Living the Ecological Vocation – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the source of new life for all creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
1 John 5:1-6
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! . . The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Some six weeks ago, we joined in praise to God with these verses from Psalm 118, rejoicing in the good news of the Resurrection of Jesus. The voice here is markedly singular. Taking it as the voice of the Risen Jesus, we could easily assume that what we celebrated that day was only his individual resurrection. As we listen to the psalm for this Sixth Sunday, however, we hear something decidedly different:
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 4:1-4).
As the season of Easter draws to a close—the Feast of the Ascension follows in four days—the Psalm for this Sixth Sunday presents a final chorus of joyous praise from “all the ends of the earth.” The song is clearly communal and inclusive of all humanity. And there is more: the statement of praise bridges from God’s covenant with Israel to God’s love for all the earth, and “the earth” that sings is not only human:
“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:7-9)
What is particularly interesting to us, of course, is that otherkind as well as humankind is called on to sing these praises. The praise, as it were, ratifies the point of view we have taken in the comments on the texts for these six Sundays, namely, that Jesus’ Resurrection is an event involving all creation, both humanity, past, present and future, and in the words of our initial guides, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “a transformed earth and within a transfigured world” (Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23, 25). Repeatedly in these texts we have seen that the resurrection is understood to include a community that steadily reaches for universality, is steadfastly characterized by the crucified Jesus’ messianic practice of non-violence, and is bound together in a communal meal. The non-violent character of the community is established by the continuity between the crucified and risen Jesus; it is expressed in risen Jesus’ greeting of “peace.” The community’s meal binds the community to the earth in an economic practice that is modeled on God’s own self-giving in creation. The texts for the last two Sundays invited deeper exploration of these themes: the metaphor of the Good Shepherd drew us deeply into an exploration of the “great economy” of the creation, and encouraged us to resist the self-seeking, “hired hand” economy that always wants to be the only economy there is, humans only welcome. And finally, last Sunday’s texts provided the ultimate “green” anchor for a narrative of the Resurrection of the Earth: a vineyard, in which soil, vine, and branches are tended by the holy gardener for the sake of all creation.
Is this a viable and effective vision for the redemption of the creation? We have asked this question repeatedly along the way. The universality of the Resurrection, the non-violent character of the community and the centrality of its meal practice are clearly represented to some degree in each set of texts for the Easter Season. But there is more to the question: we have also seen the need for a particular understanding of the presence of God within the community. Relocated from the Jerusalem temple to the person of Jesus, and then to his “body” as presented in the fellowship meal, God’s presence is experienced as very “down-to earth.” God is present, not only transcendently above Creation, but in, with and under it. It is the Triune God we encounter in these texts, whose Spirit speaks from the Creation, as well as to Creation and on behalf of Creation. Indeed, reflecting back over the season, this is perhaps the most significant lesson we have learned for the sake of care of Creation: the church needs to think consistently of the Spirit as always joined to Creation. It is the Spirit of Creation we meet in these texts, as much as it is the Spirit of God. And it is the Spirit of Creation on whom we can call for insight and strength in our care of Creation.
We meet this God again in the readings for the Sixth Sunday. In the wake of the resurrection, the Spirit is moving the community forward into the future by crossing the ancient red line between Jew and Gentile. This Spirit is also joined to the Creation in the waters of baptism, as it always will be going forward. That is not its only point of connection, however. It is also the Spirit which in the developing life of the church will be intimately allied with the creation in sounds of music, not from the lyre and the trumpet only, but from orchestras of string and brass instruments, and in hymns and anthems sung by choirs and congregations. If the “hills are alive with the sound” of their praise of the Creator, to adapt a familiar phrase, it is the Spirit that engenders their singing. And when even the roar of the seas and the clapping hands of the floods are heard as praise, it is due to the Spirit’s transformation of their voices.
Beyond the scope of these readings, Elizabeth Johnson provides a more complete description of the Spirit’s ties to Creation. The Spirit is also linked to wind, as in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, when the spirit of God “blows like a wind over the face of the waters, and the world begins to take shape.” Fire also manifests the special approach of the Spirit, as it “sets human hearts on fire and inspires boldness.” “Blowing like wind, flowing like water, flaming like fire, the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things,” she writes, evoking “better than more abstract words the presence of the Creator Spirit in the natural world, in plants, animals, and the ecosystems of the earth. The whole complex, material universe is pervaded and signed by the Spirit’s graceful vigor, blowing over the void, breathing into the chaos, pouring out, refreshing, quickening, warming, setting ablaze,” which characterizes the “loving presence of the living God as such, beyond anything we can imagine, creating the power of life in all things.” Johnson draws here on Hildegard of Bingen in noting that the combination of wind and fire stirs “everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all.” Correlative “to the vivifying presence of the Spirit of God throughout the natural world, Johnson concludes, “is the blest character of that world itself.” Its “inner secret” is the dwelling of God’s Spirit within it. Instead of being distant from what is holy, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, being itself imbued with a spiritual presence” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, pp.138, 150).
Finally, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we encounter the Spirit as love, embedded in the reality of the living creation. As the reference to “bearing fruit” in John 15:16 reminds us, the Gospel reading follows directly on Jesus’ description of his relationship with his disciples in terms of the metaphor of vine and branches which the church read last Sunday; thus the power of that metaphor is now fully developed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an act of the Spirit’s love that bears this fruit of full community. As soil, vine and branches work together to produce fruit, so God’s love creates the community that recognizes in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the source of its new life. When the actions of humankind conform to this understanding, otherkind indeed has reason to rejoice. Elizabeth Johnson puts it this way, at the conclusion of a work in which she has listened carefully to what “the beasts” have to say:
“. . . commitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all. The immediate aim is to establish and protect healthy ecosystems where all creatures, including poor human beings and plants and animals being driven to extinction, can thrive. The longer-term goal is a socially just and environmentally sustainable society in which the needs of all people are met and diverse species can prosper, onward to an evolutionary future that will still surprise.”
This is the vision, she concludes, “that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect”: “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God . . . . [L]iving the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love” (Johnson, pp. 285-86).
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.