The Wisdom of Nature – "Ask the Beasts, and They will Teach You."
Gary Ferguson tells the story of a wolf who was known only as 14. She was one of fourteen wolves re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Together with an older male called Old Blue, with whom she bonded for life, she shared much of the leadership of the pack.
By 1997, two years later, Old Blue was beginning to show his age and those who tracked the animals often found him struggling behind the rest of the pack. He was also unusually slow when it came time to hunt. During close up contact, the biologists who followed the packs progress noted that Old Blue’s teeth were badly worn, a sign of his age. They also noticed how other adults would regularly step in to open the tough hide of a recently killed elk, and then back away to allow Old Blue to eat.
About 6 months later Old Blue had passed away, and following the death of her mate, in a move no other wolf researcher had ever heard of or seen, 14 took off on her own. She left her home territory without her pups and yearlings, which biologists said was quite extraordinary. She was then tracked by an airplane as well as recording the radio signal from a collar which had been fitted to her, travelling miles and miles on her own over what appears to have been a period of a week or two until she returned to her home territory to be reunited with her family. One of the biologists who had been tracking her on this extraordinary journey could find no other explanation for that journey made by 14, other than it was an expression of her deep grief.
Human beings often speak of animals as if they were dumb automatons, simply programmed by instinct and sharing nothing of the depth of our human emotional life. For quite a long time, Western Europeans operated on the understanding that animals did not even feel physical pain. Which accounted for some terrible acts of cruelty towards animals. But a story like that and many others like it, reveal that animals are not only highly intelligent, but also have deep and heartfelt emotional lives. Animals are not so different from us.
I have a picture of Jesus that I keep on my desk that speaks deeply to me. I understand that it dates back to the year 1908. It shows Jesus sitting, in silent prayerful meditation during his 40 day long retreat in the desert after his baptism. At the bottom of the picture there is a quote from Mark’s Gospel 1:14 “He was there in the wilderness, and was with the wild beasts.” When I used to read that verse when I was younger, those words were read as a kind of a threat, that Jesus was somehow in danger during his time in the wilderness. But when you look closer at the picture, the artist clearly has a different interpretation. Rather than Jesus being in danger and being threatened by nature, in the peacefulness of his posture and the peace radiating from him, Jesus is in fact drawing wild animals to himself. They are attracted to him, just as sinners and the riff – raff of society were drawn to Jesus. In the picture there is a little lizard sitting on his arm looking up at him. There are also two birds flying towards him, with one of them, a dove preparing to alight on his shoulder. To his left, there is a wild rabbit that has moved close to his leg and in front of him, a snake has slithered past him without doing him any harm and only in preparing for this sermon did I see that there is the face of a sleeping leopard to his left.
When I first saw the picture, it took me by surprise… the interpretation was so different from my assumption than the wild animals in this verse were in my mind a threat to Jesus. It made me realise just how much we bring our own assumptions with us when we read an interpret scripture. I brought with me an assumption that is not reflected at all in the text itself.
And in fact, the interpretation of the artist is one that makes more Biblical sense than my own assumptions projected onto the text.
On Easter Sunday, I mentioned that most reliable manuscripts don’t include the extended ending of Mark’s Gospel from verse 9 – 19. In fact if you look carefully in in your Bible, you should see that there is another 3rd possible ending that appears in other manuscripts. But getting back to the longer addendum to Mark’s Gospel, it contains a fascinating little passage where Jesus, after meeting with Mary Magdalene, and then with two unnamed disciples on their way to the country, Jesus makes an appearance to the 11 disciples as they were eating, before being taken up into heaven where he is then seated at the right side of God. But in that final meeting with the 11 disciples while they were eating, Jesus first scolds them for being so hard-hearted and stubborn for not believing that he is alive, and then commands them to go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all creation. The Good News version incorrectly translates the verse as “preach the good news to all human beings”. But the Greek word that is used should in fact be the word creation.
How strange that the writer of Mark 16:15 believed that the Good News of Jesus was not just meant for human beings, but for all of creation, implying that all creatures and animals are part of the wide embrace of God’s concern and compassion. When last did you share the good news with the animals in your life or even the insects in your garden?
Then in verse 18, the writer goes on to write of Jesus saying to his disciples that in his name they will be able to pick up snakes and that they will not be harmed.
And this takes us back to the writings of Isaiah, who when looking forward to God’s anointed One, writes of a day when:
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
It is a picture of a time when humanity will live not as enemies with creation, but at harmony with it.
And this has clearly been the experience of many of those who have been called saints and holy people, because of their great devotion to God and that their lives had become transparent to the Divine Light shining through them: they have found themselves in a new and harmonious relationship with God’s creatures.
The most famous Western example of this is St Francis of Assisi for whom all creatures had become his brothers and sisters. He is recorded as having taken the words of Jesus in Mark 16:15 quite literally and preached to the birds of the air. The legends that are told about him would never have been told, if in some way he did not display a profound ability to relate to animals in a way that most human beings cannot.
There are similar stories of saintly Christians within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in fact stories of saintly people from other religious traditions who have had a special relationship with animals too.
Stories such as these suggest that as human beings grow in love and compassion, our relationship to animals becomes healed and transformed. This should not come as any surprise. It does not even require an Old Testament prophecy to make this point or a quote from Jesus in the second ending of Mark’s Gospel. Even in our ordinary lives, we know the healing that can come from our relationship to animals. We know how our pets can often be extremely sensitive to our own pain and struggles. It probably comes as no surprise to us any-more to hear that taking animals into a nursing home or into a centres for disabled or even severely autistic children can have a transformative effect on them helping them to find peace and contentment where before they may have felt a sense of agitation or dis-ease.
In South Africa the wife of a fellow minister who was trained as a clinical psychologist began using horses in her therapy. She found that some of her patients benefited more from being in a therapeutic relationship with her horses than normal therapy. Scientific studies also suggest that children’s interaction with animals helps not only the emotional and social development of a child, but also their cognitive development as well, suggesting that animals can not only help us to get in touch with the contentment and peace many of us long for, but can also have a positive effect on our intelligence.
Not only can animals aid human beings in our own growth and healing, but the stories of Jesus and the stories of saintly people down the ages suggests that the more healed we become as human beings, the more our relationships with animals will also become healed and harmonious.
I would like to end with two quotes from Scripture:
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all humankind.
- Job 12:7-10
...but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 2 Samuel 12:3
SERMON TEXT - The Wisdom of Nature - Balance of Male and Female
Last weekend, the royal grand national horse racing competition, marked an historic moment, with the first women jockey to win the race in its 182 years history, especially significant, when women were officially excluded from participating in the race up until 1977.
This journey towards including space for women in the great institutions of Western civilisation is a very recent one in the context of the flow of history. According to the UK Law society website, women were not even legally recognised as ‘persons’ in 1914, and so were legally excluded from practising law because the law stated that they were not really ‘people’. In terms of University education, it was only in 1920 that Oxford opened its doors to women and only 1948 that women were permitted to study at Cambridge, and even then, Cambridge reserved the right to give preference to men..
Despite the slow and gradual opening up of Western Institutions to women, there are also countless stories over the past 100 years of women who made remarkable discoveries and yet who were not given credit. Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix formation of human DNA in the 1950’s while at King’s College in London, but credit was given to Watson and Crick who received the Nobel prize in 1958.
Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission with her research partner Otto Hahn, but only Otto Hahn was given credit with a 1944 prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Dr Grace Murray Hopper was the person who first invented Computer Programming language, but it is John von Neumann who is celebrated as having created the first computer program.
What all this suggests is that Western Civilisation as a whole has lived with an extremely unbalanced male dominance for centuries and that was still largely legally in force in the UK as recently as 1975. Up until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, it was still perfectly legal to hire men over women for no other reason than they were male. And so despite the fact that women were given the vote in 1918, sexist practice was still legally in practice 57 years later, which shows how slow social change really is. And so despite the strides that a country like the UK has made in the past 46 years in creating greater balance and freedom of opportunity between men and women, it should come as no surprise to hear in the past few years that on the whole, men are still paid higher salaries than women for doing the same work. Cultural change is a very very slow process.
Now last week I got back to a preaching series that was started just before Covid hit us last year, exploring the Wisdom we can learn from Nature, using the book 8 Master Lessons of Nature, by the writer Gary Ferguson.
It has been a long tradition in the Christian Church that nature is like a second Bible. Paul points to that in Romans 1:20 where he writes: "Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made.". St Augustine who was very influential on most of the Reformers said: “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe.”
The title of Gary Ferguson’s 4th Chapter is: “Healing the planet and ourselves means recovering the feminine,” and in the pages that follow he makes clear that when he is speaking of the recovery of the feminine, he is talking about moving towards a greater balance between the masculine and the feminine in the world today, and not about the dominance of the feminine over the masculine. In the language of Chinese Taoism, the balance of masculine and feminine is much like the balance between the yin and yang in that symbolic circle where the yin and yang of life interlock with one another and balance one another. This balancing of masculine and feminine he suggests needs to happen not only across our societal structures, but also within our own individual psyches.
And so as we observe and read the Scripture of Nature, Gary Ferguson points out that in most major groups of mammals, there is a much greater balance between male and female leadership than has been the case in the history of most of humanity for the past 6000 years. And so he writes that “In countless species, from meerkats to whales, elephants, chimpanzees, wolves and lions, females hold both nurturing and leadership roles.
He writes that “...The fact is, in mammal species, where males and females are roughly the same size, female leadership is often the norm. Even when males are larger, such as in chimpanzees, gorillas, lions and wolves, it’s often still females who make critical leadership decisions.” He writes that while female leaders in the animal world can have impressive physical strength, it is their relational instinct and their ability of building coalitions that makes female wisdom and leadership a critical part of survival in the natural world. And yet at the same time, males in many of these species also play critical roles in not only hunting and defending territory, but also in caring for the young, often engaging in endless rounds of play with cubs that is a critical part of their growth and development.
And so Gary Ferguson writes that nature has created a world in which the success of elephants, wolves and lions and countless other species comes from a full expression of both sexes. He says the idea that one gender is more important that another is a human illusion – one that ignores the fact that nature is a balance between the two.
It is suggested that much of our current problems with the destruction of the planet is due to a masculine dominance rather than a masculine and feminine balance. For example, much of our pesticide culture which is decimating insect populations around the world is the out-flowing of a masculine energy that has forgotten the importance of relationship. When faced with a problem, a dominant masculine approach would have a tendency to use strength and force rather than relationship. Gary Ferguson writes for example that in China, when sparrows began eating rice in their rice fields a policy was made to kill all the sparrows and then discovered that the insects grew out of control and destroyed more of their rice crops than the birds ever ate. This, suggests Gary Ferguson, was male energy at work, unbalanced by a feminine recognition of relationship. If we are to save the planet, Gary Ferguson believes that masculine strength and force need to be balanced with feminine relationship and coalition. Instead of seeing nature through the male lens as something needing to be conquered, we need to learn something of a feminine approach of how to live in better harmony, coalition and relationship with nature.
Now as we turn to the written pages of scriptures, it is clear in reading Scripture that Hebrew culture was, like much of Western culture and history, highly patriarchal, with an enormous masculine dominance. Every morning, Jewish men would have prayed, “Thank you God that I was not born a women”. And yet how remarkable that in the first of the creation passages in Genesis, some inspired Jewish writer (almost certainly male) tells us that God made both male and female in God’s image. Both are in God’s image. This is a profound insight. The writer does not see the male as superior to the women, but rather through both, the fullness of God’s nature is revealed and disclosed.
It is also fascinating that in the second creation story in Genesis about Adam and Eve, the dominance of the male over the female is clearly regarded a result of what people often refer to as the fall. When the first human beings fall into sin, God says to the women, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”. The implication is that it was never God’s intention from the beginning that husbands should rule over their wives. This arrangement comes about as a result of disobedience and sin. The implication is therefore that the undoing of sin should therefore lead to the undoing of male dominance, and the bringing about of a greater balance and partnership and harmony between the masculine and the feminine, rather than seeing competition between males and females where one needs to be regarded as better than the other. “Are boys better then girls?”
The person of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the heavily patriarchal Jewish culture of his day. In many ways, Jesus was quite a major disruptor of Jewish patriarchy symbolised by the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the most dominant institutions of Jewish culture in Jesus day.
In contrast to the Rabbi’s of his day Jesus is recorded in Luke’s Gospel as having female disciples. (Luke 8:1-3). At the time of Jesus, it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish Rabbi’s to have female disciples. Girls were never taught to read or memorise the Scriptures. They were excluded from such activities. But in Luke, Mary is described as sitting at the feet of Jesus. This was the posture of a disciple. Keith Giles even suggests that this was the posture of someone who was themselves in training to become a Rabbi. And Jesus affirms her in this role. She has chosen the better part he says.
Lastly, Jesus as a human being seems to have integrated within himself both the masculine and the feminine. Carl Jung believed that this is the journey and the task required of any human being who grows into greater wholeness and fullness. He spoke of the anima and animus. The anima refers to the unconscious feminine side of a man, and the animus refers to the unconscious side of a woman. For men to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that men need to get in touch with this unconscious female aspect of their personality. And for a women to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that women need to tap into the unconscious masculine energy of their personalities. The male and female principles are present in each of us, and both need to find balanced expression within each of us.
This was certainly true of Jesus. He combines both formidable strength and amazing tenderness and vulnerability. He is an active leader amongst his disciples and yet in the Garden of Gethsemane he is able to surrender his life completely into the hands of the one He calls Abba.
When faced with confrontation he stands his ground and holds his own, and yet how easily he is reduced to tears when he stands outside the tomb of Lazarus and when he enters Jerusalem and weeps over a city that is headed for destruction.
When we call Jesus the saviour of the world, it is not just that Jesus died for our sins that we might go to heaven. Jesus could equally be regarded as saviour because he reveals the kind of balance, wholeness and one could even say holiness that is necessary to bring greater balance and wholeness to human society and that is also going to prove essential in saving the planet. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: The Wisdom of Diversity
Reading - Revelation 7:9-12
The book of Revelation is a difficult book to get ones head around. It has such fantastic and bizarre imagery which has been accompanied by many equally bizarre and fantastic interpretations over the past 2000 years or so. At some point it might make an interesting preaching series. But in the midst of that sometimes bizarre and fantastic imagery there are also some beautiful portions about the inauguration of a new heaven and a new earth in which every tear will be wiped away. A little earlier in the book there is another profound and thought provoking vision that paints a picture of a gathering of great diversity of those who are followers of Christ, people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white and waving palm branches. If this is meant to be a picture of heaven, then it seems that according to the writer of revelation, God values diversity.
Last year I started a preaching series that got disrupted by Covid. It was based on a book I had been given by a congregation member called: 8 Master Lessons of Nature. We only covered two themes:
The first lesson was the Wisdom of Mystery – Gary Ferguson writes that anyone who truly studies nature will learn the lesson of Mystery. The world of nature and science when viewed up close is mysterious he says. Carl Sagan claimed that science wasn’t only compatible with mystery, but was a profound source of Mystery. And Jane Goodall, one of the worlds leading primatologist and anthropologists is quoted as saying: “There is so much mystery. There is so much awe.”
This theme of mystery and awe is captured in the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, where out in nature, in the wilderness, Moses encounters God, the Great I Am, and Moses is invited to take off his shoes and to recognise that he is standing on sacred ground.
The second lesson was learning from nature the wisdom of interconnectedness. Anyone who knows even a little about natural eco-systems is that they are complex systems networkds of interconnectedness. If one species in a forest is affected by something it will have a ripple effect on many other species of plants and animals. This wisdom of interconnectedness is expressed in the apostle Paul’s writing on the Church as the Body of Christ. If one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is affected. The wisdom of interdependence is inviting us as human beings to rediscover and realise how much we are part of complex networks of interdependence that includes our dependence and interdependence with nature. No person is an island. We cannot live without nature.
Today I would like to examine briefly the third wisdom lesson from nature. In the third chapter, Gary Ferguson invites us to contemplate deeply the wisdom of diversity, a theme captured in that vision in Revelation 7:9. The title of Gary Fergusons 3rd chapter is “The more kinds of life in the forest, the stronger that life becomes”.
Gary Ferguson writes that at the age of 21, he was out walking in nature with his 62 year old boss and mentor Chuck Ebersole. He writes that after some two hours of walking they crested a final mountain rise that made his jaw drop.
Before them was a tumbling mountainside bedecked with the most glorious carpet of wild-flowers he’d ever seen containing a variety of different flowers, many of which I wont even try and pronounce… the safest one’s for me to pronounce included geraniums, buttercups, paintbrush, bluebells, elephant head, prairie smoke and monkey flowers. One can just imagine this beautiful array of colours shapes and textures that confronted them. For a long time they just stood there shoulder to shoulder in silence, until finally his mentor began showering him with questions: Asking why nature would produce such variety, why not just two or three species. And as Gary Ferguson stumbled around with his words, trying to answer this question from as many angles as possible, the answer that began to emerge was that nature hedges its bets. When an ecosystem contains such variety they are much stronger, and able to better withstand disasters that may happen, like severe droughts, disease and plagues of insects.
I may want to add to that by speculating that perhaps another reason for the variety is that maybe God loves variety and enjoys it and that those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Getting back to Gary Ferguson, he writes that contemplating that beautiful array of flowers, flowing down the mountainside, he learned a giant indisputable lesson: The more diversity in a natural system, the more vibrant those players will be. And also, the more resilient the system will be in the face of change.
He writes that our lives as human beings are utterly dependent on the diversity of nature and the more than one trillion species of animals, plants, insects and microbes that in habit this planet.
He says that it is no exaggeration that the diversity of the biosphere is responsible for giving us breathable air and drinkable water. Not to mention the replenishing of the soils in which we grow crops, along with creating pollinators needed to fertilize them.
Diversity in nature, gives us everything from the fibres in our clothes to the petrol that fuels our cars. And as much as 40% of all modern medicine comes from a diverse array of plants, inclding medicne that helps people to avoid heart attacks and strokes, asprin that was first extracted from white willow, as well as medicines that are used to heal child leukemia and Hodgkins lymphoma, antibiotics and drugs for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
It is indeed in humanities best interests to preserve the diversity of nature.
But diversity is also valuable at a purely human level. Even though humanity often resists diversity, we would often prefer others to be just like us, to think like us, to be culturally the same as us, the truth is there is strength in diversity.
When I have sometimes wished that others were a bit more like me, the spirit of God or the spirit of Wisdom has whispered in my ear and asked me to imagine what this world would be like if it was made up only of Brian’s like me. Clones of me. I can’t help but imagine that this world would be a dreadfully boring place. And there would be an enormous number of skills-sets that would be completely missing. This world would become chronically unbalanced. Even though we resist diversity and the otherness of other’s that we don’t always gel with, if we can learn to live with each others differences and look for the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives, we will discover that diversity can and should be a strength. The truth is that without a diversity of opinions, none of us would ever grow. Imagine if we all thought exactly the same. We would all just stagnate if we were all just clones of each other. Diversity of opinion is necessary for us to learn the cognitive skills that will help sharpen our ability to think and reason.
Getting back to Scripture, the early church was faced with the question of what kind of community they would be. Would they confine themselves to being a small Jewish sect of Jewish followers of Jesus, where everyone had to become culturally Jewish in order to belong? Or would they open themselves to people of other nations. The word that is used is Gentiles… a word used by English translators for the Hebrew word ‘goy’ and the Greek word ‘ethne’ which refer to ‘people’s’ or ‘nations’. Would the Church be a mono-cultural Jewish club, or would the Church be a multicultural and diverse community.
In large part due to the work and ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Christian church chose to open itself up and choose the latter option. It could be argued that if the Church had remained an in-house, mono-cultural Jewish institution, it would never have had the impact on the world that it has had. The diversity of the Church has been it’s strength even if at times also it’s achilles heal.
The seeds of this Christian diversity lay however in the very life and ministry of Jesus, who constantly coloured outside of the lines of his own Jewish cultural heritage. Constantly he is seen to be making detours through Samaritan and Gentile territories, engaging with people different from himself. In a very real way, Jesus’s capacity to embrace diversity and difference is an expression of his capacity to love. And for us, if we are to grow in our own capacity for love, it will inevitably mean growing our capacity to live with or embrace diversity and the otherness of others.
On that note, I would like to end with two quotes:
The first is from Thomas Merton - “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves that we find in them.”
The second from Brennan Manning – from a story called “Patched together”
Little Brother, being a friend means loving completely. You don’t have to understand completely, and chances are you never will. But that doesn’t mean you can’t love completely. That’s what being a friend is all about. And it’s really impossible to do that, without the mercy of God. And so you pray every day, ‘Lord have mercy’.
SERMON TEXT - Readings - 1 Cor 15:35-37 & 42-50; Mark 16:1-8
Here in the UK there was a man who was regarded by many as an authority on prayer, respected across a number of denominations, and in fact all around the world. This man was known as Anthony Bloom. He served for much of his life in London as an Archbishop within the Eastern Orthodox Church. His family were originally from Russia, but after the Russian revolution they became stateless as his father had been a diplomat. Life was hard. He initially started working at the age of 12 giving lessons to children younger than himself so that he could afford books for his own education. After studying Physics, Chemistry and Biology, he went on to study medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1939 just before the war. By that time he was living in France and ended up serving in the French resistance.
During his middle teens he was a non-believer and very anti-church. He says, “I knew no God, I wasn’t interested and hated everything that was connected with the idea of God.”
At the age of 14 for the first time since the Russian Revolution, he and his family finally lived under one roof in a house in Paris. He said that the experience was real happiness for him. But he says that when he found himself confronted with perfect happiness for the first time, an unexpected thing happened. He suddenly discovered that if happiness is aimless, it becomes unbearable. Because it had no further meaning because he himself believed in nothing, the happiness seemed to be stale and empty. And so he began a search for meaning although initially it did not take him in the direction of the church or Christianity which he found profoundly repulsive.
Eventually, after having been convinced against his own will to attend a lecture by a priest, he hurried home in order to check the truth of what the priest had been saying. He said he expected nothing good to come from his reading and so decided to read Mark’s Gospel which was the shortest of all the four gospels.
He writes the following: “While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of the desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point he writes. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence, I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God.’
From this experience of sensing the Presence of Christ on the other side of his desk, he said that the Resurrection was more certain to him than any fact of history. History he had to believe he said. The Resurrection, he knew for a fact.
It is a fascinating story. He never saw a physical Jesus standing in front of him. He never heard a voice. But in the heart and mind of this unbeliever, who had been repulsed by Christianity and the Church, in that moment he felt the presence on the other side of his desk was non-other than the Risen Presence of Christ.
Now the earliest New Testament references to the resurrection can be found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Scholars will point out that all of Paul’s letters were written before any of the Gospel’s were written.
What is interesting in reading through Paul’s letters, although he is thoroughly convinced that Jesus is risen, he never refers to what many today call the empty tomb. In contrast to the Gospels especially of Matthew, Luke and John, Paul also never refers to the raising of the flesh and blood body of Jesus. In fact, Paul in 1 Cor 15:50 even asserts that “...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”. And so interestingly, for Paul, the Resurrection Body of Jesus was not his former flesh and blood body. In verse 53 he goes on to say that “...the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asks the question “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” And in verse 36 he answers his own question: “You fool!” He says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that will be, but just a seed.”
Clearly in Paul’s mind, the Resurrection of Jesus did not mean the bringing back to life of the physical flesh and blood body of Jesus, but rather that in dying like a seed sown into the ground, the Resurrection of Jesus represented Jesus’ birth into a completely new kind of life, no longer a flesh and blood kind of life, but rather what Paul speaks of as a spiritual body.
And so although Paul was absolutely convinced that he had encountered the Risen Christ, a bit like Archbishop Anthony Bloom, nowhere does he write about his encounter as though it was with a revived or resuscitated physical body.
In Acts 9 where we read of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, what is described is a light flashing all around him and a voice speaking to him. A light and a voice.
Isn’t it interesting, on the one hand, Paul writes in 1 Cor 15 that without the resurrection of Jesus, Christian faith is useless, and yet he never spoke of the resurrection in the terms of flesh and blood. For Paul, Jesus was alive and risen, but for Paul Jesus physical body had died like a seed being sown into the grown, giving birth to a new spiritual body, which in Acts 9 is described more like a kind of a spiritual light and a presence rather than a physical body.
I’d like to turn now to Mark 16:1-8. Most scholars agree that Mark 16:1-8 is the earliest Gospel story about the resurrection of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is the earliest Gospel to have been written, and yet the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel all end at Chapter 16:8. What is fascinating about the passage is that there is an empty tomb, but no actual physical encounter with the Risen Jesus. All we have is a story of a young man dressed in white, with a promise that his disciples would encounter him in Galilee, the place where they had first met him, and first heard the call to follow him. The suggestion is that Jesus will come alive in our experience when we go back to the beginning and seek to live again as disciples of Christ, putting his teachings into practice.
Some would thus suggest that it confirms the perspective of the Apostle Paul, that the resurrection of Jesus was not a reviving of Jesus’ previous physical body. They would say that in the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, the resurrection stories become more and more physical in nature. The suggestion is that these later Gospel writers were attempting to express in story-form a mystery that the Apostle Paul believed was true and real, and yet, for which for Paul never used the language of the physical, but rather the language of the spiritual. A spiritual body is what he calls it in 1 Cor 15.
For Paul, Jesus was alive, but his presence was not located in a specific physical body anymore, rather for Paul, as we see in Ephesians 4:10, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” The New Living Translation reads, “...in order to fill the whole universe with himself”. In the English Standard Version, we read: “... that he might fill all things.”
There is the humorous story of a Zen Master visiting New York City, who goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything." The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where’s my change?" asks the Zen master. The vendor responds, "Change must come from within."
Paul’s reference to the Risen Christ in Ephesians 4:10 is that the Risen Christ is now, on could say, one with everything, filling all things, and if we are to encounter the Risen Christ ourselves, the one whose presence fills the universe, then a change needs to come from within, a change of heart, a change of mind, a change in the spirit of our minds as he says in Eph 4:23, and when that inner change takes place, then we will discover the mystery of Christ’s presence in all of life, in every moment of every day filling all things. As the old gospel classic poetically and metaphorically suggests we will discover that “He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own.”
And so may God bless us on this Resurrection Sunday. May a change come within each of us, in our hearts, and in our minds, a change in the spirit of our minds, that like the Apostle Paul we will come to know the Presence and the Spirit of the Risen Christ filling all things and thus to discover that there is no-where we can go where Christ is not already present. And when the perishable kingdoms of this world seem fragile and fading, may we become aware of a realm or a Kingdom that is eternal, uncreated, and imperishable. Amen.