old Sunday Times … Part 1


Over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of sermons produced by Rev Dr Scott Couper for use in his local church, The Bethel Congregational Church in Inanda.

Dr Couper is an adjunct lecturer at SMMS and teaches a class called Theory of Mission. This series is based on the issues that are dealt with in that class with a specific focus on the environment. It is shared here to show how academic theories taught at SMMS can be applied both homiletically and practically. The series will combine issues related to history, mission, biblical studies, practical theology and preaching.

Part I

Sunday Times: Cosmocentric Is the New Anthropocentric” 

*Hebrew Scripture: Genesis 1:20-25

Psalm: Psalm 104:1-4; 24-25

*Epistle: Romans 8:19-22

Christian Scripture: Revelation 21:1

Friends, this morning we begin a new sermon series entitled “Sunday Times”. [Do you like our banner?] The series will serve to enable us as a congregation to discern the future of our church. There will be more than one series; this is just the first of many. I pray that by the end of the year, we will be at a point where we can begin to decide how we will revitalise our congregation.

The key to revitalising our church is to re-think our faith (Christianity) and to re-think the Bethel Congregational Church. I believe we are facing two crises as a local church. One, we are losing too many members due to death and our congregation is aging. Our church will soon close if we do not re-invent ourselves. Second, our church is arguably irrelevant to the world – as are most of our sister mainline Protestant churches. Our theology is outdated, almost medieval, and the manner in which we worship is more appropriate for the 1950s – not for 2020. These observations are difficult for me to accept, for I am a traditionalist when it comes to church and there is much in me that wants to keep things as they are – I feel comfortable in our intimate church – I love what we have. But my responsibility as a Christian is to proclaim the gospel to the world. This requires me to communicate the gospel in a manner that is effective and relevant. If my personal preferences have to be sacrificed, then so be it, the gospel of Christ is the most important thing in my life.

I ask that you open your heart and mind to the message that I will give over the next few weeks. Please listen to me. And I in turn will listen to you. I pray that we will learn, think, pray and plan together the future of our church. You, the members, the deacons and I will together chart a new path forward.

Our sermon series “Sunday Times” will be about the ‘signs of our times’. We will learn how the world has changed a great deal in the last few decades. In order to plan for our future, we need to assess our past, determine our present situation and decide who we are called to be. This sermon series will tell us much about the state of our world – much like a newspaper does. Hence, we have named this series Sunday Times.

(I encourage the Sunday School teachers to have the children bring in newspaper articles about the environment each week and teach about God’s Creation along with the adults who will discuss each sermon and a reading after the service.) (Next week we will focus on the Earth’s human population.)

I believe the greatest challenge faced by our world, and hence the greatest challenge faced by the Christian church, and hence the greatest challenge faced by the Bethel Congregational Church, is the environmental crisis. I believe the deterioration of God’s creation is the preeminent issue of our time and it will continue to be for generations to come. Christianity has faced many crises during its two-thousand year history. The church always thought, prayed, worshiped and acted in accordance with the crisis faced: the Roman Empire, he fear of hell, the Black Plague, the Ottoman invasions, corruption in the church (which catalysed the Reformation) and nuclear holocaust. Today, and for my children and your grandchildren, the issue is ‘environmental catastrophe’.

Please watch with me this short video.

The video begins with a quote from Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”: “Until the ghastly tale is told, this heart within me burns.” That is how I feel as I preach this sermon series. The video asks a question that I ask of all of us: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?” I am going to ask that that question haunt us every week as we learn about the ‘signs of the times’.

All of the sermons of our first series are predicated on a proposal that I make to you today, and that proposal is the one and only point of my sermon today: “Cosmocentric Is the New Anthropocentric.” Now many of you are thinking, “What??!!!? What the ‘blanket-blank’ is that? Umfundisi is really speaking over our heads!” No, I am not. I give you all a lot more credit than you often give yourselves. Although the statement sounds fancy, it is not. Let’s break it down. ‘Cosmo’ is “cosmos” – that is the universe, it is God’s creation, it is the solar system, it is the Earth, it is the environment, it is the plants and animals, it is the air, it is us. ‘Anthropo’ is ‘humans’, us, people, Homo Sapiens, me and you (think ‘anthropology’). ‘Centric’ just means “focus on”, or emphasis on, or concentration on, to be the centre of attention. So, ‘cosmocentric’ means that the focus is on God’s creation, all of it – the environment. ‘Anthropocentric’ means the focus is on human beings only.

What I am proposing for this series – and for our ministry at Bethel Congregational Church – is that we begin to see and proclaim as gospel (“Good News”) that God desires salvation for all of his Creation: for the Earth, for the animals, for all living things and for us. I believe that the theological emphasis on humans, rather than all Creation, is leading us down a path of destruction and we are creating our own hell.

That for which I am asking is a big change; it is what philosophers, scientists and theologians call a ‘paradigm shift’. It is a new way to interpret the world. It is seeing things through a new lens. In the Bible, there are lots of paradigm shifts. In the Garden of Eden, a shift occurred in humans’ relationship with God when it was broken due to sin. Monotheism, a strict belief in one God, perhaps began with Abram (who became Abraham). Isaiah conceived, perhaps for the first time, that God desired the salvation of all nations, not just the Hebrews. Jeremiah proclaimed that God’s will was written on hearts, not on stone. Jesus Christ reconciled God to God’s children. Peter had a braai on a roof and the Holy Spirit related to him that the former religious customs and traditions excluded others in God’s salvific plan. Paul declared we are saved by faith, not by works. All these were major shifts in thinking about our relationship with God. Game changers. But did you notice one thing? All the shifts had to do with God and humans (Adam and Eve, Abraham, the prophets, the Hebrews, the Jews, the Gentiles). In other words, historically, our understanding of God’s relationship with us has always been anthropocentric. Our faith tradition has been and is a bit selfish; it is all about us and God: me, you, us. Me. Me. Me. ‘Save me.’ ‘God is MY saviour.’ ‘Jesus is MY friend.’ ‘God bless Africa,” “God bless America”…

I would like to propose that our faith, the gospel that we proclaim, be cosmocentric, not anthropocentric. That is, God loves us, me, you, of course! But God’s plan for our salvation includes, and perhaps even depends upon, God’s salvation for the planet, the Earth, the environment, those birds on Midway Island (in the video clip).

You see, if God’s creation is doomed, we as humans are doomed. In the short term, the poor will be doomed first. I believe my salvation is dependent on the salvation of the cosmos. To believe that God only wishes for the wellbeing and salvation of humans has led us to rape and pillage the Earth; we are on the road to destroying it and us. Did you hear on the news this week? In South Africa, we risk running out of water in two years! If you thought load-shedding was bad, water-shedding will turn ugly very quickly. What are churches saying about this? Almost nothing. We as Christians are not equipped for it, neither are our theologies. Will Bethel be a leading church that proclaims as its ministry to the world the salvation of all of God’s creation?

There is much biblical evidence in support of this theological paradigm shift. And you do not have to be a biblical scholar to find it. I often read a Bible; it is called The Green Bible. Everything that relates to God’s creation is written in green. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s Word speaks of how the Creation is good and God’s will is that it be saved. In Genesis, we hear how God created the birds, the creatures of the sea and the animals on the land. Our Hebrew scripture reading concludes, “And God saw that it was good (1:25).” In Revelation, John of Patmos sees a vision of a new heaven and a new earth (21:1) and later describes what is called the ‘River of Life’ (22:1). Perhaps the ultimate scripture that describes God’s will for the salvation of Creation comes from Paul in Romans: “We know that the whole Earth has been groaning as the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (8:22).” We read the same in the Psalms. Indeed throughout the Bible we read that salvation is not just for humans, but rather for all Creation (which includes humans). In this way, ‘Cosmocentric is the new Anthropocentric’. God’s salvific power is greater than we have thus far imagined.

I believe that God is offering our church a kairos, a God-given moment of opportunity found in a crisis situation. I believe God is calling our church to be active, relevant and effective in the world. I believe that God is asking this ministry to proclaim a more inclusive gospel, one that speaks to the signs of the Sunday Times, faithful to scripture and is “good news” to the world.

And the people of God responded: “Amen.”