The debate over embryonic stem cell research rages on and on. It was a center-stage issue in the last presidential election, and probably will be again in 2012. And as the debate spills out of the political aisles and into living rooms, it will inevitably enter our churches. The critical question for us as believers is this: does Jesus have anything to say about the subject? With that I leave you with Stewart Ruch's sermon …
Noah Markum's father on this Father's Day is having a special celebration as he rejoices in the life of his son, Noah. Mom too, I'm sure, is very excited, because Noah was born to them under remarkable circumstances in January of 2007. Every birth is remarkable, every birth a miracle, every birth a reason to rejoice in the power of life and of God. That in itself is reason enough to rejoice over Noah. But it's even more amazing because Noah—aptly named—was rescued from a flood in New Orleans in early September of 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. So all the more reason that Noah's father today is thanking God—if he knows God—for the life of Noah. But there's even a third reason beside the glory of life and the glory of Noah's rescue. Perhaps if you're quick in doing your math you're wondering, Wait a second. Noah was born January 2007 and yet rescued in September 2005. I'm not sure how that adds up. Perhaps you're already tracking on that third reason to celebrate Noah's life. Noah was rescued as an embryo, frozen in liquid nitrogen from a hospital in New Orleans by Louisiana State Police. I don't know if those men who carried him out amidst the rising waters of Katrina have had a chance to see Noah, 2 1/2, running around his backyard this summer, doing what 2 1/2-year-olds do, but I'm sure if they could they would be staggered. They would have no question how the life they rescued—the tiniest, most vulnerable life, an embryonic person—is that Noah who is running around his backyard today.
It's a glorious story, isn't it? And yet the reality is, not every embryo gets rescued. As a matter of fact, many embryos are donated to research laboratories, and they're killed. Those tiny human persons are destroyed for the purpose of harvesting, as the phrase goes, stem cells. In the last three months, that very procedure, those very actions, that very research is not as it has been—funded by private investors who decide in the free market to invest money in this, because there's a lot of money to be made from embryonic stem cells—but now since President Obama signed an executive order, that research, that destruction of the embryo for the harvesting of stem cells, is now being funded by us, by Americans, through federal funds.
We're caught up right now in our country in a deluge, in a kind of flood. It doesn't have the dramatic markings of a flood or the sense of urgency as the waters rise and get higher and higher, but let me assure you, the waters are rising, and they are getting higher and higher. The heart of the Christian faith and mission is the call to abundant life. And whenever life—in its tiniest, most seemingly insignificant form or its most robust form or its most frail and infirm form—whenever life in any way is under attack, that is the moment when Christians gather together, get clear on what's happening, and pray and fight to protect that life. That's our call. Our Lord came, he said, that he might bring life—abundant, full, flourishing life.
Now, our Lord said it won't be that simple. There's an enemy, a thief. He's contrasted to the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life voluntarily for the sheep. This thief comes to steal what is not his, to destroy and kill what does not belong to him. He takes from those who cannot willingly give up their lives, and he steals life from them. There's a battle set up. This is not a new battle. I'm not convinced we're in a worse place in this culture than other cultures throughout the last 2,000 years. Every generation has this battle of life and death. That's not new. But it's up to every generation to discern through careful reasoning and through life in the Spirit what the nature of the battle in their day is.
I want to teach today on the realities around embryonic stem cell research. I want to ask you to open your heart to Noah and to the tiniest human person, the embryo.
For some of you, I realize this feels like a peripheral or unchartable issue: I don't know where I am on it; I don't know what's going on. Let's be honest. The phrase embryonic stem cell research doesn't necessarily reach out and grab you. Some of you know about this because you are a professional scientist or a bioethicist or a physician or a nurse. But most of us, when we hear embryonic stem cell, don't think, Got it. I have an image in my mind of an embryonic stem cell. I know what it looks like. It feels peripheral. It feels like it's out there. For others it's a perplexing issue because you think, Aren't those embryonic stem cells being harvested for the purpose of another life? It's not like it's terrifying violence. The purpose is to help those who have multiple sclerosis or diabetes or other life-disabling diseases. That's why they're being harvested. I'll speak to that.
Or perhaps you're feeling uncomfortable because I said "President Obama." Let's admit it. Let's get it on the table. Whoa, isn't this a political issue? We're the church. We don't do politics, right? We are the church, and we don't do Caesar. But we engage Caeser. Some of you think this is a partisan issue. Don't talk about this, because I know what you're going to say: Democrats are on the wrong side, Republicans are on the right side. If it helps you at all, I think they're both on the wrong side a lot of the time. As a matter of fact, in 2008, both presidential nominees—for the Republican party, Senator McCain, and for the Democratic party, Senator Obama—both felt there should be federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. So if it relieves you at all, I'm not real pleased with either.
This is more than peripheral, more than perplexing, more than partisan and political. This is an issue of protection. It's an issue of Christians being brave and willing and clear enough to understand that we must move into a position through prayer, education, and engagement where we are involved in protecting the least of these.
This is different from what I've done before. It's more than a walk through some facts and didactics, so I'd like you to stay with me. It's important you have an understanding of what's happening here.
The right to life is the civil rights issue of our day.
A great Christian theologian and thinker of our age who just passed away a few months ago, Father Richard John Neuhaus, said the issues of life like abortion and embryonic stem cells are the civil rights issues of our day. Others are important, by the way, and I hold to those. I could explain at another point what I think those are. But I would argue that this is the premier civil rights issue of our day: the right to life. And if that is the case, it's important that as the church we expose that. The Book of Ephesians says Christians must be willing to expose works of darkness.
You can open to John 10. I won't be doing an exposition of John 10's passage now, but it is our critical touch point for this civil rights issue of our day. The important thing from the beginning is to be clear about what is an embryo. If we're not clear on that, then the rest of the issue will be peripheral and perplexing. I speak to you as a priest, not as a scientist. But this much I am clear on: we have to get the noun right. Here's what I mean: it's most helpful to think about the word embryo as an adjective, as in embryonic person. Embryo refers to a stage of development in the life of a person, the earliest stage, there at conception. So there's an embryonic person, and then there's a fetal person, and then a newborn person, and then a toddler person, a child person, a teenage person, a 20-something person, et cetera. So embryonic describes a human being at a stage of development. An embryo is not pre-human. It's not just a mass of tissue. An embryo is a person.
Dr. Robert George, a doctor of ethics at Princeton, and Christopher Tollefsen of USC, have written a book, Embryo, a Defense of Human Life. This is a great touch point if you want to pursue this issue more. My opening illustration about Noah comes from that book. In that book, rather than using the premises of faith, which for us as believers is our premises, rather than using John 10 as I do as a preacher, they say we can argue that the embryo is alive based on scientific laws themselves. There are four signs of life, they say: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and the most important of all in this case, cell reproduction. That's why the stem cells are desirable for harvesting, because they reproduce in such remarkable ways. Sometimes they reproduce in uncontrollable ways the scientists don't fully understand yet. So, Dr. George argues, those embryos have all four signs of life. He says, "Human embryos are from the very beginning human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become." Stem cells are the building blocks of life, these little tiny human beings. In the beginning of life their bodies are full of stem cells, and these multiply to create cells our bodies need to grow. An embryo is life. Indeed, in a poetic and scientific way, an embryo is abundant life, packed with stem cells, ready to burst into life, ready to become a Noah.
Ignorance is an enemy of the embryo.
But the embryo has some enemies. The first enemy is the enemy of ignorance.
A lot of us are ignorant about stem cells. We don't have time to become informed because of our life speed, or we're not inclined toward things biological or scientific or ethical. Many of us haven't done much thinking or reflecting or reading about embryonic stem cells.
Dr. James Thompson is the original discoverer of the embryonic stem cell. He pioneered this work and advocates harvesting embryonic stem cells and researching for the purpose of finding healing agents from them. He says this: "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you've not thought enough about it. I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." We should do some long and hard thinking about it, especially as those who live in Jesus, who is abundant life. We should do a lot of praying about it, too.
We could be ignorant about the issue and think all stem cells, then, are wrong. I don't know, I read about it somewhere and just think it's bad. That would also be an ignorant or uninformed position, because some stem cells have proven to be remarkably healing and productive. Adult stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cords have 73 usable applications for healing. I love to see science that has so much potential to bring healing: 73 proven applications. Do you know how many proven applications there are for embryonic stem cells? Zero. They have yet to be found effective.
When you feel like Scripture isn't enough to convince someone, talk about Oprah. I'm joking. I never talk about Oprah; I don't think I've ever actually watched Oprah. But apparently there is a physician on Oprah named Dr. Oz who says the stem cell debate is over. Stem cells found from adults, he's saying, can have as much effectiveness as those from embryonic stem cells. So this is a debate we no longer need to have.
So why are we still having it? Why is it still going? As a matter of fact, just when we thought the debate was over, federal funding is now coming through for embryonic stem cell research.
Money is an enemy of the embryo.
This reveals a second enemy besides ignorance, a more pernicious enemy, which is mammon. Jesus described mammon as a spirit that surrounds money. It is not money itself, for there's nothing wrong with buying and selling. That's part of human behavior and life. But there's a spirit around money, a spirit of greed or exploitation, of excessive accumulation at the manipulation of others. That's a spirit called mammon, and this spirit is an enemy of the embryonic human person. Here's how it works. When you use adult stem cells you're using an adult's own stem cells to bring healing, and that way the patient is equipped to heal him- or herself. You can't patent an adult stem cell, because they belong to someone. You can't sell them on the market. But with embryonic stem cells you can create lines of stem cells that can be purchased by pharmaceuticals. You can patent those so companies can own embryos and sell them, and money can be made. It's a significant enemy of the embryonic person, who has no say and no ability to stop their parts from being sold on the American free market.
Satan is an enemy of the embryo.
But there's an enemy greater than mammon, from which mammon originates, and he's not a new enemy. Indeed, at the beginning of life, in Genesis, we learn of him. He's a horrific enemy; he's a real enemy. He's an enemy who blinds us to the issues of our day, who wants us to stay dispassionate, detached, peripheral. Genesis 4 tells us that Eve, as the mother of life, gives birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. The way the passage is written gives us a sense of immediacy, that almost immediately after the birth of these sons comes this murder. Of course it's been many years as they've grown up, but the passage conflates it so it feels like right on the heels of abundant life comes the enemy and death. Cain is tempted by the evil crouching at the door, wanting to have him. He kills, and Abel's blood cries out from the ground. I don't know if you can hear the blood in our country that is crying out from the ground, but I want you to start listening.
You need to move from peripheral or perplexed or political to participating and petitioning and listening for the blood that is crying out from American soil. A lot of countries are doing heinous things right now, and we should stand up against those heinous realities. We should fight for justice in the Sudan and other parts of Africa. We should stand up against sex trafficking in Asia and fight with everything we have. But as Americans, we have got to hear the blood crying out from our soil, and we have got to engage on this issue.
The Lord and his church are advocates for the embryo.
Now, the embryo has an advocate, praise the Lord. We never finish a sermon in despair. We never finish a Bible reading in despair. We never finish a service in despair. We never finish a day in despair. The embryo has the greatest advocate of all. He or she has the Good Shepherd, he who has laid down his life for the sake of all life. He said clearly to Pilate: You don't take this life from me, because no one takes life from another in my kingdom. No, I lay down my life by my own will.
That's what's wrong with harvesting embryonic stem cells for the purpose of bringing life somewhere else. It's a bedrock Judeo-Christian principle that you don't take life involuntarily to give life. But you can give your life for the sake of the lives of others. That's the flip on that, and that's at the heart of the Christian life. We give our lives for the sake of the tiniest among us, or the most infirmed, or the most disabled. That's what we're wired to do. That's what our master did. That's how he advocates for the embryo. He gave up his life. That's what we do; we follow in his way. That's the path to abundant life. The embryo has an advocate, and it's the Lord. The embryo has an advocate, and it's the Lord's body. Those embryos aren't alone; they have the church. And we know the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church. We know this issue will not prevail, as other critical civil rights issues have not prevailed.
I want to be clear what it means to move to a place of participation. First, intercede. Prayer changes the course of lives and nations and civilizations, so I'm asking you to intercede. Find some reminder or some way you can engage in the mission of the culture of life. I have a replica of a 10-week-old fetus that I keep at the foot of a cross in my study. When I pray I see that 10-week-old fetus and pray for the protection of life in its smallest form. Have something as a prayer reminder. Ask the Lord to show you something creative to help you engage. You can also intercede with the body of Christ during our prayer times here at church every week.
Secondly, get educated on this. Some websites are doing very good work on this issue. It won't take you long. Don't only educate yourself, but as the opportunity arises and you're having your hair cut or chatting with a neighbor, find out what they know and share with them one, two, three sentences about the reality behind the issue.
And thirdly, engage. That might mean in prayer. Others of you may feel a stirring to engage in the public square as Christians are called to do. By the public square I mean our culture, our community. You may be drawn to write or call your congressmen or congresswomen. You may be drawn to call or write our senators, to call or write the president. Those letters and phone calls matter. Open your heart to Noah. Open your heart to this battle. Open your heart to Jesus, who is the great advocate of all life.
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
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Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________