The Risen One Intensifies Our Purpose, Especially Our Care for the Whole Creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Tom Mundahl
Reading for Series C: 2012-2013
Fourth Sunday in Easter
Acts 9: 36-43
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30
The Easter song of the whole creation that we heard last week continues—especially in Psalm 23 and the text from the Revelation to John. It should be no surprise that we sing Psalm 23 as much or more than we read it. Whether it is in older texts and tunes or Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me, O God” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #780) this psalm affirms belonging beyond all challenge. And, when we sing, our whole bodies affirm our membership in each other and the created world. As Norman Wirzba suggests:
Christ is the pattern for a new humanity restored in its relatedness to others, the creation, and God. The barriers of hostility and violence that otherwise divide us—and keep us from singing—are broken in him. (The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 187)
This is particularly true of our second reading from the Apocalypse, which provides an interlude between the opening of the sixth and seventh seal. Our first scene is shot in the heavenly throne room where John’s lens reveals “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).
Because the “whiteness” of the robes is emphasized in the interpretive response to the vision (7: 13-17), its importance cannot be overestimated. Of course, the “white robe” is the Roman toga of which Virgil wrote: “Romans, lords of the world, the culture that wears the toga” (Virgil, Aeneid, Book 1, lines 281-2). For centuries, the toga was the sign of Roman citizenship. On important days such as the day of marriage, the young Roman escorted his bride from her father’s house to his own house, wearing the toga. Dressed in his toga, he received guests who were citizens of equal status. The Roman citizen came to the assembly in a white robe to debate the issues. He made sacrifices to Roman gods in the toga and was finally wrapped in the same garment in death, when fellow citizens paid respects for the last time as he lay in his atrium. No foreign culture produced robes of the same material and weave; no foreigner was allowed to wear the toga (Wikipedia, “Toga”).
But now, because of the resurrection of the Lamb, even those who feel the heel of the ‘Roman boot’ on their necks after refusing to demonstrate loyalty to the Empire by eating food sacrificed to idols have become “citizens of new creation.” They have gone through “the great ordeal” (Revelation 7: 14), which, as Barbara Rossing suggests, parallels the Exodus plagues, thereby rendering the experience of the believers in Asia Minor as a “new Exodus” (The Rapture Exposed, Westview, ch. 8, pp. 123- 134).
We should take care not to neglect the “palm branches,” Roman symbols of victory. Yet, John’s message to hearers is clear: I am peeling away the veil so that you can see the way things really are. Hold fast, keep the faith, hang on! Roman reality is not ultimate reality. But this is definitely not an otherworldly vision. This is a view of the way things are, period! The Lamb has won the victory.
And this frees original hearers and those of us who come millenia later to see that, whether it is Roman deforestation of Asia Minor in ancient times or hydraulic fracturing with its devastating results in our time, these are not permanent features of history. This must encourage people of faith not only to oppose all that is destructive of creation—recalling the voices of the elders responding to the Seventh Trumpet that promise destruction for “those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11: 18). Instead, it moves us toward building a culture based on “trees of life,” “open gates,” and healing, and in cities and towns built on the banks of clean rivers (Revelation 21-22).
This is suggested especially by the image of these “citizens of new creation” who have come through the ordeal serving God and being “sheltered” by him (Revelation 7: 15). In a more rustic glimpse of what it means to “dwell” in fulfillment, we see the Lamb become the shepherd tenderly caring for the flock. What a lively image of the care needed for human settlements to flourish in their natural contexts!
At the center of that human settlement known as Jerusalem was the Temple. Not only is this final segment of the Good Shepherd Discourse (John 10) located in the Temple precincts, it is set temporally at the Feast of the Dedication, Hanukkah. That this feast is in play at the very end of the Book of Signs suggests that John once more returns to the function of what might be called ‘religion,’ especially ‘temple religion.’ Just as the Temple was cleansed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with Jesus showing himself as the replacement (John 2:19), so here we are once more reminded of the danger of this religious institution.
That this conflict takes place at the Feast of the Dedication is no surprise. While the temple had certainly been abused and in need of cleansing in the past (think of the ministry of Jeremiah), the desecration by Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV set the bar. Not only did this conquering ruler impose new forms of worship, his claim of divinity may have echoed in the ears of Jesus’ opponents as they heard his claim, “The Father and I are one” (John 10: 30). But to those who reflected on what Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection meant, it may have been more convincing to think of Jesus mirroring Judas Maccabaeus and the many who gave their lives for an authentic faith centered on the Temple (Barbara Rossing, Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Fortress, 2001, p. 37).
That is, the religious elite and Temple hierarchy opposing Jesus are open, like Antiochus, to perverting the Temple—this time turning the Temple into a center of ever-increasing power and wealth that acted as an institutional “vampire” draining the faithful of their resources and misdirecting energy designed to be expended in worship, care for one another, and care for creation. For Jesus to claim “The Father and I are one” (John 10: 30) is also to validate Jesus’ intent to replace this Temple with “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). As the One who “draws all things to himself” (John 12: 32) and is the axis of the new community, he expends himself washing the feet of his disciples, whom he calls friends and whom he commissions for service (John 21: 21-23). Far from diminishing energy necessary to care, the Risen One increases it and gives it new purpose and direction –especially care for the whole creation.
This is why, especially during this Easter Season, we sing the “Hymn of Praise” with gusto. Because of the vision of John of Patmos once more we:
Sing with all the people of God, and join in the hymn of all creation: Blessing and honor, glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 101.)
Tom Mundahl Lutheran Church of the Reformation St. Louis Park, MN firstname.lastname@example.org
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288