(by Mark Parent)
I spoke a few weeks ago about how the disciples had to make some great shifts — arrive at bold new insights — in their view of the end times and in their view of who the Messiah would be, not the end of time but an in-between time, not a conquering warlord but a suffering servant. And I mentioned at the end of my sermon that we need to make another major shift today.
I want to elaborate on that for a few minutes this morning since the elements in our monthly communion celebration, the bread and the cup, serve as an entry point to the new perspective we need to adopt. We are used to thinking of the bread and the cup as symbols, representations. As such they are distant from us, unimportant really except for their use in sparking our gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. They could just as easily be something else like Pepsi and pizza which is actually what some of the Jesus movement of the seventies used in their celebration of communion in order to be more modern, more — and doesn’t this word sound archaic – more hip. But in the Roman Catholic tradition such a substitution would be sacrilegious because the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus on the lips of the recipient.
This doctrine is called the by the fancy name “transubstantiation” and I doubt if there are many Canadian Catholics who really believe this any longer, at least in its literal sense. To modern sensitivities it seems either magical or barbaric, smacking of cannibalism. But to take such a view is to misunderstand the historical context behind transubstantiation. Because this doctrine was conceived of in a day and time dominated not by our modern scientific worldview but rather by a platonic one. In the scientific worldview, bread and wine are just that, inanimate objects, but in a platonic worldview they serve as pointers to something greater, something beyond themselves, the ideal form of which the bread and the cup are but poor representations.
In some senses then this major shift that we need to make today is a return to the past although in other ways it is not.
By now I probably have you all confused “what exactly is this shift that I am talking about anyway?” So let me spell it out quite simply. Instead of viewing the world in which we live as an inanimate object using modern scientific analysis we need to adopt a more mystical, more platonic viewpoint, in which we see this world as a living object that points beyond itself to something even greater.
For those of you who have followed the environmentalist movement this is not new. About twenty years ago now, one of the main scientists behind the theory of climate change, James Lovelock proposed that we view the world as a self-regulating organism rather than as an inanimate ball of rock, earth, water and molten stone. He was out taking a walk with a friend of his, William Golding who was the author of the book Lord of the Flies and Lovelock explained to Golding his theory, his new way of looking at the earth. Golding asked what the name of his new theory was. When Lovelock replied that he was calling this new theory the “Biocybernetic Universal System Tendency/Homeostasis” Golding replied that he had a far better name for it and that was the name Gaia, based on the Greek term for the goddess of the earth. Golding’s suggestion was adopted by Lovelock and the Gaia theory, the theory that the earth is not an inanimate object but a living being has been a feature of contemporary environmental action for some years now.
It has not penetrated far beyond the environmental community, however, and I for one believe that it should. Because, you see, our modern scientific view of the earth as inanimate matter has led us to a place where we face massive problems, problems whose consequences, if the scientists are to be believed, will wreak havoc on our climate bringing, drought and floods, severe storms, overheating some areas and over chilling others all at the same time. And even for those who do not believe in climate change, or who poo poo its effects, there is the fact that we are running out of cheap fossil fuels and that our economic system based since the 1800s on cheap fossil fuels cannot be sustained much longer.
To avoid climate and economic collapse we need to move beyond the view of the world as inanimate matter to be used as we see fit and adopt a new view of the earth as a living being with whom we must live in harmony if we are to survive into the future.
And what I find so fascinating about the Bible is that centuries before Lovelock’s insight the Apostle Paul already understood this when he wrote to the church in Rome that all of the created world was groaning as if in the pangs of childbirth, waiting for us to come to our senses and to be reunited through Christ with the ground of our being, with God. Paul puts it like this:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.
Of course Paul was using poetic language. He didn’t really think of the earth as a great pregnant woman any more than Lovelock thinks of the earth as human creature. But what the Apostle Paul was saying is that we human beings are in a relationship with the earth which is one of mutuality. The earth suffers when we sin and when the earth suffers we suffer as well.
This is also the message behind the story of the Garden of Eden. At the beginning harmony prevails but then Adam and Eve break relationship with God and instead of harmony between the human creature and the animal world there is enmity, instead of an Eden, man must till the soil and water the earth with his sweat in order to eke out enough to feed himself and his loved ones.
We need to stop viewing the earth then as dead, inanimate material that we can use at will but rather view it as something living, more akin to the animal world, given by God for our use but in a respectful, thoughtful way. In a way that looks forward to the time when harmony will be restored between the human world and the world, a time when, as the prophet Isaiah put it, “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf and the fatling and the lion together and a little child shall lead them.”
I realize, of course, that there are some who don’t even view the animal world with respect but increasingly such people are in the minority. In fact there are many who are even talking and writing about a bill of rights for animals and already in law we have enshrined many prohibitions about the mistreatment of animals which would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.
What I am calling for then is for Christians to see not the separation but the unity, not the divisions but the oneness. I am part of you as you are part of me. The air I breathe out, you breathe in and together we are part of this world sharing it with a myriad of creatures, small and large alike.
And when we begin to look at our world not as inanimate, lifeless matter but as a living being this will spark other changes as well. No longer will we look at ourselves as autonomous beings, lonely individuals who do not need anyone else. Instead, we begin to see ourselves as one with others, part of a human family.
How is it that the poet John Donne put it in his famous poem For whom the Bell Tolls — “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Each is a piece of the continent. Apart of the main.”
Moreover, when we begin to look at our world as living being this also changes how we see the animal world. The well known missionary and Nobel Prize winning doctor, Albert Schweitzer would go out his way to avoid stepping on and killing even something as small and seemingly insignificant as an ant. He taught that the only way to live ethically was through a profound reverence for life, all of life, human and non-human alike.
But perhaps the most important change that happens when we begin to look at our world differently is that we also begin to look at God differently. We begin to see God not as separate from us, as the Father who creates or the Son who redeems but as divine Spirit, present in all of life, closer to us, as Martin Luther once put it, than the beat of our own heart.
Of course, it is important to hold fast to all persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit. But we Baptists, in common with many others, have given short shrift to the person of the Spirit.
When we begin to view the world as a living being we can no longer ignore the Holy Spirit. For the life that is in the world, the energy that pervades it, is also the life, the energy that is in us. It is this life-force that Schweitzer wrote about and which ties us all together. And we cannot treat one part, one element, of this life force with contempt without treating all of life with contempt.
Which brings me back to the bread and the cup. For the bread that we will eat of in just a few minutes is tied in with this life force. It was prepared for us by Juanita who cooked the flour which was sold at a local store, baked by a baker, grown by a farmer, brought to life by the same water and sun which brings us to life and sustains us as we grow.
It does more than symbolize the life that was in Christ. It is part of the life that was in Christ and when we eat of it we affirm that we too are part of that life, part of the whole, part of this wonderful world that we must care for not just because we need it to survive but because it too shares in that life force, is sustained by that same Spirit, that sustains and gives life to us and it waits with sighs and groans, as if in the pangs of childbirth, for us to come to our senses, open our hearts to God and seek to restore the harmony.