant soul comes with the power of nutrition,

to take sustenance from the world around you,

to grow and reproduce.

The animal soul comes with the powers of perception and motion,

to interact dynamically,

with the surrounding world.

And the rational soul comes with the power to know and comprehend,

to meditate on, understand, and act as stewards for the world.

He had the same problem we have,

because he recognized that humans had all three of these souls,

and yet just one breath, just one life, just one soul.

He suggests that the souls work something like geometry.

The Greeks liked geometry.

The plant soul is like a triangle and the animal soul like a square.

You need three sides for the first, and four for the second.

The animal soul is fuller than the plant soul,

bigger and more powerful,

but it still requires those first three sides.

The rational soul was like another side,

even another dimension to the shape.

It was not something different entirely,

but something better precisely because it contained the first two.


 

And this brings me to a second lesson about life.

Life is Growth.

It is not enough for us,

to exist, or to breathe, or move, or even to think.

We are called to grow from one life into another.

We are called to grow from strength to strength.

Just as a flower unfolds, the experience of being human

can be an opening up,

an incorporation of new life

that only comes from the foundation of old life.

We do not escape our physical selves, but we do transcend them.

We become more than physical,

by first filling up the physical

and then stepping beyond,

to bring it in line with the spiritual.

 

This is why it is so important

for us to know that God breathed life into the world

and called it good.

This is why it is so profoundly important

for us to believe in the bodily resurrection,

not only for Jesus of Nazareth, but for all of us.

The life of the Spirit happens in the life of the body.

[And, remember, the life of the body would never have been

if not for the Holy Spirit.]

 

When Paul speaks of growing into spiritual people,

this is what he means:

to set aside your body,

as one competing against many

and accept your body,

as a member of the body of Christ.

When Jesus speaks of the fulfillment of the law,

this is what he means:

to set aside the narrow rules of purity and polity,

and accept the rule of love,

which motivated the law in the first place.

 

 

Today’s gospel comes from the Sermon on the Mount.

If you have not done so recently,

I’d encourage you to sit down and read Matthew 5 through 7

all the way through.

Jesus speaks about the last five of the Ten Commandments,

the ones about how we interact with one another.

He says they are not enough.

God asks ever so much more.

“Thou shalt not commit murder” is not enough.

Jesus says we must avoid even insults,

like calling someone a fool or an idiot.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is not enough.

Jesus says we must avoid treating one another like objects.

Marriage, sex, even desire find their purpose in love.

“Thou shalt not swear falsely” is not enough.

We are never to swear at all,

but simply say what we think to be true.

If you look farther on, you will see

that the commands to not steal or covet

have been dramatically expanded as well.

Jesus asks us to forsake all property, ownership, even self-defense.

 

How could anyone live like this?

It sounds too difficult.

Here again, I think Aristotle can come to our aid.

Aristotle says that life is that process

where the action of striving,

is the same as the goal of striving.

The end we seek is in the seeking.

This is growth,

opening the shape to accept an additional side,

and accepting the awkwardness of the gap.

CS. Lewis calls it pretending

until you don’t have to any more –

acting as though you were holy, until you become so –

but I think it’s more than that.

 

 

This is growth,

and it is one of the great mysteries of theology and of science

that we can do this thing.

To think about thinking properly,

… to open ourselves up to being open,

… to love in order to love more fully,

… to forgive as part of being forgiven.

The action is the end.

 

I am not saying that there is no destination.

Never think I said that.

I am saying that the destination

is a way of being and not success at having been.

It is a state of relationship with one another

and with the Spirit

that continues to fulfill the promise of God’s first breath.

 

Matthew 5 is all about cause and effect.

It’s not just about following the rules,

it’s about fulfilling the relationships.

It is about growing into yourself

and growing into the full stature of Christ.

 

I Corinthians is all about growth in community.

You cannot make someone else grow,

any more than you can make a plant grow.

You can, however, water them and tend them

and give them what they need.

 

Life is growth,

both for ourselves and others.

Life is good,

because it comes from the Spirit moving in us.

But neither growth nor goodness is easy.

They require opening ourselves in new ways,

opening ourselves to the wind that blows where it will,

the Spirit of God;

opening ourselves to new powers and possibilities,

that we never knew we had;

opening ourselves to new obligations,

that bind us more closely to one another,

demand more,

but also bring us more fully into the life we were promised.

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One thought on “Growing from Strength to Strength

  1. Lucas, your sermon graced my morning prayers with the Ruah (breath) of God. May we all continue to grow in the work of the Holy Spirit. amen

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