Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon: "The New Butterfly Effect", Acts 9:36-42/Revelation 7:9-17 (May 12, 2019)


Have you ever heard of “The Butterfly Effect”? First identified by meteorologist Edward Lorenz, “The Butterfly Effect” is the idea that if one tiny modification is made in the initial conditions of a system, that change can dramatically alter the result. For example, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can create miniscule changes in the atmosphere, the effects of which can eventually compound to actually change the trajectory of a massive typhoon. In other words, “The Butterfly Effect” tells us that it’s virtually impossible to predict any result with 100% accuracy, because even the smallest unexpected variation in conditions can have dramatic implications for the outcome. This is why in the 21st century, with all of our technological advances and scientific knowledge, we still aren’t able to predict whether or not it’s going to rain on any given day with any amount of certainty—you never can tell when a mischievous butterfly’s been messing around with the atmosphere. 

This is a fascinating concept and has been the inspiration for many a sci-fi time travel story. If you were to go back in time and change one thing, who KNOWS how it would impact the future! It can be tempting, too, in this Easter Season, to think about how the landscape of our faith might be different if the early Christians had done things differently. Would the small, upstart movement have stayed a sect of Judaism? Would Jesus have become lost to history as a minor prophet? Would we be worshiping Peter instead? According to the Butterfly Effect, it’s impossible to know.

But I’d argue that it’s not particularly helpful for us to look at our faith through the lens of Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect, as fascinating as it might be. First of all, although the consequences of our small actions may be mysterious to US, we worship an omniscient and omnipotent God for whom NOTHING is unknowable. So from a big-picture faith perspective, the Butterfly Effect is irrelevant: since we trust in God’s sovereignty, it doesn’t make a difference that we don’t know what’s going to happen—God does. But more importantly, Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect is focused on how EVENTS and ACTIONS impact a given system. What matters is what the butterfly DOES and how that changes the world around it. But from a Reformed theological perspective, our actions don’t change our status with God in any way, ever. What we do is important, but it doesn’t define our worth in God’s eyes. God cares much more about who we are than what we do.

So I’d like to propose a new Butterfly Effect, one that’s more useful to us in the context of Christianity. Through this new lens, we can still evaluate our impact on the world around us, but with the focus rightly shifted away from what we do and towards God. Our goal as Christians, after all, isn’t to show off our supposed superiority or efficacy, but to bring others into relationship with God. Our own deeds alone, no matter how large or impactful, won’t always accomplish this—since faith isn’t a requirement for good works, it’s not always clear that our actions are intended to point towards God. God’s people don’t have a monopoly on doing good in the world; it doesn’t make us unique.

What DOES make us unique, what ALWAYS points to God directly, is the very thing that we’re celebrating right now during Eastertide: resurrection. We’re a resurrection people, meaning our very lives are defined by God’s ability and willingness to bring life out of death. This is something that ONLY God can do, so naturally, resurrection ALWAYS points to God. Not-so-coincidentally, butterflies and their metamorphoses have long been Christian symbols of resurrection; it seems only right for this to be the inspiration for our new Butterfly Effect, so here it is: the new butterfly effect is the principle that when one person is willing to tell others about the resurrection in their life, their witness becomes uniquely powerful in bringing others to God and transforming the world.

This principle is on full display in this week’s passage from Acts. Tabitha was a woman whose “life [had] overflowed with good works and compassionate acts,”[1] which obviously touched the lives of those around her in a profound way. When Peter arrived in the upper room where her body was laid out, he was immediately approached by widows who wanted to show him all that Tabitha had done while she was alive. Her actions had been admirable, and they’d certainly made a difference to others…but at the end of the day, all that the widows seemed to have learned from her good deeds was how wonderful Tabitha was. Even though scripture explicitly names her as a disciple of Christ, the widows didn’t seem to notice God’s movement in her life; they were preoccupied with the things that she had made and done when she was alive. Their faith was in her, and when she was gone, that was it.

Ah, but then Peter arrived, and he told her, “Tabitha, get up!”—“anastethi” (ἀνάστηθι)—using the same Greek verb used to describe Christ’s resurrection. In response to Peter’s prayerful command, Tabitha opened her eyes and rose up from the dead. Acts tells us, “The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord.”[2] Tabitha’s resurrection did more to bring people to God than anything else in her entire life leading up to that point. The narrative quickly moves on, but I’m sure that Tabitha’s discipleship didn’t end there. I’m sure that the first words on her lips from that day forward was the story of how God had brought her back from the dead. I’m sure that she used her new life to continue doing the good works that she had been known for…but now, in the wake of her resurrection, her actions had new meaning to those around her. Now, there was no doubt about how and why Tabitha did what she did—she was a disciple of Christ, the resurrected one, the only one who can bring life out of death. What a testimony!

But God’s resurrection isn’t limited just to saintly disciples. No, God’s resurrection is offered to EVERYONE. The passage from Revelation describes a crowd of worshipers from every nation, tribe, people, and language—every conceivable group—standing before God’s throne. An elder tells John of Patmos, our narrator that, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.”[3] Because of Christ’s sacrifice, he says, they’ve been made new. They’ve ALL been resurrected from the darkness of their ordeal into new life. And the natural consequence of this resurrection is—what else?—that they worship and witness to God’s goodness loudly, publicly, and eternally.

This description takes on even deeper meaning when we consider the context of the book it comes from. As a whole, Revelation describes (in admittedly strange and symbolic terms) the return of Christ at his second coming, the unveiling of God’s ultimate plan and purpose, and—importantly—the creation of the “New Jerusalem”. This “New Jerusalem” refers to the paradise that will be revealed here on Earth when God restores all of creation to its original Edenic state. So in this context, these transnational worshipers are not only representing their personal resurrections, but the rebirth of the whole entire world! They offer us a “sneak peek” of what’s to come and, therefore, how we ought to live now in preparation—which is, after all, the purpose of apocalyptic and prophetic literature in the first place. Each individual resurrection that happens foreshadows the world’s divine transformation, which makes them THAT much more important to share.

So now, you may be thinking, “That’s great and all, but at this point in my life, I’ve never been brought back from the dead, so I HAVE no resurrection to share with the world.” But butterflies aren’t literally resurrected from death, either…and yet they still show us how a new life, a new creation, can arise from an old one. We still marvel at how this insect emerges from its metaphorical tomb completely transformed: the same being, yet at the same time irrefutably different through some divine miracle of nature. Likewise, your own resurrection may not be a literal one, like Jesus’, but it’s still undoubtedly metamorphic, and it still comes from God alone.

I have plenty of personal stories of resurrection in my own life. For example, about ten years ago my parents divorced, and the sense of family that had been central to my identity died. I got my first tattoo to remind me of the resurrection that God both promises and provides: even as the family that I’d known disappeared, I was reborn out of that trauma into a new understanding of family and into independence as a young adult. In fact, this very re-formation of my identity probably played a role in guiding me towards ministry. Life out of death.

Likewise, consider this very community. This church’s persistence in the face of trauma and the new chapter of ministry that we’ve begun together is a visible resurrection. Although who we were has died, we’re in the process of becoming something brand new and wonderful. Almost without trying, we’re testifying to God’s life-giving powers just by continuing to seek Christ as a new creation. As we continue to share our resurrection with the larger world, others will see it and be drawn to God. More life out of death.

The most compelling testimonies come from those who’ve “walked through the valley of the shadow of death”[4], who’ve “come out of great hardship”[5], who’ve been resurrected in some way, because their rebirth speaks tangibly to the power of God’s movement in their lives. We can talk in abstract, theoretical terms until we’re blue in the face, but personal experience is always the best witness. Sometimes, it can be difficult to speak about a personal death when the wound is still raw, and we should always take the time to process it privately first, if that’s what we need. But if you’re in a place where you can speak about your own death and resurrection without it being too painful, you should absolutely share it with others so that they might find hope in God’s promise, too.

Where has resurrection in your life lead to passion for a particular issue? Mental illness? Food insecurity? Substance abuse? Education reform? Something else? Preach it! Be bold in your testimony. Unlike those who’ve never had such experiences, you’re not just pleading for human compassion…you’re bearing witness to God’s ability to bring life out of death, and our desperate need for such resurrection in our lives. In my opinion, this is a MUCH more comforting message: human compassion alone is unreliable, but when combined with God’s sovereign determination, new life will ALWAYS triumph over death. Don’t let your good deeds be the only part of your life that speaks to your faith. Instead, let your resurrection speak, so all might know that the God who turns caterpillars into butterflies will also bring new life to us and to the world. Amen.


[1] Acts 9:36, CEB.
[2] Acts 9:42, CEB.
[3] Revelation 7:14, CEB.
[4] Psalm 23:4, KJV.
[5] Revelation 9:14, CEB.

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