Created in Love

Sermon at the Monday Evening Celebration at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: I John 3:1-2

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”?

We live in the midst of wonderful, creative, human beings. Each of us creates things every day, from a cup of tea or coffee to the content of a dozen emails. When we see a complicated object, our first instinct is to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?”

200 years ago, a cleric of Lincoln Cathedral, William Paley, pondered what would happen if he went out for a walk on the common. If he found a stone, he wouldn’t ask who made it and why it was there – stones happen. But suppose he found a watch? Surely something as complicated as a watch means there must be a watchmaker? And 200 years ago, there was only one possible answer: God made it.

But maybe there’s another explanation. What if every living thing contains a template of how to grow, a template that gets tweaked when it passes on to the next generation? That would mean the most successful – the most fitting – templates survive and multiply. This was the idea at the heart of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

And do living things really contain templates? They do. We call them genes. The earliest proof of this was found by a Bavarian Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who studied what happened when you cross-breed pea plants. But it took a long time for other scientists to give him credit, because he only published in a local journal. Now we know exactly how genes work – they are built using a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which holds together four chemical building blocks.

The Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, has written many books explaining how all this works for an audience who aren’t specialists. One was called The Blind Watchmaker – the random processes of evolution lead to plants and animals so complicated we would assume they had been designed, but evolution can get there without the help of a pre-determined blueprint. Some Christian critics objected that it wasn’t very likely that random chance could take all the steps needed to create all of our complex organs. But it’s not impossible, and Dawkins underlined that by writing another book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

One of the things evolution suggests is that our brains are hard-wired, when we see something complicated, to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?” If we’re living among human beings who might be our rivals, that’s a good survival strategy… it might stop us falling into a carefully-laid trap. But we might fall into another trap – the trap of looking for an intelligent hand behind something which has a natural explanation.

Evolution happens. We have hospital superbugs because bacteria can evolve very quickly. We have different breeds of cats and dogs, and peas and wheat, because we have selectively bred these animals and plants over human history. And when we dig up fossils, we can compare both the body shape and the DNA of ancient life with life today. All of these are pieces of a jigsaw. There are lots of missing links, but the few pieces we have fit into a clear pattern.

One thing we don’t have a good idea about in biology, is how the very first living cell came into being. Evolution can’t rescue us here – before the first set of DNA came together in a living cell, some very special chemistry must have happened. Was that a miracle guided by God? Well, perhaps – but be careful! Science tells us that lots of things that looked really unlikely in the past turn out to have a good explanation. Maybe if we understood this better it wouldn’t look like such a miracle, too.

What about the Universe as a whole? How did that get going? 100 years ago, most astronomers though the cosmos was basically unchanging. The stars and galaxies had always been in their place and always would be. Then Albert Einstein came up with the General Theory of Relativity, and we realised that gravity would eventually cause all the galaxies in the universe to fall together. But clearly that hasn’t happened, so Einstein put a “fudge factor” into his maths to balance it out.

Enter Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical genius. He pointed out to Einstein that if the Universe were expanding, the fudge factor wouldn’t be needed. Almost everyone said that was silly, the Universe wasn’t expanding. But an American named Edwin Hubble went off to measure the speeds of our nearest galaxies and confirmed that all but two were moving away from us. Hubble got his name attached to a space telescope you’ve probably heard of. Lemaître get his name attached to the maths which describe the expansion of the universe, which are a bit less famous. Two years later, he pointed out that if the universe was expanding it must have started from a point, which he called a ‘cosmic egg’. One of his rivals, Fred Hoyle, called that a silly idea – who would believe the universe began with a “big bang”? Lemaître did – and he lived long enough to learn, a few months before he died, that radio engineers had picked up a signal from space which matched the radiation which would be left in the universe from a Big Bang beginning.

Well tonight, our theme is “Created in love”, and so far, I haven’t given much credit to God for creating anything. When we see beautiful things in nature – the swirling gases of a planet like Jupiter, a beautiful nebula in space, or our deepest peek at the distant universe – our human instinct is to go “wow, only God could have made that”. Actually, the more we understand about science, the more we can write down the rules, the easier it is to explain how these beautiful patterns come about without needing God to fine-tune anything.

But that still leaves one question. Where do these rules come from in the first place? Perhaps there is only one possible set of rules that works without causing contradictions. If so, those rules spring from the mind of God, whose nature includes all things that are true. If there’s more than one possible set of rules, did God do some selective choosing?

The Catholic Church leaves us free to believe in the Big Bang and in Evolution. We’re also free to believe that God created the world by a miracle a few thousand years ago. But if God did create it more recently, all the evidence indicates that God made it looking as if it had been around for a lot longer, in a Universe more than 13 billions years old, on a planet 4.6 billion years old, and with fossils going back for millennia.

Perhaps we get misled when we open the Bible and the first thing we see is the Book of Genesis. But how often have you watched a film, or read a novel, where the opening sequence isn’t part of the main story, but is something like a dream or fantasy sequence to set the scene? If you were an ancient Hebrew and you opened a scroll to see the words “In the beginning…” that’s like us seeing *“Once upon a time…” or “In a galaxy far far away…” – it’s a cue that what’s coming next is meant to teach us through poetry and story, not science and history. Jesus told stories – think of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son – about people who never actually lived. In the same way, the earliest part of the Bible also tells stories.

What, then, is the Bible trying to teach us by giving us the story of the Six Days of Creation in Chapter 1, and Adam & Eve in Chapter 2? Every day God creates something in Chapter 1, we are told “it was good”. When God creates human beings, “it was very good”. The story restarts in Chapter 2, which is a different picture of creation. God creates Adam, and then from his rib, Eve. They walked in friendship with God “and they were not ashamed”. God sees that we are good. We have no need to be ashamed. We are invited to be friends with the God of the universe! This is a powerful message! And it is all the more powerful when you realise that most of the other cultures who lived alongside the ancient Hebrews told different stories, much less complimentary about human beings. For them, we were nothing more than bits and pieces who had grown out of the limbs hacked off battling giants and demigods. Would you want to see yourself as the toenail of some minor deity? No thank you!

The whole Old Testament is a story of God trying to tell human beings that they are loved. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Ezekiel each receive some kind of visit from God. The message is not only for them, but for their descendants or their communities. When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he was told that God knew him from his mother’s womb – that’s where the words of our opening song, “O the Word of My Lord”, come from. God’s words to Jeremiah! Through the prophet Isaiah, God consoled the people who had seen Jerusalem destroyed: “I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands.”

The point of Genesis is to reassure us that we are made in the “image and likeness” of God. Because we are intelligent, because we are creative, we are like God. God is love, and we understand about love because we are people who love. Sometimes that breaks our hearts. If we are parents of grown-up children, we know we can’t shadow their every move, protecting them from their own foolishness. But when that phone-call comes at three in the morning – “Daddy, I’ve made a stupid mistake – come and rescue me!” – what Dad wouldn’t attend to his daughter like a shot?

When the Bible speaks of love, it often uses the word agape. This is not the same word used for sexual attraction, nor is it the word for just “liking” something. Agape is the kind of love which chooses the well-being of another person and makes whatever sacrifices are needed for the good of the other. This is the love that God has towards us. This is the “kind of great love” which the Father has lavished on us.

Later this week, we’ll look more closely at what it means for God to save us from our sins and forgive our faults. But for tonight, we are invited to stay with the wonder of what it means to be God’s children. All human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. But those of us who have been baptised have an extra privilege! We have been adopted into God’s family, we have been granted the right to call God, “Father!” For many of us, this happened when we were babies; some of us accepted the invitation to God’s family when we were older. Either way, we are member of God’s family – not because we have done anything to earn his love, but because He loves us anyway.

Perhaps you have doubted whether there can be a God because you worried that we would have to reject sensible things we have learned about science. Relax! You don’t! The Second Vatican Council said (Gaudium et Spes #36) that it was the rightful job of science to follow the evidence and come to whatever conclusions were warranted. But way back in the third and fifth centuries, the great scholars Origen (Contra Celsus 6.6) and St Augustine (De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20) already said we didn’t have to take Genesis literally!

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan? No, of course not.

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a couple called “Adam & Eve”? No, of course not. We are asked to believe that we are all descendants of the first human being who sinned – but that’s no different from saying that we are all descendants of the first of our ancestors who had the extra brain capacity needed to think about right and wrong!

If you don’t want to take my word, here are a couple of popes:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. – John Paul II, 1996 (original French)

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. – Benedict XVI, 2005

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”? I mean that the universe unfolds via the Big Bang and Evolution, following rules which come from God. This may be a rather hands-off kind of creation, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. God’s word tells me clearly that God loves me and wants me to be part of his family on earth and happy with him for ever in heaven. One day God will change the rules of the universe so that all of us who have ever lived will be raised forever in indestructible bodies. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I believe it because Jesus rose from the dead. That’s why, with a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in astrophysics from Cardiff, I am content to stand before you and profess that not only do I believe in God who created me, but: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen!”

A cloud of gas in space, resembling a human eye

The Helix Nebula, sometimes nicknamed the “Eye of God”

Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?