Tag Archives: John 3

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

How can we allow the religion of consumption to threaten God’s future? – Tom Mundahl reflects on turning from darkness to light.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The Religion of Consumption

In 1955, American economist Victor Lebow wrote a prescription for the postwar economy that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” (quoted in Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? New York: Norton, 1992, pp. 21-22)

The impact of this “religion of consumption” is no surprise to those who care for creation, all struggling to live justly and humbly in “the belly of the beast.” The results of this postwar orgy of consumption are clear enough: massive waste of energy and material; increased degradation of air, water, and soil; use of thousands of chemical compounds whose effects are unknown, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exhaust fueling climate change, and embrace of “magical thinking” trusting that these problems will be “solved” by the newest techno “trick.”

How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation?

How could this be? How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation? Today’s readings provide clues that, even though they are nearly too blunt to miss, we too often ‘skate over’ to avoid offending what we might call the ‘spirit of the age,’ especially at a time when we do not want to rock the boat of a fragile economic recovery.

How could the church have bought into Victor Lebow’s clearly idolatrous way of thinking? Or, to echo Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Is it, as Marxists used to claim, “false consciousness?” Are we simply so overwhelmed by the massive quantity of commercial messaging and allegiance to finding meaning in ‘branding’ that we cannot help but respond to these stimuli? Are we so overworked in an anxious job milieu that we take our rewards where we can get them –at the mall or by shopping online?

Light and Darkness / Old Life, New Way of Being in Christ

Our readings suggest that, while all of these carry explanatory power, it is worse than that. As the Nicodemus discourse winds down, Jesus, who in the Prologue has already been called “the true light, which enlightens everyone….” (John 1:9) describes how responding to his presence creates a “crisis” (translated as “judgment,” v. 19) that orients humankind to “the light” or “the darkness.” This parallels the distinction etched in our second lesson between the “old life” (Ephesians 2:3) and the “new life in Christ” that has created a new community of hope (Ephesians 2:4-10). No matter how those who do not believe have ended up in this situation, the result is the same—embracing of the darkness, living in the old ways where one must manufacture one’s own security and hope.

And there is plenty of support for living the old life of darkness! The Roman Empire could provide a complete syllabus of religious practices that would not only be socially approved, but provide a safe anchor in the community. Something like that seems to be true for all in our culture who prefer the darkness. Bill McKibben points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” featured several climate science deniers, including five with ties to Exxon Oil (TomDispatch.com, February 9, 2012).

In fact, the darkness of a system that depends upon ravaging God’s creation has taken more than a century of “popular education” (read ‘propaganda’) to develop. As theologian Norman Wirzba argues:

“In fact, the vices of the great moral and spiritual traditions –pride, greed, and prodigality—first had to be transformed into economic virtues for Adam Smith’s ideas abut production, acquisition, and work to take hold. Today’s economies, in other words, are planned. They depend upon founding myths or assumptions that need to be seriously questioned if we are to make significant changes in the way we live.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 98)

Let Light and Newness Prevail

But God’s purpose in sending the One who is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) is to recreate and renew all of creation so that light and newness prevail. This is the goal we move toward during Lent as we look forward to lighting the “new fire” at the Easter Vigil and anticipate new baptisms into this community of care and love. What moves us cannot be better summarized than in John 3:16: “God so loved the world….” Even if the world contains a deep power of opposition embracing the old ways of darkness, this created world is in the process of being made new.

John connects this action to the old story of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness to bring hope to a community that has, in a sense, destroyed itself on the way to the Promised Land.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

This cross now becomes the center of the world, the axis mundi , the locus from which the Son of Man will draw all to himself (John 12:32) in the process of driving out the ruler of this world…and the musty darkness.

We are called to be a new community of life and hope.

But that is not all. In the meantime, those already captured by the new light are very busy. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may clearly be seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). This line is beautifully echoed at the end our second reading describing the purpose of creating a new community of light and hope. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life”(Ephesians 2:10).

Our task of good works is to care for creation.

Even in the face of a contracting consumer culture, filled with anxiety about what is coming next, our task is to continue to be about “the good works” already prepared for us. This is our life path. At times, I consider chucking this “care of creation struggle” in favor of walking the St. Olav Pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, or the El Camino Santiago Way to Compostela in Spain. Certainly, we all need to experience “sabbatical” time. But as Victor Lebow’s vision of “faith-based shopping” weakens us and our culture, the power of the one lifted up like the serpent frees us to continue to live out the way “prepared for us”—caring for creation.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Saler15)

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)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

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.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Loving the Cosmos as God DoesTom Mundahl reflects on repenting of the “windigo” way.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Each Ash Wednesday we make an unusually comprehensive community confession of sin. We confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people,” “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 253). While the starkness of these petitions may strike some as excessive, in light of the state of our planet one may also wonder: how could they be so mild?

Not only are we struggling through the aftermath of the eighteenth U.S. school shooting in the first couple months of 2018, but already residents of the Ohio River watershed are experiencing severe flooding. In my own Twin Cities, residents of the eastern suburbs of St. Paul are wondering if “3-M’s” nearly one billion dollar fine for polluting groundwater with the chemical components of Teflon will be sufficient given the 100 square mile toxic underground “plume” that has developed. And, once more the residents of California are beginning to worry about the low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, one of their most important water sources. Will this year bring more fires, mudslides, and greater stress to farms and city residents alike?

The gravity of issues like this was on the mind of Wake Forest University’s Fred Bahnson as he attended Good Friday services last year. He arrived at worship hoping to have quiet time to reflect on the cross, the state of his life, and the state of the world. What he experienced was quite different. “Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, but more ‘sackcloth and ashes’” (“The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion, Vol. 36, No. 4, Thirty-fifth Anniversary Issue, 2017, p. 85).

To the wandering Israelites described in this week’s First Lesson, “sackcloth and ashes” may not have sounded so bad. Not only was the first generation of leaders dying, the wilderness wanderers continued to be frustrated by continued detours forcing them to rely on Moses’ leadership and a divinely provided menu. It is no wonder that once more the people complained, this time directly to God, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

No longer does “out of Egypt” seem to be a punch line for a freedom dance. Now Egypt seems to represent a time without endless wandering and, despite bondage, a time of relative economic security. In their imaginations, Egypt may have become what Maggie Ross once referred to as “the mall across the Red Sea.” Especially to the second generation of those on this extended trek, stories detailing life in Egypt would likely have become attractive. How easy it was to forget the cultural humiliation and painful work of brick-making for harsh Egyptian masters, slavery which seemed to consume their unique gift to the world (Dennis Olson, Numbers, Louisville: John Knox, 1996, p. 135ff.).

The desperate attraction to the horrors of life in Egypt reminds me of one of most powerful of Algonquin legends—the tradition of the “windigo,”a being who has developed an appetite for food, wealth, and power that can never be satisfied. Not only had the Israelites been victims of this “windigo” power in Egypt, but in many ways, so are we. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how contemporary culture has “spawned a new breed of “windigo” that devours Earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” This mind-set proposes to improve our “quality of life,” but eats us from within. “It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that only nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2013, p. 308).

The consequences for the Israelites attracted to this nostalgic security monster are dire.

Poisonous serpents are deployed that quickly produce a high body count. When the desperate Israelites seek Moses’ help, he prays to the LORD, who commands him to make a bronze casting of a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole, so that, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9). No longer did they long for the storied days of imagined ease brought by the Egyptian “windigo;” now by looking at the very source of death they find healing and restoration of communal trust. It is no surprise that the Johannine evangelist uses this image (John 3:14) to portray the cross, that brutal instrument of Roman torture, as the sign pointing to cosmic renewal of life. God transforms the very instruments of death (serpent/cross) sub contrario, into tools for life.

Much the same can be seen in this week’s Second Lesson from Ephesians, where the author frames the text with the Greek verb peripateo, “to walk,” the source of the English “peripatetic.” This “inclusio” describes contrary ways of life: in v. 2 walking the “windigo” way of death; in v. 10 walking the way of service and care. “Following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) suggests that “human life is under the malign influence of celestial powers thought to rule the universe, akin to ‘the elemental spirits’ of Col. 2:8, 20” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991 p. 26). The result is a warped understanding of life that leads to boasting (v. 9), misplaced confidence in human capacity, and being caught in the maelstrom of “windigo” lust.

The results of this kind of living are familiar to us today. According to Clive Hamilton, “The Great Acceleration began at the end of WW II and inaugurated both globalization and the Anthropocene. The rapid acceleration of economic growth, along with booming consumption and its profligate resource usage and waste, drove human destabilization of the Earth System. The pursuit of the American Dream at the same time brought the Anthropocene nightmare” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 84). That this accelerating, self-augmenting, out-of-control system reminds us of the “windigo” should be no surprise. And, it is certainly not to automobile drivers trapped in nearly identical smog-producing traffic jams in Los Angeles, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, and Addis Ababa.

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians reminds readers of the mercy of God, “who has made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:55). “In effect, God has done for Christians what God has already done for Christ” (Martin, p. 27). This results not in a new status of “holiness,” since it is all done “by grace as a free gift” (Ephesians 2:8), but in an explosion of servant-care. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). This amazing verse pulls no punches: the communal gift of grace flows through us as a way of continuing the renewal of creation and healing. Integral to this new way of walking (the closing of our “inclusio” frame) is building eco-justice.

This week’s lesson from John’s Gospel continues this emphasis on God’s action to heal and renew creation through the Son of Man (John 3:14) and the new community he calls into being (John 3:21). Once more we see a figure lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, but this time the result is not only the healing of those bitten by fiery serpents. Here the result is a new quality of life not only for those who believe, but for the whole creation (John 3:15-16).

Despite the uniqueness of John’s Gospel, Raymond Brown reminds us that the three statements describing Jesus being lifted up (John 3:14, 8: 28, and 12:32-34) function as the equivalent of the three synoptic passion predictions (The Gospel According to John, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 146). While John does not describe a specific response to each of these, the consequences are clear. In our text, even though the Son was “not sent into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), those who have seen and do not believe have already condemned themselves (John 3:18). “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). What is this if not a sense of being trapped in the “windigo” energy of “the virtue of selfishness” which has led to everything from out-of-control ecological devastation to power addiction and genocide? And this does not even begin to measure the energy required to “cover up in the darkness” responsibility for these deeds!

John describes the life of faith as producing even greater energy. But this energy is directed toward “doing the truth” (John 3:21a). Because these deeds come into the light, visible to the entire cosmos, they contain an entirely different kind of generativity. Just as the author of Ephesians refers to “good works which God has prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10), so the works coming from faith-active-in-love are “deeds performed in God” (Arndt, Bauer, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 307). Certainly ecojustice and Earthcare are among them.

The motive force behind “doing the truth” is the “life of new creation”/”eternal life” that comes from the lifting up of the Son of man, the word made flesh. This energy easily surpasses competing powers, including “Eternal Rome.” While Roman ideology claimed divine paternity for Augustus and his successors, who assumed political permanence, the gift of the one lifted up on a Roman cross could be grasped “only by faith” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 78). Still, a “life that bears endless newness” is the audacious claim of the early community, an assertion intensified in his gift of peace “not as the world (here read “Caesar”) gives” (John 14:27).

The center of this text is John 3:16, an echo of the prologue with its allusion to creation—”In the beginning . . . .” (John 1:1). Note well that Jesus does not say, “God loved humankind so much.” The life of the new time is not just for human beings; it envelops the entire Earth, the cosmos. Margaret Daly-Denton calls attention to the rich meaning of “cosmos” with etymological connections to “beauty,” the root of “cosmetic.” In this case, however, the word points to beauty that is rooted deeply within the creation and integral to the harmony of its endless interconnections (Ibid., pp. 78-79).

When we affirm God’s love for the cosmos, broken as it is, we discover surprising depth. What faith sees is seldom simply an object of vision, but even more the unseen reality that brings it into being. As Wirzba writes, “Our gaze at a creature . . . does not stop at the creature’s surface but extends beyond it to its dependence upon and source in a Creator. The Logos through which all things in the world came to be is also the light and life within each thing” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 32). This attitude requires us to live “together with” the whole of creation in a respectful way, or, as John would have it, “living in the light” (John 3:21).

That this is not the way we see the world God loves in our consumer-driven culture is clear. As Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard reveals, “We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves” (Human Image–World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology, Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992, p. 2). In order for us as to serve Earth and build ecojustice for all, we need once more to recognize God’s love in each other and in all that the Creator has made.

Yes, Fred Bahnson is correct in calling for us to put on the “sackcloth and ashes” of grief when we consider what we continue to do to this planet. Our actions are based primarily on how we see the cosmos—as a “mine” of resources to satisfy our endless desires, the “windigo” way from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. While the new-mindedness of Lenten repentance requires action, public policy change, hard work, and all of our energy, it also suggests the need for Lenten time to breathe and remember the depth of God’s love, a memory that may open us once more to be “channels of justice.”

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Living in Promises and HopeTom Mundahl reflects on land and the struggle to “till (serve) and keep” it to this day.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-1, 13-17
John 3:1-17

As we move from the Genesis pre-history (ch. 1-11) to God’s calling into being a new community, the centrality of creation and the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” (Genesis 2:15) remains.  The “events” of the proto-history — expulsion from the garden, the first murder, the flood, and the human effort to “make a name” at Babel–all lead to the situation of Abraham and Sarah—landless and without progeny.

Even though it is tempting to move away from creation issues into history, Brueggemann makes it very clear: “In its present form, the governing promise concerns the land.” (Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, p, 109) This is confirmed by the final promise in Genesis 12:3, “and in you shall all the families of the earth (adamah) be blessed.” We might translate this: “all the families belonging to the earth,” to remind ourselves that the Yahwist begins with the land as the key partner in creation’s dance. (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 127)

But it is the promise of the land which makes the lack of an heir even more poignant. Without a next generation the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” becomes meaningless.  Agriculture is a multi-generational commitment; without children “there can be no fulfillment in the land of promise.” (Brueggemann, ibid.)

God’s promises are both generous and outrageous.  Not only does their weight rest on Abraham and Sarah, but it requires that they uproot themselves from the security of a settled way of life– landless and childless as it may be– to travel on the basis of nothing more than this promise into an uncertain future. Perhaps it is like the choice between embracing a new economy based on clean and sustainable energy sources or looking backward to repristinate the past by “making America great again.”  Why give up the safe illusion of comfort in favor of an unknown future in a so-called “promised land”?

Perhaps the key to understanding Abraham and Sarah’s response is as simple as the identity of the One who promises, whose words fuel the Priestly creation account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a): “Now the LORD said to Abram.” (Genesis 12:1) That speech creates the faithful response that follows.  Many have heard it as an echo of baptismal calling. And the LORD said, “Go and support water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Or, others have heard a call to teach or be part of an adult class struggling with ecojustice. Others have been lured to serve as counselors at church camps, our precious creation care workshops, where for nearly a week they live mostly disconnected from communications technology in order to help participants reconnect with creation.  The effectiveness of this calling is affirmed by Isaiah in vivid natural terms, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return  there until they have watered the earth…, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The lively speech of God is the source of hope for Abraham and Sarah. “To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.” (Brueggemann, p. 117)  As so many million refugees in the world today know, a word of hope propels and encourages. To refuse to listen to this calling is often to acquiesce in seeing the “Genesis story run backwards.” (Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: the Education of an Unlikely Activist, New York: Times Books, 2013, p. 156)

And, to move forward in response to this hopeful word is to experience blessing. As the generous currency that drives us forward with its vitality, blessing consists of the “ordinary” processes of life which come to be seen as indispensable gifts.  Far from being “mighty acts of God,” blessings are what sustain us on the way– good bread and soup, a warm sweater, a loving hug, a good friend.  And blessing is enough. (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life if the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, pp. 18, 41, 85)

Yet, blessing is framed by unexpected eruptions within the “ordinary” which cannot be predicted.  Brueggemann suggests that scriptures provide three primary ways of speaking such radical newness: creation, resurrection, and justification by grace through faith. (Brueggemann, p. 111)  And it is the latter which land Abraham and Sarah squarely in the middle of Paul’s argument in Romans.

In his effort to reconcile exiled Romans of Jewish background who affirm the Christ with Gentile believers, Paul can find no better model than Abraham.  Abraham certainly had no religious resume to boast about; he and Sarah only trusted promises of land and heirs. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but when the content of the blessings  (Genesis 12:1-3) is taken into account, Paul extravagantly suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world….” (Romans 4:13)

Living by the gift of promise  means embodying the purpose for creation –care and blessing.  And, Paul argues, how much more so in light of the Christ event.  As Kasemann suggests in summarizing Paul’s thinking: “This means that justification, as the restitution of creation and as resurrection anticipated in the stage of trial (anfechtung), is the decisive motif of Paul’s soteriology and theology and these have always to be interpreted in terms of it.  That is, the world and history are always involved in God’s renewing activity.” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1980, p. 123.

Perhaps the struggle of this “renewing activity” is what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind with his poem, “God’s Grandeur:”

            And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell….
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lies the dearest freshness, deep down things….
(Poems and Prose, New York: Everyman’s, 1995, p. 14)

Our gospel reading shows Nicodemus embarking on a “faith journey” of his own. As one of those who “saw the signs that he (Jesus) was doing,” John 2:23), Nicodemus was both intrigued and disturbed. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, what was he to think of Jesus’ statement, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days?” (John 2: 20)  These threatening words and Jesus’ Passover cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-17) may have led Nicodemus to wonder about the meaning of his faith. Perhaps, like Sarah and Abraham, he was beginning to reach a “dead end” where new measures were necessary.

Nicodemus decides to interview Jesus, and, in the interests of protecting his reputation, he comes by night. Whenever I think of this late night meeting I am reminded of Edward Hopper’s arresting painting, “Nighthawks” (1942).  Inside a bright diner surrounded by the dark of night we see four figures, a couple in conversation, the server, and a man sitting with his back to the window. Eerie green shadows convey a sense of loneliness and desperation.  But the most alarming feature of this nighttime refuge is the lack of a door. (Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, New York: Picador, 2016, p. 21)  Perhaps Nicodemus seeks from Jesus a new “door” to his future.

At first, it seems that their conversation is going nowhere.  Even though Nicodemus must be conversant with scripture and tradition, Jesus’ mysterious double entendres referring to being born anothen — “again” and “from above,” and his playing with pneuma as both “wind” and “spirit” confuse him. The fact that this Rabbi prefaces his mysterious speech with “Very truly I say to you,” the “sentence of holy law formula,” only makes matters worse.

No wonder Nicodemus exclaims, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9) His quest to find a new path seems to have failed.  Yet this nocturnal meeting continues with Jesus reminding Nicodemus that here, too, is a kind of “exodus” where, instead of a serpent being lifted up to provide healing, here “ the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

That this will be a healing act of love is made clear by the familiar John 3:16 – 17, where the motive for this is is revealed — the Creator’s love for the creation and all its creatures, including Nicodemus.  Somehow, this mysterious meeting more than satisfies Nicodemus and sends him into the future embracing “the healing of the world.” (John 3:17)

When Jesus is threatened with death by the Sanhedrin, it is Nicodemus who reminds them of protections built into their procedure: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing, to find out what they were doing, does it?” (John 7:51) And, following Jesus being “lifted up,” Nicodemus is there, too.  John writes, “Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39)  With Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body with spices in linen.

Adjoining this tomb there was a garden. (John 19:20) May it not be that Nicodemus, this well-connected and transformed teacher, remembering words about love for the world (John 3:16) now saw the garden of creation from Genesis 2-3. (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (xiii- xxi), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 945–one of the possible interpretations mentioned by Brown)  This certainly gives deeper meaning to Mary Magdalene’s “supposing” Jesus to be the “gardener” in John 20:15.  With John’s love of the suggestive richness of language, that may be even a richer messianic title than “my rabbi.” (John 20:16) As Nicodemus found, he is the one who gives growth and nurture to all who, like Abraham and Sarah, experience being “stuck” with no “doors” in sight.

(Refer to Margaret-Daly Denton’s [Trinity College, Dublin] volume in the Earth Bible series, John: An Earth Bible Commentary–Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017.)

Perhaps many ecojustice advocates feel much like Nicodemus today.  Certainly, mutual support is crucial. Reading writings from difficult times can provide sustenance–e.g. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  While re-reading Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian novels may also be helpful, there still is nothing like the psalter.  In this week’s appointed Psalm 121, a Song of Ascents written for pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, the psalmist affirms that “our help comes from the one who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 2) This One will “keep” us as we struggle to “till and keep” creation and build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:
Gathering—“Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW 326
Hymn of the Day—“There in God’s Garden,” ELW 342
Sending—“ Will You Come and Follow Me,”  ELW 798

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN               
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).