Sacrifice

Two recent articles in a magazine I subscribe to have been highly critical of the Greenpeace organization, and in particular, its campaign against the gathering of furs by northern communities in Canada.

It was pointed out that the result of this campaigning has not only been to ruin the native fur-gathering economy, but also to give the result that the furs of seals killed for their meat, instead of being put to use in the form of clothing, are now completely wasted because of this boycott of natural furs. This, too, by people who quite possibly eat meat and wear leather shoes, and pollute the atmosphere with gasoline-powered automobiles, without a second thought about the hypocrisy of their position.

Is it perhaps that in the growing urbanization of our lives, we are beginning completely to lose touch with the cycle of birth and death in nature? If so, this has very serious implications for our religion. The essential theme of Christianity is not the avoidance of death. Rather, it is the creative use of sacrifice as the springboard to new life. The sacrifice of the vegetables, seeds and animals that go into our diet, is the price nature is asked to pay so that mankind can continue to live on the earth. In olden times, this sacrifice was made with religious reverence and a full appreciation of the blood and the suffering involved. Now, we can pick up a package of meat at Safeway, secretly killed in a packing plant, without a second thought that an animal gave its life that we might live. Our faith teaches us, however, and particularly teaches us through the Eucharist, that it is not wrong that such a sacrifice should be demanded and made. Rather, it challenges us ourselves to follow Christ in presenting our bodies as a “living sacrifice”—taking part with all of nature in an endless pattern of death and renewal, a pattern upon which our total ecology depends.

Abolish death on this earth, and we condemn ourselves to an unreal and overpopulated world, where children become a burden, because their elders never come to the point of ‘passing on’, where the animal and insect worlds multiply to the point of covering the earth, because they do not give up a substantial portion of their young to provide food for other species—in the end, to a point where an overburdened earth no longer can sustain all the demands made on it. Sacrifice gives the opportunity of death with a purpose: life laid down so that others can live more abundantly. Captain Oates, Sidney Carson, an abundance of Christian martyrs, Christ himself—are we really so without understanding that we are unable to get the message?

This, of course, leads on to the fact that there is a Christian case in favour of birth control and abortion. But I think I’d better quit while I’m ahead!

– Anglican Messenger, January 1991
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Metamorphosis

Spring is here, and with it gardening, lawn mowing, planting seeds and watching them grow, barbecues, mosquitoes—and caterpillars.

Caterpillars, a strange and squishy form of life, feeding in particular on leaves of trees and hedges. Travel through areas of poplar growth in the Province, and often enough at this time of year we will see acres of trees denuded of their leaves by tent caterpillars. Nasty, destructive things, whether in the garden or outside.

What is so strange about caterpillars, though, is that they live, literally, a double life. When their time of destructive feeding is over, they go dormant within a kind of shell that they manufacture for themselves. Some time later, they emerge from the pupa stage as a (much more attractive) moth or butterfly.

Particularly interesting is the way this comes about. It’s not as if the caterpillar keeps its identity in making its transformation. Rather, it seems, the whole creature dissolves into a kind of mush, from which an entirely new creation develops, much as a chicken develops within the egg.

What a parallel with our own process of spiritual development! “Be not conformed to this world,” says St. Paul, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In the first part of our lives, we establish ourselves at the expense of others. At some point, though, a new spirit has to take us over, dissolve our old nature, and refashion us in an entirely new manner. Whether in Baptism, conversion, or death, “It is sown a physical body: it is raised a spiritual body.” “He who loses his life, the same shall find it.”

To quote William Temple:

“Death becomes not a mere gateway to be passed through, not the mere casting away of a perishable body, but a loss which is turned into gain, a giving up of life which is made the means whereby that life is received back again renewed, transfigured and fulfilled.”

The way, in fact, in which the caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

– Anglican Messenger, June 2000

Baptism as Suicide

Jonestown—Waco—the Solar Temple—Heaven’s Gate. Just some examples in recent years of cults with strange ideas of ‘the other side’, and of followers led like lemmings to a murderous or suicidal fate because of this, by strangely unqualified leaders.

Somehow, all this resonates well with a remark that Kathleen Norris makes in her recent work “The Cloister Walk”—that there is real value in the dullness of conventional religion, and the repetitiveness of its ritual. Truth in theology may not be as dramatic as the fantasies of a ‘Star Wars’ imagination. Hopefully, though, ‘mainline’ religion, with its orthodox theology, its sometimes pedestrian sermons, its repetitive ritual, and the discipline of a daily ‘rule of life’ of piety and charity, can keep us free from the excesses of misguided belief. Having faith is all very well, but as St. James says, “the devils believe, and tremble”. These cult suicides teach us, alarmingly, that believing in error often has worse effects than no belief at all.

What is so particularly sad, it seems to me, is that these people who commit suicide are so close to the realizations that in orthodox Christianity lead to conversion and Baptism. Yes, most of us find out after a time that the rewards of the material life are hollow. To pursue them is futile, since success only makes death a more sorrowful parting from all we have ever lived for. A life lived for oneself, once we fully realize that such a life is finite because our material bodies are finite, has no purpose at all. In Shakespeare’s words, “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Perhaps we do not realize that Baptism is the answer of our ‘mainline’ churches to this dilemma—because Baptism is, symbolically, suicide. It is “a death unto Sin”—but also a “new birth unto righteousness”. We don’t have to take an imaginary space ship to a distant galaxy in order to commence the spiritual life. It is something that can start, sacramentally, right here on earth. And, once we have come to this realization, the convenient cop-out of suicide is perhaps no more than a selfish, Disneyland way of wasting the remaining life God has given us on earth, rather than ‘redeeming the time’ in Christian love and service.

It’s so easy to think of the faith we follow as a matter of personal convenience and preference. Surely, it is much more than that. In the confusing world we live in, it is our means of sanity and survival. It is also something we can and should be willing to share with our fellow humans—for the sake of their sanity and survival as well.

– Anglican Messenger, May 1997

A Living Hope

“God … has begotten us anew unto a lively hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

As I am sure you know by now, the reason that I am here to speak to you is because of the arrival on Thursday morning of last week of Caleb, the much loved and anticipated son of Kevin and Brenda. So just at the moment, Kevin will be looking after family matters, and I will be here to take the service and preach.

This Second Sunday after Easter, we turn from the sheer excitement of Our Lord’s rising from the dead, to answer two questions. First, ‘Did it really happen?’ And second, ‘What does it all mean?’

The story of Thomas is one of a doubter who became truly convinced that Jesus had returned from the grave, in so real a form that his wounds could be touched, and he could eat and drink with his disciples. Yet in a way, Jesus had become different. He was not like Lazarus, restored to life, but still the target of Pharisees who wanted to kill him. Jesus could appear out of nowhere into a locked room. He could perceive a person’s thoughts when not visibly present. He seemed able to disguise himself, so as not to be recognized until he wished to be. Yet he also had teaching still to do. The key message: “I go to prepare a place for you”. His attitude—one of triumph and happiness.

But what does it all mean? Saint Peter gives us a clue—we have been “begotten again” by this resurrection. Just as Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” so we have been enabled to receive God’s Holy Spirit to start us on our path to eternal life, as the disciples found out at Pentecost a few weeks later.

‘Begotten’, though, is not the same as ‘born’, as Brenda might tell you. Begetting is the responsibility of the father, while bearing the child is the much more prolonged and difficult duty of the mother. It is a pity that many Bible translations do not make this distinction, because there is an important message here.

During the past months, Caleb has been developing in the womb from a union of two tiny cells, which have divided and divided until this fetus has turned into a completely formed child, with lungs, eyes, arms and legs and mouth.

If we were to go back a month or two, I can imagine Caleb having a conversation with his mother that might go something like this: “Mum, I can’t move in here—why do I have to grow these arms and legs?” “Mum, I’m surrounded with water here, why do I need these lungs?” “Mum, It’s all dark in here. What’s the use of growing these eyes?” “Mum, I get all my nourishment through my umbilical cord. Do I really need a mouth?”

And Mum might very well reply: “Caleb, you’re not going to be here forever. Before long, you are going to end up in a new world, a word of movement, air, sunlight and food. What you are developing now is not for the life you are living today. Soon, you are going to be born into a new life, and these gifts, which seem so unnecessary today, are things you will not be able to do without if you are going to live in the world you are going to enter.”

Well, all of us who are here have spent our necessary time in the womb, and have been now born into this world of light, movement, food and air. But we, too, are in a state where we have indeed been begotten through the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and our spiritual life has commenced, but so long as we live on earth, our journey is not finished, and we have not yet been born into the life to come. Nurturing us until that moment is the responsibility of our spiritual mother, the Church.

So, like the impatient baby, we may well wonder why spiritual traits are developing in us that don’t seem much use to us in the present world—prayer, worship, charity towards neighbours, study of religion and of the Bible, fellowship with other believers, and so on. Many people have no use for them, or this church would be much more full than it is today. Yet the truth is that these things will be our breath, our food, our actions and our light when the time comes for us to be born into the resurrection life to come.

The child has nine months of protection and growth within its mother, before, on some date that is never quite certain, the call comes for it to be born into another world. We now have our threescore years and ten (more or less) allocated to us on this earth, and again, the exact date when we pass from this world into the next is not precisely known. We know, though, that no matter how much it is delayed, at some time it will finally come. We have been begotten, and the day will come when we will be born into the life to come.

As the ancient hymn to Christ puts it: “When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.”

The Resurrection, with its “living hope,” tells us that this earthly life of ours indeed is not the end, but a preparation for Eternal Life. For which, let us indeed give thanks.

Its message therefore is for us to use our time joyfully and wisely, not considering the time we spend on holy things to be wasted, because the wonders of this world are only a foretaste of the joys and the wonders we will experience after our new birth into the world to come. For this, we can give thanks to the never ending love of our Father in heaven, of His Son and of His Spirit.

– Text of a Sermon delivered in March 2008