Everything Is Changed – Dennis Ormseth reflects on reorientation of the community to God’s creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
In the first of these comments on texts for the Sundays of Easter, Year B, we took note of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan’s exploration of the iconography of the Resurrection in the Ancient Church and their observation that the Western Church visualized Jesus’ Resurrection as individual, with Jesus alone, while in the Eastern Church. It is pictured as universal, with Jesus joined to humankind. The difference was significant to the Crossans, we recall, because the universal resurrection has important consequences for the public square that escape the western, individual version. We have explored some of these consequences, with particular interest in those relating to creation and its care. In this comment, we return to an issue raised by the Crossans as to why their preference for the universal resurrection can’t be defended simply by an examination of the New Testament witnesses. There is no “direct account of the resurrection” that would settle the matter, they explained. “As a result, Christians have had to imagine that moment.” The universal resurrection is inherently more difficult to imagine, they submit; but this doesn’t matter for their argument, because “at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Rising up with Christ: The Eastern Church’s Communal Vision of Resurrection, Christian Century, January 31, 2018, p. 24).
But is this really true? And if so, what reality does the metaphor of the resurrection actually create? Answers to these questions are important for both the Crossans and for us. The Crossan’s argued that the universal resurrection has consequences for humanity that could turn it from the course of reciprocal violence which can ultimately destroy us and devastate the earth; we have argued that those consequences also include avoidance of environmental destruction and eventual restoration of creation. Our question is, then, given that there are ample and powerful metaphors attached to the experience of the resurrection, as recorded in our sources, what evidence do we see that these metaphors in fact “create reality,” and in particular, reality in the public square that makes a difference for the environmental crisis of our time?
Does, for example, the pre-crucifixion teaching and practice of non-violence produce a post-resurrection practice of non-violence in the ongoing life of the community of the church, as the Crossan’s argument suggest it should? We read reports of the resurrected Jesus’ greeting his disciples with “peace,” suggesting the acceptance of this mandate by the early Christian community. But what of the future, when the authority of his person is diminished after his departure? Similarly, does the resurrection practice of the communal meal, which we have associated with both the Eucharistic meal and a sustained orientation of the community to the earth in the mode of divine self-giving, actually create a communal life oriented to the earth as life-sustaining gift of creation? We have read the report of the participation of the community in the new economy of the Holy Trinity from the Book of Acts, which takes the metaphor of self-giving love to another level, but what evidence is there in the development of the church’s life that this understanding actually took hold? Are these instances anything more than spontaneous and random actions generated by the astonishment of the community at their first hearing of the news of the Resurrection? Or to take the question further in consideration of the more dramatic metaphors we have encountered: what evidence is there that the economic practices of the community exhibit the characteristics of the “great economy” of the Good Shepherd or that the community of the Vine planted and husbanded in the holy vineyard produces truly good fruit of either natural or social kind, making the best use of such gifts of good soil, water, sunshine and good company? Full exploration of such questions would require extended investigation in the history of the church, of course, which we are not prepared to do here. The readings for this final Sunday of Easter do nonetheless give support, however fragile, for the notion that these Easter-tide metaphors did actually shape the reality of life in the early Christian community in the aftermath of the Resurrection.
Indeed, the episode in our first reading this Sunday of the replacement of Judas by Matthias in the circle of Jesus’ followers offers a fascinating instance of the significance of the resurrection for both the church’s presence in the public square and its commitment to care of creation. Jesus’ disciples have returned to the city of Jerusalem from “the mount called Olivet,” where they witnessed Jesus’ ascension. They go to “the room upstairs where they were staying”—the room in which they celebrated Jesus last supper? (The suggestion is Luke Timothy Johnson’s from his The Acts of the Apostles. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 34)—returning, perhaps, to the place of the pre-resurrection experience of Jesus’ presence. Luke draws a vivid picture of a community united in prayer as they await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). Reminded by this setting of Judas absence, perhaps, Peter interrupts their prayer and raises his concern to replace Judas in the circle of the disciples.
The gathering thus addresses the concrete reality of its future presence in the public square. It was an order of first importance, Johnson suggests: one of the original circle of twelve disciples who were being prepared to replace the religious and political leaders of Israel who rejected Jesus had fallen away. He must be replaced before Pentecost “because the integrity of the apostolic circle of Twelve symbolized the restoration of God’s people” (Johnson, p. 39). The concern, in other words, is with the authenticity of a metaphor of great importance to their future existence. The seriousness of Peter’s concern is echoed in the Gospel reading, in which Jesus’ priestly prayer on their behalf brings to mind the fact that while Judas was the only one of the disciples that was lost, the danger to the community which that defection represented was real. Anticipating the ascension, Jesus prays,
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-19).
At stake here is the public witness of the church in the hostile context of the Jerusalem under the Roman Empire. The action initiated by Peter is a first step on the way to the constitution of a New Israel, with the circle of the Apostles creating something of a communal participant in “the public square” that anticipates the authority of ecumenical Councils and other structures of ecclesiatical governance that will contend over extended time with imperial authorities, largely non-violently, to create a new society. The danger presented by Judas betrayal is not primarily physical, but ethical. The admonishment from this Sunday’s psalm is accordingly appropriate: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).
Remarkably, this interlude turns out to be relevant not only in relation to the Crossans’ concern for the reality-creating power of the resurrection metaphors, but ours for the orientation to and care of creation as well (The verses key to this insight, Acts 1:16–21, are omitted from the reading and should be consulted here). Noting how Luke’s account of Judas’ death differs so markedly from that of Matthew 27:3-10, Johnson emphasizes that everything, including the scriptural citations, centers on the defection of Judas as one of the Twelve. But
“. . . as he does so often, Luke uses the disposition of possessions as symbolic. Judas does not return the money as a sign of repentance, but goes to buy a farm with the payment for his wicked deed (1:18). This action stands in direct contrast to his ‘having a share in this ministry’ (1:17). Rather than be one of those who ‘left their own things’ and will ‘sell their farms’ and ‘call nothing their own,’ Judas separates from the group by his purchase of property for himself. We notice that like Annanias and Sapphira, who will later be described as doing the same thing, Judas is said to have been possessed by Satan (Luke 22:3; Acts 5:3) and to have “entered into a conspiracy” to get the money (Luke 22:4-6; Acts 5:9). Spiritual disaffection is symbolized by physical acquisitiveness” (Johnson, p. 39-40).
In both instances of this orientation to self, the result is death. Neither Judas nor Annanias and Sapphira get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Johnson sums up the significance of Judas’ betrayal and death as follows:
“Judas’ fate and that of his property is intertwined. He dies on the farm and his dwelling place is to be deserted (1:10). And, as his property is vacant, so is his place in the apostolic circle; therefore “let another take his office” (1:20). Each stage of the story is symbolized by the disposition of possessions: Judas’ apostasy from the Twelve is expressed by the buying of a farm, his perdition is expressed by the desertion of the property, and that empty property expresses the vacancy in the apostolic circle. That Luke intends just such an interpenetration of the notion of authority and the symbolism of property is shown by the final statement concerning Judas, that he left his ‘Place’ (topos) in the ministry precisely by his ‘going to his own place’ (ton topon ton idion, 1:25)”.
The metaphorical key to the story is clear: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it; and let another take his position of overseer’ (Acts 1:20). Judas’ loss of his property replicates Israel’s loss of the land. And the election of Mattias anticipates the restoration of divine presence in the community, which will lead to the common thriving of the community.
Indeed, in our view, Luke has shown us that Jesus’ reorientation of the community to God’s creation is a key aspect of their post-resurrection existence. All this talk about farms and place in the community suggests that Judas’ acquisitiveness is not merely symbolic of spiritual disaffection; it also represents an orientation to creation that has to be repudiated and remedied by the community as it begins its mission. Metaphors whose substance seemed to have been vacated by events are to be re-appropriated for the future community’s well-being. Moreover, verses from Psalm 1 remind us that the connection of symbolic significance of metaphor to social and natural reality can run in both directions: those who “delight in the law of the Lord” are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:3-4).
A related metaphor from the Resurrection readings seems pertinent: the Vine-dresser does indeed cut off the branch that fails to produce good fruit, but only in order to spur new, healthy growth (John 15:16). Similarly, by participating in the self-interested economy of the “hired hand”, he showed himself to be no good shepherd; so his place has to be taken by another. Luke, Johnson concludes, not only “solved the problem posed by Judas’ betrayal by reintegrating a leadership of the Twelve for this people that awaits the promised gift of the Holy Spirit;” Luke has “also prepared his readers to see in the restored people a community that calls nothing its own and shares all its possessions as a sign of its spiritual unanimity (Acts 2:41-17; 4:32-37) (Johnson, p. 40). Judas’ replacement by Matthias thus represents the restoration of the community of God’s people to right relationship to the land that will sustain them in the new creation. The Creator’s economy of self-giving is newly installed as the normative way of life. It is a distinctive feature of this community that pretension to self-sufficient ownership of land has no part in the community’s relationship to the creation which sustains it in life. For this community, all creation will be a “common good” for which the community shares responsibility for righteous use and restorative care, but possesses no sovereignty or right of ownership over it. The future history of the monastic movements in Christian history will represent repeated attempts to give this model sustained existence. And our present experience of a society organized almost exclusively on the basis of private ownership of property, with only restricted concern for the common good, makes consideration of the experience of the newly resurrected community more relevant than ever.
Thus we arrive at the end of the Easter Season, waiting, like the disciples, for the renewed gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us for the mission that is ahead of us in the Anthropocene, when the fate of all living things hangs on our care for God’s creation. We are well advised at this moment to take seriously the suggestions of those who pray for the coming of the Spirit whose full name is “Spirit of Creation” not only Spirit of God. Hear, for example, this good counsel from Mark Wallace, which is based on his reading of the event of Pentecost:
“When the Spirit inspired the formative pentecostal gathering in the book of Acts to speak in other tongues, an eschatological rupture from the past occurred in which the ancient prophecy was fulfilled that the Spirit would pour out itself onto all flesh. It was said that the fulfillment would be distinguished by excessive and impossible signs of the Spirit’s presence: some would have visions, others would prophesy, and blood and fire and smoke would cover the earth (Acts 2:14-21). Today the haunting prospect of mass environmental death bears traces of just such a cataclysm. We too have entered a new era marked by a similar apocalyptic break with the past, where the Spirit is again at work to foment aberrant, unorthodox life-styles (‘these ones are full of new wine,’ Acts 2:13)”.
This is not the description of the Spirit familiar to generations of the faithful whose main concern was only the extension of belief in Jesus, for the sake of an eventual, individual resurrection. Everything is changed, and there is once again, reason for hope:
“We are being asked to abandon old mores in favor of a new biocentric and nonconformist theology and ethic. We are being wooed by the Spirit to desert custodial language of dominion and stewardship in favor of an earth-centered religious discourse: all creatures are best served when humans abdicate their identities as overlords and defer instead to the wisdom of the Creatrix who renews and empowers the common biotic order. If we allow the Spirit’s biophilic insurgency to redefine us as pilgrims and sojourners rather than wardens and stewards, our legacy to posterity might well be healing and life-giving, and not destructive of the hope of future generations” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, pp. 169-170).
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.