Thursday, 28 May 2020

A Most Important Obscure Day

Physical Absence, Spiritual Presence – Acts 1:1-11.    First I must say that I am not a scientist, so I really liked the Rev. John’s introduction to the topic of Ascension Day.  While writing for Margaret on her blog, I am always aware that she is a scientist and does look at the world in a scientific way and she is also a keen student of theology and a Lay Preacher; while I am not at all qualified in either subject.  So when I reflect on religious topics I am generally happy to pass over the really “hard bits” and take joy in the way I observe the Love of God in and through others and feel the hand of God all around me.

This week the Rev. John began his Sermon: “Today is one of those relatively obscure Christian holidays of which many are unaware: Ascension Sunday. This is the day in the church calendar when we celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. In all honesty, the ascension is a rather difficult idea for the modern mind to handle. It’s the story of how Jesus went to the Mount of Olives after his resurrection from the dead. There, according to the book of Acts, Jesus literally flew off into heaven. “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

Of course my practical side realizes that this is a hard scenario to accept and I was delighted with the Rev. John’s suggestion; “When contemporary people think of the ascension, it is a little hard to imagine the Lord Jesus Christ flying off like a one-person space shuttle into the skies.”  I observed there were a few laughs at this idea that came from the people watching the service with us on their computers; however, for me it did serve to scream out the basic difficulties of always trying to relate the old bible writings (even with a modern translation) to the world of today.

Ascension of Christ - Saint Joseph Catholic Church, Somerset, Ohio
Author Nheyob - Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 4.0 International License
At that point my mind immediately turned to the many ethereal images of the Ascension of Jesus that I have, as a ‘romantic’ and an artist, greatly admired in stained glass and paint - and I must confess the images never conjured up doubt or controversy for me. Neither have I actually struggled with the scientific definition of the cosmos which now generally seems to refer to; “The idea of order which is always present in the words universe or world”, although by definition - “In biblical thought, of course, this order is the result of God's activity”.

Rev. John then mentioned “scientific reservations” and the continuing spiritual importance of the Ascension in our modern world.  On Ascension Sunday, we are called to reassess our devotion to the church as the physical body of Christ still among us. The risen Lord is not here; he has ascended. The body of Christ is very much here, and the way we treat the church is the way we treat the risen Lord.  Ascension Sunday reminds us that we are each, individually, a part of Christ’s body. To honour the church as we honour Christ is also to remember that in a powerful way, we are each a part of this body of Christ.”

People of the Marsden Road Church congregation went away for “church camps” during the 1970s and 1980’s, which was a time when there were many families like ours with children over a variety of ages and this was a wonderful time for everyone from the oldest to the youngest.  We all looked at ways to include everyone in the fun and the religious instruction and often as an adult I loved the times when a “light bulb” seemed to turn on during successful groups and services in which everyone shared at the camps.  Oh!  And how we loved the singing at those weekend camps!

Memories of a Marsden Road Church Camp in the 1970s 

Whenever I hear mention of the importance of each one of us in our role as part of the body of Christ and what each of us can achieve as part of ‘the Church’ if we all work together, I remember how at one camp, all the younger children were called to the front and were each asked to try to pick up and carry a tall strong young man from the ‘stage’ where he was lying on the floor.  Each of the children tried very hard and of course could not even move him on their own, but when they were told to all work together and share the weight by standing all around Craig, there was great excitement and surprise at their success in carrying him away.  I seem to remember there was also a mention of the way tiny ants can all gather around and together lift a large piece of food to take home to their nest to share.  Such a simple idea, but very effective and I suspect all the kids may, like me, still remember the message they were given that day. This message as the Rev. John said on Sunday morning was to; “Remind us that without our individual faithfulness to our role in the church, the body of Christ is weakened and disabled.” 

The Rev. John’s sermon today concluded “This is a critical day in our personal and collective self-understanding. It is significant that the risen Lord ascended into heaven. His ascension invites us to relate to the church as we would to Christ. It reminds each of us of the critical nature of our role in the body of Christ. It calls us to take up Jesus’ work on earth. This is a most important obscure day.”

When I reflect on many religious concepts I wonder if it is perhaps easier for those of us with less scientific or theological knowledge to accept our feelings and instincts with less self-questioning.  Having said that- It may seem surprising, to learn that I have in the past thought and written some heavy questioning thoughts about the Genesis story of Creation in the Bible, the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution, some of which I will share with you.

"In the beginning of creation when God made heaven and the earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters." These words are the very beginning of the Bible.  Chapter 1 of the book of Genesis gives this version and goes on to describe events to the end of the sixth day finishing; “So it was; and God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

So how did the world really begin?  The foremost scientific theory about the origin of the universe is The Big Bang Theory.  I was surprised and interested to learn that this widely accepted theory that the universe was created sometime between 10 billion and 20 billion years ago from a cosmic explosion that hurled matter in all directions was first proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaitre who was a Belgian priest.  I typed “big bang theory” into Google, and after browsing items 1 - 10 of about 1,250,000 results to try and understand how a priest of all people, put forward an evolutionary idea seemingly so in conflict with the Biblical creation story in Genesis, I only became more fascinated.  However, I did learn that Lemaitre was one of many scientists including Edwin Hubble who were also working on variations of this theory at that time.

Can we believe that the Big Bang was God’s first miracle?  I can, but then I am not a scientist.

Before the Big Bang Theory there had been Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, explained in 1859 in his work “On the Origin of Species”.  I found there are about 225,000 results for “Darwin's theory of evolution” on Google, but to summarise his theory:-

1. Variation: There is variation in every population.
2. Competition: Organisms compete for limited resources.
3. Offspring: Organisms produce more offspring than can survive.
4. Genetics: Organisms pass genetic traits on to their offspring.
5. Natural Selection: Those organisms with the most beneficial traits are more likely to survive and reproduce.

If taken literally these ideas probably created religious and moral dilemmas for people when they were first published nearly 150 years ago.  However, today with greatly increased knowledge and ability to act upon that knowledge, some of the possibilities of interfering with the natural order of things are so horrific, I am almost too scared to put them into print! 

Yet I am asking such questions to promote serious thinking about the behaviour of all humans and their often misplaced feelings of entitlement.

1. To say there is Variation in every population is an irrefutable statement. No problems there!

2. Competition is a part of life; but then, does greed creep in here – and does this give some humans ‘permission’ to take more than their share – is it OK to let millions starve to death because the world can’t support an ever increasing population?  Is war then a legitimate way of competing for limited resources?

3. We can accept the fact that turtles and other animals need to produce more offspring to ensure the survival of the species, and we understand that other animals need to kill for food.  However, we can’t accept the death of human babies in the same way; it would seem to be against all we, as civilised humans believe.

4. and 5. are very much related.  Should we be trying so hard to save the lives of humans with genetic diseases that are weakening the human species?  Is keeping them alive and encouraging them to reproduce wrong?  Is natural selection in fact God’s plan to protect us from our own weakness?  Should we encourage the survival of babies so immature that the only reasons for their survival in such a damaged state are the needs of their parents?  Can we be accused of playing God – and is Darwin’s Theory perhaps an expression of part of God’s plan?

Now for another big question.  What is the difference between Scientists, Evolutionists and those who believe the Genesis story?  It is said that, typically, scientists observe evidentiary data and then formulate their conclusions, and evolutionists have formulated their conclusion and then look for the missing data.   It is my personal understanding that believers in the Bible story can accept what they can’t prove or see, and have a sense of wonder that can acknowledge miracles and above all they have faith in God.

I have faith.  I am happy to gaze into the heavens at night with millions of stars smudged across the sky - and feel a thrill I cannot describe; I don’t need to know if there was a Big Bang – I simply feel the truth of Psalm 19; “The heavens tell out the glory of God, the vault of heaven reveals his handiwork.  One day speaks to another, night with night shares its knowledge; and this without speech or language or sound of any voice.”

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