Salvation, sunflowers and meteor showers
September 5, 2013
So there we were last week, stretched out on sun loungers at eleven o’clock at night, looking up at a dazzling night sky. As we were in rural South West France it was still deliciously warm and there was no light pollution. The Milky Way was clear to see, and that night happened to be the best night for observing the Perseid meteor shower. The sky was simply full of shooting stars and we lay there marvelling at stars arcing across the constellations. It was a breath-taking sight, and we lay there gasping and laughing in amazement.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” So writes the psalmist. It’s wonderful to contemplate that the night sky we were bedazzled by was the same sky that moved the psalmist more than two millenia ago. The night sky unites us to our ancestors. And it takes us further back in time too: the light from the furthest starts takes millions of light years to reach our eyes, so when we look at the stars we are time travellers, looking into the distant past of the universe. As we lay there in the garden in France, all space and time, the entire grandeur of God’s cosmos, was spread our above us. The immensity of it is dizzying. It can leave you feeling almost drunk with a sense of wonder. Or maybe that was the local red wine.
If the night sky gives us the big sweep of creation, then the daylight unfolds the fine detail.
We were staying in the Lot region, where the fields are planted with crops of maize and sunflowers. We were staying in a house with a lovely garden, and much of the holiday was spent in the garden, trying to identify the many species of butterflies that skimmed over the wildflowers in the lawn and fed on the lavender bed. We marvelled at the hairiness of caterpillars, at the iridescent colours of the mayflies, and at the predatorial skills of the spiders who slung their webs across the draining ditches at the edge of the farmer’s field. The cicadas sang to us from dawn to dusk. Life was humming and buzzing all around us. and of course it always is; but the beauty of holidays is that this is sabbath time, time to rest, time to observe, time to pay attention to this extraordinary natural world in which we find ourselves.
I was keen to go to mass in the village church, though the rest of the family, not being French speakers, stayed at home. As I drove there through the fields of sunflowers I innerly prepared myself for the fact I would not be able to receive Communion – being France, it was a Roman Catholic church. The church was full, with lots of Mums and Dads shushing their restless children. It was prayerful, thoughtful act of worship. I joined the line to take Communion with my head bowed to receive a blessing.
The priest blessed me and gave me a quizzical look. “Don’t you receive the bread?” he asked me. “Je ne suis pas catholique.” I replied. “Protestante?” he asked. “Anglicane.” I said. “Vous auriez du.” He said. You really could have done, you know. My heart filled with love for this priest at this moment. What an ecumenical saint! So then, after all I received the bread that is Christ’s body for us, and went back to my seat.
Perhaps it was because I had so carefully prepared myself for not receiving the bread, that as I sat quietly praying I was filled with a wonderfully fresh and vivid sense of the presence of Christ, bringing me into communion with the others worshippers in this little village church – families, older people, and African nun. I’d never meet these people again, I’d never speak to them, but it didn’t matter because we were in communion with one another, we belonged together in Christ, we all shared the one bread.
As I drove back home through the quiet country lanes that sense of being in Communion kept amplifying within be. As I looked out at the beauty of the natural world around me it was as though I wasn’t an onlooker any more but a participant. I felt myself to be in Communion with the sunflowers and the maize growing in the fields, with the insect life teeming within them and the birds flying overhead. Belonging in Christ didn’t only connect more closely with the people around me, but with the created life around me, this intricate ecology of plant and animal life.
Sometimes in our life of faith we are given these un-looked for moments of grace and insight, and for me, that was one of them. Thanks be to God.
Well, as we’ve been in France looking at night skies and caterpillars, at St. Columba’s you’ve been doing some holiday reading in the letter of Paul to the Romans. I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know it in the Message translation and that Linda, Kon and Steve have helped you to hear afresh the good news of how God puts us right through the pure, unmerited gift of Jesus Christ. Today it falls to me to wrap things up a bit and to share with you some of the treasures of Romans chapter 8 – for my money one of the most glorious writings in the whole of the bible.
So here’s my wrapping up of our Romans series. The gospel in one sentence: it’s not about what we do, it’s about what God does. The gospel in one word: grace. Have you got that? I’m not sure we ever fully get it, really. We’re products of a deeply individualistic culture and it’s our default setting to put ourselves and what we do at the centre of our world. We need to let God re-arrange our mind set. Readings Romans can help with that , and so can looking closely at night skies and caterpillars.
So let’s look then at Romans 8. Now here’s a surprise. We thought that Paul’s theme was salvation, God’s saving love for us in Jesus Christ, putting us right with him, overcoming sin, enabling us to die and rise with him. But now, just as Paul comes to the climax of his great sermon on salvation, he seems to shift a gear, he isn’t talking about salvation, he’s talking about creation. How did that move come about? And Paul isn’t just talking about any creation, he’s talking about a pregnant creation.
Let’s hear that passage from the Message Bible again:
I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
22-25 All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
What a brilliant insight this is for Paul to be speaking of the created world as a “pregnant creation.” Pregnancy is a dynamic state, about change and being changed and looking forward. Since Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection one hundred and fifty years ago, we ‘ve been coming to understand the nature of God’s creation as dynamic, adaptive, an unfinished process that is constantly driven forward as plant and animal species seek to reproduce and pass on their genes. Evolutionary biology and human genetics continues to open out ever more windows onto the awe-inspiring ingenuity and intricacy of created life.
Christians have tended to think of God’s work in creation in rather simplistic terms, as if creation was what God did on day one, and then sat back on a cloud and put his feet up. Paul’s image here a pregnant creation gives us a much more sophisticated image of creation of a dynamic process, which suggests a God dynamically present in that process: the cell dividing, the DNA mutating, the universe expanding. God hasn’t finished with us yet, Paul writes, and nor has God finished with his creation yet. There’s more to come.
Ok then, but if Romans 1 – 8 is a sermon about salvation, what’s all this bit about creation doing here?
Let’s think about that for a moment. We believe in one God, whom we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we talk about the creative work of God, we tend to talk about God the Father. When we talk about God’s work in salvation, we tend to talk about God the Son, Jesus. But the bigger picture is that God is One. The God who creates and the God who saves are one and the same God, the same God who by his Spirit is present to us in the here and now.
It’s that thing about Trinity. St John can say in his gospel that Jesus is the word of God who was with God from the beginning because Jesus is completely God. We can look at Jesus hanging on the cross and say it was God they crucified, because God is completely Jesus. The God who creates and the God who saves are the one God who is present to us by his spirit, giving us life through scripture and sacrament and song. There is only one saving, loving, creating God.
So maybe it shouldn’t be such a big surprise to me when I receive Christ in the communion bread in a French village church, and find that God wants to draw me into deeper communion with the created world around me. The God whose redemptive love comes to us in bread and wine is the same God who animates the insects, who inscribes in the sunflower its evolutionary strategy of turning towards the sun.
And maybe it shouldn’t be such a big surprise that when Paul wants to draw together his big picture of God’s saving love for us in Jesus Christ that he find himself meditating on the pregnant creation. To be saved is to be re-created, to be born again, into the love of the creative God who is constantly bringing new life, new galaxies into being. God’s pregnant creation is ours to share: we belong, we are part of it. In Christ, we belong. In Christ, we become.
Frances Eccleston, August 2013