2 Corinthians 5:7, 16-18a
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 9, 2018
Could we be fooling ourselves about what we think we are experiencing in our spiritual life?
Sure we could.
Could we be wrong in acting certain about the reality of God and of a world beyond this one?
Sure we could.
We Christians believe, but we don’t yet know beyond the shadow of a doubt – as we know, say, that 2+2=4, or as we will one day know when God makes all things manifestly clear and faith, needless. But that day is not yet here, and in these days we still must, if we are to believe at all, believe in the face of a lot of unknowing.
Though Christians know that there is so much we don’t know and that doubt is always possible, we choose to live by faith. We dare to hope that what we believe is true and to stake our lives on that hope. We bravely take the risks of faith because it has worked wonders for us, and because we have reason enough to doubt our doubts. We see how our present level of knowledge does not compel faith but it does permit faith. Without being proven, it is still reasonable to believe the invisible is the more substantial reality, the elusive the more enduring reality, and the untouchable the more potent reality.
A good number of scientists have come to admit how little we know about even the physical world. Physicists, for example, often speak of more dimensions to physical reality than the three of which we normally think: height, depth and width.
It is hard, if not impossible, for us to conceive what another dimension might be like. But the hypothesis of there being one explains much, and works well for us.
We people of faith have always believed in another dimension to reality beyond the physical. Believing in it explains much, and works wonders for us.
An imaginative analogy might help us understand the situation. I borrow it from an 1884 book called Flatland, inspired by the essays of mathematician Charles Howard Hinton, and written by Edwin A. Abbott. The book depicts a two-dimensional world called “Flatland”. Its inhabitants move in the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west, but not up or down. They have no notion of what “up” and “down” even mean. They know each other solely in terms of geometrical shape, and measure one another by height and width without any idea of depth. People are squares, lines and such.
One Flatlander encounters a reality that suggests there’s more than just two dimensions to being. A Visitor from another world visits his smaller and more limited world. At the start, the Flatlander says, the visitation feels “mystical”, as he becomes aware of a presence of which he cannot quite make sense. He first notices, out of nowhere, a single point, but one that grows into a circle whose circumference changes in size. That is because the Visitor is a three-dimensional sphere bisecting his flat, two-directional world. The Visitor tells the puzzled Flatlander, “I am many Circles in one,” which at first tempts the Flatlander to dismiss the Visitor’s reality as palpable nonsense but which eventually dislodges him from his narrow and false conviction about the restrictions for existence. His encounter with the Sphere shows him a new quality of existence, of being “upward, and yet not northward”, something he previously thought impossible. He cannot completely conceive the reality of the Sphere, but he comes to admit that his incapacity does not justify a denial of its reality.
Christians believe that God dwells in dimensions beyond our present powers of perception and conception; and yet, in Jesus the God-Man, He came down into our world that we might know God truly if not fully. God ultimately remains outside the limits of our comprehension; and yet, being present within our world, He injects the more complex into the simpler, the higher into the lower, and the transcendent into the mundane.
In that injection God also imparts possibilities of the perception or a reality that exceeds the reach and grasp of our natural faculties of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight. God gives us a gift for discerning which we can’t give ourselves. That’s why Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This is hard to get our heads around. So consider another analogy. Suppose that you were born with no ears so that you can taste, smell, feel and see, but not hear. You might feel something of the reality of music in the rhythmic vibrations with which your flesh would be touched should some music be played loudly. Yet, you still could not apprehend, let alone appreciate, the world of sound all that much. You might even dismiss sound as a mere fanciful construct of over-wrought imaginations.
Of course, if you were humble and open, you might be shaken out of your dogmatic denial and moved toward agnosticism at least, upon observing how some people appear to apprehend words without seeing them in writing and how some normally honest people swear they pick up words by means other than taste, smell, feel or sight. On the other hand, you might explain it all away by supposing they’re simply more adept than you in making full use of the four senses you know.
Nothing is proven. So we just choose to believe, or not. Many of us choose to believe with all our heart and soul and mind and strength – and to believe with such risk-taking courage that we put our lives on the line in trust that what we believe is, while unproven, true.
Part of what Christians have always believed is that, when people give over their lives to Jesus, He the God-Man puts into them unprecedented potential for new character and conduct. If God is, as the Bible says, a God for whom nothing is impossible, we have reason to doubt our doubts about even the worst people. Though we might have before thought them forever locked into the limitations imposed by their past history, their present environment, and the future improbability of change, God reminds us He can do anything. Why He can even make the dead alive again!
The Apostle Paul here confesses that he once viewed Jesus as a nobody when Jesus is in fact the highest and best somebody. He says he now knows better; he now no longer regards Jesus “from a human point of view”.
Because he now regards Jesus from a better perspective, Paul can also no longer regard any mere mortal from just a “human point of view”. Though someone messes up repeatedly and indicates no capacity for improvement – if they live within the divine dimension – all bets are off about who they will end up becoming. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation!” Such a person has supernatural possibilities from the God for whom nothing is too hard.
Paul walks by faith, not by sight; Paul regards people by faith, not by sight. Thus, he can write off no one as a lost cause; see no one as too hard a nut for God to crack; view no one as someone who can’t be made new. The change may not yet be much visible; but behind the possibility is the One who is more substantial and powerful than all visible things!
Let us believe in the divine dimension and thus in each other’s ongoing development in Christ. Let us pray.