Friday, February 24, 2006

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving ...

A sermon preached on the occasion of the baptism of Matthew Whelpdale.  Our readings from the Bible are Romans 8.12-17 and John 3.1-8.


In the wonderful Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life, there’s a skit where two medical technicians try to persuade a sceptical woman to donate her liver –given that they want to remove it while she’s still alive you can’t blame her for being just a bit hesitant.  Trying to get her to see the bigger picture they burst into song –  “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown ...
    Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
    and revolving at 900 miles an hour ...
    In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
    of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.”

By the end of the song, Mrs Brown is feeling just depressed enough, just insignificant enough, to agree.  It’s a wonderful, comic moment –but it’s got a sting in the tail.

The genius of Monty Python is in the way it manages to blend the ridiculous with the truly hard questions of life.  What are we here for?  The fact is that the universe is bigger than our wildest imaginations, that it’s in motion, changing and evolving, still being born.  As the psalmist asks – what are humans, that God even bothers to think about us?  Religion used to duck the hard questions posed by science – even today, many Christians feel threatened by the idea of a universe that isn’t finished.  How special are we?  Does evolution make a mockery of religion’s claim that human beings are created in God’s image?

This morning we’ve heard from St Paul, and then we heard from Jesus in St John’s Gospel talking in a very similar sort of language.  About the new and transformed life that becomes possible when we recognise the movement of God’s Spirit in us.  And I think the thing that strikes me most of all about this sort of talk is that there’s the sense of movement.  The word that Jesus uses that Nicodemus gets so hung up about – in Greek it’s anothen which means two things at once, it means ‘again’ but it also means ‘from above’ – Nicodemus just hears it as ‘again’, but what Jesus is talking about is more profound, it’s about recognising that our own identity is formed by God not just as a ‘one-off’ creation but as a work in process – that God’s spirit continues to move in us and form us moment by moment – and for Jesus the Spirit-filled life is possible when we begin to recognise that movement and go with the flow.  And that, also, is what St Paul is getting at – the Spirit of God in us is not just a ‘set and forget’ creation but an invitation for us to dive headfirst into the flow of God’s own life – for us to be God’s children means the recognition that what is animating us is God’s own Spirit, the recognition that we ourselves are in movement from the inertness of individualism towards our true identity as active participants in God’s own life.  In short, that human life is a journey into the creative heart of God.  It’s a surprising and exciting idea, and it’s one that for most of the last two thousand years, with its emphasis on human sinfulness, the Christian Church has often forgotten about.

It’s a strand of Christian spirituality that connects us with the mysterious and powerful currents of our own creative potential.  Back in the 17th century, the mystic Meister Eckhart recognised this when he wrote, ‘we are heirs of the fearful creative power of God’.  Our creative powers can be either life-giving or destructive – or both at once, for example in the human genius that unravelled the mystery of nuclear energy.  And Eckhart realised that this human creativity that we all share has its source in God - and this is exactly what it means that we are created in God’s image, that the human soul becomes the furnace of creation.  Everything that God has created, and everything that God will create millions of years in the future, Eckhart claims, is created by God in the depths of the human soul.  We who are made in God’s image, share God’s capacity to dream and to imagine the universe into being.  Not just in big ways, through the creative genius of artists or scientists, but in the everyday miracles of human creativity, giving birth and bringing up children, growing and preparing food, the joy of making things that are useful and beautiful.  That’s where we get to share in God’s never-ending act of creation.

Which of course brings us to baptism, and to the focus of our worship this morning, which is to share with Ben this pivotal moment where all this comes into focus.  Every time we have a baptism at All Saints I try to say something about what baptism is, and what it means – I try to find something that might be helpful for parents who bring their child for baptism, and for all of us as we reflect on what our own baptism means.  And this time I’ve been most struck by what Jesus says that connects our baptism – our saying ‘yes’ to the Spirit-life that God wants to give us – with God’s original ‘wind hovering over the water creation’.  Baptism, according to Jesus, is us consenting be created by God, us consenting to enter into the partnership of creation that God wants to offer us.  Remember in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist, how he comes up out of the Jordan River, streaming with water, and he sees the sky torn open and God’s Spirit coming down on him, and he hears God’s voice saying ‘You are my Son.  I love you.  I delight in you.’  Doesn’t that remind you of the story in the very first chapter of Genesis, the story of how God creates the earth and everything in it?  How God’s Spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and how, as each new thing emerges, God recognises it and pronounces it good?  You see, that’s what happens in baptism.  God creates us, God recognises us as his sons and daughters, God whispers in our ear our true name, who we really are.  And God says to us, ‘You are my child.  I delight in you.’

Today, God’s going to be whispering in Ben’s ear.  And of course Ben’s going to need help to hear what God is saying to him.  That’s why we ask parents and godparents to promise to bring up their children in the faith of Jesus Christ, to tell their children the story of creation, and the story of Jesus, and the story of themselves as God’s own child.  That’s why we ask the whole congregation to promise to be a community where God’s story is told and retold, where God’s creation is celebrated and God’s promises are remembered, where each and every person is reminded that they bear a special responsibility for God’s creation because they are made in God’s image.  For one reason, and one reason only.

So we can help one another remember the words that God whispers to us: ‘You are my child.  I made you, I delight in you.  In you and through you, I bring the universe to birth’.