This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on November 21, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, as we approach scripture, Lord, I pray that you would help our minds to be at peace and open about the things that we find there. Help us to bring your scripture into conversation with all of our lives and everything that we know. Help our spirit to be in conversation with your Spirit. Help us to integrate the things that we experience in our worship and in our lives together so that they can be reflective of one another and so that we can be shaped by the way that they interact.
Help us to remember, Lord, that you are living and active in all of creation and that by pursuing you and being present with you and participating with you, we can continue to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m eventually going to be in the gospel of John, this morning — John chapter 5, at first, and then eventually John chapter 17, and I’ll reference some other passages this morning, but I’m not going to do as much reading as I usually do.
My mind, this week, has been all over the place. It’s been going non-stop. It’s hard for me to settle on thoughts — hard for me to write stuff out, work stuff out — and sometimes the interconnectedness of my thoughts becomes so complicated that it’s hard to outline it, and I can’t really get a grip on where everything is going. When that happens to me, it helps to be in a quiet place. It helps to have some distance between me and distractions and stimulus, but that’s not really possible.
It’s not possible because there’s too much going on in life. Life happens. Family, neighbors, work… It’s not always possible to disconnect, and a lot of times when we get in these places and we talk about healthy ways of dealing with these things, we talk about balance. We need to balance work and leisure. We need to balance time alone and time with people. We need to balance time in our own heads and time outside of our own heads, so to speak. We try to balance everything for mental health, for physical health, for emotional health, for interpersonal/relationship health… Balance is such an important part of what we do every day.
So this morning, I want to talk about balance. In particular, I want to talk about the way that our concept of balance impacts a very specific aspect of Christianity and not necessarily in a good way, but we’ll get to that.
Balance is not just an idea that modern mental health has brought into our lives. Balance is an idea that has existed for thousands of years. In Eastern philosophy, there’s yin and yang. In pop culture, there’s the light side and the dark side. In religion, there’s good and evil. In Christianity, there’s God and Satan. We like the idea of balancing structures, balancing systems, balancing attributes, because we recognize that in a world where suffering and “bad things” are reality that balancing them out with good things becomes a necessity, and more than that, we recognize that those things that are good in our lives are often only good in moderation. And so, we recognize that the often-presumed bad things are even balancing in healthy ways to those good things.
An easier way to think of this might be pleasure versus suffering or discomfort. We know that those things that bring us pleasure, when sought after in an unbalanced way, do not always result in good things. Our body is adaptive and responsive, and so is our mind. Our spirit, so to speak, as human beings, requires both pleasure and discomfort.
Bones grow when put under stress. [Forgive me for my mask, here. I tried a different one, today, and it seems to be riding down my face more than usual.] In order to create strong bones and strong muscles, discomfort is necessary — not pain and injury but discomfort. Impact training encourages the body to increase bone density, to increase muscle strength, to increase tendon strength… Discomfort not only physically empowers us over time but even emotionally and intellectually empowers us over time.
The stress of dealing with emotional situations, when coupled with proper coping mechanisms and integrating mechanisms can help us to become emotionally resilient — psychologically resilient — and that, in turn, can help us to be more physiologically resilient. The link between what we call the body and what we call the mind is something that’s been studied for centuries.
We know that discomfort balances out pleasure in ways that are beneficial for us, and in the same way we know that too much pain is not a good thing. Too much discomfort, too much stress, in unhealthy ways — in unregulated ways — can lead to things like trauma. Injury without proper healing can lead to permanent disability. Pain without relief is what we call torture and can lead to psychological trauma, as well as physical trauma. Even isolation for extended periods of time can cause damage to a person’s mind, so we know that balance between pleasure and discomfort leads to healthy people.
We find that same concept of balance in what we call life and death. If life goes on unbridled — without death — creation quickly becomes overrun. No one thing in creation can be allowed to live indefinitely without the balance of other things. Ecosystems become destroyed in that way.
We know this because when we have, as human beings, introduced lifeforms into one population — into one ecosystem — that weren’t previously there, we see the accidental ramifications of that introduction. We see the way that one animal can quickly drive another animal to extinction. We see the way that one type of plant can quickly snuff out another type of plant, and we see the way that restoring balance to the ecosystem can help rectify that error.
The problem with this life/death thing is that it works on a physiological level — a biological level. When we talk about physical life, the balance is obvious. Death run rampant without the balance of life leads to complete destruction. Life run rampant without the balance of death leads to the destruction of ecosystems — the same kind of destruction in the other direction. Balance is the only way for physical life to persist forward.
The problem comes when we, as Christians, take that physical life and death balance and assume that that’s what we’re applying to the idea of eternal life found in the Gospel. We assume that eternal life is a physiological sort of thing, that what we’re trying for is an actual, eternal, physical life that persists forever, and in order to make that work, we have to create a space outside of creation. We call it Heaven. The only way for physical life to persist without the balance of death and still be “healthy” is to create a space in which death is unnecessary, and so we create this place called Heaven, and we make it our goal that the only thing we need is to get to Heaven and have this eternal, physiological life, and if we struggle with the physiology of it, then what we do is we take that place called Heaven and we “spiritualize” it, where we remove the physical entirely.
We get some kind of gnosticism where we say that the physical body is [either] non-important or is actually bad, in itself. And so we let one thing die in order to have this new spiritual, eternal life, and the problem is [that] when we go down that road and we begin to spiritualize eternal life in a way that is disconnected and glorify some otherworldly place that we can someday get to and leave this creation behind — the problem is that when we do that, we begin to neglect this creation, and not only this creation as a planet, not only things like ecology, but also people.
We begin to dehumanize people. We begin to demonize empathy. We begin to glorify apathy by saying we don’t have time and resources to waste on your physical problems, because we have to devote those things to spiritual pursuits, and so we abandon creation to death, and we justify to ourselves that that is the balance. Everything that goes to eternal life persists in Heaven; everything that doesn’t is what balances out to death.
This sort of balance is not in keeping with the life that we find in the Gospel, because the life that we find in the Gospel is not a physical life. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s not talking about physical life and therefore doesn’t need to be balanced by a physical death, and even if we say we’re going to “spiritualize” thel ife that we find in Heaven — even if we say it’s not physical, it’s only spiritual, that there is some sort of disembodied eternal life — even if we go that way, we still talk about it and imagine it as though it is a physical existence. We still try to balance it out with the death of everything that isn’t “there.”
What the Gospel is arguing for, what the Gospel is submitting in Jesus Christ, is not the opportunity to be on the “good” side of life and not on the “bad” side of death. What the Gospel is offering is the opportunity to live into something that is bigger than our perceived notions of balance.
Here’s what I mean… Let’s look at John chapter 5. In John chapter 5, starting in verse 24, Jesus says,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.John 5:24-26, NIV
The offer that Jesus is presenting, here, is not for some to move into eternal life and some to move into death. The offer he presents, here, is that those who are dead can actually cross over from death into life. Consider that for a minute. If everybody who is dead accepts Jesus, they all cross over into eternal life, and the claim that God makes — the claim that the New Testament writers make about God concerning the cross — is that Jesus conquers death on the cross, thus eliminating the sting of death, and presents the way into eternal life.
This is not a balance. This is an actual overriding of death with life. What Jesus is presenting, here, is not a balance but an actual overcoming of death in order to favor life. He’s actually proposing that we throw the balance out altogether. He says, “What I want is for you to come and have the life that is in me, because life is in God, and to cross over from death into life. Let’s do away with death altogether,” and I think this is consistent with what we find in the Old Testament in some places, like where Solomon says that death is the great tragedy that befalls us all. It’s the one thing that nobody can escape, and it is absolutely heinous, and I don’t think that what he’s talking about is just physical death (although, I do think he’s talking about that, too). I think what he’s talking about is the idea that there is a certain perishing nature to all of creation, including people, and that something in that is missing what must have been the goal of whatever God was doing, and I think Jesus confirms that, here. Although he’s not talking about a merely physical death, he is offering an alternative future in which life reigns over death.
In John chapter 17, we find Jesus praying for his disciples and not only his immediate disciples but all the disciples who will come after, as well. In John chapter 17, verse 20, he says,
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.John 17:20-23, NIV
In John chapter 5, he said that life is in God, and just as life is in God — just as life is in the Father — so he has given life in the Son, and here, Jesus prays that his disciples would come to believe the message and be one in him as he is in the Father. And more than that, in the second part of verse 21, he says, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
The way in which people believe that we are from God is by finding ourselves in Jesus and in God, and the way that we do that is by loving one another — being unified, he says. “Then the world” — this is verse 23 — “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.” All throughout John, we find this theme of unification by being in Christ and in God, and that is the way in which people know that we are disciples of God, and in John chapter 13 and verse 35, he says this is how people will know that you are my disciples: you love one another, and that’s why I said, here: being in Christ is to love one another.
The unity that he talks about is life in God, because life is in God, and to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in Christ, which is to be in the Father, and to be in God is exemplified in our love for one another, and we talked about this a lot when we talked about 1 John — when we talked about the fact that God is love, and then when we talked about the fact that God is light and in him there is no darkness, and when we walk in the light, then we know God and our sins are forgiven, and the way in which we express that is through love, because God is love. To be in God is to be in the light. To be in the light is to be in life, and to be in life is to love one another, love your neighbor as yourself, love God. And I said that the goal is love, and the same is true, here, with eternal life.
Eternal life in God is about love. It’s not about physical life. I’m not saying there isn’t some physical embodiment in there, somewhere. I’m not saying that there isn’t some kind of resurrection. Maybe it’s spiritual. Maybe it’s physical. I mentioned when I said that God is love that love is embodied in action; it’s incarnate in a time and a place. It’s not that there isn’t some physical aspect to love. At the very least, love manifests in physical ways here in this creation in how we love each other, but the Gospel eternal life — the eternal life we find in Christ — is not a physical [life] that needs to be balanced by physical death. It’s not about that balance; it’s quite the opposite. It’s about life through love completely overcoming death, and that death, of course, in the same way that the life isn’t physical, the death isn’t physical.
We’re talking about the spiritual state of being dead — of being captive to a world in which love doesn’t win out — to being captive to a world in which violence is the greatest power instead of love being the greatest power. Because you can’t balance that kind of a world. People who are being oppressed by violence and death can’t just have love come in in moderation and balance that out for them. That’s not how the world works. Physical death can be balanced by physical life — by renewal. Burn down one forest, and watch another spring up in its place by the nutrition that is provided by the burned ashes of the plants. That’s not how oppression works. That’s not how spiritual and emotional death and trauma work. That’s not how toxicity and abuse works. That kind of violence and death can’t be balanced out by kind words and love. It can overthrown by love. It can be overpowered by love. It can be put to death by love.
That’s the Gospel eternal life that’s being offered. It’s a life that leans so far into love that it actually conquers death, and in that kind of a world, there’s no downside to being dominated by love. There’s no downside to a world that is dominated by a dominion of grace.
That’s not the present reality that we live in, now. We understand that, and right now, we search for balance in coping mechanisms. We search for balance in emotional support. We search for balance in safe spaces and trying to be anti-shame, but what Paul argues for is this now but not yet sort of mentality that says even though it’s not the reality right now — even though suffering still exists right now, even though evil exists right now, even though in most of the world violence and death is the supreme power right now — that somehow in who we are, as disciples of Christ, we should be living into a dominion of life. We should be living into a kind of life that conquers death in a way that doesn’t balance out oppression and evil with some good but actually, in our communities, throws death into the pit in favor of life through love.
And I understand that that doesn’t exist right now, but Paul says that it ought to exist right now. It ought to be the reality right now, and eventually, it ought to be the reality in all of creation, and he says that creation groans for this reconciliation. Creation waits for this reconciliation through us, and it leads to a transformative, embodied experience that the New Testament calls new creation. Expressions of the Gospel that focus on a balanced life and death — that emphasizes physical life, that distances itself from present responsibility by envisioning some eternal life somewhere else apart from this creation — those expressions of the Gospel fail to recognize that real, eternal life conquers death now.
And if we want to embody the life of Christ now, we need to get away from this idea that love needs to be balanced by evil. That’s just a way of justifying our evil actions. Real love doesn’t need to be balanced by evil. Real love creates healthy balance in life by throwing out violence and death, and what I invite you to this morning is that.
I am inviting you into an eternal life that gives life in such abundance that love overrides death in real, embodied ways right now — that love creates healthy spaces for you right now. That’s the invitation. Come and be part of an eternal life that starts now, and experience the eternal life that comes through love in a way that conquers death.