Monday, May 26, 2008

“Sight Unseen”

Isaiah 25:6-9; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18[1]

For most of human history, people believed in an unseen dimension of the world that is just as real as what we can see and hear and taste and touch. In fact, some have believed that dimension to life is more real that the material world around us. And I’m not talking about superstitious primitives—Socrates and Plato, the founders of Western Philosophy, endorsed this view of things. Of course, the scholars turned the unseen dimension of life into something rational, something you can only access through serious intellectual work.

Other people took a spiritual approach—devising rituals for accessing the unseen reality. Why is it that we give more credit to the intellectual insights of philosophers than we do to the spiritual intuition of shamans? Both, in their own ways, were grasping for a handle on this side of human experience that remains persistent but elusive.

Of course, this approach to reality has almost completely disappeared from our cultural “radar.” For over two hundred years philosophers, scientists, historians, and other scholars have been telling us that the only thing “out there” is what we can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. At this point, they have convinced us any attempt to even talk about a dimension to life that is “unseen” is at best embarrassing, if not complete “non-sense.” In our quest to be free from spiritual institutions that ruled all of life through superstition and dogma, we have robbed ourselves of the wisdom that has been attested since the beginning of time—a wisdom that comes from acknowledging that there truly is more to this life than what we see.

This theme is at the heart of the 2002 film Signs. Yes, I know that the “story” is about how a rural family survives an alien invasion. But like many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, the point is what happens to the people in the story, not the story itself. Graham Hess is a former Episcopalian minister who left the church and the faith after his wife was killed in a tragic accident. At one point, Graham’s younger brother Merrill looks to him for some answers to the stress and fear he’s feeling. Graham responds by saying that there are two groups of people in the world; those who believe that no matter what happens, someone will be there to watch over them; and those who believe deep down that they are on their own. Though he had once served as a Christian minister, Graham says that he is in the second group.

Here is a man who had been dedicated to the spiritual life, and he has given up his faith and become a convinced skeptic because of the tragic death of his wife. Perhaps the real tragedy is that his grief blinds him to the signs of God’s love all around him. It takes a bizarre “war of the worlds” to bring him to the place where he can see the hidden presence of grace enveloping him and his family. But if he had eyes to see them, the “signs” of that unseen dimension were there—the awe-filled wonder of his children’s birth, the fact that the people all around him are naturally drawn to him for comfort and assurance, the simple beauty of a field of corn. All of which he had taken for granted. [2]

I think that’s something of what the Apostle Paul was trying to tell the Christians of his day. When all you have to go on is what your eyes can see or what you can touch with your hands, then the whole human story points to death as the ultimate reality of this life![3] But what Paul wanted them and us to remember is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see. And God demonstrated that conclusively by raising Jesus from the dead! And so Paul urges them and us to remember that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). That doesn’t mean that our lives here and now don’t matter, because they do. But what it does mean is that we are called to put our trust in something that lies beyond our ability to see and hear and taste and touch. We are called to put our trust in the God and Father who raised our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ from the dead!

The resurrection really is the crucial sign to us all of the reality of God’s grace and love and life. The Christian faith is that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sign pointing us to God’s new creation that is coming in the future. It is also a sign pointing us to the fact that the new creation, the kingdom of God, is already working in hidden ways here among us to make everything new.[4] The resurrection is like a promise that points toward a future filled with hope and joy and love and life.[5] It is a promise that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.[6] It is a promise that “I have swallowed up death forever,” and “I will wipe away every tear,” and “I am making everything new.”

[1]© 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 3/23/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, Tx.

[2] See the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityand . They comment, “All the spiritual traditions encourage us to ‘see’ the signs all around us that point to the possibilities unfolding in every moment in a meaningful universe.” They continue that we can either live our lives based solely on “what we can reasonably explain and predict”—a life that is ultimately fear-based—or we can open ourselves to the spiritual dimension to life and trust in the providence of that higher power.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 163; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25.

[6] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 223.

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