A Butterfly Sermon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the day of the Resurrection of Our Lord, also known as Easter. We’ve just completed the season of Lent, the 40 days during which the church around the world remembers the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The symbol of the cross can be shocking.  There is a finality to it. Before he rose again from the dead, Jesus died. In every sense of the word.

 

Years ago my wife and I were touring the famous British warship, the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson in the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. It was an incredible feat. As we were being shown the various parts of the ship, the British sailor who was narrating the tour led us into the admiral’s quarters and announced, “Here’s where Nelson died.” He then moved on to another part of the ship and I thought, “What? That’s it? ‘Here’s where Nelson died?’ That’s all? Is there nothing more? That’s very final.” Scripture says that Jesus hung his head on Good Friday, and gave up his spirit. The cross remains the most powerful sign of God’s love in the world today. It is his final word, "Here's where God died."

 

The signs and symbols of Lent are familiar to all of us and are common to all churches: the cross, the nails, the crown of thorns.  But the signs of Easter are less uniform, and can vary wildly from church to church. How does one symbolize Easter, how does one depict the resurrection of Christ?  Probably the most common sign is the empty cross.  But the cross was already empty on Good Friday at the time of Jesus’ burial. Many churches have Easter lilies, as do we, but Easter lilies aren’t biblical and they actually have nothing to do with the resurrection.  Some churches have pictures of an open tomb, but those aren’t easy to reproduce and display and they vary in size, shape, and content. And then there are things, that manage to sneak into the church from the secular world that are better equated with Spring than the resurrection of our Lord, things like: Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, butterflies, Easter hats, Easter baskets, Easter cards, and so on and so forth.

 

But these things really have nothing to do with death and new life in Christ so . . . hold on, wait a minute, back up . . . I mentioned something that is increasingly appearing in churches at Easter time: butterflies.  When I was an assistant pastor in the 1980s, the church I was in would haul in this huge, rather tacky 8 ft. tall painting of a giant butterfly and place it near the altar. The senior pastor loved it.  I hated it. I thought of it as a rather desperate attempt to convey or symbolize resurrection that frankly, theologically ranked somewhere between a chocolate bunny and a plastic egg. I mean, I get it: the caterpillar symbolizes our original life, the cocoon symbolizes death and the grave, and the butterfly symbolizes the resurrection. Got that. “That’s all good and well,” I complained to the senior pastor one Easter, “but the bottom line is, the caterpillar doesn’t really die, does it. It’s just changed into a butterfly. Jesus, on the other hand, actually died, and then was resurrected.” “Well, I know,” he admitted, “but a member of the congregation painted it, so I have to display it in the church.”  Well, I thought, when I have my own parish, I’m not going to feel obligated to stick something in the sanctuary just because Aunt Rose painted it, or Uncle Hal built it in his shop. And you won’t catch me putting any butterflies in the sanctuary either.

 

After all, everyone knows that when a caterpillar, after a happy life of eating luscious greens in the garden, begins to spin a silken cocoon, it spends a period of time during which it morphs into a butterfly. It begins to grow legs, and wings, and antennae, and when ready, it emerges as a butterfly. It didn’t die. It just changed. Right? Wrong! That’s what I believed for 30 years of ministry.  Until a couple of months ago — when I was driving home from, of all things, a funeral and I was listening to a science program on NPR radio. What I heard was so amazing that when I pulled into the driveway, I sat in the car for another 15 minutes so I could hear all of the program. Everything I had ever thought about caterpillars and butterflies was totally wrong.  Here is a portion of the program’s [edited] transcript:

 

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Here's a dangerous, crazy thought from an otherwise sober (and very eminent) biologist, Bernd Heinrich. He's thinking about moths and butterflies, and how they radically change shape as they grow, from little wormy, caterpillar critters to airborne beauties. Why, he wondered, do these flying animals begin their lives as wingless, crawling worms? Baby ducks have wings. Baby bats have wings. Why not baby butterflies?

 

"Because the radical change that occurs," he says, "does indeed arguably involve death followed by resurrection." "The adult forms of these insects are actually new organisms."

 

Say what? ...

 

"In effect, the animal is a chimera, an amalgam of two, where the first one lives and dies ... and then the other emerges."

What he's saying is, while a butterfly appears to be one animal, with a wormy start and a flying finish, it's actually two animals — two IN one! We start with a baby caterpillar that lives a full life and then dies, and then dissolves. There's a pause. Then a new animal, the  butterfly, springs to life, from the same cells, — but resurrected.

 

According to this theory, long, long ago, two very different animals, one destined to be wormy, the other destined to take wing, accidently mated, and somehow their genes learned to live side-by-side in their descendants. But their genes never really integrated. They are sharing a DNA molecule like two folks sharing a car, except half way through the trip, one driver dissolves and up pops his totally different successor. Driver No. 2 emerges from the body of driver No. 1.

 

Really?

 

When this theory was first proposed (not by Bernd, but by an English zoologist), eminent scientists scoffed. Said Duke biologist Fred Nijhout, this idea fits better in "The National Enquirer than the National Academy (of Sciences)." Said paleontologist Conrad Labandiera, "You must be kidding!" But Donald Williamson, a zoologist from the University of Liverpool in England, wasn't kidding. And if Bernd Heinrich is now warming to this notion, it's time to take a closer look at Death And Resurrection in insects.

 

Many insects begin life as worm-shaped, leggy, tubular thingies that spend lots of time eating. We call them grubs or maggots or caterpillars, and they are programmed by a set of genes that sit in their DNA, spelled out in chemical letters, A, C, T and G. So the caterpillar grows and grows until one day, it spins itself a silk coverlet (a cocoon) or a harder pupa or chrysalis container that dangles off a twig and it goes ... well, silent. 

 

This phase is, as Heinrich puts it, "a deathlike intermission." Inside, these caterpillars shrink, shed their skin, their organs dissolve. Their insides turn to mush. Most of their cells die. But lurking in the goo are a few cells (the so-called adult or "imaginal" cells) that at this moment jump into action, reorganize all the free-floating proteins and other nutrients and turn what was once a caterpillar into a butterfly, what is in effect ... a resurrection!

 

What's happened, says Heinrich, is that the caterpillar section of the DNA has been turned off, and the butterfly instructions have been turned on.                                                                                     "There are indeed two very different sets of genetic instructions at work," he writes, and this switch, turning "caterpillar" off, turning "butterfly" on, means that "most of one body dies and the new life is resurrected in a new body."

 

There is no controversy about the mechanics I just described; it's the explanation that's new and controversial. The old view was that over millions of years, animals evolved this habit of switching from one set of instructions to the other. The new view is that this is not one animal gradually changing shape, but rather instructions for two different animals sandwiched together and this change is so radical, says Bernd, "with no continuity from one to the next, that the adult forms of these insets are actually new organisms." A caterpillar is born and dies; a butterfly is resurrected from its juices.

 

It's a stunning idea.

 

If cross-species matings were once possible, who knows what you could die and turn into? Could dandelions dream of becoming spruce trees? Could tadpoles, instead of morphing into frogs, become catfish? This is silly, I know, but radical metamorphoses, from tadpoles to frogs, maggots to flies, grubs to beetles, remain largely mysterious, so new explanations are intriguing, even if they startle.

 

And now, this is where it gets really crazy . . . [and this was the part of the program I pulled the car over for to listen to].  A new study says your basic butterfly brain can do something utterly amazing. It can remember lessons learned when the butterflies were still caterpillars, before the trauma of metamorphosis.

 

Caterpillars don't just change their clothes when they turn into moths or butterflies, according to biologist Martha Weiss. Instead, they go through a biological meltdown that reduces them to soup.

Professor Marthe Weiss (biologist)                                                          

studies butterflies and moths inside a tiny laboratory on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.                       

Last spring, this lab held a lot of big, green caterpillars that eventually turned into tobacco hornworm moths. It also held a research team armed with canisters full of foul-smelling gas called ethyl acetate and boxes rigged to zap the caterpillars with electric shocks.                                                                                                          

Weiss says it was all part of a study of moth memory.

Says Prof. Weiss: “The question that we asked is can a moth or a butterfly remember something that it learned as a caterpillar?”

 

To find out, Weiss and her colleague Doug Blackiston put a lot of big, green tobacco hornworm caterpillars into the electric boxes and then gave them whiffs of stinky gas. Then Blackiston zapped them so that the caterpillars would get a little bit of smell, and then they'd get a shock, and you could tell that they noticed the shock. They did it once an hour for eight hours.

 

Weiss says the caterpillars quickly learned that the smell would be followed by the jolt. As a result, the caterpillars wouldn't go near anything that smelled of ethyl acetate.                                                  

Next, the researchers let the caterpillars start the process that would turn them into moths. One by one, these caterpillars disappeared into brown, urn-shaped pupal chambers that completely dissolve their bodies and their brains. Five weeks later, the moths hatched out. At that point, the researchers gave the moth a choice of fresh air or air that stank of ethyl acetate.              

 And wouldn't you know it, the moths that had learned to avoid ethyl acetate as larvae still avoided it as adults.                                   

In other words, somehow, the caterpillar memories had survived the biological meltdown. Weiss and her co-authors report on their results in the journal PLoS ONE, which is published by the Public Library of Science. — NPR                                                                                                                                                                                               ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------              

 

St. Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

 

What is Easter all about?

 

1 Cor. 15:51-56 -- “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 

Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus! Amen.

 

CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN INDEED!

 

(Pastor Kris Baudler, Easter 2016)