Who is our brother? – A salute to science.
The birth of this sermon has been very difficult. In fact it only came together a few days ago, as opposed to some which can be written weeks before. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the gospel reading, about Jesus and God and ourselves all tied together in a way that is mysterious yet enduring. It has led me to want to say something about our relationship with one another and with God. And how it is played out in the world. I have been recently reading a book by Jim Wallis who focuses on the common good. He asks, quite rightly where has it gone, and why has it gone. We have become a very individualistic society and world, yet this idea that we are single entities, unrelated to one another is totally false. Both biologically and spiritually we are deeply connected to one another.
So what is the common good? It is where all people are able to live in freedom, it recognizes that each and every person has dignity, and that a good society is one which allows the thriving of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable. So it is very Jesus like.
As an early church father once wrote “this is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbours.”
So it is not just for the good of ourselves, or those closest to us, but for those we do not know or will never meet.
When we listen to the reading from Matthew today, where Jesus suggests we set aside our mothers and fathers we may have been slightly horrified. However he is not saying just discard them, but rather we have to raise our hearts and minds to include in our circle of concern those who are not family members. When I see those stickers of the family on the back of cars I am often reminded how easy it is to get a bunker mentality. We think we are only responsible for our families because they are who we are related to….
Yet this idea is so wrong.
I am a scientist, I have always loved science, and yet I stand here also as a preacher, part time minister and a Jesus follower. How can the two go together? They go together because God is not separate from us but is an integral part of creation from the very beginning of time, revealed in the ongoing and magnificent process of evolution. And evolution reveals what we fail to acknowledge in our modern society, that we are interconnected with one another at every level. A unity with all of life and with God that requires a response. Jesus could see it in the 1st century, yet we have trouble in the 21st.
So while I want to focus on the common good, I believe if we don’t embrace our common origins we will not be truly able to serve anyone or anything. Modern science helps us do this.
So where does it start.
It starts with the universe.
This new story, based on our current scientific understandings describes the big bang, almost 14 billion years ago as the starting point. It includes the formulation of matter and planets and stars and galaxies, and it relates the evolutionary path from single cell organisms to a species that walks upright, and thinks abstractly. It is a story that is not all about us, but about the creation of the universe, of which we are just a very small, and rather late part.
To show you just how late we come into the picture of creation let us imagine the birth of the universe is on a scale of one year. The big bang would have happened on January 1st. The solar system would have formed in June. Life (micro organisms) would have appeared on earth in October. The first human would have been born on December 31st at 11.56 pm. And Jesus Christ appeared on December 31st at 11.59 and 56 secs. It puts the enormity of where we have come from into perspective
This is our creation story for the 21st century. It gives a message of unity and inclusiveness and a profound kinship with all of life.
Brian Swimme, a cosmologist suggested that “The Universe story shows how profoundly related we are. It shows that we are involved with each other and have been for a long time. So, it is not the case that the earth was assembled and then we were added to the earth, and it was there for our purposes. Rather, we came out of the Earth.”
Which leads us nicely to the idea of human evolution…
There are two facts from modern science which are indisputable. The first fact is that all life belongs to one huge family tree. This is not just about humans but about all living things, animals, plants, insects and even bacteria. We share genes with all other living creatures, not just one or two genes, but thousands of them. From 50-99 percent of all our genes are shared in common with other species, depending on how closely related they are to them. When we look at humans, we are even closer, belonging to the same species, and all containing the same DNA. The idea of race and nationality as separate entities is therefore completely false.
The second point is that species change. The size, shape and colour of animals and plants in a species are not cast in stone but change through time and space. This change is the product of natural selection, whereby those organisms that are better adapted to their environment have a greater likelihood of surviving to adulthood and passing their characteristics on to their offspring. While many people believe that evolutionary biologists do not see direction in this process or see it as purely a competitive environment where only the strongest survive, this is quite wrong. Firstly it is not the fittest, but the most adaptable that survive and reproduce, so strength has very little to do with it. In addition many biologists do see evolution as having a direction, one in which species becomes more complex and advanced as natural selection continues. For example it has been found that members of a species can and do display teamwork, or the art of working together, which is not just for the survival of individuals but for a shared interest. This development is seen as a more progressive adaptation and contradicts the idea that our genes are geared only for individual success rather than group success.
This later point, one of interdependency rather than individualism, together with the first of a single tree of life presents us with a biological view of unity. It is impossible to imagine that we are not linked to other humans, just as we are linked to all other living creatures and that by cooperating rather than competing we are continuing the evolutionary pathway of life. As Joan Roughgarden suggests,
“I trust few readers will be troubled that we and other living things are one another’s kin. Many of us have been dismayed to discover previously unknown brothers and sisters. We can’t choose our parents or kin. Starfish, worms and plants, even rose bushes and redwood trees, are our distant relatives, whether we like it or not. Rather than troubling, for me it’s appealing to think that all of life is united into one body through membership in a common family tree.”
But where is God in this story. For me God is everywhere and in everything.
Many current physicists and biologists would say that life in our universe is more than just the particles that make it up. They would assert that it involves the relationship between the parts rather than the parts themselves, with an unseen order that is required for that life. God is revealed as the other, the extra, the energy, who gives this order, a God who is intimately involved in creation at every level, drawing us together. There is a progression forward, from the smallest amount of stardust to conscious beings, which is astounding and ultimately mysterious.
As Charles Birch has said “The universe is a happening of happenings. Stop the happenings and the universe collapses. God is necessary for the world. God is not the world and the world is not God. God is not before all creation but with all creation. The world includes God and God perfects the world. There is no world apart from God.”
So in this story we also need to see God in a new way. God is not a magical figure intervening at regular intervals in order that humans can somehow have it easy. The process of evolution reveals our organic links to one another, in which God is manifest in the process. Both spiritually and biologically we are connected to teach other and the rest of the created order in a way that is deep, universal and everlasting. Humanity with its ability to be conscious of this fact, to be aware of these connections has a special role to play. And for us Jesus leads the way. Jesus reveals the God found in all of creation, the creative love of the universe. Jesus reveals how we should live together.
So returning to where we started.
The idea of the common good is therefore not some nebulous ideal, or one that only Jesus spoke of and lived. It is a call for us all to live and love for others. It is to challenge the idea that we can survive as individuals and still develop and grow. Rather fullness of life can only be achieved through a unity, seen biologically and spiritually, which seeks to support, nurture and connect with one another. As the reading from John1 says…the commandment we have from Jesus is this, those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters. And this does not just mean our families. For us that includes family, community, secular and religious institutions and the wider body of humanity. It also means care for the whole created order.
And if we do this, what is the reward? The reward is a world where all people are included, all are loved and all live full and complete lives. A world where people have meaning and purpose and direction and love which expands not only their own horizon but all those around them. A world where freedom and liberation is found for the weak and vulnerable. A world where the earth from which we arose is cherished rather than used and abused. A world where those fleeing persecution are welcomed rather than turned away or locked up. A world of peace and hope.
A world we would all like to see.