Preaching the Adventure of Passion – Robert Saler reflects on being a listening church.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Those who would preach creation care in connection with the famous John 3 pericope—which of course includes what is perhaps the single most quoted Bible verse, John 3:16—face a significant challenge which we might call the “branding” issue.
The issue is this: While John’s gospel understands the struggle between the “life abundant” promised by God and inaugurated by Jesus on the one hand and the forces of death and darkness on the other to be one of deadly seriousness, one that encompasses both sublime spiritual realities and the most existentially significant embodied struggles in life, in too many sectors that gospel message has been so spiritualized and “churchified” that it has lost the ability to name the most vital struggles at play in our inner and outer worlds. “For God so loved the world” has become synonymous with billboard evangelism and regressive politics, particularly in the U.S. context.
As a number of studies on the rise of the “nones” have concluded (people with religious interests but no religious community), the slow exodus of millenials from traditional religious affiliation is not attributable to a lack of passion to change the world and engage in social justice-oriented activities, including the creation of beauty. Indeed, one of the most troubling facts of these reports for those of us who feel loyalty to the church and its witness is that, in many cases, there appears to be an inverse relationship between a millenial’s passion to spend her or his life in causes that make a difference and the likelihood of that individual participating in church. Millenials are not, by and large, anti-religion; they simply are in the gradual process of losing faith in the institutional church to be a venue that can host and amplify their passions.
Those steeped in the deep wells of Christian ecological theology—or indeed, orthodox Christian theology in general—will know that the Christian witness, apart from its degrading affiliations with cheap sloganeering on political or religious fronts, has always understood itself to encompass the whole pathos of the human condition. As we continue to live into what future generations will certainly see as one of the key defining dramas of our planet—combating the deleterious effects of environmental degradation, with the necessary attention to the matters of race, class, global poverty, and cultural contestation that this struggle entails—then marshalling the passion for human flourishing present within and outside of the church will be, not only a key strategic matter, but also a measure of our fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have been teaching a course this semester at my school, Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, on C.S. Lewis and the intellectual environment in which his theology took shape. One of the more striking features of Lewis’ work—and that of his close friend and collaborator, J.R.R. Tolkien—is the pervasiveness of the theme of adventure and genuine bodily/existential peril involved in their depictions of the struggle between good and evil. A key motivation behind the theological mytho-poetics of their fantasy texts is to depict, in resonant narrative fashion, what it would mean for Christians to live as if the drama of following Christ’s self-sacrificial love for God’s world truly were a struggle that requires courage, the fortitude of faith, and character formation—all because something truly is at stake.
It would be a sad irony if, at a time in the planet’s history when precisely this sort of struggle is happening in various contexts across the world, the church’s witness to a God who forms us to struggle alongside God’s Spirit in serving life abundant (particularly to the poor and marginalized, who of course are the hardest hit by ecological degradation) is rendered boring, sterilized, cheaply politicized, or “religionized” such that its genuinely disruptive potential is stifled. What a missed opportunity!
Fortunately, for preachers in this time of Lent who have the ears to hear and eyes tuned to see the signs of life-giving passion present both within and without the walls of the church, this Sunday’s proclamation that “God so loves the world,” that God does whatever it takes to give it life and to defeat the forces of death, can become a risky venture into the naming of the spaces of life and death within our lives—hopefully in a manner that is theologically serious yet undomesticated by the restraints of “religion” per se. In a time in which, as I have argued elsewhere, the church is present as much in the act of truth-telling as a “diffusively spatialized event” as within the walls of any given institution (Cf. Robert Saler, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), then this text gives preachers a chance to exercise creative listening to the passions present in their context and to speak—in deeply incarnational fashion—as to how no human passion towards life can be foreign to the gospel proclaimed by John.
In other words, rather than lament or become defensive about the growing irrelevance of the church to the world-changing passions of millenials and others, the ecologically sensitive preacher can demonstrate how the church can be as much ecclesia discens (the listening church) as ecclesia docens (the teaching church) when it comes to being able to discern how the Spirit’s struggle to continue to enact the triumph of life over death in our world is playing out in multiple venues and contexts, “sacred” and otherwise. Such preaching can remove this text from its piety-imposed exile into “churchliness” and reclaim it as the eruptive message of grace for all creation that it is.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.