Romans 6:1b-8 (from June 25)
We live in exciting times, when science and religion are asking the same questions,
pondering the same puzzles,
and often finding complementary answers.
Our culture usually assumes science and religion are adversaries:
6-day creation vs. evolution, for example,
or scientific exploration of cloning vs. religious concerns about the sanctity of life.
But on the curious cutting edges of both religion and science we find the mysteries
of how energy and matter are related,
how memories are stored in our genes,
how healing happens for those struggling with chemical or mental illness.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome evokes the mysteries of renewal and re-creation.
Science finds new creation in cycles of death and life, as compost buries death and makes new life, as ants and worms and forest fires eat up what is old and create conditions for life to become new.
In Christianity we see new creation within one person, within one lifetime.
In our faith we seek redemption, we long to be made new.
New life comes in cycles of life and death for communities of faith, like compost or forest fires.
But usually when we talk about finding the new life in Christ Paul writes about we mean as individuals.
Where does science find this personal new life?
We live in the age of the brain – we’re suddenly learning an incredible amount about how our brains work.
For many years we believed that our personalities, abilities and intelligence were determined by our genes, and influenced by our upbringing. The nature vs. nurture debate asked if who we are is a function of our genes or our environment.
Of course the answer is always some combination of both, with the balance shifting over decades. Either way, for adults our hand has already been dealt.
Now neuroscience has added a third possibility which gives us freedom for new life.
Our brains adapt and change not just as children, not just as young adults, but up until the very end of our lives.
Neuroscientists now have scientific evidence of what people of faith have long believed.
it is never too late to find new life.
We always have a choice to change.
Whether finding new life in Christ or some other way, neuroscientists now can see how much power we have to create our future, regardless of our genes or upbringing or who we have been in the past.
Redemption, new life, being born again. Neuroplasticity.
We are divinely designed to be adaptable, like plastic, to fit all kinds of molds.
Our Creator made our brains so complex and also so flexible that we can learn whatever language or culture we’re born into.
And we can radically shift our worldview at any time in our lives. We are never too old to learn new tricks, neuroscience now can demonstrate, by identifying neuroplasticity. Of course we might not have the motivation or resources to learn new tricks, but we have the literal capacity because our divinely designed neurons can form new connections, compensate for injury and disease, move cognitive processes from one lobe of our brain to another, optimize mental processes and adjust activities in response to new situations or changes in environment.
Like the Moken people who live off the coast of Burma and Thailand. They live on the water and eat from the water.
The Moken have twice the underwater vision as the rest of us, but their eyes aren’t biologically different, they simply constrict their pupils and see twice as well underwater.
Any of our brains could learn to do this if we lived on water.
London taxi drivers have the largest hippocampi of any studied group of people on earth. The hippocampus holds spatial representation, and London taxi drivers have so many spatial images stored in their brains that their hippocampi literally grow. Again – any of our brains could do this, because our brains are plastic, agile, adaptable.
Underwater vision and huge hippocampi are impressive, but don’t have much to do with finding new life in Christ or re-creation. So I have another example for you – Nelson Mandela. Mandela lived amidst some of the worst racism our world has ever seen, in South Africa where he and other black people were considered the lowest level of human, had no civil rights or economic opportunities, and were imprisoned for trying to live with dignity.
Segregation was the law of the land and black and white people interacted only in specific settings in which black people were always the servants and white people always made the rules. So both individual people’s brains and the cultural brains of the country were filled with segregation and inequality.
Visions of racial harmony or even simple friendship across racial lines were not in anyone’s mind.
But throughout Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison he chose to retrain his brain.
He learned Afrikans, the language of white South Africans, so he could befriend his prison guards. These guards believed he was less than human, a dangerous rebel. But over the years he taught them of his own dignity and humanity by honoring their dignity and humanity. Over these 27 years in three different prisons he befriended guard after guard, and broke down walls of hostility and segregation.
He was still physically in prison, but he found liberation and offered it to the prisoners and guards around him through his own ability to relearn and reshape reality.
Through these friendships he got permission to start a rooftop garden, a prison library, and create other new life for the prison.
In the letter to the Romans Paul teaches that we join Christ in both death and in life, that these interdependent cycles of life and death are part of God’s divine design. As Stone Church moves through endings and beginnings in the months to come we glean specific wisdom from these passages that teach us that God designed cycles of endings and beginnings, endings and beginnings.
Paul writes about new life to the church in Corinth, too.
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to God's self through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:16-18)
A new creation – new life as we join Christ in the cycle of life and death, and life again. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
After Nelson Mandela was released from prison he kept faith in reconciliation, and he kept building neural pathways of hope and peace. He created a government of national unity, and started the truth and reconciliation commission.
His own versatile brain created new possibilities for the whole country as people began to believe, dared to hope, that new life was available to South Africa.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Nelson Mandela didn’t get to live and nurture a new creation all at once.
He had to work at it each day.
Every day he had to teach his brain that he had dignity and his guards had humanity.
Every day the world around him taught him that white and black people could never be friends, could never trust one another, could never live in unity.
So every day he had to choose to believe in reconciliation, to tell the truth, to show compassion, to believe in his own sacred soul.
Some Christians have an experience of being born-again, that comes as a radical transformation all at once and they are never the same. Their coming to Christ happens in an instant and they say they never look back. That sounds powerful!
But most Christians throughout the world and over the past 2000 years live in Christ day by day, with high times and low times, struggling and striving, choosing Jesus' way again and again. Nelson Mandela had to choose each day to see his guards as friends rather than enemies, even when they abused and despised him. There was no instant transformation for Mandela or anyone else in that prison.
Even when Mandela was released and later elected president, South Africa didn’t suddenly change.
New life for South Africa continues to come day by day, after years of telling the truth, forgiving, building new neural pathways and possibilities.
Neuroscientists teach us that “what fires together wires together.”
Which means that the synapses that fire together become neural pathways.
Every time Mandela saw a prison guard his brain instantly recalled the beatings and humiliation he experienced from prison guards.
Neurons for prison guard and danger naturally fired together,
wiring together the fundamental experience of prison guards as enemy.
But Mandela chose to teach his brain a new thing.
Seeing prison guards, he declared them “friends” again and again, until those neurons firing together wired together.
Where in your life do you need re-creation?
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
With your God-given neuroplasticity and the teachings of Jesus you have everything you need to create a new reality.
To create friends from enemies.
To choose the ministry of reconciliation.
To live in Christ’s abundant love for all.
By thoughtfully choosing how to interpret what’s happening in the world around us we can shape reality. Imagine a new creation now:
We see new life and possibilities rather than fear and scarcity.
We see the best in one another rather than flaws and fault.
Where in your life are you ready to be made new? (pause)
We choose to live with Christ again and again, and some days we forget.
Some days we’re too tired to be creative.
Or too sad to choose hope.
Or too angry to forgive.
But then the next day dawns and God gives us a brand new chance to choose to live with Christ in renewed creation. To be God’s new creation.