Preached by the Dean, theVery Revd James Atwell, using scripture Matthew 5: 43 – 48, at the College of Canons St Swithuntide Eucharist on Friday 13th July 2012.
You may have noticed a newly crafted throw-over adorning the Shrine of St Swithun in the Retro-quire. It was made by our Cathedral Broderers and given by the Revd John Cutter in memory of his wife Susan. One side has raindrops and the other side has the sun’s rays. It picks up the words from our Gospel reading which have become firmly associated with St Swithun:
For God makes his Sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness. (Matthew 5: 45)
Our Lord shows himself quite at home in harnessing observations from nature in his teaching about God. Indeed, we are very close to the core of his teaching; for it is this observation from nature which justifies Jesus’ radical demand:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in Heaven….. (Matthew 5: 44).
As a weather-saint, St Swithun has a particular claim to those verses of Jesus. Most of the nation are familiar with this rhyme:
St Swithun’s Day if thou dost rain,
for 40 days it will remain.
St Swithun’s Day if thou be fair,
For 40 days ‘twill rain nae maire.
In these ecological days we should prize St Swithun who links not godliness and cleanliness, but godliness and greenness.
It is worth noting how many tales of harmony with creation are told of the Saints. St Francis is, of course, classic. My birthday Saint is called St Kevin. He was an Irish Saint who founded the monastery of Glendalough in the 600s. Legend says that an otter brought him salmon to eat and that a blackbird once laid an egg in his hand while he was praying. He is said to have remained at prayer in the same position until the egg hatched out!
The interest in creation as we wrestle with its mystery is not diminished in our own generation. The Large Hadron Collider at Cerne in Switzerland, which is at the centre of strenuous efforts to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson Particle, regularly makes the news.
As I understand it, and that understanding is very limited, the Higgs Boson Particle could begin to explain the existence of mass in the universe, which may turn out to be resistance in a background physical field.
One article I read reflected as follows:
But if the Higgs is all that is found at the large Hadron Collider, a huge amount will remain to be discovered. (That is,) crucial experimental guidance that physicists need to understand fundamental questions about our existence – from whether all four forces in nature are unified in some grand theory to determining what may have caused the Big Bang….
There remains for science the prize of relating the very small (Quantum Physics) to the very large (Relativity) which has defied reconciliation. We are on the edge of wonder as we contemplate whether there is such a thing as a complete unified theorywhich would enable us to perceive our world as seamless.
There is a similar challenge in our reflection on faith. That is, how to reconcile God as Creator, who has made himself known through all his works, with God as Saviour who has made himself known in Christ.
Christian faith is a sort of ellipse. God has revealed himself in creation – ‘In the beginning was the word’ (John 1:1). Hence, Jesus can read God’s love from the creation record. But, we believe that God has also made himself known in Jesus Christ – ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). How do we reconcile God’s universal love in creation with God’s specific call in Christ? Christians, too, need a complete unified theory.
There are various models available for this reconciliation. There is the Noah’s Ark model. A few are plucked to safety from a stormy and alien world. That could be identified as a ‘saved remnant’ model.
Then there is the blessing of Abraham. ‘In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12: 3). There is a sort of over-flow of divine blessing from the People of God to all humankind. One might refer to a ‘blessing remnant’. Then there is the model of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. As the prophet suffers for the nation on account of his faithfulness, so the people of God suffer for the world. The symbol is the towel, that is service. The description for this would be ‘saving remnant’. The key concepts are salt, leaven and light.
How we work out a complete unified theory will inform the way we carry out our Mission. Mission it has to be, because on any of the patterns Christians are called to interact with and make a difference in the world.
If we take the ‘Saviour’ focus of the ellipse seriously we must hand on the faith. We must build the Christian community. We must win lives to Christ. We can only be effective in as much as we are a lively cell of faith.
If we take the ‘creation’ focus of the ellipse seriously we are to work for the common good, without ulterior motive, without seeking institutional gain or preservation. We are witnesses of what is good and right and true in the world.
The Olympic movement talks of values, our own national culture is rediscovering the significance of volunteers, our economic system has lost confidence in pure consumption. There is ground in the secular world which we can share, indeed nurture and invigorate, even become the natural guardians of. We may need to claim it, with our Lord and St Swithun, by being interpreters of creation as well as servants of God’s specific call in Christ. We have each to find our way to that complete unified theory:
For God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.