Sunday, 7 October 2007

Creation is grace: a sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I wonder what comes into people’s minds when they hear the word “creation”. If you’re a Christian I’m pretty sure that most folk would think of the opening chapter of Genesis, which indeed the Good News Bible entitles “The Story of Creation”. But then when you read Genesis 1, or hear it read as we did this morning, what then comes into your mind?

If you live in America, I can tell you what will come into a lot of people’s minds: the issue of evolution. “Issue”? Rather what you might call not the Revolutionary War but the Evolutionary War – the issue is that contentious, pitting Christianity against science in a life-or-death struggle. The first shot fired in this particular cultural conflict was the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, but the war soon shifted to the US, where it fizzled down over the next 75 years as the Genesis literalists – the so-called “creationists” – made public fools of themselves, not least in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (memorably made into that great Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind).

However the battle has re-commenced with a vengeance, with the anti-evolution forces now having both a traditional “hard” wing, those who stubbornly cling to a 6000 year-old earth and reject entirely Darwin’s well-demonstrated mechanism of natural selection; and a new, “softer”, more science-friendly wing, those who advocate what is known as the theory of “Intelligent Design”. Needless to say, this war, like most wars, is a war that should never have been fought, and is only sustained by zealots from both sides, the notorious Oxford professor Richard Dawkins being the most belligerent commander of the anti-creationist forces that are hell-bent on a scorched earth strategy against Christianity and religion as such.

So much for creation and evolution, for I suspect that when “creation” is mentioned in the UK, folk are more likely to think of cosmology than evolution: that is to say, they are more likely to think of the origin of the entire universe rather than of just the earth and human beings. I am sure that you have all heard of Einstein and the theory of relativity, and of the physicist Stephen Hawking and ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, and perhaps even the latest mind-boggling speculations on so-called “string theory” (which I won’t try to explain to you because it would give us all severe migraine!). Most of the warfare in cosmology, I am happy to say, seems to take place among cosmologists themselves rather than between scientists and believers. Me, when I read about the latest astronomical discoveries, see extraordinary colour photographs of stellar phenomena zillions of miles away, or get an update from a doctoral student friend about work on the new super-duper particle accelerator being built in Switzerland – which will run experiments that will take us back very close to the moment of the Big Bang – I just gawp in wonder at the world.

Many people will have yet another thought on their minds when they hear the word “creation”: they will think of the environment. Harvest festivals, of course, are a time when we rightly turn our attention to “the fruits of creation” – to sun and soil, to the crops of gardener and farmer, to their “ploughing, sowing, reaping”, as well to lorry-drivers and workers in Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s and what local shops are left. Harvest services are also a time when we remember “the hungry and despairing”, those whose crops have failed due to drought, or been overwhelmed by flood, or who in the South continue to get a scandalously raw deal by American and European bankers and financiers; time also to be disgusted with Western leaders with their broken promises of reducing or cancelling Third World debt, as well as their inaction over protectionist First World agricultural subsidies and tariffs. “Feed the World,” we sang one Christmas, in retrospect rather over-optimistically, as upbeat tears of emotion have turned to cynical cries of rage.

And now, to make matters worse, much worse, perhaps now even irrevocably worse, there is the ecological crisis, particularly the visible, tangible onset of global warming and climate change, about which some right-wing fools with interests to defend remain in denial – “It’s a liberal conspiracy!” they cry – yet the results of which were brought catastrophically home to the unsuspecting people of Yorkshire and Gloucestershire this very summer, when the UK witnessed its worst floods in modern history, yet which we are warned were a mere April shower compared to the downpours yet to come. And how terribly ironic that our Commitment for Life partner this year is Bangladesh – people used to national inundations, yet for whom the monsoons came earlier and more destructively this summer, and whose entire country threatens to disappear within just a few generations under the rising coastal tides. In this global context the word “creation” begins to look like a sick misnomer, as human beings, called to be stewards of creation, become engineers of de-creation, as we work to turn God into a liar, complacently undermining his promise that “never again will a flood destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).

So, evolution, cosmology, the environment, harvest yields and ecological doom – we may think of any of these things when we hear the word “creation”, but – to the point – none of them, in fact, is the essential note that should sound when Christians hear the word “creation”. When Christians hear the word “creation”, the first sound that should ring, sing in our minds is grace. Creation is grace! And that is because creation, in Christian teaching, is an act of sheer divine generosity. Out of nothing, and not for any reason but only from love and for love, God, the “maker of heaven and earth” (as the creeds put it) creates a world.

God does not need a world, as if the world fills a gap in God’s being, as if God would be the less without a world, or as if God were under obligation or constraint to create. On the contrary, if God did not make a world, God would still be the same God, no less the God that God eternally is in beauty and glory as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That God creates is not a law of nature, it is a completely free and gratuitous decision and act. And, further – what creationists don’t get – “Creation isn’t a [scientific] theory of how things started” – however close we ever get to the moment of the Big Bang, it will tell us absolutely nothing about creation – rather creation is a way of seeing everything that is in relation to God, not only back then but always and forever.

“Whatever you encounter is there because God chose it should be there,” and only because God chose it should be there. “It should be a rather exhilarating thought,” writes Rowan Williams, “that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything.” And – further still – “It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”

Finally, this. That creation is grace, that God has made a place and space for us – why? Answer: that we may live and flourish with freedom and joy. God creates a rich, intricate, green and growing world that we could never completely explore or explain were we to live a thousand years. And because creation is an act of divine generosity, an exercise in self-giving, an overflow of goodness which seeks only to bless, and in which God himself delights, so does the church teach that the appropriate response of faith is not just to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God, or even to live in gratitude to God – though that is certainly true – but, above all, to imitate God’s lavish generosity and goodness and blessing in our own relationships, so that we might not only respond to God but also correspond to God, indeed become like God, which is what it means to be created in the image of God.

That creation is grace, therefore, is not “just” doctrine, it is ethics: it is how we should live and behave as the creatures we are made and meant to be. The great church father Irenaeus was once asked to define the “glory of God”. “The glory of God,” he answered, “ are human beings fully alive.” You and me, not only the apex of creation but the very glory of God: Wow!


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