The Sermon delivered by The Rt. Rev. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool at the Ecumenical Service for Animal Welfare, 1st October 2005
We have a cottage not far from here. I stole a day away from Liverpool to go there to read, pray, meditate and prepare this and a few other sermons. Harvest was in full swing and the flies were having a field-day - literally! Not just outside but inside the room where I was writing, buzzing around me with such velocity and noise that I felt that they were almost inside my head! My natural reaction was, to put it bluntly, to swot them! But such violent thoughts were held in check as I wrestled with the meaning of Jesus saying “But I am among you as one who serves”. The more I tried to get into the meaning of these words and what they say about Jesus’ relationship with creation the more uncomfortable I felt about killing the flies.
And then something remarkable happened. As I started to write these words the flies stopped buzzing and remained silent throughout! I am not here advocating sermon preparation as the antidote to flies but I have at least found a way-in, an introduction to my sermon!
I have to confess that for most of my life it never crossed my mind that this saying of Jesus “I am among you as one who serves” had anything to do with creation. I thought it was simply the knock-down argument by our Lord that settled the disciples’ dispute about power and greatness.
But these are words that we need to hear afresh. Until recently human actions have been trivial by comparison with the forces of nature. That has now changed. The human race now has the power to affect the world in ways hitherto unimaginable. We can and are changing the face of the planet including forcing the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals.
This careless regard and wanton destruction of God’s creation is not new. Although Britain was the first country ever to legislate against animal cruelty in 1822 it is a sad fact that last year the RSPCA received over 100,000 (117,356) complaints of cruelty involving well over half a million animals with more here in the North East then in any other region (35,280). Here in the York area there were 3,278 complaints with 3,216 animals rescued or collected into safety. But sadly advice on how animals should be treated which was offered to owners by the RSPCA was ignored on 27 occasions. In each of these instances the RSPCA had no redress in law; the animals could be abused with impunity. That is why we welcome the Animal Welfare Bill to be introduced in the autumn.
The theological justification for caring for God’s creatures and for those who are weaker and more vulnerable than human beings is rooted in this icon of Jesus as the one who serves not just his disciples but the whole panoply of creation. The primary chapters of the New Testament testify to his role in creating and sustaining the universe and everything in it.
Given these verses it is a wonder that the church has been so slow to see and to act upon the connection between Christ and all that he has created. Barry Miles has produced some excellent examples of Animal Advocates in his booklet but for all the talk about the church being prophetic the prophetic voice has come from outside the walls of the church. Sometimes it has come with an extremism that has been offensive and counter productive.
I would like to add my voice to the appeal for those who stole and desecrated the remains of Mrs. Gladys Hammond to return them to her grave. There is no justification for this kind of behaviour, which brings the cause of animal welfare into disrepute. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we should all question whether we have as a society that promotes the live export of animals and factory farming extended that duty of care to animals which should be central to the Christian faith.
For me the servant relationship between Jesus and the animal creation is most beautifully illustrated in the nativity and by that simple act of him being laid by Mary in an animal feeding trough. Such an act was full of irony. Here in Bethlehem the town with the name “House of Bread” is born a child who would one day say to the world “I am the Bread of life”. To emphasise this extraordinary metaphor he would invite them to eat bread blessed with the words “This is my body”.
But long before he instituted the service of Holy Communion for the human family he sent a signal to the animal kingdom. As he lay in the manger in the House of Bread he gave a sign to the world of animals that it was there in him, in that feeding trough, that they too would find the one who serves, feeds, sustains and redeems them and the whole of creation.
It is remarkable how deaf we have been to the song of the angels. It was they who said that this would be the very sign of salvation! “This will be a sign ….. you will find (the saviour) lying in a manger”. The baby in a trough! The child who sustains and saves the whole of creation - beginning, yes, beginning with the animals! This is the God who serves and feeds the birds, who reveals himself first in a manger, a feeding trough, a sign of how he provides for all this creatures.
This picture of the baby Jesus metaphorically feeding the animals before growing up and going on to feed the human family sets the scene for some of the dramatic images in the Revelation to St. John at the end of scripture.
At the door of Heaven we see around the throne of God the four creatures full of life: the lion, the ox, the human being and the eagle. These four lead the worship of God:
“For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created”.
Although in the west we have seen the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle as symbols of the four evangelists in the east Christians see them as speaking for all of creation.
Bishop Kenneth Stevens has shown how (following the Jewish Midrash on Ezekiel) the Eastern church saw the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle each praying for their particular order in creation. The lion on behalf of the wild beasts, the ox on behalf of the domesticated animals, the eagle on behalf of the birds and the man on behalf of humanity.
The fact that the whole of creation and not just a company of individual souls is involved in the worship of God is made most powerfully in the following chapter. The chorus of worshippers is described vividly by the apostle John:
“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing”. (Revelation 5 v13)
What is so delightful in this picture in Revelation is that the togetherness of all the creatures in creation is heard in their choral singing. All the creatures human and animal give voice to their deepest and common allegiance. To whom do they render their worship? “To the one seated on the Throne and to the Lamb”. The visionary images given to John the Divine are themselves telling. They give allegiance and render worship to the one symbolised as an animal! Did that not in itself challenge all disregard of the animal world so elevated here.
But notice now the twist in the tail. The Throne is a symbol of Lordship, the Lamb is the symbol of servanthood. Jesus, the holy Lamb of God, is the one who comes among us to serve. To serve the whole of creation, to feed all the creatures of the Creator, to sustain and redeem the world.
Can anyone who takes the Bible seriously and as authoritative in matters of faith and conduct deny that the role of Christ in the salvation of the world involves redeeming not only human nature but also the whole of nature and “all things” that have come into being through him and for him? Let such faith inform our lives for the sake of every creature, for the wholeness of creation and for the glory of our Creator.