Jesus: Catalyst of God

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/26/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Romans 8:12-17 & John 3:1-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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This morning, with these scriptures we’ve heard, I’m thinking about physics. I’m thinking about chemical reactions. I’m thinking about black holes and alchemy. I’m thinking of the transfer of energy to matter, and matter to energy. I’m thinking about transformation, in a very concrete and literal sense.

Both of our scripture readings this morning – Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans, and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in the Gospel of John – point to a profound energy transfer, a profound state change that is taking place in our universe. Both of these passages are apocalyptic, in the original sense of the word: They unveil the truth of what is really happening in the world, right under our noses. They uncover the world behind the world, the physics that underlie our entire existence.

When Paul writes to the Romans and says, “All who are led by the Spirit are children of God,” and when John writes that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit – you must be born from above,” we are being given a glimpse into the way our cosmos really works.

For the Jews of Jesus’ day, there was an assumption of a profound separation between God and humans. God was so other and holy that human beings couldn’t ever see God; only a select few could even receive messages from him. For those of us who now live in the brackish waters of modernity and post-modernity, the assumption is generally that there is no separation at all between God and man, because God is not relevant: The physical world is all there is; the only religious wars left to fight are ones about human ideologies and material resources. “God” is just another word for power games.

The words of Paul and John in our scripture readings this morning challenge both of these worldviews. Paul tells us that we are children of God, that God has adopted us. We receive this adoption through the Spirit of God. This adoption is not automatic; it requires action. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” We must be led.

John speaks to us through a dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish elder Nicodemus. Jesus tells us that we must be “born from above” – born of water and spirit. He tells us the reason that God entered into the world, the reason he sent his only begotten son, Jesus, to become a man and live as one of us – fully one of us: God did this because he so loves the world. Jesus tells us that God did not send him into the world to condemn the world but to save it through him.

To save it through him. What does it mean for the world to be saved through Jesus? So many modern Christians, wedded as we have been to flattened, two-dimensional, materialist visions of the cosmos, have interpreted Jesus’ mode of salvation as being one of intellectual assent. In order to be “saved” by Jesus, many have taught that one must say particular words and believe particular statements – that this is what salvation consists of.

But that’s not the sense that either Paul’s letter to the Romans nor John’s gospel give us. Neither of these writers speak of God’s salvation in terms of an intellectual decision. Paul and John speak in terms of incarnation, in terms of birth, in terms of adoption into a family. If the modernist/Evangelical view of salvation is that God saves us when we sign a contract with him, the scriptural view is something closer to God saving us when we little babies are left on the doorstep of his orphanage and he chooses to take us in, because he loves us.

Now, just like a little baby, as we grow up we have the freedom to diverge from our adoptive father, who so loved us and brought us into his household. Like the younger child in the story of the Prodigal Son, we can choose to walk away from our family and live in selfish isolation. But the original action is God’s adoption, always God’s adoption. The bedrock reality of our life in this world is God’s love for us, and the open door that is always there for us.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God gave his only son. John says that God sent the Son into the world, so that the world might be saved through him.

This is where I’ve been reflecting a lot. What does it mean that God sends Jesus? What does it mean that God gives us Jesus? What does it mean for us to receive the birth from above, the adoption into God’s family? What does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God?

And again, it’s got me in a physical sciences headspace. When I consider the fact of the incarnation, the birth of God as a human being, I’m thinking about chemistry and chain reactions. That’s the metaphor that makes the most sense to me. It’s as if Jesus’ incarnate presence in the world catalyzed a chain reaction, percolating throughout the cosmos. The universe has changed. The rules of the game are now different. Because of the incarnation. Because of the resurrection. Because of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us can now be grafted into Jesus, the True Vine. We can become like him, connected to the Father. We can become children of God.

Quakers have traditionally referred to Christ as “the Seed”, following Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:16, that the true “seed” of Abraham is the person of Jesus. This is another metaphor for who Jesus is, and what he accomplishes in our world; it’s one that resonates with the metaphor of a catalyst, because seeds grow and multiply and change the world. We can think of Jesus as the ultimate seed, planted in the cosmos and bearing fruit. This seed grows into a plant that bears fruit in us, making us into little seeds ourselves, which God is raising up as fruit-bearing plants in a new garden.

A catalyst. A seed. A wind that blows where it will. A birth from above, of water and spirit, that makes us children of God. So many metaphors that shine light on an event, on a reality that goes beyond human comprehension. I find myself marveling at it, at the power of the resurrection – this singularity that lies now at the heart of all things, and is fundamentally transforming our cosmos. This is what lies underneath.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart.” This morning I’m thinking about that line between good and evil. I’m thinking about the space in the human person where that line runs. I’m thinking about the heart, the core of a human being – a place that I experience in my breath.

Jesus stands in that space. Jesus awaits us within, on the interior battlefield between good and evil. Within each one of us lies this singularity, the Seed of Abraham, the resurrected Jesus. There, at the line dividing all our contradictions and conflicts, the Seed speaks into the darkness and shines the light of God.

This is the reality that early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay experienced, centuries ago, when he attended a Quaker meeting for worship where the Spirit of God was powerful and active: When we encounter that Seed within, when we find the power of the resurrection in the very core of our being, we discover who we really are. We find the evil within us weakened, and the good raised up.

This is the gospel that we preach. This is the core of the Quaker tradition: The resurrection of Jesus is within each one of us. The Vine is within. The Seed is within. The line within each person that divides good from evil can be broken down. The whole of us can be bathed in light.

At the center of every person there is a torn curtain. There is an empty tomb. There is a spirit that blows wherever it wants to. It blows in us.