Parish Eucharist 16th February 2020
In Hope We Were Saved
Our readings this morning address some of the big questions that have preoccupied mankind since the dawn of time. Who created the world and why? What about us? How are we supposed to relate to God and to the created world? And now, as we paddle up to church through the second major storm in successive weeks, our questions have a new twist. The Bible was written hundreds even thousands of years before scientists were in any position to postulate the connection between human activity and climate change. But the fundamental principles which should underpin the exercise of our responsibility as trustees of God’s creation are at least implicit in what the Bible has to say about the triangle of relationships between God and ourselves and the created world, and that is what I want to explore this morning.
The creation story gives us unrestricted dominion over everything else that God has made, every living creature that inhabits the world, and presumably all the inanimate mineral resources as well (Gen 1.28,29). Here it is, it’s all yours, you are free to exploit anything you can find or catch or farm. Moreover, in our gospel reading Jesus urges us not to worry about the daily necessities of life, our food and drink and clothing, because our loving Father knows that we need these things, and he can therefore be relied on to provide them for us (Matt 6.32). Don’t worry about tomorrow (Matt 6.34). Dominus providebit. God will provide, as he always has and always will.
But hang on a moment. Why do many of us feel uneasy about such an insouciant reading of these Biblical texts? Could it be that we feel uneasy precisely because – as we also read – we are made in the image and likeness of God? (Gen 1.26). God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good (Gen 1.31). We delight – as we believe God delights - in summer and winter, seedtime and harvest, majestic mountain ranges, oceans teeming with life. We delight in the amazingly rich diversity of life that we encounter in our streams and rivers, our fields and forests, our moors and meadows. Beyond our own immediate experience, even as privileged travellers, the television has introduced us to yet more wonders that we could not see with our own eyes. How then could we knowingly be complicit with our governments in the degradation of any part of our wonderful home? Could it be the image and likeness of the creative God within our hearts, that stirs our compassion, urging us to resist policies that risk the destruction of the treasures that have been entrusted to our care?
As we struggle to resolve the tension between God’s fatherly providence and our God-given sense of responsibility, St Paul offers us a stunning insight which links the fate of our precious fragile environment to the glorious destiny of the people of God. From this distance we cannot easily imagine what the world was like two thousand years ago. If you are upset, as I am, by the fly-tipping which sometimes disfigures the otherwise attractive woodlands around London, just imagine for a moment what the Jerusalem rubbish tip must have been like, when they crucified Jesus there. We admire the Roman plumbing which survives in the ruined remains of their most luxurious villas, but the reality of the crowded cities Paul knew, with the air polluted by thousands of open fires, and every water course an open sewer, must have been appalling. Moreover the connection between human activity and such pollution was even more inescapable in its immediate impact then than it is now, when we can rely on universal networks of public drainage and refuse disposal to take it all away where we don’t have to see it or smell it any more. You can see why Paul writes of creation as being in bondage to decay, just as we are.
But then he moves on to the much more surprising metaphor of labor pains. Whereas decay gets worse and worse until the decaying object is utterly destroyed by it, a woman’s pain in labor, which is – for a man at least – almost unimaginably intense, leads in most cases not to decay and death but to the relief and joy of giving birth to new life. Having made that astonishing leap of perception, Paul goes on to insist that our destiny as humans is somehow linked to the destiny of all creation, which will be set free from its bondage to decay to obtain with us ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom 8.21). Just as the book of Genesis links the toil of the labourer and the pain of childbirth to the act of disobedience by Adam and Eve, so now St Paul links the groaning of the created world to our own acute pain as we long for the relief that our redemption will bring as we are adopted into God’s family, becoming children of God. It’s all part and parcel of an integral process of the renewal and recreation not just of humanity but of all the created world, which was spoiled as a consequence of our disobedience – our sin – and will now be restored as a consequence of the redemption won for us by Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is visionary stuff, a deep mystery which we shall not fully understand in this world, but it does make some sense when we think about it. If we continue to behave towards one another and towards our environment with greedy ‘me first’ policies, it is all too probable that we will take our planet beyond the tipping point where life will become unsustainable. If on the other hand we are prepared to follow the example of Jesus in putting others first, whatever the cost, then we could find the political and economic determination required to pull our planet back from the path of climate-driven extinction, towards which we seem to be gently drifting, like a boat on the calm waters above a weir. So I am pleased to see that the General Synod of the Church of England has this week brought forward from 2050 to 2030 the date at which the church as a whole should aim to become carbon neutral. We will all have our part to play in achieving that.
The theological case is also debatable. We cannot know what is in the mind and knowledge of God alone. But we do know that the cross on which the Son of God died for us was planted on a heap of refuse. And St Paul for one saw a deep connection between our adoption as children of God and the renewal of the created world which is our home. Let us pray that the bread and the wine that we consume to-day will be to us not the bread of decay, but rather the bread of life, strengthening us to show our love for all our neighbours around the world by working with them to renew the face of the earth. For in hope we were saved, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay, and will obtain with us the true freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8.21). What a challenge! What a promise!