Lord Jesus, take my words and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lives and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.
I don’t know whether any of you heard earlier this week an interview, I think it was on radio two, with the naturalist Chris Packham? Chris Packham as many of you will know is one of the country’s leading experts on botany, biology, and the natural world. If there were a dreaded league table I suppose he’s a bit lower than David Attenborough, but still up there with the greats. I used to watch him on the Really Wild Show when I was a child.
The subject of the conversation was “what makes us human?” What makes us human? And people had been invited to phone in giving their answers, and the answers were quite interesting. I was driving from somewhere to somewhere else while this was on and so I was only giving it some of my attention, but people were phoning in and saying things like, “well what makes us human is our ability to reason, to be rational and objective.” Others were saying things like “our appreciation of art, music and beauty is distinctive to being human.” Love came up quite a lot. A lot of people wanted to say that the defining characteristic of humanity is our ability to love, to have that sort of emotional response to another person, or indeed another thing.
And then Chris Packham came on and his manifesto was extraordinary. It was, I have to say, one of the more depressing things I’ve heard in recent history. Packham argued that the defining characteristics of humanity was conscious and wilful destruction of our own habitat. He said if you want to see what the unique thing is about humans, it is that they destroy the ecosystem which supports their very life. No other animal does that. No other created thing actively, and possessing the information about what they’re doing, seeks to destroy the structures which allow them to live. Effectively, what makes us human is our ability to commit suicide. And by that I mean corporate cultural suicide.
And of course he has a point. The majority of scientific opinion is now that human contribution to climate change is at least a significant factor in the direction of travel in which our ecosystem is moving. Our activity is altering the world for every living thing. And that is one of the reasons why our own diocesan bishop, Bishop Nicholas, is taking a lead on calling the church to be active and instrumental in trying to arrest the destructive tendencies of humanity.
Gosh isn’t all that depressing.
But I raise it this morning because this is a service, an annual service, which celebrates, yes the particular ministry and history of Sarum St Michael, but more widely and broadly which celebrates education. Education is the endeavour with which all of those gathered here this afternoon in one way or another are connected. It’s a privilege to have been invited to preach this afternoon. My own connection with education, other than of course having been engaged in it for the whole of my life through primary, secondary and sixth form education, and then at three universities so far, my own connection day by day is that I am myself married to a teacher and so second-hand I experience the triumphs and the challenges, the joys and heartaches of this great calling upon the lives of teachers throughout the country and indeed the world, to draw children, young people, and adults alike into an excited exploration of the world in which they live.
So I wonder how any of you would answer the question put to Chris Packham? What makes us human? Those of you still in education, think about your encounters recently. Those here who are retired think back. In those encounters and engagements, in the classroom or the seminar room or back in training, what makes us human?
You see I think Chris Packham is right in identifying that humanity is unique in its ability to actively destroy its environment. I have yet to hear a convincing argument to the contrary. Clever people, scientists and naturalists tell me that no other species does that and so I believe them. But I think that’s only half the story. And in a sense Chris Packham proves it by his own argument. I suspect what makes humanity unique as well is its ability to recognise that destruction and to grieve for it. To be able to reflect with rationality, emotion, philosophy and crucially spirituality as well, and to feel guilt as well as the promise of another way. To be able to imagine, dream, and hope for a future full of promise.
I do a little tiny bit of teaching. I teach adults at Sarum College, and on the diocesan development programme, and I know that when I come home from teaching a class where I have seen somebody suddenly “get it”, suddenly see a way forward in an argument or a theory or philosophy where before they had only seen a brick wall, that’s really exciting isn’t it? That is one of the things which brings enormous vocational satisfaction to teachers. Helping people to see a bigger world, to celebrate and rejoice with people as the boundaries of their world suddenly increase and expand and become permeable.
And that of course was the hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. We meet for this act of worship in the middle of these days in between the feast of the Ascension and the feast of Pentecost. Between the return of Jesus to his throne in heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit with all the gifts and inspirations and callings upon our hearts which God lavishes upon us. And what is it that we hear in our reading that Jesus did immediately before he ascended into heaven? “Then he opened their minds”. The gift of Christ to his disciples before he returned the Father was to open their minds. Not to close them. Not to hem them in and give them boundaries and borders and rules and regulations to keep them safe and protected. The exact opposite is true: he opened their minds. That is the job of a teacher. Am I right? I think that’s the job of the teacher: to open minds, not close them. To ask very many more questions than they provide answers.
That is the model of Christ anyway. He opens minds and then he ascends. By his bodily ascension into heaven, he demonstrates that the world is infinitely larger than the disciples could ever have imagined. It is not only a little bit larger, it is enormous.
And actually if you ask me what makes us human, and you might expect me to say this ‘cos I’m a priest, I would say it’s that we are made in the image of God. Go all the way back to the very beginning, open the textbook to chapter 1 page 1 and what do we find? “Then God made man in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”
And being made in the image of God means that we have the potential at least to ascend. Chris Packham is right, we betray that trust, we mar that potential, we do terrible things to our environment, for which we ought to repent. But we are still made in the image of God, and Christ is what God looks like, and Christ ascends, he moves higher, he breaks out into an infinitely wider and more dazzling world into which he calls us also, for calling people into a wider and more dazzling world is surely the vocation of a teacher.