Changes

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Gen. 45:3-11, 15

Ps. 92:1-4, 12-15

1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

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With deep gratitude, I thank the Rev’d Dr., Professor Dean Hill for the invitation to preach today. One of the best things I’ve ever done was to be instrumental in hiring him to improve the preaching when I finished my terms as dean here. Beth and I have been associated with Marsh Chapel since the fall of 1988 and we have seen many changes. Robert Thornburg was the dean in those early days, and his ministry focused on undergraduates, especially the athletes. He went to nearly athletic contest. He was succeeded by the Rev’d Hope Lucky who focused on undergraduate women evangelicals. I succeeded Hope in 2003 and focused on making Marsh Chapel’s pulpit a leading intellectual voice for Christianity in the nation. When Bob Hill came in 2006, he actually did make it a leading intellectual voice. Ray Bouchard came here with me and he now presides over what is most likely the most ambitious university chapel in the country. Scott Jarrett came with Hope Lucky and, with Justin Blackwell, has now made our music program second to none in New England. Many on our staff now, including Brother Larry Whitney LC+, were around as students during my time or, like Jay Reeg and Mark Gray   began coming during my tenure. What a great privilege it is for me to see so many more of you, so many new, since my days as dean! The changes have been wonderful!

To be sure, some things seem not to have changed. Some of you have been coming since the days of Bob Thornburg. Thornburg was himself the third Bob to be Dean of the Chapel, I’m the fourth, and Bob Hill is the fifth. The acoustics of this chapel remain great for music and wretched for the spoken word, despite many improvements in loudspeakers and microphones. There are five levels of floors in the building, making real elevators almost impossible. We are stuck with the outside lift that Thornburg installed. Still, even these seemingly unchanged things have changed at least by getting older. Some of you have knee joints that agree with me.

Let me call your attention to our three scriptures about for today, one about an incident in one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, one about Paul’s bizarre ideas about resurrection and immortality, and one about Luke’s strange portion of his Sermon on the Plain.

The Genesis reading is part of the story of Jacob, the part where his son Joseph reunites his family. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the first schlemiel in recorded history, to my knowledge. Isaac as a boy was almost killed by his father to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to God. As an old man, Isaac was tricked by his wife and Jacob into giving his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob as a young man was strong, if not particularly ethical, and did plot to secure his father’s blessing that belonged in Esau. Isaac sent Jacob to his Uncle Laban to get one of his daughters as a wife; the candidates were Jacob’s first cousins, if you keep track of biblical family practice. He fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and served Laban seven years to pay for her. But on the wedding night Laban substituted the veiled older daughter, Leah, for Rachel and so Jacob was married to Leah. Wanting Rachel instead, or as well, Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and finally married Rachel too. The two wives constantly fought. Leah bore Jacob the sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. With a concubine, Bilhah, Jacob had Dan and Naphtali. With another concubine, Jacob had Gad and Asher. Leah became fertile again and bore Jacob sons Issachar and Zebulun. Then, last, Rachel bore Jacob Joseph and Benjamin. You will note that the sons of Jacob were ancestors to the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s name won from his fight with the angel. With all those warring mothers, the sons of Jacob were hostile to one another, but especially to Joseph, the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. You remember how they were offended by Joseph’s coat of many colors and sold him to Midianites who took him to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph worked his way up from slavery to friendship with the Pharaoh who made him Prime Minister of the kingdom.

This is where our story today takes up. During a great famine, Jacob’s other sons except for Benjamin came to Egypt to beg for grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He sent them back home with instructions to bring him Benjamin, which they did. And as you can see from our text, Joseph, after some trickery, reconciled himself with his brothers. They brought their father to Egypt where Jacob enjoyed the greatest hospitality and reunion with Joseph. The good times of Jacob’s family in Egypt lasted for generations until there is a pharaoh “that knew not Joseph.” The moral of the story is that, at least for a few generations, the enmity within Jacob’s family was overcome and they lived reconciled with one another and in the good graces of the Egyptians. What an extraordinary change! Everyone changed! In the time of famine the Egyptians became super-generous and the household of Jacob was happy.

A moral of this story for us is that the enmity between nations, between parties, between families can indeed be overcome. Appearances to the contrary, those of us who have been aggrieved because of race, nationality, religion, or anything else can change to have the spirit of forgiveness, and forgiveness can bring about peace and happiness. Remember Joseph said that his brothers ought not think of themselves as guilty for doing something horrible to him, but that God used this to put Joseph in the high position where he could help them. Joseph not only effected the vast change of reconciliation in his family, he changed his older brothers from guilty to being instruments of great good.

Of course, we don’t really know what happened in the Jacob story; even the part about Joseph being the prime minister of Israel does not have verification from any other source. We know only what the biblical sources say. The case with Paul’s discussion of immortality in 1 Corinthians is very different. We know a lot about the range of opinions about that topic in Paul’s day.

The basic Jewish view prior to the encounter with Greek thought was that death of the body and its decomposition meant the death of the person, with no separable soul that lasted long. Some people thought that the soul lasts a short time in Hades after death and then dissipates like smoke. In Jesus’s time, the Greek-influenced Pharisee party that Jesus followed believed in the resurrection of the dead, not the dissipation of the person. The old school Sadducees teased Jesus and the Pharisees about this; remember when they asked Jesus whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection who had married several brothers. Some people believed that only the fortunate would be resurrected by God and that the others would just die. The few who would be resurrected had to be given a new embodiment either immediately upon death or at a later Last Judgment. Others believed that the human soul is separable from the body and is itself naturally immortal. For these natural immortalists, some people found a new life in heaven, but if they didn’t merit heaven there had to be a hell for them to go to. Later Christians in medieval times elaborated the place for the next life to include limbo for unbaptized infants and purgatory for the purification of sinful souls that eventually would get to heaven; no one in Jesus’ time, however, would think about limbo and purgatory.

St. Paul accepted the natural cosmology of his day that said that the universe exists in layers with different physical properties for each layer or plane. On the plane of the earth, people had physical bodies that die and decay. The higher levels had incorruptible physical properties, like layers of angels, all the way up to God. Planes lower than the earth had tormented physical bodies where the demons were. Souls sometimes can traverse from one plane to another. Remember his hymn in Philippians where Christ lives at the top with God but then descends to Earth where he takes on a corruptible physical body as a slave. In Corinthians, Paul said that the afterlife consists in obtaining an incorruptible body and that Jesus assures that those who believe in him will be given an incorruptible body at the Last Judgment. Paul believed the Last Judgment would come within his lifetime, although some Christians had already died. The souls would exist bodiless from the time of death until that Last Judgment resurrection. Many Christians today believe this, but many other Christians also believe that people are raised with incorruptible bodies immediately after the death of their corruptible physical bodies. Either of those theories is a version of reincarnation that was almost universally assumed in South Asia and that came to Israel through Greece.

All of these opinions concern the afterlife as coming (or not) within time after the end of historical, temporal life. The authors of Ephesians and Colossians, whom scholars believe now to have been students of Paul, developed what scholars call a “realized eschatology.” This is the belief that it’s not the future but an eternal and present relation with God that counts. Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection with Christ and now already live rightly related to God. Therefore, those letters say, we should live with love and generosity now in this life, not worrying about any life to come. Eternity does not mean something that last forever, like two people and a ham (my wife told me to tell that joke). Eternity is rather the creative act that creates all moments as future, all as present, and all as past, all together, eternally together although temporally unfolding. Given what we know now about the dependence of the soul on the brain, body, health, and socialization, many of us now do not believe in life after death but rather in an eternal relation to God that we live out within the days of our temporal life. I myself believe that our day to day temporal life is but an abstract part of our real concrete life that is eternal within God’s eternal creative act. The realization of this eternal identity transforms our temporal lives in mind-blowing ways. My book, Eternity and Time’s Flow, explains my theory with lots of arguments and illustrations. Acceptance of any of these views of immortal or eternal life, however, causes huge changes in how we live day to day. We come to live before God, not just within the world of our interests.

I don’t know what you believe about these matters about which Paul wrote. All of them have biblical warrant, and they are all hard to believe. It is much easier to focus on Christianity as about how to live now, which is the position of the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke. In keeping with Dean Hill’s emphasis on comparative gospels, I urge you all to look up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that encompasses three long chapters, five through seven. Read that against Luke’s chapter six, beginning with verse 17, a terse rearrangement and reinterpretation of the earlier text Matthew and Luke have in common that neither Mark nor John has. Matthew was writing for a mainly Jewish audience of Christians and so emphasized how Jesus sharpened Jewish law and attacked hypocrisy regarding Jewish practice. Luke was writing for Greek Christians, pretty much ignored Jewish law, and interpreted Jesus’ saying simply as how to live before God.

For Luke, the Christian life is not so much about obeying God’s law in our heart as it is about being like God in what we do. Because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, so we should love our enemies, be good to everyone including sinners, and lend without expecting to be repaid. For Luke, Christian life is not so much about being good citizens of God’s law-governed kingdom as it is about being “children of the most high.” Children succeed by taking on their parents’ work, and we should continue the work of God who loves everyone, even the sinners. The Greek Christians can understand that without knowing much about the Kingdom of Israel. So can we.

Is it not shocking to learn that we should become children of God and heirs to God’s work? What greater change can we be called to than to behave like the merciful creator who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked? The Bible of course had no conception of justice as the attempt to change social structures to eliminate poverty or prejudice. It even had nothing against the social institutions of slavery. Those insights did not arise until the modern era and we late-modern Christians can add them as part of what we need to do to be just in the world. Luke would remind us that God loves the billionaires and racists, and loved the slaveowners, no matter how bad they are in a calculus of good and evil. A condition of us loving the wicked is that we forgive them, as we must do to be like God. What a change in the way we ordinarily think about justice!

Our three texts today are about changes. Joseph finishes the Jacob story by reconciling his family and turning his older brothers’ guilt into God’s instrument for reconciliation. Paul’s  understanding of Christian salvation is exchanging our perishable bodies for imperishable bodies so that we can rise with Jesus to the plane of God and enjoy fellowship with the divine. The journey upward through different planes of reality might not be how you think of a right relation to God, but there is surely a change from living in ordinary history to living in a history that is part of the eternal creation. Luke’s understanding of true Christian life is not just to be good by worldly standards, nor even to be obedient to divine commands, but to become children of God acting like God in daily life. How different that is from the way we ordinarily live!

These three texts draw a distinction between the steady way things are and the constancy of change. Forget about the way things are. Pay attention to how they are changing. By the imitation of God, make the changes for the better that lie within your means. Look for ways to make changes that you otherwise would not notice. See that in making these changes you are part of God creating with love even for the ungrateful and wicked with whom we are intimately bound. Remember that we have two bodies, as Paul would say. Our historical body lives day to day with all the ambiguities of life, our successes and our failures. That historical body is only a part of our eternal body within which we are connected with all other things, including the past and future, within the eternal act of God’s creation. When we realize that today’s body is only a part of our eternal body, we can accept the fact that what we do today, obligated as it is to be just, cannot escape the love of God even if we do what we ought not. Who knows? Our best intentions today might be great evils that will be shown up in future generations. We can take comfort that even the worst of us are part of the eternity of God’s creative act. Today we must act. In eternity we just rest in the bliss of God creating. Change exists in eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Dean of the Chapel, 2003-2006 

 

 

 

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