A flourishing planet in which all of life together is filled with the glory of God. – Dennis Ormseth
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 9, 2021
Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
1 John 5:1-6
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4). As the season of Easter draws to a close—the Feast of the Ascension follows in four days and the readings for the Seventh Sunday will take note of the dramatic shift in the immediacy of Jesus’ presence with his disciples—the Psalm for this Sixth Sunday of Easter calls for a final chorus of joyous praise from “all the earth.” Why this call for praise from all the earth? According to the psalm, it is because “The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.” The statement of praise thus bridges from God’s covenant with Israel to God’s love for all the earth: “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (98:3a); and “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” (98:3b). So indeed, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (98:1).
What is particularly interesting for us relative to our concern for care of creation, of course, is that otherkind as well as humankind is called on to sing these praises. Part of the chorus is clearly human, accompanied by lyre, trumpets, and horn (98:5-6). But the full ensemble includes the non-human creation as well: “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 (98:7-9). Terry Fretheim observes how intimately related these voices are to their respective places in creation: listing various creatures together—as in Psalm 98, the sea and all that fills it, the world and those who live in it—with mention of their particular capacities for praise—e.g., the sea’s roar, the waters’ clapping, the hills’ singing—renders “each entity’s praise . . . distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity.” Yet each entity is also part of the one world of God and contributing its praise to that of the whole, they perform a “symphony of praise” as an acknowledgment of the “range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness” (Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 255-59). Arthur Walker-Jones agrees, but notes further that in the psalmist’s view, here and elsewhere, all creation praises God because “all creatures are subject of God’s just reign.” Their joy “at the presence of the Lord” is due to their expectation that “he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009. p. 146).
Read in the context of the season of Easter, however, we take this call to praise to refer now also to the victory over the powers of death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Does otherkind then also see cause to give their Creator praise with specific reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus? Our texts for this Sunday do not answer the question directly, focused as they are almost exclusively on the human realm: in the lesson from Acts 10, only humans are of concern, it seems, as Jews and Gentiles are brought by the Holy Spirit into one, new community. The Gospel and second reading likewise both appear to be concerned only with life in that community: keeping commandments, abiding in love, and the friendship that pertains to the ongoing life of Jesus’ followers as true believers in God. Nonetheless, readers might well note the astonishment of the “circumcised believers with Peter” over the fact that the Spirit present in this community “had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).
Something unexpected is happening here in the wake of the resurrection. The Spirit promised to this community is an “other-inclusive” presence, we might suggest, a presence which, we read in 1 John, gives “eternal life” to all its participants. And as the reference to “bearing fruit” in 15:16 reminds us, the Gospel 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, so that, as Raymond Brown argues, “vss. 9-17 with their theme of love are really an interpretation of the idea of bearing fruit in 8” and “the whole of 9-17 is still very much related to that imagery.” Thus the power of that metaphor is fully developed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an expression the love that bears this fruit of full community in the Spirit. As soil, vine, and branches work together to produce food, so God’s love creates the community that sees in Jesus’ life and death the source of its new life. The vine’s life given for others is an essential aspect of Christian life, Brown argues (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, p. 682). Life in Christian community is like the life of the vine: rooted in God, fed by the vine, growing fruit, the Christian community properly understands itself as embedded in the righteousness, or “right-workings” of the new creation.
As an act of God’s love, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection creates sustained community. Other-kind, we want to suggest, therefore has reason to rejoice because the way the human community is healed is seen to be the way the vine grows in the new creation of God. The way things work in ecological community is the way things will work in the human community re-created by God’s love. The right relationship that exists in the community of otherkind is in this sense the broad framework within which human-kind can recover its right orientation to creation. Otherkind can accordingly hope that humankind will come to live in harmony with its way of life. But the correspondence derives from a greater, all-encompassing source; as Norman Wirzba observes, “The language of sacrifice and self-giving” in this understanding, “should not come as a surprise to those who wish to participate in God’s gardening ways,” because
Christ is the embodiment of God’s nature as the one who gives without end. Christ reveals the ‘eternal kenosis’ that is active in the divine Trinitarian life, and so demonstrates that ‘God desires to give and realize his love in what is other.” God’s original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God “makes room” for what is not God to be and to flourish (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge Ukniversity Press, 2011, p. 69).
And 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 intently 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” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts; Darwin and the God of Love. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 285-86).
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
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.