While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good
The Apostle Paul lived in a world of philosophy. He was surrounded by all those Greek philosophies that we learn about as things from the past. He would have understood the need to present a logical argument for anything he claimed, or his culture would not have taken him seriously.
That feels rather different from now, when people seem to be prepared to do things and make claims with fairly flimsy justifications, and not much logic in some cases.
Paul had a profound personal spiritual experience that turned him into a follower of Jesus. He had a vision of the risen Christ as Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians. In the vision he saw Jesus and Jesus spoke to him. The experience left him temporarily blind and some kind and welcoming Christians in Damascus took him in and taught him while he healed.
That’s the kind of thing you expect from a spiritual revelation: it’s dramatic, and deeply moving. Paul mentions it in one of his letters and his friend Luke tells an expanded version in the book of Acts.
But look at what Paul does in today’s lesson. He is putting forward a logical argument based in his personal experience. He is making connections between the specific and the general and he challenges those who deny a resurrection. With his certainty that Jesus was resurrected – he saw it with his own eyes in a vision, after all – the argument is straightforward: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus cannot have been raised. So, because Jesus was obviously raised, then the resurrection of the dead must happen.
There are some logical challenges here. You could argue that Jesus was a special case and that becomes an even more powerful argument if you accord Jesus a special status, like John’s gospel does.
But Paul is pretty clear about believing in the humanity of Jesus. He doesn’t elevate him the way John does and he clearly considers that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. In terms of the resurrection, what works for Jesus works for all of us.
Don’t get hung up on the word resurrection here. Paul wasn’t concerned about a physical, bodily resurrection. He believed in a resurrection into God’s presence, not all that different than what we might call “going to heaven”. The medieval artistic grimness that imagined people coming out of their graves to reassemble their bodies would have been utter nonsense to Paul.
Paul was being driven by something mystical, something spiritual, and it is clear from his argument in this lesson that he considers it so central to Christianity that without it everything falls apart.
Contrast this with our lesson from Luke: it is part of what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount, and today’s lesson includes a lot of the Beatitudes and some matching woes to go with the blessings.
The pattern of “Blessed are they” balanced with “Woe unto them” is pretty traditional. You can see it in our Psalm reading and even in the verses surrounding our call to worship from Jeremiah. If you look at those verses you will see an accursed tree that is not planted by the water that represents the people who don’t turn to God.
The point here is that these blessings (and curses) reflect another aspect of our faith. In the United Church there is a strong social justice ministry and it is motivated by passages like these; passages that focus on balancing out an unjust world; that focus our faith on the good we can do here and now.
For many, if you’re concentrating on helping others, if you’re fighting the good fight to change the world, you don’t have a lot of time or energy to worry about what happens after this life because this life has enough challenges to keep us busy.
The two approaches to faith aren’t mutually exclusive, but people do seem to be drawn more to one or the other. It has been like this for centuries. My sermon title even comes from one version of it, where a person might be criticized for being “so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly good.”
For myself, I believe we need to have both in our lives. We need that practical side of our faith to make things better, to do the concrete things that our scriptures have been telling us are improvements for millennia.
And we need the mystical side: that passionate, irrational calling; that sense of vision that lifts us beyond the bounds of this life and spurs us on to bigger thoughts; inspires us to do things that will live beyond us.
Paul felt the need to subject that part of things to a philosophic study; to use the tools of logic that filled his world; to examine the possibilities that his vision opened to him. But you notice that he never questioned that deep, personal experience that he had. He embraced it. It was the foundation of the rest of his life and led him to spread Christianity throughout the Greek-speaking world.
That was the fire that burned within him, but a lot of the people he attracted – the “righteous gentiles” who were attached to local synagogues – were people who found Judaism attractive
because of its emphasis on justice; because of its focus on a righteous lifestyle and the fair treatment of others. In other words, they had been attracted to Judaism because of the practical aspects of the faith.
We would do well to remember that 2000 years later, both of these elements are still with us.
We are called to live our lives in a faithful way, which includes the way we treat others, the way we try to change the institutions of our world, the way we try to lift everyone up and treat everyone as beloved children of God. Being kind, generous, just, loving, hopeful will be attractive to people, especially right now as folks are wondering about the meaning of their lives and looking for a way of living that matters.
But people are also looking for deeper meaning and our faith offers that spiritual dimension. We don’t always agree on exactly how it works and we’ve had lively debates for 2000 years as to what life after this one might look like. And we’re still not agreeing.
The gospels record Jesus arguing with the Scribes about this. Paul was having the same argument a decade or so later and it is still happening today. I’m good with that. It shows we have a healthy faith.
We live in a world where some of the big questions about life and death are avoided because people are afraid of them, but we are not. We can even live with the understanding that some mysteries won’t be solved in this lifetime, but we are willing to discuss them. We are open to the possibilities.
We share a faith that calls us to balance: so let us keep room in our lives for the spiritual and the mundane; the abstract and the concrete; the urgent needs and the meditative questions.
We are called to both, and one should never push out the other. Amen.