Teilhard de Chardin's Remarkable Story
This is not the usual sort of sermon. It is meant to disturb your thoughts, especially if your thoughts about faith haven't changed much in recent years.
Truth is, we all change over time including our ideas and thinking. But some things don’t necessarily change over time. The passage of years doesn’t mean that your enthusiasm for the gospel has to fade. Nor does time lessen our friendships or interest in other people and their welfare. As a church we used to proclaim, live more simply in order that others may simply live. That’s a truth that doesn’t change.
Something extraordinary happens as life goes on and we mature within it: rather than merely changing the unchanging aspects of Christian life develop and strengthen in our mind. It works like this.
Its been the experience of Christians from the earliest that where friends and strangers meet to break bread together and open up the Bible for study that something more than fellowship happens. Occasionally there is an obvious change, a road to Damascus type experience. Far more often the change is very slow, but the long term result is the same. As the gospel story puts it so very well, “Once I was blind, but now I see.” You see its not the how it happened but the result of it happening.
Transformation has begun. The world looks different, because it is being seen through the lens of faith. All the problems are still there. All the pain. All the suffering and heart-break. But the God who was there in the beginning, who is the creative purpose, the transforming love, is showing the great human and cosmic drama to you in a new light.
You have a part to play, a meaning to meaning to fulfil, a divine love to embody.
And all this springs from that ordinary fellowship where the presbyter gathers the people, tells the story, breaks the bread and pours the wine and blesses the congregation, giving thanks in all circumstances. When you think about it, it is astonishing what God achieves through such a simple act.
Transformation of the heart and mind by the symbolic act of bread and wine. This I think is what the great Catholic priest-scientist Tielhard de Chardin meant by his phrase the spiritual power of matter. He was a palaeontologist, who studied rocks and fossils, and old, bleached bones of long extinct species. He was often away on expeditions. It is on one such trek out in central steppes of Asia he is suddenly aware of the spiritual power of matter. It is the dawn and he is far from creature comforts and Christian company. In that instant he realises that he has no bread, no wine, no altar but that the whole earth is the altar, and on it he will place the world’s life, its labours, its travails, its pain, its suffering, its joy, its wonder.
He says, “Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fore, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles ... I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labour. Into my chalice I shall pour the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits. My chalice and paten are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces of the earth which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day.”
The spiritual power of matter – why that is what the creativity of the Word is about, it is what incarnation is about, it is what prayer is about. This is the heart of Christian ministry, to unlock the spiritual power of matter.
But often we wonder how we, as ordinary people, we can do that? Congregations are sometimes frozen by fear or anxiety and wonder what the future holds for their fellowship. How can groups such as ours unlock the spiritual power of matter?
Here is just one example.
There is a famous drawing that has been reproduced countless times in churches. It is the image of two hands joined together in prayer. It was drawn by Albrecht Durer 1471-1528. In the history of art he is one of the most important figures. Now he was born into a large family, and an older brother had an even better natural talent for drawing. But he went to work in the mines and it was the young Albrecht who was apprenticed to learn the crafts of drawing, painting and engraving. His own talent blossomed and soon he was sought after by wealthy patrons. He is the central figure in what the art historians call the northern renaissance. He returned home after some years to visit his family, and legend has it that the two brothers were overjoyed to see each. Albrecht said to his older brother “Look, I have grown famous as a painter, and it is because you helped send me to art school. But you taught me the basics. You always had more talent than me. I can pay for your apprenticeship.” But the older brother, “Thank you but no. You look – look at my hands, they can no longer do any fine work, hold a pen or a brush. They are broken and creaky and painful. They are the hands of a miner.”
In honour of his brother Albrecht drew those hands. The hands of love in prayer that had enabled another to flourish. This is the spiritual power of matter. It is the meaning of the creative Word which has been there since the beginning. It is the blessing of an eternal covenant called the love of God