The Overview Effect

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A.

The text is John 17:1-11.

Almost fifty-five years ago, something happened to planet Earth that had never happened before. The exact date was Christmas Eve 1968. On that day, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders (crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft) became the first humans to travel to the moon. Their mission was not to land on the surface, but simply to circle the moon and take pictures. Of all the photos snapped on that trip, one stands out among the others.

At about 3:40pm, Bill Anders was taking scheduled photographs of the lunar surface when he looked up and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.”

Commander Borman ordered back, “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

Thankfully for the rest of us, astronaut Anders did not seem particularly keen on following orders that day; he lifted his camera and captured what nature photographers consider to be “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Image credit: Earthrise. Taken by Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. Public Domain.

The photo itself was quickly published after Apollo 8’s return to Earth. In it, we can see the gray horizon of the lunar surface and, floating just above it, a tiny blue marble that contains everything we’ve ever known and everyone we’ve ever loved.

Anders’ photo itself left people around the world breathless, but any astronaut would tell you that the photograph does no justice to the experience of actually seeing that sight with your own eyes. Psychologists have interviewed returning astronauts over the past several decades and recorded their personal thoughts and feelings after seeing the Earth from space. They call it “The Overview Effect” and describe it like this:

“The thing that really surprised me was that [the Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” (Michael Collins, Apollo 11)

“[It’s an] explosion of awareness… [an] overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness… accompanied by an ecstasy… an epiphany.” (Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14)

The Overview Effect is powerful because it is, in scientific terms, what we would call, in theological terms, a mystical experience. According to early 20th century philosopher William James, an experience can be described as “mystical” if it is given (not produced by the observer), transient (not lasting forever), noetic (having some kind of content or message), and ineffable (indescribable). The Overview Effect meets all four of these criteria, even though it is natural, not supernatural, in its essence.

The main thing that astronauts struggle with in the Overview Effect is how impossible it is to describe to people who have not gone to outer space and seen it for themselves. In this morning’s reading from John’s gospel, we hearers encounter a similar difficulty when listening in on Jesus’ high priestly prayer to his Father in heaven.

Jesus speaks this prayer during Holy Week, just after the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, mere hours before he is arrested and crucified by the Roman authorities. Up to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has dropped various hints about his identity as God’s Son, but now he is speaking plainly about who he is. The only problem is that Jesus is using human words to describe a reality that is inherently beyond human understanding. He might have better luck describing nuclear physics to a Doberman!

So, as we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer to the Father, it sounds to us like he is talking in circles: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you… I glorified you on Earth… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed… All mine are yours, and yours are mine… I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” He goes on and on like this for quite a while. If you listen to the whole thing, you start to get dizzy after a few verses. I don’t blame you.

What Jesus is doing here is putting words to something that is, by its very nature, beyond all words. He is pulling back the curtain of this world so that we can get the briefest glimpse of the reality he lives in on a daily basis. In simpler terms, Jesus is showing us how he sees the world.

It’s not all that different from the way that astronauts saw the Earth from space. Down on the ground, people tend to be consumed by conflicts that seem to be of utmost importance, when seen up close. Up in orbit, an astronaut doesn’t see national borders, skin colors, or religions. The astronaut only sees the big picture of this little planet, suspended in space by a thread. In its obvious smallness and fragility from space, it becomes painfully obvious that all the Earth is one.

Now, Jesus was not an alien who came down from outer space (although I’m sure there are people on the internet who would debate me on that), but he did reach the same conclusion as astronauts through his own spiritual awareness. The path is different, but the destination is the same: “We are one.”

Jesus prays that his followers “may be one,” as Jesus and his Father are one. The oneness of Jesus and his Father was the hot topic of debate during the first several centuries of Church history. Bishops, popes, and priests spilled a lot of ink and spent a lot of time debating what this actually means. At the Council of Nicaea, the debate became so intense that St. Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas) slapped another priest for disagreeing with him about the nature of Christ. (SIDE NOTE: In my career as a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian, I’ve been in a lot of tense church meetings, but never one so bad that Santa Claus punched a guy.)

Based on this story, it’s safe to say that the oneness of Jesus and his Father was very important to the early Christians. Eventually, the Church came up with the doctrine of the Trinity to describe the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. What we Christians believe, in some way that defies rational explanation, is that Jesus and the Father are one. Christians call Jesus “the Son of God” because of family resemblance. It’s the same as when we look at a baby and say, “She favors her mother!” To see Jesus is to see God. The resemblance is not physical, but spiritual. When Christians say that Jesus is the Son of God, we mean that God is the kind of person that Jesus was.

When Jesus prays, “that they may be one, as we are one”, he is inviting us all into the dynamic mystery of the Holy Trinity. In some way that defies rational explanation, we are joined together in that same divine unity of spirit. All distinctions of race, nationality, gender, language, sexual orientation, politics, and social class disappear. We are all one in Christ. As our patron, St. Paul, famously wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What the astronauts observed fifty years ago from space, Jesus revealed two thousand years ago in spirit: “We are one.” The discoveries of science and the revelation of the Bible are unanimous, in this respect.

The oneness we all enjoy, as beloved children of God, is the central fact of our existence. Our central task, as Christians, is to celebrate and activate this oneness in our daily lives. When we gather to pray, sing hymns, hear the Scriptures, and celebrate the Eucharist, we are actualizing the fact of unity, as Jesus revealed it in the first century. When we live in this world as Jesus lived, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the outcast, we are embodying the divine truth that astronaut Bill Anders saw when he snapped his famous photo of the Earth from space.

Jesus prayed to his Father that his followers “may be one, as we are one.” When astronaut Bill Anders saw the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, he heard the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

May we, in our lives, become the answer to Jesus’ prayer. May we look past our sad divisions of race, religion, politics, and economics. May we do our level best to tend this garden that God has given us. May we live as beloved children of God in a world that would divide us by any other criteria. May we be one, as Jesus and his Father are one.

May it be so. Amen.

Top image credit: Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola on the International Space Station. Photo by NASA. Public domain.