All Request Summer Sermon Series
Physics in the New Testament
July 31, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Today’s topic, at the request of Dick Zitto, is Physics in the New Testament. As you might imagine, Dick is also our consulting physicist. I don’t know how much spiritual edification we’re going to receive, but we’re going to have fun. And we’re going to start with my absolute favorite New Testament story. It comes from Acts, chapter 20.
Paul has been on the road for months, strengthening the churches throughout present day Turkey and Greece. He’s now on his way back to Jerusalem, hopping from port to port and meeting with the elders as he goes. He’s in Troas, a city on the Agean Sea in Western, Turkey. It’s Sunday. The believers have met for worship. Paul’s boat leaves the next day. We’ll let Luke tell the story, starting in Acts 20:7.
On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day; he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him, took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Them Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.
I love this story. It has little in the way of theological value. It also cracks me up. And it begs the questions: how far did Eutychus fall? How fast was he going? What did it sound like when he hit the ground?
Well. Eutychus was sitting in a third floor window – so, assuming that the interior ceilings were more or less eight feet tall, and that there would be some distance between the floor and the window, Eutychus was probably fell about 20 feet. We’ll say he weighs 120 lbs.
Now we didn’t actually drop 120 pounds. It was closer to 80 – but that doesn’t matter. Gravity pulls on everything the same, causing everything to fall at the same speed. It also wasn’t twenty feet – closer to about twelve feet. That does matter.
To figure out how fast Eutychus was falling when he hit the ground we’ll use the following formula
with g=the pull of gravity, or 32 ft/s2 and y=distance
v=√2(32 ft/s2)(20 ft)
So poor Eutychus was going 36 ft/s2 when he hit the ground.
We can then do a bunch more math and figure out that 36 ft/s2 works out to about 25 mph. It took him half a second to hit the ground.
Enough about Eutychus. Now lets talk about Jesus – specifically about the time he walked on the water. After learning about his cousin John the Baptist’s death, Jesus takes his disciples across the sea of Galilee to a deserted place. Unfortunatly the crowds follow. Jesus, having compassion on them, spends all day teaching and healing, even miraculously feeding them when everyone is hungry. Finally Jesus sends the crowd away, sends the disciples back in the boat across the lake, and is alone. We’ll let Matthew take the story from there – reading from Matthew 14:23.
After Jesus had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, by by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea.
Jesus has an extraordinary ability to defy the laws of physics. Here we see him walking on water. Later, after the resurrection, he displays an ability to enter closed rooms and instantaneously move between groups of his disciples. No amount of physics can explain how Jesus walked on the water, and we’re not even going to try. But it does give us a wonderful opportunity to talk about surface tension.
One of the coolest feats of nature is a water strider’s ability to literally walk atop the water.
Surface tension makes this possible. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen atoms in one water molecule are attracted to the oxygen atom in the neighboring molecules. Since there are no water molecules above the molecules at the top of the water, the molecules form stronger lateral bonds, creating a weight bearing skin on the water.
PAPER CLIP EXPERIMENT
Heating the water lowers surface tension. Cooling the water increases surface tension. In this cool video from the BBC show Richard Hammon’s Invisible Worlds, you can actually see the skin on the water as Hammond pours in a drop of milk.
If Jesus were bound by the laws of physics, one of two things would have had to happen if he were to walk on water. Either each step would have had to essentially freeze the water, setting the surface tension high enough to bare his weight. Or he would have had to distribute his weight across a huge expanse of the water. Or, since he is Jesus, he could have just walked across it.
Finally we turn to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and to the role of Christ in our lives. From Colossians 2:6:
When we are rooted in Christ, Christ gives us both balance and strength. Consider the simple see-saw. A seesaw is basically a lever with a fulcrum in the middle. In this case the board is our lives. The fulcrum is Christ. Christ gives us balance.
When troubles weigh us down, we can counter them by increasing spiritual practices – prayer, worship, community, family, the study of scripture, service toward others – which help bring balance back into our lives.
And when troubles are really bad, we bring the full power of Christ to bear on the troubles, and we call in our sisters and brothers in faith to support us. By moving Christ, the fulcrum, close to the problem, the community can work together to lift the burden and restore balance.
So that’s physics in the New Testament, or how to have science fun in church. Next week we’re going to go a lot deeper with a tough question: Does God play favorites?