The Way Things Really Are

On March 27th of this year, the journal Scientific Reports published a new medical study that made quite a few headlines. No, this wasn’t one of those new studies like Is drinking red wine good for you? or Will eating seven kumquats a day actually help you lose weight? This study was about something called the interstitium, and the reason it made so many headlines is because it suggests that the interstitium is a new organ in the human body. That’s right – in addition to your hearts and lungs, your gall bladder (if you still have one of those), and your hold-over of an appendix, you now have another whole organ.

The interstitium is a series of tiny sacks, little compartments, that are held together by a mesh of connective tissue. Inside each little sack is fluid, and this is important. In the past, when scientists studied this connective tissue, they did so by slicing off a thin layer of the tissue and then drying it so that they could see the internal structures clearly. This drying process meant that the fluid of the interstitium had long disappeared by the time scientists clicked a slide into place and looked into the lens of their microscopes. The result of this technique was that, because there was no liquid to be seen, scientists saw only solid, dense tissue. This recent study is based on a different technique – probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy – which is really fun to say but, more importantly, is an examination of living tissue. The result of this approach was that scientists were able to notice, for the first time, that this system of connective tissue is not solid at all, but instead is filled with little sacs of fluid.

The new study, led by a pathologist at NYU and assisted by several researchers at Penn, suggests that this new discovery may help to explain how cancer cells spread throughout the body. The interstitium is, as one reporter described is, “a highway of moving fluid,” and this newly-discovered conduit may be an integral part of the path malignant cells take as they move from one system to another in the body. The study is new, and its full implications may not be known for years to come, but there is some measured excitement in parts of the medical community about the impact this new understanding of the body may have on our treatment of disease.

All of which is really interesting, as were the subsequent twitter conversations about what we should name this new organ, since “interstitium” is, after all, a pretty boring name. Suggestions ranged from Pluto, to make up for the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet; Hammond (get it); Organ McOrgan face; and, my personal favorite, Bernard, because, as someone suggested, maybe if we called our organs by a first name we’d be more apt to take care of them. But the most interesting response to this study is not academic or comedic; it is, no pun intended, visceral: the stunning realization that there is something in your body that nobody knew was there before. You have an interstitium, a Bernard; you’ve always had it, everyone’s always had it, but nobody ever knew it. That’s kind of wonderfully mind-blowing, don’t you think? That even in these august scientific times, there is still something new to be learned. We can still be surprised by the fact that things are sometimes not what we think.

Things are sometimes not what we think, or, said another way, the way we think things are is not the way they really are. This is the core message of the stories of resurrection appearances we hear week after week in these early days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen, and how does that change the way things are? Does that change the way things are? The disciples, it seems, need some time to figure this out. They had thought they knew how this whole system of life worked. You were born and named, you grew (if you were lucky), you made good choices and were blessed, you made bad choices and were punished, you sinned and repented, celebrated and mourned, and then you died, and when you died, you moldered and dissolved into dust. This was just how things were. There was proof of this, or so they thought. They had seen it happen over and over again. They had been witnesses of this system their whole lives.

When Jesus came on the scene, they had to make some adjustments to their understanding of the system. Now they could see that God could also inject himself into the system in more powerful ways than they had thought possible. They saw in Christ a kind of spiritual intervention – now, suddenly, people could be healed in new and dramatic ways. People could repent and be forgiven who had only ever been cast out before. There could be a new kind of power – the power of this Messiah, who could stand up to the religious authorities and even the civic ones and, perhaps, even change the molecular structure of the system itself. But when this Messiah didn’t choose to manifest his power in worldly strength, the disciples fell back into their old understandings. If he was crucified, then he must be dead. And if he is dead, then our mission must be over.

Today’s story is the natural outgrowth of that kind of thinking. If he is dead, then our mission must be over. If he is dead, then we must be next. So if he is dead, why don’t we hide out for a while? Even when Jesus appears among them, saying, Peace be with you, the disciples still lean on their old understandings. If he is dead, and he is standing before us, then he must be a ghost. And if he is a ghost, and if he is in here with us, then holy moly are we in trouble.

But Jesus, in his infinite patience and with his infinite love, remains with them, talks to them, and offers them proof – as scientific as it could get in the 1st century – that he is not a ghost. There is no need for a probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy here; Jesus offers them his hands and his feet. Touch me and see, he says, see that I am no ghost. Could a ghost do this? he asks, as he gobbles down a piece of broiled fish from their fire. I was dead, and now I am before you. I am before you, and I am not a ghost. I am not a ghost, and so I must be alive. In short, I am the proof that your system is wrong. You are witnesses of this – that things are not what you’ve thought all your lives. The way you think things are is not the way they really are.

Easter is our chance, every year, to experience the same kind of jolt that we got when reading that article about Bernard. Easter is our opportunity to be surprised back into the way things really are. All year long we can imagine that we know how the system works, this system that we can see right before our eyes, this system of sin and consequences, of justice ignored or imperfectly executed, of love that fails, of healing that elude us, of death that waits, indomitable, for us all. But Easter wakes us up one morning and reminds us that this way – the way we thought things were – is not the way things really are. There is more grace in this world than we can see with the naked eye. There is more forgiveness here than we could ever find with a microscope. There is more healing here than we could imagine, more love, more life, more compassion, than any study could ever prove. There is more space for God in our lives than we know. We are part of a body, a vast network of connective tissue that is filled with the holy waters of baptism, which move God’s Grace in and around this world like a highway of moving holiness.

So if you are sitting here today thinking that your faith will always be dried out and flat, that is not the way things really are.  If you are sitting here today thinking that your broken heart will never mend, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you will never be loved the way you want to be loved, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you will never, ever be forgiven because maybe you will never, ever deserve it, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that racism and prejudice are more powerful than acceptance and love, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you, or the Church, or Christianity is dead, and so your mission must be over, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that death, or the fear of death, or the avoidance of death, or the grieving of death is the final word, that is not the way things really are.

For you are a part of this particular study that we call discipleship; you are the ones who are witnesses of this wonderfully mind-blowing truth – that Christ is risen, and his redeeming work has made things the way they really are. He has made you who you really are. You are in Christ’s body, and he is in you. This is how – this is who – you really are.

Posted on April 15, 2018 .