by Daniel Harrell
As I turn out the lights on my sermon series on light this Sunday and next, among the things I’m sad about going dark are these occasions to use quantum physics as sermon illustrations. I’m sure you’ll miss that too. Not that I really know anything about quantum physics, but among its novelties is this notion called “photon entanglement.” If two distinct particles of light, photons, enter a state of entanglement—and there’s a few ways to do that—each photon then loses its individual identity and acts with the other as a single unified system. Any change to one is mimicked immediately by the other, whether the particles are next to each other, or get this, even if they are light-years apart. It’s like particle voodoo. There is nothing analogous to this in the physical reality we personally experience. It’d be like you getting a mosquito bite down in Florida with me feeling the itch here in Minneapolis. I scratch and you feel better. With quantum entanglement, a photon of light cannot move without the other moving too. It’s so radically at odds with our everyday way of viewing the world that Einstein himself pronounced it “spooky.”
The apostle John asserts that “God is light.” Applying quantum entanglement as analogy, this might help explain the interplay of the Trinity. By virtue of their entanglement, Father, Son and Holy Ghost (in keeping with Einstein’s designation of “spooky’), cannot exist in isolation. When one moves, so do the others. The Son does not act outside the will of the Father. The Holy Ghost does only as Jesus does. Jesus acts as Creator, the Father suffers the cross and the Holy Ghost walks in human flesh. Spooky indeed. The Bible affirms all of this. And not only this, but Jesus goes on to say that believers are entangled with the Trinity too. John uses the word koinonia in this morning’s passage, which while normally translated as fellowship meaning coffee and bagels after church, can also be translated participation meaning “a part of.” As followers of Jesus filled with the Ghost, we are participants in the life of the Trinity. We are a part of the divine existence. We are one with God and with each other too.
Spooky again. In John’s gospel, Jesus prayed for as much when he asked “that they (meaning us) may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that … they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” in us. That’s as entangled as it gets. This is why the Bible says of the church, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” even if we’re light years apart.
Now to say God is light is not to say God is a photon—even though photon is the word John uses here. The ancients understood light as analogous to God’s glory and presence, his righteousness and goodness and grace. Whether a wave or a particle, light is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, existing everywhere all at once while keeping the universe together. It is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing warmth, hope and beauty. To have koinonia with God is to walk in this hope, following the way of the Lord, a straight path in the right direction, fully able to see where you’re going.
To walk in darkness, by contrast, is to stumble and fall into sin and defiance. You can’t stumble and fall if you can see where you’re going. God is light, it’s impossible to have fellowship with him and still walk in the dark. You can’t be a follower of Jesus if you’re not following Jesus.
This being Super Bowl Sunday means that its time for a football illustration. Sports Illustrated ran a story on its cover this week asking whether God cares who wins the Super Bowl. I say clearly not since the Patriots are not in it. Then again, Jesus had a preference for losers. As even Sports Illustrated noted, “the Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong and the poor at the expense of the rich.” Not that that the Patriots can be described as poor. Neither weakness nor poverty are NFL values. Still, despite all the contradictions with holy Scripture, there are a lot of believers in the NFL, both players and coaches, both Ravens and 49ers. All those tattoos on 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s biceps? Bible verses. This despite Leviticus 19:28 which reads: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” (There’s actually a tattoo parlor on E. Lake St. called Leviticus Tattoo and Piercing)
Sports Illustrated recounted how “just 50 years ago [any] coziness between public Christianity and football would have seemed absurd.” Athletes were nobody's idea of good ambassadors for religion; they were more likely to be seen as dissolute drinkers and womanizers instead of devout. The aggressive, violent play preached by coaches of an earlier generation was accepted as natural precisely because sport was pagan, not Christian. Christianity was light: peaceful, charitable and pious. Sport was dark: savage, ruthless, impious. Now players regularly meet for Bible study on Wednesdays before pounding each other into a concussive stupor on Sunday. Praise the Lord. Churches will cancel services tonight so that believers can gather in alternative houses of worship around big screen altars over a communion of beer and buffalo wings. Lifeway sells a media kit you can play during halftime to lead your neighbors to Christ. $149.95. The Patriots chaplain attended my church in Boston. Once had a tight end preach the sermon during revival week. It was terrible, but who cared? He played for the Patriots. Touchdown Jesus. We make it work.
Among the most vocal of believers is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Tonight’s Super Bowl will be his last game in a Hall of Fame career. Lewis has definitely made it work for him. He is a passionate follower of the Prince of peace despite his violent play on the field, and his questionable behavior off. This past week it was deer antler spray—whatever that is—sold to him by a brother in the Lord. Thirteen years ago it was accessory to double murder outside an Atlanta nightclub to which Lewis pleaded guilty in exchange for his testimony. “My mom taught me to put my complete faith in God,” Lewis recently said. “You talk about the walk of Jesus… that’s what my life is based on.”
Asked which biblical figure he most closely identified with, without hesitation Ray Lewis cited King David. A flawed yet righteous stone cold giant-slayer with a heart for God, King David abused his power to commit both murder and rape. Exposed by a prophet, David confessed his sin and rose from disgrace to grace, blessed by God and made things right. Ray Lewis’s identification with David demonstrates that he understands the moral ramifications of being involved in an event in which two young men lost their lives. Lewis does not make a habit of publicly talking about that fateful night, but his life afterwards, whether or not he acknowledges it, has been a testament to redemption and atonement, making the most of a second opportunity. Observers attest that Lewis has become a force for good in the community and a strong mentor to younger players in a billion-dollar football culture rife with temptation toward sin and corruption.
John writes that “If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” And yet we all know it is possible to walk in the light and still stumble and fall. Believers in Jesus do unbelievably dumb things. Dark things. Hurtful things. Harmful things. We are living contradictions. “Light has come into the world,” Jesus declared in John’s gospel, “and people loved darkness rather than light because they did not want their evil deedsexposed." "If we say we have no sin we rationalize, we minimize, we deny, we deceive ourselves.” God’s light that illumines the straight path also shines a glare on the detours we choose. The difference is in how we respond to the exposure.
To do right in God’s sight is to walk the righteous path of obedience and love and grace. But here’s the thing: when we stumble and fall off the path, we can still do right by making it right in God’s sight. Again, John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, we make God a liar and the truth is not in us. But if in the light we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To repent is to participate in resurrection. To say “I have sinned” is also the right thing to do. God’s light exposes our wrongness so we can walk straight. That’s how it worked for King David. And how it worked for Moses and Peter and Paul and linebacker Ray Lewis too. Confession is good for the soul.
So why is it so hard to do? Ironically, part of the problem is that being wrong rarely feels like being wrong. More often than not, being wrong feels like being right.And it’s because we love the feeling of being right so much that we fail so often at relationships and at ever knowing the truth. I remember once doing some marriage counseling with a couple where the husband eagerly listed the reasons he and his wife were at odds: she didn’t understand me, she misinterpreted the situation, her expectations are too high, she’s being unreasonable. Might there yet be any other reason for their conflict? I asked. Sure, he added, “she didn’t hear me right, she disregards my feelings (most men would never say that), she’s stubborn, she refuses to compromise.” I suggested that there may be one other possible reason he was leaving out him. He genuinely had no idea what I meant. I suggested that, maybe, he was wrong. He looked as if he had deer antlers. Caught by the light. Completely nonplused. His being wrong had never crossed his mind.
Which is why confession of sin gets scheduled into communion services. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It’s such a small price to pay given the enormity of the benefits. Confession is not only good for the soul but is essential for relationship with God and each other. The communion table is a koinonia table, an emblem of our oneness with God and each other: one cup, one loaf, one faith, one Body. It is a participation in Trinitarian life as God’s people. John writes how “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin,” but to eat and drink Christ is even more than taking away sin. We take on Jesus’ life as our life. We have fellowship with God. We are filled with the Ghost. We get entangled with Christ.
Being cleansed by blood marked Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, something his Jewish disciples gathered around that Last Supper table would have understood. They’d taken part in the ritual of sacrificing animals and shedding blood to atone for their sins. They were taught that the wages of sin are death and that life is in blood and blood pays for death and life atones for life. Jesus’ disciples understood blood as sacrifice. What they would have never understood was blood as dinner beverage. Jews aren’t even allowed to touch blood, and here’s Jesus saying drink it? Talk about spooky. But this is the point. More than atonement as taking away sin, Jesus adds the idea of atonement as taking on life. The Holy Ghost gets inside us. Jesus explained that once resurrected, his disciples would finally realize that “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Jesus’ blood shed for us is Jesus’ life in us. John speaks of it as “the truth in us” and “the word in us” by which he means Jesus in us—in all of us together as members of one entangled body. We have fellowship with God. We are entangled with Christ. We walk in the light.
“If we walk in the light as Jesus himself is in the light, we have fellowship with God and one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” The word for cleanse is catharsis. There’s real power in that. To say “I was wrong,” to say “I have sinned” and mean it opens us up to that power. John knew it. Moses, Peter and Paul and King David knew it. You know it, I know it. Ray Lewis knows it too.