The sermon from Sunday, August 4.
August 4, 2013
Last month, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science approved the publication of a report entitled, “A functional genomic perspective on human well-being.” Its primary author is Barbara Fredrickson a psycho-physiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her team of researchers. I wasn’t able to get my hands on the actual study but, I’m going to keep trying. And then get someone to explain it to me. Emily Esfahani Smith of The Atlantic Monthly summarized the research so, I’m indebted to her for this explanation
The research looked at the difference between happiness and meaningfulness at the cellular level. They defined happiness in terms of feelinggood. They defined meaning in terms of being connected to something bigger than yourself and helping others. People self-reported their feelings of happiness and the levels of meaning in their lives and then the team of researchers looked at what their cells were doing.
You see each of the cells in your body has the same genetic code. Your blood cells have the same genetic code as your skin cells. Something within your body triggers the genes in your blood cells causing the blood cells to act like—blood cells. And something triggers your skins cells to act like skins cells. That’s internal. But external conditions can also cause your body to trigger the genes of your cells to react differently. If you have a freckle, you know what I mean. All of your skin cells have been instructed by your body to function the same way—as skin cells. But something has caused a different trait to be expressed—that the pigment of the skin should be darker in the region of the freckle than in the area surrounding it. The cells have different genomic reactions to circumstances.
So the researchers wanted to know, what was the impact of happiness and the impact of meaning on a person’s immune system. What they found is pretty remarkable. Apparently, when a person experiences “Happiness without meaning characterize[d]” by “a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life,” their bodies react at the cellular level in the same way as people who are grieving or going through adversity. Smith writes, “Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.” By contrast, people who report having meaning in their lives—caring for someone or something other than just themselves, have genomic patterns that are healthier. My older brother has a PhD in biology. I actually had to call him to reach even this cursory understanding of the summary. And he would remind me not to make too much out of just a single study. But, you gotta know that when legitimate scientists provide biological evidence that one of them major teachings of the New Testament teaching is actually, physically healthy for you, some preacher somewhere in America is going to exploit the research in his sermon on Sunday morning. I can just hear him now—the God who designed you at the very cellular level of your being is the same God who commands you to love your neighbor. Why? Because God knows how you are made and knows what is best for you.
Obviously in the best circumstances, a person has both happiness and a sense of meaning. There are people with both happiness and meaning. But there are people—you know them—who have a lot of meaning in their life but not a lot of happiness. We’d think that there’s relatively few people who report having just happiness. However, perhaps the most startling finding in the study Smith reported was this—75% of the participants in the study reported having a high level of happiness and a low degree of meaning.
I wish we could say that this imbalance of pleasure-seeking and meaningfulness only occurs in scientific research participants. But sadly many Christians could be characterized the same way—they desire happiness but eschew meaning. Many Christians believe that the purpose of faith, the church, the fellowship of saints, and indeed the purpose of God God’s self is to enable their pursuit of happiness. We see this in those who think that the reason for redemption is to provide a means for us to reach heaven—and that’s it. Their theology of the cross could be summed up as follows: Jesus died on the cross to give a ticket to the greatest party ever. The greatest act of selflessness the world has ever known gets distorted into a mechanism of selfishness-it seems, at the very cellular level of the person.
As the letter of Colossians comes to a close, Paul begins to address this question about the reason for our redemption. It is bound to Christ’s own death, burial and resurrection but Christ’s own death, burial and resurrection. In Christ’s death-burial and resurrection. God was reclaiming you for God’s self. As the dean of African American preaching, Gardner Taylor would say, “God is out to get back what belongs to him.” (“The Sweet Torture of Sunday Morning, Terry Muck and Paul Robbins,Leadership, Summer 1981). When Jesus Christ died on the cross, God acted to get back what belongs to him. But it was more than just that. The death, burial and resurrection is God’s for model the human pursuit of meaning. “You have been raised with Christ . . . you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Death, burial (hiddenness) and resurrection these serve as the patterns of the Christian life. God had a purpose be enacted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that purpose was your redemption.
There’s a confessional move that must happen before that happens in any one person’s life. They have to say, “yes” to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. God is out to get back what belongs to him but God grants freedom and so we have a choice about whether to acknowledge our belonging or not. And here’s the remarkable thing that happens when people say yes. God begins to work in that person’s life making them internally new. God’s Spirit cultivates within the believer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. Even here, though, it involves our participation. These characteristics are the genetic code embedded in the Christian life. Yet, we yield ourselves to that genetic code through the choices we make, the prayers we pray, the patterns of faithfulness we cultivate.
But just as that genetic structure responds to internal triggers in a particular way it also responds to external triggers. External triggers for the Christian come from at least three sources. One source is the Christian community surrounding the Christian—the local congregation to which we belong.
A second source is other Christians who belong to other congregations. The letters of the New Testament are windows into congregation’s needs. Read them closely and they offer vulnerable portraits of what a congregation was wrestling with and the way they worked toward solutions. The earliest set of letters in the New Testament were written to congregations—gatherings of believers in Rome, Corinth, Galtia—and most often addressed the needs of the whole congregation not the needs of individual Christians. The congregation’s needs were the needs of people trying to live together. The later set of letters were written to Christianity in general. These letters still addressed the needs of people trying to live together as a community of faith. Yet, these letters reflect the understanding that there is something as a whole church or the “whole body of Christ” that’s made up of believers in different locations and worshipping in different communities. In between these two points—the specific letters written to specific congregations and the general letters written to the whole church—there are letters like Colossians.
The letter to the Church in Colossae was clearly written to that specific congregation.
But Paul also indicates that they should share this letter with the congregation at Laodicea.
At the same time, they were to read the letter Paul wrote to the church in Laodicea (we don’t know where that letter is now; we have no copies)—Colossians 4:16
The point is the letter shows this emerging perception within early Christianity that they were connected to Christians beyond their local congregation.
It seems to me that this also reflects the development of Christians. Starting out Christians know the people right around them in their faith community—the people in their Sunday School class, the people in their ministry team or small group. But somewhere along the line they discover that there are other people who have the same depth of commitment to Christ that they have. These other Christians may look, talk, worship and believe quite different. The challenge of Christian faith at that point is this: can the Christian reach out and create a bridge or does the Christian retreat in judgmental isolation? That may all seem too extreme. Perhaps we could learn to follow the example Paul encouraged for the Church in Colossae—exchange letters. That is, try to understand the issues and problems that another group of Christian faces and understand the solutions they work out and be vulnerable enough to share the same realities existing for you.
So the Christian is called to respond externally to the Christians nearest them in their congregation, then to the people in other congregations, but finally, we are called to respond to those who live beyond the fellowship of Christ. And the question is how ought we live in relation to them? If we respond as we might on our own—we like the people we worship with, ignore the people who are Christian but different, and hate the people who aren’t Christian at all. But what spiritual genomic pattern gets expressed as we relate to these contexts when our spiritual genes emerge from Christ?
Our scripture reading contains what we call a vice catalog. The first time I read that phrase “vice catalog,” I was in seminary and getting pretty jaded by study and thought to myself—oh cool, there’s a catalog of vices. I remember being a kid and getting the JC Penny Catalog and circling the toys I wanted for Christmas. I wondered if we got a similar catalog of vices and got to go through it circling the ones we wanted. But notice these vices that are listed here. There are the sins we’d usually name–lust, greed, idolatry. But there are also those that destroy the lives we seek to live with one another—anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language. In terms of conduct, how you live with other people is as important to God as what you do to the life God has entrusted to your care. It concludes with a call to unity—In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” The terminus of Christian faith is bigger than our conduct. It includes our connections to others. The reason for redemption is to make you a savior of the servant, internally new and externally whole.
External wholeness comes through an attitude of life that sees other people in the light of Christ. Christ is all and is in all. In just a few weeks, we will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. King envisioned a world in which people could be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin and that is a noble dream indeed. But the vision provided for here is larger than that it is a vision that we as people of faith would not judge people at all. But rather see them as Christ seems them. See them the way God sees us when God looks on us through Christ. We see the people in our own congregation not as likeable or unlikable but in Christ. We see the people in other congregations not as radically different or basically similarly but in Christ. We see the people beyond the fellowship of the church not as filthy hoards in deserving exclusion. We see them through the eyes of Christ as those who, like us, God is out to get back.
External wholeness continues to unfold in a person’s life as they find ways to connect and relate meaningfully to people. We have a long list of ways we seek to be in service to our community. I’m proud of our record of service. But I wonder if between the school supplies we donate and the crock pots we prepare, do we have enough opportunities to truly interact with those we work to serve? There are indeed certain things that are triggered in us whenever we serve in any capacity but there is something much deeper that gets triggered in us when we are face to face with another person and we try to offer care to them directly.
External wholeness is an approach to the world around us that seeks to join in God’s reclaiming of what belongs to God. Not in harsh, coercive, heavy handed ways. But in redemptive, cruciform ways. Our lives get hidden in Christ, buried in the humility of his character and his willingness to die in order that others might live. This is the spiritual genetic code embedded in us. And when we cooperate and allow it to be expressed in our traits, it produces in us something much deeper than happiness. It produces joy. And the spiritual genomic expression pattern that becomes visible to others is one that looks like Christ.