Terrifying Freedom


In 1905 a Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein published in a few short months, four papers the ramifications of which he would spend the rest of his life untangling and which forever changed our world, not least of which because the nuclear possibilities inherent in his thought.

When I think about the inspiration involved, I always have a feeling of vertigo. Any one of these papers would have been enough to earn Einstein the Nobel prize in physics which he won in 1921, but to have four ideas of such magnitude in a few short months, to be able to condense them and publish them while toiling away in obscurity makes my brain hurt.

But whenever I think of one of the theories, I have another wave of vertigo. One of the papers that Einstein wrote lays out what has been called his special theory of relativity and sets aside any absolute theory of structure and movement in the universe. Every motion is measured in relation to a relative point, and this has dizzying ramifications for space and time.

Until Einstein, physicists had been tying themselves in knots attempting to create a grand unified scheme to describe motion across all of space and time.

Einstein simply cut through that Gordian knot with the simple assertion that all motion and movement is relative to whatever point you are using as a reference. It was a commonsensical and elegantly simple solution to a complex problem.Instead of Cartesian geometry and coordinates, and Newtonian physics, in which all motion is relative to two or three central axes, and which all seems so commonsensical to us, everything is relative to its frame of reference, and occurs in a kind of terrifying freedom which it is much harder to describe or predict, whose rules seem alien to us.

We have, in two of our readings today, a similar sense of terrifying freedom. From this letter written to the nascent Church in Galatia, we have a discussion of the freedom that is made ours in the coming of Jesus. Under the old system, "the Newtonian physics" of religion before Jesus came into the world, our relationship with the Creator was defined by a specific and complex set of interactions which hinged on our ability to maintain a strict set of rules and laws, and to atone for our sins through a sacrificial system, through a system of sacrifice and ritual cleansing and atonement.

This is the law given to Moses that the Gospel according to John speaks of this morning. The Law was given, and then in the fullness of time, the Word, the very being and core of God, enfleshed, comes into the world, and that system of law, atonement and sacrifice is fulfilled permanently, for God, taking on our flesh has destroyed the massive "otherness" between humanity and God, and pushed us out into the terrifying freedom and vertigo of the life of grace.

A funny thing happened when Einstein produced those four papers in a few short months. At first no one noticed, and then no one thought he was right, and finally no one could look at the world the same way. Even so with this magnificent event whose anniversary we celebrated this week.Jesus has come to be with us. God has come into the pain and struggle of human life, and in so doing, has redeemed it and made it beautiful and powerful, and has set our existence flaming with a light that the darkness can never dim. The light has come into the world, and burning with a scaring brilliance, has penetrated into the deepest corners of darkness.

At first no one noticed that Jesus had come, and then no one thought he was God, and then no one could look at the world the same way again, for his coming had so altered the way we see things that suddenly there was no return. For his coming cast light into all the corners of the world that had been hid before.

There is a phrase from the Gospel this morning that always strikes me with force. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not over come it." For those of you who remember the old translation, it is "The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." But the effect is the same, there is an event that is ongoing, and the response, the reaction is past tense. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness attempted, and failed to overcome it, to understand, and so the light shines still.

It is hard sometimes, to think about the light still shining. Surely we find ourselves in a similar darkness to that of Judea during the first century of this era: in the midst of violence, economic crisis, racial tensions.Surely, we have difficulty seeing and believing that the light shines.

And yet the light has burst forth, it has blazed like magnesium ribbon and our retinas are still burning with the vision of it, despite the external indicators that the darkness has overcome the light.

By blazing out with brilliance the light has shown us a new and terrifying freedom and grace. No longer do we need the discipline of the law to keep us out of dangerous and dark corners, for we live in the midst of a world redeemed and yet hurting, a world in which we can see into the dark corners and know them for what they are: dark, yet loved, waiting and longing for us to bear that light of Christ which lives in us into them and set them ablaze and shimmering with light and power.

There is a funny thing about light. You can see the source of light, and you can see where the light strikes, but you cannot actually see light. When it passes through dust or fog or mist, you can see its trail, but light itself is invisible. That is why the world seems so dark. We can see the source of that burning brilliance, Jesus the Word, and we can see where that light shines, in the darkness around the world, and down into the midst of Philadelphia, but we cannot see how extensive its reach, how broad its arc, how full of energy and warmth that light is.

And so, in some ways, our calling seems inexplicable, our course madness. Those who cannot see the source or the actual light have no idea what we do here. But we have seen his glory, and the seeming foolishness of our course is nothing when we look at it in the light which has blazed into the world.

Like Einstein, toiling away in obscurity, and finally having the genius intuition to simply scrub the whole unified motion problem, we operate here in intuitive ways. For we have seen his glory. We have seen the radiance of his coming into the world, and we have seen where his light shines. We have been adopted and made heirs of him, and we speak now to God, not as Lord or King or Judge, but as “Abba,” as Daddy.

Preached by the Rev'd Andrew N. Ashcroft

28 December 2008

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 30, 2008 .