Leap for Christ’s Sake:
A Meditation on Physics, Cosmology, and Human Life
(Insights from the Gospel According to John)
1 Kings 8.1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
and John 6.56-69
1. Scientific leaps that changed everything
In the late seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton sat under an apple tree in the garden of his manor in northeast, England. An apple fell to the ground. Suddenly an insight came to him about the nature of gravity, and science leapt forward into a new era of inquiry.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein found himself wandering aimlessly around Pavia, Italy. He’d quit his studies in Germany and was living with his father, an engineer, who was installing Italy’s first power generators on the Padua plains. His meandering meditations opened his mind to a vision entirely new, a vision that he would later develop into his General Theory of Relativity.
Newton’s insight into the nature of gravity leapt beyond what anyone had thought before. Einstein’s insight into relativity and the nature of Nature was another sweeping leap that pushed science forward once again—each leap moving us further in the ongoing and evolving process of understanding life, the world, and the universe we find ourselves in.
What we read in what’s called the Gospel According to John is another such leap, though it happened much earlier.
Unlike the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of John begins more scientifically than it does historically. The first line of the Gospel reads: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That may not sound like science to us today, but it was a form of science two thousand years ago when it was written. It was science and philosophy and theology all rolled into one. Back then, a university would never have relegated these disciplines to separate departments, different faculty. And, I believe, neither will we some day in the future.
“All things came into being through the Word,” the Gospel says, “and without the Word, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in the Word was life and that life was the light of all people.”
It’s an ancient text that’s trying to make sense of reality—science and philosophy and theology overlapping. The author’s glimpsed something as big, as revolutionary, as epic as what Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein saw, something that changes everything.
Trouble is, as with other breakthroughs, the vision would be met with enormous skepticism, hostility, and rejection.
2. A leap requires a massive change of mind
The Gospel of John begins with a first century mediation on physics and cosmology—“All things came into being in the Word and without the Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being . . . is light and life.”
“All things,” that’s cosmology. “Light and life,” that’s physics.
Then in the sixth chapter of John we have an extended meditation on food and bodies and the nature of Nature—the sacred nature of all matter. The Gospel frames all this by using the symbolism of the Christian sacrament of “Holy Communion”. In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus has fed the crowds, and now they want more of the bread he gave them. But Jesus knows it’s just bread, and he’s not interest in just feeding them; he wants to transform them. To Jesus, the bread is a symbol for a mystery that’s beyond anything they’ve know up to now. And so, to move them into this transforming vision, he talks to them in riddles about flesh and blood and eternal life. But they misunderstand his riddles. They think he’s speaking literally, and disgusted by these riddles about eating flesh and drinking blood, they walk away.
“This stuff’s weird, crazy . . . who can accept it?”
“If you think this is crazy,” says Jesus, “if you can’t see through these riddles to what they’re trying to help you see, you’ll never go where you need to go to taste the abundance of life God has for you.”
The Gospel writer tells us that “many turned back and no longer followed him.” The shift of soul, the change of mind he required of them was too much for them.
3. Jesus made such a leap
In 1962, the UC Berkeley philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, published his landmark book, Structures of Scientific Revolutions. In the vastly influential book, he mapped the way every step forward in the evolution of science required a paradigm shift, breaking with old orthodoxies, and facing skepticism, hostility, and rejection by those faithful to the old paradigm. The same thing happens whenever there are leaps in philosophy, theology, and the arts . . . whenever there’s change—try moving a couch in your mother’s home and see what happens!
In art, for example, the artistic expression of Monet’s way of painting women gave way to Cezanne’s vision, which, in turn, gave way to Picasso’s. At each step along the way, the new art form was despised by the old until it became the new orthodoxy. The new was, in turn, overturned by what came next, and so on down the line. This is the law of evolution. What’s new comes from the old; then what’s new is never well received by what it replaces. No wonder Jesus was put to death. He challenged the orthodoxy of the day and pointed the way into a new era.
This evolutionary path is still unfolding and requires us to remain open to the new things the Spirit is unfolding in our time.
The Bible also maps this unfolding, this evolution of thought and spiritual experience. In the text from First Kings, for instance, we have the story of an early transition from one orthodoxy to another. King Solomon is changing things, shifting the location of God’s house from the highly portable “ark of the covenant” to the King's newly built temple in Jerusalem. Don’t think for a moment that such a movement wasn’t opposed. There were hardliners who felt that if God in a small portable box—the ark of the covenant—was good enough for Moses it was good enough for them. Putting God inside a large permanent, gilded temple was just plain wrong in their eyes. It took a king, with the military behind him, to make the change. From that point on, God would no longer dwell in a cedar box that could be carried out onto the battle field, guaranteeing God’s presence, intimidating opponents, and inspiring courage in battle. God was now in the Temple, in the city of Jerusalem, making it a sacred place and guaranteeing that God was for this particular people and this particular political regime. This kind of thinking is behind so many of the problems we still face in the Middle East.
In people’s minds, God stayed there in the Temple for centuries—until Jesus came along. In the second chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the holy city of Jerusalem and enters this temple. He makes a big scene. We’re told he “cleansed the Temple”. Making a whip, he chased the sacrificial sheep and the cattle out of the temple; he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves for sacrifice, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” Jesus was ushering in a new era. The old was passing, the new was coming.
When the authorities challenged him, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They said, “You’re crazy!” But, the text tells us, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” He was speaking symbolically, not literally.
Jesus was overturning an old orthodoxy—that God’s favored dwelling place was the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was erecting something new: that the dwelling place of God was no longer (if it ever was!) in a building belonging to a particular people. The dwelling place of God was now in flesh and blood.
Jesus was birthing a paradigm shift, an evolutionary leap in the world’s understanding of God, the world, and our place in the universe. And like other breakthroughs it was met with skepticism, hostility, and rejection. Jesus was killed. But some people got it. God was out of the box and there was no putting God back inside such cramped quarters.
4. We must leap too
Two thousand years later, our reading of the Gospel of John invites us to take another leap. The time is at hand. Without this leap, religion, and particularly Christianity, will become increasingly irrelevant to what the world needs from people of faith if humanity is to survive the future.
The paradigm shift we need now is the shift from a human focus to a cosmic focus for God’s attention and affection. Just as King Solomon moved the dwelling place of God from a highly mobile cedar box called the ark of the covenant to the Temple in Jerusalem, and just as Jesus moved the dwelling place of God from the Temple in Jerusalem to the temple of his own body, and just as the Holy Spirit moved the dwelling place of God from the body of the resurrected Jesus to the bodies of all those who called themselves the church, so we too must leap forward once again and follow the path of this unfolding revelation toward its fullness.
“All things,” says the Gospel of John, “came into being in the Word and without the Word not one thing came into being.” God is in and through and with “All things.” “All things,” all matter, is what matters to God.
When Jesus spoke in riddles here in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, this sacredness of all matter is what mattered to Jesus, and this sacredness of all matter is what those around him could not yet see. But we must. The vision of Holy Communion in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel urges us to expand our vision of Communion beyond something shared just between us here in this sanctuary or between Christians or even between human beings. To speak of Christ, incarnate, is to speak of the Divine presence that was at the beginning, is now here, and is fully pressed into every particle of matter, every part of Nature. “All things” are alive with the Divine.
Christianity (like the other major world religions) was formed by a consciousness that put human beings at the center of all things. That’s understandable. Before the modern era of science, human beings had no way of knowing that their existence on Earth is remarkably recent. Only in the last several hundred years have we come to understand that the planet is not flat, that it’s not young, that it’s not a lonely planet, but is, instead, part of a vast expanding universe of billions upon billions of stars and galaxies and planets. What’s more we’ve come to realize that human life on the planet is just a blip on the 4.7 billion year timeline of this planet; our existence on Earth is so brief it wouldn’t even appear on the 13.7 billion year timeline of the universe.
We didn’t know this until recently. Until a couple hundred years ago, we thought human beings had always been here and because we had always been here, we were obviously meant to rule, dominate, and use or abuse whatever we wanted.
But we now know that if we are to survive, we must find a new way of being human and of being part of this vast expanding universe.
We Christians can help. We can carry forward the vision of the Gospel and help humanity make the leap from living in competition with other things to living in communion with all other things; we can emerge from the hubris that assumes we are superior to everything to a humility before the divinity in every other thing; we can turn from exploiting everything to participating with every other thing because, the Gospel tells us, God dwells in “All things” no less than God dwells in us.
5. We must do it now
This last year, Gina Anderson did something to carry this vision forward. Gina sits in the balcony with her husband, Brent, and her three small children. A few years ago she was an administrator at Jesuit High School in Sacramento. She helped organize a conference that had something to do with Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, “On Care for Our Common Home,” which, incidentally, was our congregation’s study book during Lent several years ago.
At the conference, she heard one of the speakers say, “If you want to help the earth, one of the single most powerful acts you can do is right under your nose—grow food locally. Grow food, educate people about why food sourcing matters, and find ways to distribute food locally grown to local people.”
Last spring she quit her job and started an urban farm in Sacramento. She calls it “Sowing Solidarity.” Through sustainable farming practices, ecological education, local distribution, and charitable giving, she’s helping us make the leap we all need to make.
She’s not alone, others among us are doing similar things: Hope Sippola, Jen Rogge, Steve Theg, Gail Feenstra, Juan Carlos Guarjardo, and Ann Evans, to name only a few, are signs of this change. They’re all deeply engaged in caring for the earth; they’re farmers, scientists, educators, and advocates for finding ways for us to live in greater harmony with the universe around us. Ann, for example, is the visionary behind Davis’ Village Feast in Central Park on Saturday, September 29th. The Village Feast supports the vision of Davis’ Farm to School program and provides garden grants, farm field trips for kids, and supports farm fresh food in public schools.
What can you do?
What are you already doing?
How can you lean more deeply into the Gospel’s vision, helping move us from a destructive sense of competition with other things to a sense of communion in all other things? How can you help us move from the hubris of humanity that assumes we’re superior to everything to a humility before the divinity in every other thing? How can you help us leap from a habit of exploitation to the practice of participation in “All things.”
Christianity can do this. We must do this. And we must do it now, for Christ’s sake.