I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23)
In one of his many remarkable essays, Lewis Thomas – who, until his death several years ago, was president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and had served earlier as dean of both the New York University and Yale Medical Schools – describes an example of what biologists call symbiosis. You may remember this word from high school or college – or perhaps you use it every day! – anyway, it is the condition of two organisms which live together, usually side by side in an environment, and which depend upon one another for success and survival. For example, honeybees and apple trees, that’s a pretty simple and easy-to-grasp relationship: the trees need the bees, and the bees need the trees. Food and Reproduction. The phenomenon, however, properly so called, is much more complicated. Much, much more complicated. And in an essay, which is the title of his second book, Thomas describes the life together of The Medusa and the Snail – one a tiny jellyfish, the other, the familiar fellow who carries his house around. I say “life together,” symbiosis, but I should correct that, for the point that Dr. Thomas makes is that the life processes of each organism are so inextricably bound up with one another, so entwined and connected, that it is almost an inaccuracy to consider them two creatures. This is more than symbiosis. In effect and in reality they are one.
Connections. Thomas is fascinated by the mind-boggling connections between various living organisms, and he displays them in all their complexity in a number of his essays. But we hear about this from other quarters – don’t we ? – for this fact about the world and this awareness of connections is a fundamental motivation for concern about environment, isn’t it? The natural world, we have discovered, is a system of relationships and connections. What happens on one side of the globe is not without an effect on the other. An act of destruction has untold and unimagined consequences. An act of preservation can be much more far-reaching than its own immediacy. And how all this is managed will determine a great deal about the quality and the future of human life.
Connections. This is both a very new and a very old way of looking at ourselves and things around us. New – because for the past three hundred or so years philosophy and culture in the Western world have emphasized disconnection. When they examined humanity they considered men and women alone and isolated, above and outside of the natural world, even cut off from the natural world, determining themselves by themselves That’s what Descartes is about, isn’t it? And it’s a necessary outcome of the researches of Mr. Hume and Herr Kant. And in our own century – until recently – the existentialists held sway. They had a great deal to say, and they did go on and on – but one searches in vain for apple trees and snails and bees.
Connections. A new idea in this century – born of the success of science. And yet it is a very old idea with a remarkable history. Indeed it is one of the assumptions which underlie what St. Paul is telling us in the Epistle this morning. Everything in creation, as he sees it, is connected. And connected not only on a natural level – Paul would grant us that, but it’s not his real interest. What he considers to be important and even crucial is that the whole creation is connected spiritually. Man does not inhabit a world which is a blank and empty backdrop for human life. Rather, creation itself has meaning and it is driven not only by its inherent process but also by a yearning for spiritual fulfillment and transformation.
We heard Paul a few moments ago, and what he told us was this: first of all, that the creation itself in some way is affected by the disaster of sin in human life. It is, he says, “subjected to futility” and is in “bondage to decay.” And so now, it “groans in travail,” it “waits with eager longing”, as do we also, for that redemptive act of God in which the fullness of Christ will be revealed and sin will be overcome forever.
And in that day when we do attain our full adoption as sons of God through Christ’s sonship, we and the whole creation itself will be bound together, connected, in the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” The end of our hope. The fulfillment of our being. The full transformation of the old creation into the new, which is the promise of God through Christ.
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These are pretty heady ideas for a summertime sermon, aren’t they? So perhaps it’s best just to leave them where they stand, and consider for a moment whether or not these “cosmic” ideas from Paul have anything to say to you and me right now. I think they do.
They tell us that your and my spiritual lives are not isolated from one another and cut off, but are rather joined and interdependent. Paul makes this point most emphatically when he talks about the Church as the Body of Christ, and be aware that he is not using the phrase metaphorically. In that Body we depend upon and are affected by one another – when one benefits the other benefits; when one suffers, the other suffers.
The idea is given a grander scope in the Epistle today – a cosmic scope. Not only are your and my spiritual lives are connected to one another, but they are also connected to the spiritual dynamic of the whole creation. Our redemption is part of the redemption of all that is. What each of us does as a Christian is connected to something very big. And what each of us does is vitally important even on that grand scale. Every prayer. Every act of devotion. Every act of charity and love. Every Mass said in this or any church. Every Sacrament celebrated. All these and more are part of the movement of God’s Spirit as God makes the whole creation new.
And that, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is the Gospel. And for all that is – bee . . . tree . . . snail . . . or even flea ! – that Gospel is good news !