Tag Archives: new creation

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Dennis Ormseth reflects on community, trinity, and unity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

We continue our exploration of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith occasioned by the observance of Easter and their relationship to practices of care for creation. In the comment for Resurrection of Our Lord, we saw that the Resurrection of Jesus reveals the eschatological presence of God in the community of Jesus’ disciples, as that community brings to the world the message of the God’s victory over the death. Jesus’ resurrection is, in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, a “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ,” in which all creation is eventually to be drawn by God away from destruction and toward salvation “on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” Distinguishing marks of this presence are the non-violent character of relationships in the community, in conformity with the nonviolent practice of their crucified Lord, and the fellowship meal in which those relationships are celebrated.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter encourage us to amplify the significance of those marks, again with special significance for care of creation. The non-violent character of the community is secured in these texts, as in the Easter narrative of Mark, by the affirmation of continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Lord. While Mark provides for that continuity by having the disciples sent back to Galilee, in John’s narrative, composed significantly later and more fully developed theologically, Jesus himself appears to the disciples, first without Thomas and then with Thomas; when they see the marks of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side, they know that this is the crucified Jesus. He then addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, breaths upon them the Holy Spirit, and commissions them by the power of the Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. The continuity of the resurrected Jesus with the crucified Jesus serves to restore the community they experienced prior to his crucifixion. But with the additional acts of breathing upon them and the blessing of peace, Jesus also anticipates a transition in the community from those disciples who see the crucified and resurrected Jesus and thus believe, to those who have faith only by virtue of the presence of God as the Spirit brings the community to life in an ongoing new creation.

The encounter is intended to be understood as an eschatological moment of new creation. This set of messianic practices constitutes the means for creating community with and amongst the disciples, not just in the moment of this encounter, but enduring into the future. Going forward, the breath, the blessing of peace, and the commission will sustain the formation of communities in which Jesus is worshipped, as in the praise of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” As Raymond Brown notes, in John 20:17, it was

“. . . promised that after Jesus’ ascension God would become a Father to the disciples who would be begotten by the Spirit, and also would in a special way become the God of a people bound to him by a new covenant. The words that Thomas speaks to Jesus are the voice of this people ratifying the covenant that the Father has made in Jesus. As Hosea 2: 25 (23) promised, a people that was formerly not a people has now said, “you are my God.” This confession has been combined with the baptismal profession “Jesus is Lord,” a profession that can be made only when the Spirit has been poured out (I Corinthians 12:3)” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), New York: Doubleday, 1970, p.1035).

Thus the members of the community of the crucified and resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to similarly reconcile others, are gathered in the presence of their Creator. Brown called particular attention to this creational emphasis, as he notes, “for John this is the high point of the post-resurrectional activity of Jesus.” He comments:

“Before Jesus says, ‘Receive a holy Spirit,” he breathes on his disciples. The Greek verb emphysan, “to breath,” echoes LXX of Genesis 2:7, the creation scene, where we are told: The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The verb is used again in Wisdom 15:11, which rephrases the creation account: “The One who fashioned him and . . . breathed into him a living spirit.” Symbolically, then, John is proclaiming that, just as in the first creation God breathed a living spirit into man, so now in the moment of the new creation Jesus breathes his own Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life” (Brown, p. 1037).

That Yahweh the Creator is present to the community is made more explicit in the second half of the reading, in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas. As Thomas moves from disbelief to belief, he confesses his faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is, in Brown’s view,

“. . . the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel. In Chapter I the first disciples gave many titles to Jesus . . , and we have heard still others throughout the ministry: Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, King of Israel, Son of God. In the post-resurrectional appearances Jesus has been hailed as the Lord by Magdalene and by the disciples as a group. But it is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh.”

This confession, Brown emphasizes, is not a dogmatic assertion, but rather an act of worship. “It is a response of praise to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus . . . . Thomas speaks the doxology on behalf of the Christian community” (Brown, pp. 1046-7).

Such praise, it is important to note, entails a characteristic reorientation to the creation of the Creator. As Brown notes, the peace and joy noted in John 20:20 are for John, as for Jewish thought generally, “marks of the eschatological period when God’s intervention would have brought about harmony in human life and in the world. John sees this period realized as Jesus returns to pour forth his Spirit upon men” (Brown, p. 1035). Appropriately, this vision is then also manifest in the first lesson for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in the face of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully Ben Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that

“. . . no one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness . . . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003:  Easter through Pentecost, pp. 17-18).

The community now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace” which was fostered by the meal they shared, when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ maintained in strong measure the sense of living fully in God’s presence previously expected by the Hebrew community in its life centered in temple worship.

The distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned here indeed represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world as it should be. As M. Douglas Meeks describes it in his book God the Economist, this new economy is grounded securely in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 leads to different forms of property . . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikia relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property that is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

“God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated.  The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.”

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving.  The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).

In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the followers of Jesus have become like those Hebrews of whom the Psalmist sings, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”(Psalm 133:1). They do indeed “dwell together in unity,” the blessing of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3b).  It is striking that a scriptural basis for a trinitarian foundation for this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday. The gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciples, in which the presence of Yahweh the creator is newly communicated. And in the second lesson from 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might accordingly move readily to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property. Care of creation begins at home, where the church dwells together in unity, not only amongst themselves, but in community both with God and with all God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth18)

A Meal for All Sorts of Hunger Dennis Ormseth reflects on a broad resurrection vision.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

The centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the life of the church means that the Easter texts provide occasion for an examination of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith and, with attention to the focus of these lectionary comments, their relationship to practices of care for creation. We begin with an examination of the nature of the Resurrection itself, prompted by recent provocative observations made by John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan in a recent article in the Christian Century. The visions of Christ’s resurrection held by the Western and Eastern churches differ significantly, the Crossans observe, and the difference is important for the future of the human species on the earth. Based on wide examination of artwork east and west, the Crossans noticed a pattern:

“The West celebrates the individual resurrection. Christ rises triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone. The guards of the tomb may be shown asleep or awake, but nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Whatever may be implied about humanity’s future by this image of resurrection, it says nothing about humanity’s past . . . . The East, on the other hand, celebrates the universal resurrection. Here Christ also rises triumphantly and magnificently—but he takes all of humanity with him. Iconographically, paintings in the East show Christ grasping the wrist of Adam. By the year 1200, he is shown grasping both Adam and Eve. Anastasis-as-resurrection is the liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ.” Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23-24.

Which vision is correct? The Crossans admit that it is hard to decide on the basis of biblical texts alone. No direct account of the resurrection exists. Weighing the alternatives, an individual resurrection is the more easily imagined occurrence, they agree, and thereby more readily available to support creedal faith. Within biblical Judaism, on the other hand, “resurrection was always corporate, communal, and universal.” And for the Crossans, it counts heavily in favor of the Eastern view that it addresses much more powerfully human life in the public square (Crossan, p. 24).

Their travels and study have convinced the Crossans that “the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence.” Ever “since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago,” they write, “we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replace.” On this trajectory, they ask, “What can save our species from itself?” Of the two visions of resurrection, they suggest, it is the Eastern Anastasis that holds out most hope. In addition to its communal character, the Eastern tradition clearly portrays the risen Jesus as “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected.” Risen Lord though he is, he is also the non-violent Jesus of his crucifixion. “His halo is imprinted with a cross, the gates of death are flattened in cruciform position, he bears wounds on hands and feet, and he carries a processional cross.” This image points to the fact, the Crossans show, that his death by crucifixion was a mode of punishment that Roman rulers imposed on agents of nonviolent resistance. Following this Jesus, his companions would not have engaged in escalatory violence, not even to save him from crucifixion. The vision of Christ’s resurrection in the Eastern church, the Crossans conclude, thus offers the better alternative for our “historical and evolutionary challenge” in the public square:

“The iconographic message is this: only nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilization can divert the human trajectory away from destruction and toward salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world. . . . As human evolution plays out, Christ’s resurrection isn’t just reality-creating metaphor for creedal Christians—it’s for all of humanity” (Crossans, p. 25).

Our location in the Western tradition aside, the selection of texts for The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B calls for proclamation of this vision of a universal resurrection that offers hope for all humankind. And it does so, we argue, not only in the face of the challenge of escalatory violence feared by the Crossans, but also with regard to the threat of global ecological devastation, which in our view is no less threatening to the future of our species, and a solution to it no less essential to their hope for “salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.”

Peter’s sermon to the gentiles gathered in the Caesarean home of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (Acts 10:1) witnessed “to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). Thus Peter’s message also is about an “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected” Christ—again, by the Crossans’ argument, an advocate for nonviolence—who reigns by God’s ordination as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42)—in other words, of all humanity, past and present. And the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25 strengthens this expectation of universal resurrection in the company of a non-violent lord: Yahweh promised a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples, and destruction of the “shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (v. 6-8, emphasis added)—also, clearly a promise of universal rescue from death, if not explicitly by resurrection.

In addition to their shared view of the resurrection as universal and free of violence, these passages are linked in a second way, one which enlarges the scope of the vision to bring all creation into view: each text mentions a meal, shared in the first instance by the disciples “chosen by God as witnesses” to the crucified-and-resurrected Lord, and secondly, the feast of Isaiah’s prophecy. The latter, we suggest, by its association here in the Easter readings, confers eschatological meaning to the former. The feast of Isaiah 25:6-9 is drawn from the Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, as Jon Levenson explains, the background of which “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the powers of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” “Central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” Levenson argues, Yahweh,

“like Baal associated with natural abundance and enhanced vitality, swallows Death, and we have here no hint that this victory will ever be reversed . . . the life-sapping forces will at last be eliminated, . . [W]hat is definitively defeated here is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1988, p. 30).

Levenson further notes that the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh at Isaiah 26:19,“brings about a resurrection” which, while not “exemplifying a doctrine of general resurrection . . . of the sort that was later to become central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” nonetheless projects “a definitive victory of YHWH over Death and . . . the rich and joyous feast he provides to all nations in celebration of his long-awaited triumph” (Levenson, p. 31).

Thus the linkage of the texts before us provides for extension of the scope of salvation envisioned by the message of Jesus’ resurrection, to embrace hope not only for a future, universal non-violent community of all humans, but also for an entire, restored creation within which they live. Easter is indeed an appropriate occasion for us to look forward to “a transformed earth . . . within a transfigured world.”

There are difficulties in the way of this reading of the texts, of course. In the first place, as noted above, neither vision of the resurrection, as described here, is a matter of actual historical reality. The lack of any description of the actual resurrection constitutes an absolute prohibition on speculation as to how the resurrection actually happened, a serious problem for appropriating the story’s power in the public square in our scientific cultural context. The resurrection remains a matter of metaphor and imagination. And surely an assemblage of ancient myth may seem a weak structure on which to base such extravagant hope. But, as the Crossans point out, while the vision of universal resurrection that drove the creative work of Eastern Christian artists and theologians through the centuries is indeed a metaphorical, and not a literal, event, that doesn’t matter, because “—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Crossan and Crossan, p. 24).

Yet again, even as a matter of metaphor, the assembled texts present a more serious complication for constructing a vision of the resurrection that embraces all creation. As Levenson notes, the vision of Isaiah with its defeat of “all life-denying forces, natural and historical,” is in its biblical context embedded in a narrative that ties it to a particular locale: Yahweh hosts the feast “on the mountain,” that is, on Zion, as the living God celebrates unqualified victory upon the temple mount. The temple, as Levenson shows, constitutes the earthly completion of the “great cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3.” In Rabbinic legend,

“the Jerusalem Temple is depicted as the cosmic capstone that prevents the great abyss (tehoma) from rising again to inundate the world and undo the work of creation. In this current of Rabbinic thought, as in the older temple mythos of the Hebrew Bible and its near Eastern antecedents, the point is not simply that the two projects, world building and temple building, are parallel. Rather, they implicate each other, and neither is complete alone. The microcosm is the idealized cosmos, the world contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be, a powerful piece of testimony to God the creator, a palace for the victorious king. To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil. It is that ideal world which is the result of God’s creative labors” (Levenson, p. 99).

A “distinctive note” of these ancient themes reflected in Isaiah 25:6-8, Levenson observes, is an “eschatological urgency” that derives from the dissonance between the world affirmed in temple liturgy and the world experienced in quotidian life. “In the former YHWH reigns in justice, unchallenged, and abundantly favoring his faithful and obedient votaries, whereas in the latter Israel is a small and threatened people, lacking sovereignty and often even the respect of those who hold her fate in their hand, and fidelity to her religion brings no temporal rewards, but many afflictions” (Levenson, p. 32).

The emergent community of Jesus’ followers undoubtedly shared a profound sense of such “eschatological urgency,” squeezed as it was between the hostile authorities that dominated Jewish life in Jerusalem and the legions of the Roman Empire. The difficulty here, of course, is that Zion with its temple is no longer for the followers of Jesus a place to participate in such a liturgy, whatever its relevance to their endangered situation. On the contrary, as the resurrection narrative of the Gospel reading from Mark shows them, Jesus and his followers are going out away from that sacred mountain. Indeed, the young man dressed in white who greets the two Mary’s at the tomb expressly directs them away from Zion: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It is emphatically not part of the resurrection message that the disciples are to remain in Jerusalem: they will not see the risen Jesus there. Nor, we take it, will any later readers of the Gospel.

So what happens here to the cosmological vision of the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that riven from its temple location, the cosmic conflict is no longer relevant to the future of the community of Jesus? Has the non-violent character of the community perhaps succeeded in banishing death from their midst? Not so, in Ched Myers’ view, not at all. In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” As he explains in his Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401) this redirection by the young man dressed in white actually completes the great religious reversal that Mark narrates from the very beginning of his Gospel. The Jerusalem temple was the economic, political, and religious center of the nation; its temple was the center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth were joined. But the story of Jesus begins out away from Jerusalem, at the edge of the wilderness, where God is first encountered in the waters of the Jordan. And as the story of Jesus’ passion develops, the temple is utterly vacated of the divine presence. As Myers observes, there was

“. . . no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; it is not the heavens that are rent (schizo), but the veil of the earthly sanctuary; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.”

Even the body that had taken central place in the narrative of Jesus’ action in Jerusalem, as Jesus offered himself in love to his disciples, even that is now gone—“he is not here” (Myers, p. 406). When the story of Jesus is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: the crucified body is risen from the dead. But also that body is absent from the scene: as Myers observes, in the course of Mark’s narrative not only has Jesus’ body replaced the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life, but now his absent body is in turn displaced by what Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone,” confirming “Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Myers, p. 406).

This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in fact deeply significant for our concern for care of creation. The mission of the crucified-and-risen Lord is to be worked out in the context of everyday life. Strong confirmation of this redirection is given, in fact, by the very figure who brings the message. Tom Mundahl reminded us in his comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent that the young man dressed in white at the tomb in the Gospel of Mark represents more than the eye can at first see. He is the blind man of Mark 10:47, who flees on the night of Jesus passion, abandoning his cloak; we see him again here at the end of the Gospel, newly dressed in the white robe of the Christian neophyte. His name was Bartimaeus, that is, son of Timaeus. Timaeus was a figure in Platonic philosophy who envisioned heaven and earth, as Mundahl summarizes his view, as “a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision.” The formerly blind but now sighted Bar-timaeus represents the Markan rejection of this elitist view in favor of an understanding of how, in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, his followers are to be made newly aware of how radically different the presence of God is envisioned when Jesus is seen “in Galilee.” At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4). In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21) . . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25). Jesus’ teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11:24) . . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid., p. 443).

And it is there in the discipleship practice that the world, “contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be,” is manifest as “powerful testimony to God the creator,” albeit without requiring “a palace for the victorious king.”

In its readings for Easter Sunday, therefore, the church properly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of its belief in the universal resurrection from the dead and its celebration of the pascal feast. And it does so without limitation with respect to the locus of this discipleship practice in the vicinity of the Temple of Zion or, which is perhaps the more important, larger point, any other, similar cosmic and political center. The departure from Jerusalem is not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel’s faith and concern for creation so central to temple practice, then, as rather its appropriation for those followers who return to Galilee and, indeed, for the mission of those followers as they move from there across the Roman world. What happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh’s holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God’s presence from that precinct; but it was also the initiation of a new manifestation of that presence in the community of Jesus’ followers. As Gordon Lathrop puts it, also with reference to the tombside redirection of the two Marys by Bartimaeus, it is now to be understood that

“. . . the actual history and death of Jesus have inaugurated the eschaton of God in this world. God’s acting in justice and mercy for the healing of the created world could therefore be proclaimed in the gathered communities, in the power of the Spirit, by telling there the stories of Jesus and, reinterpreted through him, the very stories of Israel, and by eating there the eschatological feast of his gift . . . . This encounter with the eschaton, with what came to be called ‘the resurrection,’ was taking place in every local assembly, not in Jerusalem alone, or Rome alone, or some other “apostolic headquarter” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 , p.134).

This being so, it is precisely in those assemblies that we might look for the “world as it was meant to be,” not only a human community from which the plague of reciprocal violence is being removed, but also a new creation, a creation being restored because death no longer has dominion there.

If this relocation of the eschatological presence of God removes ties to the temple, it nonetheless imposes all the more strictly the practice of nonviolence. Indeed, domination by any means is excluded. Crucially, it even “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology,” Myers insists, “which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid., p. 408). The risen Christ remains the crucified-and-resurrected Christ of the Gospel tradition. What this means for the proclamation of the resurrection is that the reach of the life-giving and restoring presence of God in the creation can never be stopped short of its cosmic completion. It can never be permanently captured by the powers that control the sacred center of a society by whatever means, violent or otherwise.

In the first instance, therefore, this message will be returned to the original field of activity, Galilee, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem (Myers, p. 406). It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p. 443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent of Africa, and even across Asia. Before long, of course, the material needs of those communities will bring into ever fuller play the full scope of the eschatological realization of God’s restoration of creation, as symbolized earlier in the temple’s eschatology, but now focused on the life of the discipleship community. As with the temple, so with the community. It’s practice and the world of its location belong together; now they are the implicate of each other, as temple and world were before. This is why the inclusion of the eschatolgical meal in the message of Easter is so significant. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

“it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site [the table fellowship] as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus’ “body” (14:22-25) . . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is ‘holy,’ for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid., p. 443).

The meal is, as Myers has it, “for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (16:7).” But the community will not be sustained in any of its places of settlement if it is not also a meal that creates new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in the midst of which it is shared.

Thus the spread of the discipleship practice congruent with the hope of universal resurrection repeatedly draws the community ever more deeply into the public square. If not in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, and eventually in Rome as the center of its Western Empire, the historical and natural conditions of life are taken up into the story of the way of Jesus. If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers find themselves at home, then neither location nor dwelling are finally irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides the plain where Jesus preached and the mountain on which Jesus died and was raised, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, the city but also the wilderness, each of which offers again and again its special kind of participatory membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And when no longer Rome and its many extensions under the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Western church secured its attachment to the sphere of the planet Earth, then in each of its re-centering capitals, and eventually the United States of America, with its strong if merely metaphorical claim to be a New Israel, and a City set on a Hill. With each of these extensions, more and more peoples are drawn into the community of human life in the name of the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus, more and more of Earth is encompassed in the hope of creation’s restoration and completion. And everywhere the meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human. But whenever any such center makes a claim to be the center in which God is uniquely, even supremely present, and defends that claim by violence that destroys the bonds of community and actions that result in the degradation of creation, it is time for the celebration of the feast to be moved once again to the margins, to the life-giving river in the wilderness, to the edge of the cosmos, and from there to move freely back into the midst of life. It is therefore crucial to the future of the human race that those margins, that wilderness, the infinite, limitless space, continue to provide place for the ever renewing manifestation of God.

Are we in such a time? The arguments about American exceptionalism in history may legitimately raise the question. The domination of a protestant Christianity over the civil religion of an American imperial leadership in the public sphere may suggest so. The attempt to exclude or at least limit other than Christian religious practice at that seat of military and economic power may also suggest so. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, when humans dominate all the biological processes of earth, and indeed weaponize the earth against its weaker and more vulnerable communities, both human and non-human, is it not time, if not already too late, to ask, whether our current coalition of religious, economic and political power will ever be able to deliver the fullness of both human and other-than-human life, as promised in resurrection vision of the Eastern church? Surely, it seems not. Very few, if any, of the “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” have been removed from our centers of civilization. It is perhaps not surprising that for most followers of Jesus in this age of the great American Empire, it suffices for them to hope that they are among those who in the resurrection will be delivered, individually, or at best, in community limited by faith, out from this vail of tears. We have been making do with that limited vision of an individual resurrection for too long already. Again, let it be said, in the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, we all rise together, and that includes the communities of non-human life, no less than the human species, or we finally rise not at all.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wisdom from Gardening – Tom Mundahl reflects on the seed that dies to bear fruit.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Wisdom and witness from the garden.

The time for studying seed catalogues in the Midwest is nearly over. Now is decision time. What will we grow in our limited space? Even more difficult is choosing seeds. Which varieties of carrots or squash should we try this year? Do we experiment with new, hybrid varieties, or purchase heirloom seeds? Which will work best in our soil conditions and changing climate? These are fascinating but difficult choices for the avid gardener, who, in a few weeks will plant these seeds in the earth “to die.”

Everyone who has ever planted a garden understands the image used in our gospel reading: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (literally, “alone”); but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Without the expenditure of the “life” that is stored in the seed—from genetic material to micro-nutrients—a garden simply will not grow.

Jesus uses this “parable” in response to a request from “some Greeks” who wanted to see him during the at the Passover Festival. While it may seem that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse, responding with a Zen-like koan less than helpful for these Gentile seekers, this short parable points toward the meaning of Jesus’ life and the future of the community enlivened by him.

To live real life is to give life away.

For it is not only gardening advice. With logic much like that used in the first Markan passion prediction (see Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38), Jesus argues that all attempts to find security on one’s own, or to protect oneself from the risks of life together, will lead to unfruitful death (the grain remaining “alone”). This is why Jesus continues: “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). To live real life is to give life away, to “spend” it.

Giving life away may seem like a waste of energy and resources to our culture. But Jesus digs deeper, seeking the very reason for receiving the gift of life. Once again, he puts it in vivid, but difficult words: “ . . . those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is, those who come to see that life is not a possession to be stored in a vault, but shared as needed in community, find that life becomes so rich it takes on a new quality that Jesus refers to as “eternal life.” (John 12:25)

Jesus gives his life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is about to demonstrate with the cross. Resurrection life—the life implied from the very beginning of this gospel—is cruciform to the marrow. Yet, it is the way to the germination of new creation. What would possess one to risk this? Only one who is confident that self-emptying death is not final. Instead, Jesus breaks ground for a “way” that passes even through death into the creation and nurture of a new community celebrating the interdependence of the whole of creation. This is a giving of life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

Wisdom from Dostoevsky: love of Earth and renewing of strength.

This is likely why the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, chose John 12:24 as the epigraph for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Alyosha, has spent months attached to a monastery, mentored by the Elder Zosima. While the novel makes clear that Zosima’s wisdom is focused on life—the precious web of relations between God, people, and the created world, there are those who expect extraordinary miracles that will add to the status of the monastery upon his coming death. The most basic of these expectations is the conviction that, because of the Elder’s holiness, his dead body will not be subject to decay.

When Zosima dies, his body begins to give off “an unmistakable scent.” Many would-be saint-makers begin to scoff at this well-loved teacher. Even Alyosha is crestfallen. Yet, in the midst of his grief and disappointment, he recalls “the Miracle at Cana” (John 2). Alyosha begins to grasp that Zosima has showered him with liveliness comparable to the “best wine” created by Jesus to enliven that wedding party!

As he leaves the monastery carrying this new insight, suddenly:

“The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. . . . He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, 362-63).

There are many ways to embrace God’s creation and to water it with our tears. While these textual comments have focused on Lenten texts, they surely drive toward the Three Days and the celebration of the Great Passover from death to life. As we look forward to baptism(s) at the Vigil, we recall both the renunciation of the powers of destruction in that service and the promise of parents and sponsors to “care for others and the world God made.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Holy Baptism,” p. 228). This makes us ‘fighters,’ too.

The finite bears the infinite.

Of course, this celebration of victory over the power of destruction and evil by the one who “draws all to himself on the cross” (John 12:32) is continued throughout the year in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist. This meal reminds us that what we eat and drink in the midst of the assembly, gathered by the Spirit, and affirming the Risen One, is charged with life that honors all creation (finitum capax infiniti). This meal of radical sharing creates a community whose very reason to be is mutual care–”Go in peace, serve the Lord.”

By our self-denial, we make space for others to flourish.

And this caring mirrors the very act of creation. This is because the Risen One is the embodiment of God’s making space for that which is other, which is essential to creation. This becomes clearer in the even more explicit “self-emptying” we focus on this season (Philippians 2:5-11) As Wirzba reminds us,

“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. Rowan Williams observes that it is when we practice the self-denial and self-dispossession that mirror God’s life that we are enabled to receive each other and the world as divine gifts rather than personal possessions.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2012, p. 69).

Whether it is caring for our gardens or “fasting” from automobile driving during Lent, this “making space for life” nourishes much like the “seed that dies to bear fruit.”

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

“. . . a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isaiah 32:15) Dennis Ormseth reflects on the cosmic Christ revealed in the Transfiguration.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

2 Kings 2:1-2
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, we behold God’s new creation. The light that shines in darkness in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:3) now shines from Jesus into the darkness of the world that will crucify him. As the culmination of the Season of Epiphany, the event develops themes we have lifted up in our comments on the lectionary readings for the season’s Sundays. As in his Baptism, we are taken to a remote location where creation is the strong and sustaining witness to the meaning of his presence—at his baptism, in the water of the River Jordan; here on the high mountain. The disciples called from their work close to the earth are now challenged by the voice from the clouds to forsake their resistance to his announcement that he must suffer and die: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 8:31-36). As Ched Myers describes the event,

“The inner circle of disciples is taken up onto a mountain where they encounter a kind of salvation-history summit conference at which Moses and Elijah stand by Jesus, and where a cloud subsequently descends and the heavenly voice speaks. What is the meaning of the appearance of Moses and Elijah here? At the level of intertextuality, each of the two great prophets represents those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. In the story of Elijah, the great prophet has for his trouble become a man hunted by the authorities. He tries to flee, but is met by Yahweh who dispatches him back into the struggle (1Kgs 19:11ff). And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh’s envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must thus ascend the mountain a second time (Ex 33:18ff).” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 250).

Their shared experience entails a dramatic end to “business as usual,” in precisely that “fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which encompasses both people and land and so leads by a new way of life together to creation’s restoration. Supported by the vision of Elijah and Moses, Jesus and his disciples will now engage with demonic powers in a battle to heal creation.

Or is that not what the “mountain-top” experience is about?  Is the God who speaks from the cloud not the God of all creation? Is the mission into which they (and we) are called by Jesus not the liberation of all creation? Skeptics may well protest at this point that we have introduced a concern for care of creation which is not really there in the Biblical witness. We think that the event of the Transfiguration shows that the concern is indeed there, and significantly so, as a hope for precisely “new creation,” in the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah. As Ched Myers observes, their presence functions to “lend credibility to the teaching Jesus has just delivered; the cross stands now with ‘the law and the prophets.’ This is meant as a dramatic confirmation of Mark’s repeated claim that his story stands in continuity with the ‘old story’ (1:2)” (Myers, p. 250). Granted that the credibility lent to Jesus’ teaching is of first importance for the church, we would urge nonetheless that the continuity runs in both directions at this juncture. For the church, “Jesus transfigured” is an originary theophany which opens access to the authority of the “law and the prophets;” it also invites both their study and, consequently, covenantal loyalty and obedience to their God, who as our Epiphany readings have repeatedly affirmed, is the God of all creation. Our first reading suggests that a prophet’s power grows in strength in the degree to which he revisits the full story of redemption: Elisha gains a double share of Elijah’s spirit by first journeying with him to Bethel, Jericho, and a crossing of the Jordan that is reminiscent of the Exodus. So also does the story of Jesus gain much of the spiritual power it has in relationship to all nations and the cosmos by revisiting and drawing from the stories of the Exile, Exodus and Creation. (This is indeed a very important aspect of this commentary on the readings of the Lectionary, with their regular linkage between Hebrew and Christian scripture).

Walter Breuggemann urges the importance of this point in arguing that the “practice of Torah is not only study; it is also worship. It is being in the presence of the One who lives in, with, and under this authoritative text, and who is present in the ongoing work of imagination from this text.” Obviously true for Jews, it is also true, he insists, for Christians: “the practice of Torah as a practice of obedience and imagination that issues in communion is a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 598-99).

With respect to creation, Torah looks to “a world beyond nullification:”’ there is something “ at work in Yahweh’s interior, something to which Israel boldly bears witness, that works against, disrupts, and mitigates Yahweh’s free exercise of wrathful sovereignty. Something moves against destructiveness, either to qualify it or to begin again post destruction” (Brueggemann, p. 542). In the prophets (specifically Hosea and Isaiah,) Brueggemann locates the voice of Yahweh, “who publicly and pointedly claims authority to replicate the initial creation, only now more grandly and more wondrously. This promised action of Yahweh is clearly designed to overcome all that is amiss, whether what is amiss has been caused by Yahweh’s anger, by Israel’s disobedience, or by other untamed forces of death.” The promised “newness of creation” encompasses all things: “All elements of existence are to come under the positive, life-yielding aegis of Yahweh . . . so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘All will be well and all will be well’” (Brueggemann, p. 549; the famous phase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).

“At Yahweh’s behest,” creation has three seasons:  first, “blessing,” in which Yahweh acts for “the well-being and productivity of the world. Yahweh has the power and the inclination to form a world of life-generating proportion”; second, “radical fissure”:  “Creation is not necessary to Yahweh, and Yahweh will tolerate no creation that is not ordered according to Yahweh’s intention for life. The world can be lost!”; and third, “a radical newness”: The reason? Perhaps it “is not in Yahweh’s character to be a God who settles for chaos. It is in Yahweh’s most elemental resolve to enact blessing and order and well-being” (Breuggemann, pp. 549-50).

Terry Fretheim shares Brueggeman’s view. In his persuasively documented study of God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), he, too, uncovers the deep thrust towards “new creation” in the events of the Exodus and Exile. The return from Exile and the Exodus, Fretheim writes, are . . .

“understood as redemptive events, forging the identity of the people of God. But the relationship is not so simple as to say:  just as God acted back then, so God is acting now. The exodus is also contrasted with what God is now about to do in returning the exiles home and planting them in the land: “Do not remember the former things . . . I am about to do a new thing’ (Isa 43:18-19; Jer 15:14-16). The “old” exodus event no longer stands on its own as a redemptive and cosmic event; indeed, it is sharply reduced in importance compared to the new. God is now creating something genuinely new; not only will Israel be newly constituted as a people of God but also the cosmic significance of the event will be more wide-ranging in its effects .” (Fretheim, p.192-93)

God, Fretheim insists, drawing particularly on the prophecies of Third Isaiah, “has a future in store for the entire created order, not just human beings. For the sake of that future—a new heaven and a new earth–God’s salvific activity catches up every creature” (Fretheim, p. 194). And it is important, Fretheim concludes, that this “new heaven and new earth” is not simply a return to Eden:

The most fundamental difference from Eden is that this new covenant does not have the possibility of being undercut by human failure; that cycle will never be repeated. This new day will come when the words of Isa 32:15-18, 20 will forever describe that new creation:

            a spirit from on high is poured out on us,

            and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,

            ……………………………………………………….

            Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,

               and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

            The effect of righteousness will be peace,

               and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

               in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

            ………………………………………………………..

            Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,

              who let the ox and the donkey range freely

         (Fretheim, pp. 197-98).

Christ is this new creation to whom the “law and the prophets” give witness, and as our second reading from 2 Corinthians proclaims: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). But as the disciples, having been silenced by Jesus on their way down the mountain, would struggle in subsequent days to comprehend, Jesus, too, would come into the fullness of “new creation” only after passing through the “radical fissure” of his crucifixion and death.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

For Those Who Are in Christ, Creation Is New! Dennis Ormseth reflects on driving out the demon of climate change denial.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” What, exactly does this promise mean? We have taken it as our epigraph for these comments on the lectionary texts for the Sundays after Epiphany in year B, with the expectation that light will be shed on its meaning as we move through the season. While the text itself, II Corinthians 5:7, does not appear among the readings for any of these Sundays, the second readings through Transfiguration Sunday are consistently drawn from the Letters of Paul to the Corinthians. We therefore anticipated that the assertion would be found consonant with the themes the readings set out. Thus far we think we have shown this to be the case. It helped greatly, of course, that at the outset the readings for the Baptism of Our Lord are rich in creational metaphor and motifs; transferring them to the life of those baptized in Christ was a relatively straightforward matter. On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, we uncovered in the fig tree under which Nathanael sat, when Jesus called him to be a disciple, a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. And in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday, we argued that for those “who are in Christ” at this moment of Earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed time for “breaking with business as usual,” following Jesus’ call to engage in “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses the ecological systems of our planet together with the human community, could lead to all creation’s restoration—to new creation.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday provide further support for this interpretation. In the Gospel we see what Ched Myers describes as “the public inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum”, in which “Mark will establish the essential characteristics of the messianic mission.” We are immediately made aware of the nature of the challenge of “breaking with business as usual.” As Myers point outs out, “in one sentence [1:21] Mark moves Jesus from the symbolic margins to the heart of provincial Jewish social order: synagogue (sacred space) on a Sabbath (sacred time)” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books , 1988; p. 141). Jesus’ teaching is acknowledged by those assembled to be authoritative, which has prompted the church to assign Deuteronomy 18:15-20 as our first reading: Jesus is a prophet like Moses, whose teaching is powerful to accomplish his mission. But these affirmations also serve to frame the conflict that breaks into the open in his encounter with the “man with an unclean spirit,” as having “everything to do with the struggle between the authority of Jesus and that of the scribes” (Myers, pp. 141-42). The man’s greeting “communicates defiance toward a hostile intruder,” Myers suggests, but “this defiance quickly turns to fear:  “Have you come to destroy us?”

Following the interpretation of Howard Kee, Myers argues that the episode is “paradigmatic”:

“The word of the demon makes clear that the struggle is not a momentary one, but is part of a wider conflict of which this is but a single phase . . . . The narrative is wholly compatible with the picture . . . emerging from apocalyptic Judaism of God’s agent locked in effective struggle with the powers of evil, wresting power from them by his word of command.”

Such narratives, it is important to note, do not “glorify the one who performed the act,” as Hellenistic miracle stories tended to do; modern interpreters who focus on Jesus’ presumed supernatural powers do something similar. These stories instead “identify his exorcism as an eschatological event which served to prepare God’s creation for his coming rule” (Myers, p. 143. Kee’s work cited here is “The Terminology of Mark’s Exorcism Stories,” New Testament Studies, 14, pp. 242ff). As “one of the central characteristics of the messianic mission of Jesus” which he passes on to his followers, exorcism “is the main vehicle for articulating the apocalyptic combat myth” between the powers (and their earthly minion) and Jesus (as envoy of the kingdom). “Mark’s account thus begins to specify the political geography of the apocalyptic contest begun in the wilderness (1:12f). The demon in the synagogue becomes the representative of the scribal establishment, whose “authority” undergirds the dominant Jewish social order (Myers, p. 143). With this episode, Myers notes, “Mark thus established the political character of exorcism as symbolic action.” Subsequent exorcisms in the Gospel are similarly “concerned with the structures of power and alienation in the social world,” in particular “the deep rift between Jew and gentile” (7:24ff), and “the agonizing struggle to believe in the new order of the kingdom” (9:14).

One observes here a striking structural similarity between this analysis of the opposition Jesus encountered and Naomi Klein’s description of the climate change denial movement’s opposition to climate change action. Here, too, there is great fear expressed by the defenders of our dominant economic system. One can easily imagine a climate denier standing in the door of a meeting of the Heartland Society she describes, refusing to allow entry to a climate change activist, with the frightened challenge (in the words of the demon in Mark), “Have you come to destroy us?” As she writes, this . . .

“is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we  need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market” (Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014. p. 41).

Klein’s point is critical to an understanding of the dynamics our our political situation relative to climate change:

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces” ( p. 41).

And it isn’t only a matter of economic and political policy; here, too, there is an ideological “war of the myths:”

“[F]or many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge goes deeper still, threatening not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth. Are we masters, here to subdue and dominate, or are we one species among many, at the mercy of powers more complex and unpredictable than even our most powerful computers can model?” (Klein, p. 42).

Faced with this situation, how might the church respond in Jesus’ name?  How might we drive the demon of climate change denial out?

An answer requires more extensive discussion than we can do here, of course. But key elements of an answer lie close at hand this Sunday in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In fact, this text relates as closely to our epigraphic promise as any we will encounter during the season.  With its concern for eating of food sacrificed to idols, the passage may seem irrelevant to the concerns raised by the Gospel reading. Until, that is, we learn in verse 6 that the presupposition of Paul’s argument here is the powerful confessional statement that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

 As David Horrell, Cheryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate point out in their Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), the repeated “all things” (ta panta) here alerts us to the connection between this passage and the line of Paul’s thought represented by the famous hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. The phrase “refers to everything, indicating the universal and cosmic scope of the hymn’s concerns.  This view of all things as the work of the one (good) creator, in and through Christ, implies the intrinsic goodness of all created entities, including the nonhuman elements, a repeated emphasis in the first creation narrative in Genesis” (Horrell, et al.p.104). The confession in 1 Corinthians 8, these authors argue, is the most important of several texts showing that for Paul

“there is no intrinsic or inherent source of moral corruption in the material things of the world God has made. And it is significant that this is expressed even in a letter (1 Corinthians) where the “world” is generally depicted in somewhat negative terms, owing   . . . to Paul’s sense that he needs more strongly to reinforce a sense of distinction between the church and its wider society” (Horrell, et al., p. 159).

Combined with “the most important reconciliation text in the undisputed Pauline letters,” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (which includes our epigraph), this and other texts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:27-28), provide a basis for arguing that “broadly construed as the drawing together of all things into Christ (and/or God), cosmic reconciliation can stand at the focal center of [a] reading of Pauline theology and at the center of. . . Paul’s story of creation (Horrell, et al., p. 168). Within the framework of this cosmic narrative, the “new creation” of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is “plausibly construed” as

“focused less on the individual’s new identity – a focus that may owe more to Western individualism than to Paul . . . and more on the sense that what God has achieved (or is in the process of bringing about) in Christ is a cosmic “new creation”: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in, this new creation, in which the former distinctions (between Jew and Gentile, etc.) no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, et al., pp. 169-170).

While Paul’s “predominant concern is with the conversion of human beings and with the communities of believers whose corporate life he seeks to shape,” these authors conclude, his theology is nevertheless “centered on the act of God in Christ which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos—what Paul describes as new creation”  (Horrell, et al. p. 172).

All things belong in God, all things are being reconciled in Christ: this is what “new creation” means. All things are valued as good; all things are being restored to the community of creation. And to be in Christ is to participate in that great work. So does Psalm 111 appropriately remind us that

            Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful (111:2-4)

Who then, and by what power, can climate change deniers, persist in their opposition to care for creation?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

This Changes Everything: No Longer Business as Usual Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus inviting the common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). Jesus is on the move. So this Sunday, we are invited with Simon and Andrew, James and John, to enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation. To be sure, that Jesus’ mission had to do with the healing of all creation was not clearly envisioned by the author of the Gospel of Mark. His focus, as Ched Myers proposes, is more properly understood as “a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships.”  And here at the beginning of the Gospel, we have before us only “the first step” of that reordering, the crisis in which the “world” of Jesus’ disciples is overturned with an “urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual.’” But make no mistake: as Myers puts it, “The world is coming to an end, for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure.” It is that “moment which reoccurs wherever the discipleship narrative is reproduced in the lives of real persons in real places. This disruption represents the realization of the apocalyptic ‘day of the Lord’” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; pp. 132-33). And so for us “who are in Christ” at this moment of earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed a moment which calls for an entire “breaking with business as usual,” yes, precisely “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses both human and ecological systems of our planet together, could lead to creation’s restoration.

In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein also calls for an end to business as usual in a thorough reordering of socioeconomic relationships from the bottom up. She describes the moment in which we live in the terms of a “stark choice: “Either we “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” The challenge, she continues,

“is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change. Cutthroat competition between nations has deadlocked U.N. climate negotiations for decades: rich countries dig in their heels and declare that they won’t cut emissions and  risk losing their vaulted position in the global hierarchy; poorer countries declare that they won’t give up their right to pollute as much as rich countries did on their way to wealth, even if that means deepening a disaster that hurts the poor most of all. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention” (Klein, pp. 21-22).

The “thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing,” Klein insists, “is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders.” The actions required, she argues,

“directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and can outsmart its limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more). They also spell extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has ever known—the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in anything like its current form if we humans are to avoid our own extinction.”

We are, she concludes, “locked in—politically, physically, and culturally”—to this “world” of ours, and “only when we identify these chains do we have a chance of breaking free” (Klein, p.63).

Kleins’ description of our situation is, of course, entirely secular. Her analysis is not that of a person of faith. It is, however, one to which a Christian understanding of creation and human responsibility can respond helpfully and powerfully. Our reading of this Sunday’s texts, we believe, substantiates this claim. An intriguing feature of Klein’s analysis is that “climate change represents a historic opportunity” to build a social movement on the scale of the New Deal or the civil rights movement which would advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up”—a “People’s Shock” as it were,” which unlike the corporate world’s exploitation of the earlier crises which she documented in her book Shock Doctrine, would “disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few, and radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces.” The transformations she describes would, she claims, “get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now” (Klein, p. 10). To the extent that this is true, we believe that there is consonance between her call to action and that of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Because Jesus’ call to discipleship is pitched to the “real people and real places” of first century Palestine, as Myers shows, it also speaks powerfully to the crisis of our people and our moment in history. As we shall see, with the promise of a whole new world to replace the world whose “present form is passing away (I Corinthians 7:31b), Klein’s transformations do anticipate the new creation which those in Christ envision and hope for.

Already in this season of Sundays after Epiphany, we have seen that Christian discipleship includes care for creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the previous two Sundays). This Sunday’s readings deepen this perspective by showing how certain social and cultural factors support an expectation that followers of Jesus might join the movement to “break with business as usual” with respect to care of creation. Ched  Myers shows us that the location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea locales alongside wilderness, river, and mountain, he points out, are primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the Gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Myers, p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fishermen recruited for Jesus’ following could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17).

But the image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the “saving of souls,” as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere, the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezek 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege (Myers., p. 132.)

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Thus this ‘first’ call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Myers, pp. 132-33).

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to just why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond as positively to Jesus’ call as they do. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Isn’t it that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage? Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety, and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood  could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. Indeed, we can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit, it seems to us, could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, furthermore, because contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. Business as usual could no longer continue for them. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11). But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily.  A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s characteristic relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has little hold on them. It is interesting that as Naomi Klein surveys our society in the search for willing and ready participants in the movement beyond the culture of “extractivism,” as she characterizes our industrial, fossil fuel dependent economy, she ruthlessly rejects a number of significant players: big green (collaborators with big business), green billionaires (messiahs with broken dreams), geo-engineers (“the Solution to Pollution Is . . .Pollution?”). The problem with these big boys, she thinks, is that they really do not want at all to break with business as usual. Their strategies persist in the illusion that we are called to “save” the Earth, “as if it were an endangered species, or a starving child far away, or a pet in need of our ministrations.” It is an idea that “may be just as dangerous as the Baconian fantasy of the earth as a machine for us to master, since it still leaves us (literally) on top.” The truth lies elsewhere: “It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely” (Klein, p. 284).

In the place of these collaborators with business as usual, Klein would accordingly nominate as her “climate warriors” participants in what she calls “Blockadia”—’not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines.” United in resistance to mining and fossil fuel companies as they push “relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems)” these are basically local groups of shop owners, professors, high school students, and grandmothers. But they are building a ‘global, grass-roots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen” (Klein, p. 294-45). Generally speaking, these people live in the “sacrifice zones,” formerly the traditionally poor, out-of-the-way places where residents had little political power, but now increasingly also located in “some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world,” to the immense consternation of “many historically privileged people who suddenly find themselves feeling something of what so many frontline communities have felt for a very longtime: how is it possible that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk?” (Klein, pp. 312-13). New alliances are thus being formed across traditional social barriers. Corporate assurances are no longer accepted on blind faith. The language of risk assessment is being “replaced by a resurgence of the precautionary principle,” as blockadia insists “that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe,” something that “in the era of extreme energy . . . is something that simply cannot be done” ( Klein, pp. 315-335).

Particularly striking is Kleins’ observation regarding two “defining” features of these groups. There is, she notes,  a “ferocious love” of “an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their granchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice” (Klein, p. 342). And secondly, especially significant is a common concern for precious sources of water; in Kleins’s view, this is the “animating force behind every single movement fighting extreme extraction”: “Whether deep water drilling, fracking, or mining; whether pipelines, big rigs, or export terminals, communities are terrified about what these activities will do to their water system” (Klein, p. 345-46). The reason for this is clear, of course: “extreme energy demands that we destroy a whole lot of the essential substance we need to survive—water—just to keep extracting more of the very substances threatening our survival and that we can power our lives without.” Coming at a time when freshwater supplies are becoming increasingly scarce around the world, people are becoming more and more aware of certain disturbing truths of their experience:

Growing in strength and connecting communities in all parts of the world, [these truths] speak to something deep and unsettled in many of us. We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need (Klein, p. 347).

From the divestment movement which seeks to defund the companies that enforce this imprisonment, to local groups seeking to democratically recapture power over their communities, and indigenous tribes defending their rights to land and a way of life grounded in it, it is their relationship to the earth itself that inspires and empowers their liberation from bondage to business as usual. Perhaps most significantly, their love for their habitat and their deep concern for water put them in touch with what Klein calls the regenerativity of nature’s processes:  we can become, she concludes, “full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” There is in their company a “spirit” that is already busy at work promoting and protecting life in the face of so many life-negating and life-forgetting threats (Klein, p. 447-48).

Can the church join this movement with integrity? Yes, because disciples are called to serve creation, and it is the creation itself, in its newness, that is giving supportive voice to that call.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

Jesus Ushers in a New Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new” (II Corinthians 5:7, translation by David Rhoads).

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway.  As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.

The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full  “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space.  The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).

What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity.  “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).”  Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.

Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”

It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say.  Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground,  p. 106).

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace:  a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized.  We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

If You Would Experience God, You Must Fall in Love with Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on baptism as a cosmic event.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, we return to “the beginning” of the Gospel of Mark which, as we noted in our comments on the lections for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, draws us quickly into the cosmological as well as the eschatological themes of Mark’s story. Readers of those comments will recall the strong interest of Mark’s Gospel in these themes: the author breaks decisively with the cosmology of the temple-state centered on the Jerusalem temple, as the elect of God are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness for the opening of the new creation. This break in fact provided the impetus for us to trace in the lections of the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus. Subsequently, in the readings for Christmas Eve and Day, we beheld him enfolded in the glory of God’s primordial light and life. Jesus’ birth is worthy of all creation’s praise, we suggested, because, as Mary saw, not only would he break with the human pattern of domination that makes a desert of creation, but the birth itself effects a reorientation to creation expressed in the insight that the incarnation of God in his person means that the “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.” In Larry Rasmussen’s excellent words, “so if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

In the readings appointed for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church fully affirms these cosmological accents of Jesus’ advent. Once again, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” The cosmological accents of Jesus’ baptism thus serve to mark the difference not only between the temple state and the kingdom of God, but also between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” which Jesus’ baptism represents (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete the baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. New creation, and not merely repentance, this shows, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; the difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

It is instructive to note in this respect that, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed baptismal practice retains significant cosmological elements. Water, of course, takes central place here. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite; as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to replace the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“. . . that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force here. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Ibid., p. 106).

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Ibid., p. 107).

Then, as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life and the tree of life; see our discussion in the comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent), so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Ibid., p. 107).

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation.

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the Earth.  These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

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

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

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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).

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C (Ormseth11)

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain, so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that is, at the center of Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p. 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hyper-naturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Romans 8:22)” (p. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (Joel 2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (p. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (p. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (p. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2019) in Year C

Sin is our refusal to be the responsible consciousness of creation.Tom Mundahl reflects on expanding our understanding of the Communion of Saints.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for All Saints Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

On a recent Halloween evening, my wife Anne and I found ourselves on the #21 bus traveling from Minneapolis to our home in St. Paul. We were not surprised by seeing children in costumes, but were amazed at their sheer number! We soon learned that this wave of ‘Captain Jack Sparrows,’ princesses, and beasts was headed to the light rail station, where they would transfer to reach the Mall of America, one of our great national ‘temples of consumption.’ There they would revel in the generosity of merchants enjoying the biggest Halloween party in the area.

While our task is not to comprehend the strange juxtaposition between All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day (Sunday), those of us in the northern hemisphere understandably relate the end of the growing season with deaths that have occurred within the faith community. As beneficial as this may be to honor our grief, we have failed to make a connection between our sense of the Communion of Saints and the even greater Communion of All Creation. Perhaps our readings will help us find this thread.

Our First Reading from Daniel contains a vision worthy of Halloween horror. As the structure of the book is transformed from a series of ‘hero tales’ (ch. 1-6) to apocalyptic revelation, we are met by a series of animal figures representing historical kingdoms that threaten both the political survival of Judea and the piety of the people. While these animal figures call to mind the history of international politics between the Babylonian Exile and the time of writing (perhaps 167 B.C.E.), the real focus of Daniel’s apocalyptic material is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian ruler, whose Hellenization program jeopardizes faith.

What is most important for us may be the beginning of Daniel’s night vision, a specter that opens with “the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea….” (Daniel 7:2b). While this may recall certain elements of Babylonian creation myth, the outcome is clear. Just as the original creation is good, so these foul “beasts from the sea” cannot ultimately destroy God’s people. As they assume historical incarnation, the beasts show “feet of clay” (see W. Sibley Towner, Daniel, Atlanta: John Knox, 1984, pp. 94-95).

Yes, they can cause a brand of “chaos” reminiscent of the first creation narrative in Genesis, but God’s ever-renewing creation can be trusted. Despite the terror, the gift of understanding given to Daniel suggests that the “the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18) will not succumb (Norman Porteous, Daniel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964, p. 112). Even if it seems that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is “devouring the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), the rule that ultimately will prevail “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). “All saints” can trust in the reliability of the God who renews creation and faith communities, who does not allow them to be destroyed even in the face of the greatest threats.

While the challenge to the author of this ‘circular letter’ we call Ephesians was more of internal unity than external threat, the epistle continues to maintain a cosmic view. In fact, the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles suggests a universality that can only be expanded in scope. Yet, the letter supports this new unity by suggesting that, in some sense, this new creation community lives as if all were fulfilled. The shared experience of the Spirit, the “pledge of inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14), is an already accomplished fact. As Martin suggests, “the victory of Christ, both present and future, is presented as a fait accompli” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Atlanta: John Knox, 1991, p. 23).

This sense of ‘already’ is buttressed by the conclusion of today’s reading with verses from what appears to be a liturgical text (Ephesians 1:20-23). Again, Martin suggests that in its worship the future is brought into the present as a “liturgical reality” (Martin, p. 23). This not only reminds us of the sense of always worshiping in the presence of the Great Communion of Saints, but also points toward an understanding of “the church, which is his body” , , , as “. . . the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 2:23).

This sense of “the fullness of the body” reminds us of the work of Sallie McFague, who has been inspired, in part by Ephesians, to develop an ecological theology based on seeing the Earth as “God’s body” (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, p. 32). However, the membership of this “body” is now extended to include all of creation. This “body” is threatened now, not only by the “beasts” of history as by also by an inadequate understanding of sin.

McFague suggests: “It is obvious, then, what sin is in this metaphor of the world as God’s body: it is refusal to be part of the body, the special part we are as imago dei . . . . Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives: it is the desire to set oneself apart from others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the cosmos” (McFague, Models of God, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 77).

Celebrating the interdependent fullness of new creation on All Saints Sunday surely points us toward the “Sermon on the Plain,” our gospel reading. While the audience is formally the disciple group, the proximity of great crowds and multitudes (Luke 6:17- 18) who had come to hear removes all limits. And it is a very important set of teachings. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The literary prototype for both sermons is provided by the delivery of the Torah to the people by Moses” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 110). Surely this fits with the New Exodus theme adopted by Luke (9:31) and emphasized in these comments.

We hear this theme especially in the “blessings” that form the “new creation” community. But we have heard them before in Luke. Certainly the concern for the poor and hungry has been outlined in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53) as well as in Jesus’ “inaugural sermon” in Nazareth, where, reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus announced his agenda as beginning with “bringing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a).

Here we see that “the fullness that fills all in all” in Ephesians 2:23 becomes much more concrete. As suggested by the Magnificat, the hungry are filled, but “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:21, 25). As many have suggested, Jesus brings a reversal of current fortunes in creating this new community of faith.

This newly-formed community is governed by new norms as well. Gone is the notion of reciprocity, where goods of equal value are exchanged in calculating social commerce. Instead, the watchword is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Not only does this create a consistency between community formation (not based on merit, but mercy) and community preservation; it also allows for the eventual integration of all into this new community.

That is, to be truly new, this community has to demonstrate more than the replacement of the rich by those who were poor, who now will have the opportunity to become the new wealthy. By calling for transformative love of enemies, reconciliation between ‘classes’ becomes more than possible. Or, to put it another way: this is the only way beyond the historical alternation of elites that has usually taken place with “revolutions.”

This movement beyond prudential reciprocity is also evident in the teaching on what we might call ‘economics.’ “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)  This moves trust from the commercial marketplace to the provision of ‘daily bread’ as divine gift. What’s more, it moves toward a need-based world-view that is demonstrated in Acts 2:44-47. This may be, as Frederick Danker suggests, an implementation of the Jubilee announced by Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19; Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 143).

All this is summarized in “the golden rule,” a norm that exposes the weakness of reciprocity. Moving beyond mere reciprocity requires the gift of faith found in a secure sense of belonging to the new creation community. As Johnson suggests, “do as you want done” is not even enough. Rather, the standard is better described as “do as God would do” (Johnson, p. 112). For this is the ultimate source of the forgiving love of enemies, sending rain on the just and unjust, and the provision of daily bread regardless of credit rating. This is the source of a compassion that spills beyond the merely human to a realization that our common creatureliness leads us to embrace all that God has made and to learn from this earthy and diverse richness.

If Luke invites all of God’s people and the whole creation on this New Exodus journey, then, as Gordan Lathrop suggests, “the Risen Lord is still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but also still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians—like the stranger in the Emmaus account . . . ” (The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). One cannot doubt that this presence in our current assemblies also expands the notion of the Great Communion of Saints to becoming the Communion of All Creation.

How might we envision this Communion of All Creation on All Saints Sunday? Perhaps we would be wise to begin with poets, like Denise Levertov, who are on the frontiers of this understanding. Listen to the second stanza of her poem, “We Come Into Animal Presence.” (Denise Levertov, The Life Around Us, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 34)

                              What is the joy? That no animal

                              falters, but knows what it must do?

                              That the snake has no blemish,

                              that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings

                              in white star-silence? The llama

                              rests in dignity, the armadillo

                              has some intentions to pursue in the palm-forest.

                              Those who were sacred have remained so,

                              holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence

                              of bronze, only the sight that saw it

                              faltered and turned from it.

                              An old joy returns in holy presence.

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

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

Sunday October 9 – 15 in Year C

What it means to be servants of creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on 2 Kings 5 and Luke 17:11-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 9-15, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

As we began this series of short comments several weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke guides us on a ‘New Exodus journey’ (Luke 9:31), a journey that features a ‘new Miriam,’ Mary, who begins her trek with a simple statement of faith: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While we have no evidence that this Miriam danced, her song, the Magnificat, still echoes as a New Exodus manifesto: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly . . . .” (Luke 1:52).

Mary gives birth to a child, born of the earth, wrapped in earth’s cloth, and laid in a manger of earthen material. Yet, this lowly infant, a servant of creation, is attested by the elderly Simeon to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This week’s readings will demonstrate just this power of servanthood to break through the boundaries that divide to provide new hope for all creation.

At first, General Naaman, who has won significant victory over Israel in the field, seems a most unlikely candidate for healing that breaks down boundaries. Yet, as part of his war plunder, Naaman had acquired a Jewish female servant who had compassion for the skin disease (leprosy) suffered by her master. The young servant girl lamented to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5: 3). Hearing this, and grasping at the hope it presented, Naaman went to his ‘master,’ the king, who agreed to send a letter of request along with an unimaginably great ‘healing fee’ to his counterpart, the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4-5).

But the king of Israel wondered if this request was a diplomatic ruse that may lead to further conflict. Nevertheless, when Elijah learned of the request, he replied simply, “Let him (Naaman) come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And Naaman did come, arriving with his retinue at Elisha’s house. But he did not see Elisha himself, only a messenger who advised Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (2 Kings 5:10)

Naaman was angry that Elisha did not attend to someone of his rank personally. What’s more, he was offended by the thought that this healing could not take place in the far more impressive rivers of Syria. He made plans to leave in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12). Fortunately for Naaman, his servants calmed him down, suggesting, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”(2 Kings 5:13).

Naaman reconsidered.  He went down to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Renewed, Naaman returned with his company to Elisha and confessed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” Now, the mighty Naaman was a servant! He saw himself as part of the “network of servanthood” that had accomplished his healing. Even though he wanted to share his joy with a large gift to Elisha, as one called to bring God’s healing word as a servant, Elisha refused it (2 Kings 5:16). Naaman had only one more request: that he be given two mule-loads of Israeli earth, to ‘ground’ himself in his new servanthood (2 Kings 5:17).

The power of such a network of servanthood to break down old barriers is at work in this week’s Gospel reading as well. At first glance, our pericope seems to be a healing story with a bonus lesson on giving thanks. Of course, it is both of these. Ten lepers, forced to live outside the village by religious law, keeping their distance cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13). Jesus responds by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they enter the village to seek ‘certificates of cleansing’ from the priests, a kind of New Exodus, they are all made clean (Luke 17:14). Luke continues the story by describing one who returned praising God with a loud voice. Only as he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him, do we read “And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).

But this story is much more than it appears to be. Following Jesus’ instruction about servanthood, it is significant that the lepers correctly address Jesus as “Master.” This correct address reminds the disciples that they were all as outcast as the lepers. Not only can they expect no thanks for their servanthood (Luke 17:9), like the Samaritan leper, they are called to thank the one who has saved them. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The ‘faith that saves’ of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith given them. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 262).

And, it is ‘arrogating to themselves the status of master,’ or, as Frederic Danker puts it, “self-aggrandizement that is maintained at the expense of others” (Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 291) that blocks breakthroughs experiencing the breadth of the new creation Jesus inaugurates. Certainly, this kind of breakthrough is symbolized by Luke’s dramatic mentioning of the seemingly incidental fact, “And he was a Samaritan,” only after the former leper returned to give thanks and find a community home (Luke 17:16. This was undoubtedly a Samaritan who knew his role as servant.

Yet, this should be no surprise. When the, New Exodus company began their journey toward Jerusalem, they reacted strongly to being rebuffed by a Samaritan village and asked their Master if they should, like Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16), call down fire from heaven. “But he (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). This rebuke is made all the sharper in the very next chapter of Luke’s narrative, where Jesus tells the story of the ‘Good’ Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we recall that when Jesus began his formal ministry in Nazareth, in his ‘inaugural sermon’ he included a telling reference to Naaman, who was healed despite his status as a foreigner (Luke 4:27). The cost, of course, was an attempt to “hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4: 29), a portent of things to come.

It is Jesus, the Master become servant of creation, who breaks barriers and frees those who come after to move beyond contemporary boundaries to creation care. Reading through his new book, Oil and Honey (New York: Holt, 2013) one cannot help being moved by the servanthood of Bill McKibben. Not only is his orientation to working to care for creation global—helping to found 350.org to confront climate change and leading the largest U.S. civil disobedience action in this century to at least delay the Keystone XL pipeline; he completes this servant-calling by involvement with the local economy in the area surrounding his home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

This involvement began when McKibben was asked to teach a class on “Local Food Production” at Middlebury College in 2001. While there were not many resources available then, he seemed to come across the name Kirk Webster in article after article in the Small Farmer’s Journal, writings primarily focusing on beekeeping. Desperately searching for resource people to speak to the class, McKibben discovered that Webster lived in “the next town over” (McKibben, p. 2). Webster not only presented to the class, but he and McKibben developed a growing friendship.

Webster had been involved in beekeeping for years, but had never been able to accumulate enough money to buy a place of his own. Even though Webster had developed techniques to deal with “colony collapse disorder” without resorting to toxic chemicals and was well-known in the world of apiarists, this did not translate into capital funds. McKibben, who had achieved some financial independence through his writings, made him an offer: “What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes” (McKibben, p. 6).

Webster agreed to this “too good to refuse” offer and began the building process with the hope of passing on his skills to apprentices over what he hoped would be twenty more years of work. While McKibben could not be called an ‘apprentice,’ it is clear that he has worked with Webster when he is able in order to deepen his understanding of the beekeeping process crucial for the pollination of at least one-third of all that grows. In doing this, he has modeled the connection between servanthood in one’s home and on our home planet, a servanthood designed to break down the boundaries between humankind and the rest of creation so that we can see all that God has made as a gift and learn to restrain ourselves so that less than one-quarter of the carbon-based fuel available is ever burned (McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012)

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

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

Sunday September 11 – 17 in Year C

We are called to exercise the “priestly task” of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation. Tom Mundahl reflects on Exodus 32:7-14 and Luke 15

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  

Readings for September 11-17, Year C: (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

As we enter the last ‘trimester’ of Ordinary Time, our Common Lectionary readings continue to point God’s people toward creation care. This is particularly true as we take up once more Luke’s theme of New Exodus. Not only is this theme stated explicitly in the Transfiguration, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah converse about Jesus’ “exodus” (NRSV, “departure”) to take place in Jerusalem (9:31); it is suggested throughout the Gospel.

For example, Luke presents us with another “Song of Miriam,” the Magnificat, this time not to accompany dancing on the far shore of the Reed Sea, but singing in response to Elizabeth’s acknowledgment of the importance of this child, whose birth will not only shower creation with mercy, but “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55).  What’s more, the very same (and rare) verb denoting the power of the Most High “overshadowing” this young woman, who becomes the faithful partner in birthing new creation, is repeated as the disciples on the mountain of Transfiguration are “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High impelling them toward participation in this New Exodus breaking in Jerusalem (Luke 9:34). This “overshadowing” also suggests the wind, fire, and verbal–interpretative fireworks that “create” and energize the new community in witness to God’s transformative action (Acts 2:1-21).

Even the first Exodus needs to be more broadly interpreted as much more than redemption history. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “. . . it is the Creator God who redeems Israel from Egypt. . . . . What God does in redemption is in the service of endangered life goals in and for the creation” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13). Fretheim demonstrates that the Exodus narrative provides “cosmic purpose” behind God’s call of Israel in a setting of “creational need” to overcome the anti-life nature of Pharaoh’s power. This creation power once more roots  God’s people, who have come through the sea, on “dry land,” an image of new creation trumping power-mad chaos.

The purpose of this Exodus is creation-wide.  Israel is called to be a “nation of priests” –not as a sign of status and authority—but, just as a priest mediates hope and mercy to the community, Israel is to provide these for all of God’s creation. That is, the story of Israel –God’s people—is not an end in itself, but is told and enacted on behalf of all in the most inclusive sense (Fretheim, p. 14).

The breadth of this intention for the whole of creation is demonstrated dramatically at just what seems the moment of greatest crisis in the Exodus journey –the fashioning of “gods” in the form of a golden calf. Our reading depicts the one called LORD as being so disgusted that he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely . . . .” (Exodus 32:7). In fact, the Holy One is so incensed that, finally, the request is simply to be “let alone” (Exodus 32:10).

But Moses will not let this God alone. Instead, Moses acts as “priest” interceding for his people. He mounts a broad appeal to God’s reasonableness and reputation: Why give the Egyptians more ammunition with which to laugh at this so-called “god” who brought people out to the wilderness just to kill them off? (Exodus 32:12).  Even more importantly, Moses appeals to God’s own promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) (Exodus 32:13). Clearly, if there was a divine change of mind, this Holy One would appear no more reliable than the “calf builders” (Fretheim, p. 286).

“And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). While this is a “change of mind,” a “turning” of decision, it is far from what we might understand as “repentance of sin.” Instead, “divine repentance is the reversal of a direction taken or a decision made. But God does repent of evil (ra’). Evil has reference to anything in life that makes for less than total well-being . . . .” (Fretheim, 286).

Responding to Moses’ priestly intercession, God moves beyond the people’s calf-building perversity in order to fulfill promises made that ultimately will bring about “salvation–healing” for all, including  creation. As Fretheim reminds us, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all” (Fretheim, p. 287).

Crucial to this intention is the calling of this Exodus people to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As Norman Wirzba reminds us: “At the most fundamental level, to be a priest of the world means that one is committed to receiving the world as a gift from God, and then seeing in the sharing of these gifts their most proper use. To be a priest (whether as a community or an individual) is to place oneself at the intersection of God’s sacrificial love and the sacrifices of creation’s many members as food and nurture” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: 2011, p. 205).

This is just what the Judean religious elite Jesus confronts has failed to do. And the leaders’ failure emphatically reminds us of the stubborn people for whom Moses intercedes. Luke writes, “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2). It is no surprise that this language echoes that of the Exodus people grumbling (LXX) about their lack of water to drink. (Exodus 17:3)

But here the “grumbling” is about Jesus’ welcoming all—even sinners—to the new creation community. In his teaching, Jesus demonstrates “priestly behavior.” Instead of condemning those called to live out a “priestly role”—interceding for and teaching the people—Jesus “intercedes” for them by sharing parables that free them to see the world in a new way so they may fulfill their priestly calling.

The three parallel stories told in Luke 15 not only contrast finding and losing, they provide the antidote to “grumbling” in celebration. The shepherd, the woman, and the Father all call those around them to “rejoice with me” (Luke 15: 6, 9, 32). Why celebrate? Because what was lost has been found. And, as both of the parables in our section make clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

This is precisely the function of priestly leadership: not only to intercede for the “lost,” but to make it clear that they are welcome to take their place at the table of celebration (Luke 14:12-14). This breadth of invitation also reminds us that, having been found and nourished, we are all called to the “priestly task” of interceding and caring for creation.

Restoring the wholeness of creation and community is the purpose of the Most High who “overshadows” young Mary. This happens by toppling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:35, 1: 46-55). It is the purpose of the inner circle of disciples being “overshadowed” by the divine presence at the Transfiguration, namely, to serve as witnesses to a New Exodus in Jerusalem whose consequences are cosmic (Luke 9:34). This is much more than a matter of putting the “lowly” on the elite thrones; God’s people are “elevated” by receiving the creational gift of a new calling—to care for all that God has made.

While reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse in preparation for a book discussion group, I was taken by his description of the seemingly intractable challenges of dealing with the environmental ravages caused by a declining mining industry in Montana. Diamond cites a spokesperson for a large smelting company, ASARCO, who could not understand how the firm could be held responsible for all the damage it had caused. “Isn’t this the modus operandi of American capitalism? Business leaders are more likely to be accountants or attorneys than members of the clergy”  (Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005, p. 37).

If there are a few clergy among those reading this, you know the implication: clergy, as ineffectual as we might be, are the only ones who are tasked with struggling with the “the values” that might raise questions about corporate behavior. While this is the calling of all God’s people, at least this representative of the copper industry challenges “clergy” to perform their priestly roles.  If “clergy” is rooted in the Greek kleros, a term carrying the sense of “being assigned to a task,” then perhaps we need to actually exercise that ‘priestly task’ of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation on the way to other “goals.”

Late in the summer of 2013, a Bloomberg News On-line Report indicated that in the past year Las Vegas had once more become the center of a new “real estate bubble.” The intensity of this boom in housing and other building is indicated by the fact that 60% of the recent purchases have been cash transactions!  (Kathleen Howley, “Bubbles Bloom Anew in Desert as Buyers Wager on Las Vegas,” Bloomberg.com, August 20, 2013)

At precisely the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that continued drought has forced a reduction in water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, the Las Vegas Valley’s major water source. In fact, if there is no change in drought conditions, especially with winter snows that fill the Colorado River, by 2015, the water supply will have to be curtailed (Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review–Journal, online, August 16, 2013).

What is the “assigned task” to God’s priestly people? Is it to lead the “grumbling” at the lack of water? (Exodus 17:3). Or, is it to focus on the life-giving preciousness of water in worship, learning, service, and action, leading to new ways of using water and, perhaps, to new patterns of settling our bioregions? Another “New Exodus” in the desert!

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

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

 

Sunday June 19 – 25 in Year C (Ormseth)

Can we be freed by a “cultural exorcism” to seek out God’s new creation?

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 65:1–9
Psalm 22:19–28 (22)
Galatians 3:23–29
Luke 8:26–39

Our reading of the texts for the previous two Sundays have shown that Luke’s witness to the presence of God the Creator in Jesus provides a basis for drawing strong affirmations concerning care of creation from the accompanying lectionary readings. That presence in the midst of the crisis of the creation, we have argued, draws us into “the drama of brokenness and restoration, [which with] Yahweh as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” Within the context of that drama, the forgiveness of sins serves to evoke praise of God’s generosity in both creation and restoration, to afford the freedom for candor to come to grips with the depth of the crisis, and inspire hope over against the pervasive despair on the part of those who genuinely care. The Gospel for this Sunday, with the readings that accompany it, amplifies these learnings.

In his careful analysis of Luke’s revision of Mark’s narrative of the Gerasene demoniac, Luke Timothy Johnson makes several observations that are significant for our interest. First, in his view, it is important to consider this story in tandem with the brief narrative of Jesus calming the storm (8:22-25). “In the calming of the seas,” Johnson notes, “Luke moves the emphasis away from the failure of the disciples to the power of Jesus.” In the disciples’ wonderment, “Who is this. . ,” Johnson hears “the echo of [an] earlier question, ‘what is this speech (logos), that he commands even unclean spirits and they obey.’  As with demons, so with winds and waves.”

Secondly, the demoniac identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” And at the end of the story, the man is told to “declare how much God has done” for him, but Luke has him tell “how much Jesus had done for him;” the reader is to understand that these two assignations are equivalent. Additionally,  in contrast to Mark’s version, according to which the demons fear being sent out of the region, Luke has them beg Jesus “not to order them to go back into the abyss,” an image with the connotation of tehom, “the deep” of Genesis 1:2, as well as the “bottomless pit of confinement reserved for the enemies of God (see Rev. 9:11-11; 11:7; 17;8; 20:1-3 )” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 137, 139; and David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 173). The one who dispatches the legion of demons has the power of God the Creator over the wind and water of the sea, the power to order chaos, and power over life and death.

Such power as belongs to God the Creator is needed to free the demoniac from the “legion” of his demons, according to Walter Wink’s analysis of the demoniac’s possession in his Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press,1986). Drawing on the work of Rene Girard, Wink argues that the man is the “scapegoat” of a population in a region that has suffered repeated brutalization and oppression from successive military conquests by the armies of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Jews, Herod, and now finally Rome. The fierce independence of the people has them locked in a struggle from which there is no relief, except in the bizarre manifestations of the demoniac’s possession.  According to Girard,

The townspeople need him to act out their own violence. He bears their collective madness personally, freeing them from its symptoms. Unlike other accounts where the scapegoat is stoned, he does it for them: he bruises himself with stones. Yet he secretly lives out the freedom to be violent that they crave: he is the most liberated among them, shattering chains, parading naked, free from taxes and tribute and the military service due Rome. Yet he is the more miserable for it, and they insure that he remains so. They chain him and drive him from their midst, to dwell as an outcast among the dead. (Quoted from an essay by Girard, “Generative Violence”; Wink, p. 46; Wink’s analysis is primarily based on the text of Mark).

Jesus intervenes in the “vicious circle of mimetic persecution” to free the man, and sends him back into his home community. The people do not rejoice in the freedom of the demoniac, however; it seems clear that they did not wish to have him freed, and certainly not at the expense of their herd of swine herd. Afraid of what they have seen, they ask Jesus to leave them.

What has taken place, in Winks view, is that Jesus “has freed the man from the ‘spirituality of the people.”  His was “the personal pole of a collective malady afflicting an entire society.” The Gerasene demoniac bore “the brunt of the collective demonism, which is thus allowed to remain unconscious and undetected by society at large.” Readers of Luke after the destruction of the temple in C.E. 70 may well have pondered the significance of that persistent denial in the light of the fact that a Roman legion was garrisoned in the area well into the third century. So also might readers today recognize similar socio-political structures that block the development of initiatives aimed at healing national and even global “disorders.” We know, for example, that the demand for economic growth fueled by both population growth and economic development has the planet earth on a unsustainable course. But overriding commitments at every level of our society compel the pursuit of greater wealth by means of capitalistic growth, with its propensity to ignore both unintended consequences and external costs. We are locked into a cultural system from which there appears to be no escape. As noted in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, the technological fixes proposed on the basis of technological rationality simply do not address the spiritual crisis that fuels the drive toward greater and greater consumerism, with its increasing destructiveness, which would afford release from the bondage to self-interested agendas. There are those who are freed from this “spirituality of the people, to be sure, and who engage in vigorous protest, e.g., Bill McKibben. It remains to be seen whether his strategies will provide a viable route for a social and political movement that is broad enough and strong enough to bring about enduring cultural change by democratic process.

The gospel narrative invites us to consider whether the church can contribute to such a movement by going beyond its largely unheeded call for confession of sin, to strategic acts of cultural exorcism. What would be the equivalent, say, of Jesus’ permission to the demons of Gerasa to go drown themselves by entering the herd of pigs?  How could the scapegoating mechanism be similarly subverted in a spiritual intervention that would redirect the desire for healing towards effective actions? One might well ponder, for a start, that with what Wink calls his “substitutionary death of the pigs,” Jesus acted in a totally surprising way. Ordinarily the scapegoat mechanism would have required the man’s death, as the means by which the peoples’ desire for violence would be satisfied. Jesus’ substitution of the pigs is a striking innovation. How shall we understand this? Is it a substitutionary sacrifice, perhaps, one of considerable wealth, an action that would foster a realignment of the will of the people to the will of God for the people? According to the ritual law of the Jews, unclean pigs would not be a proper sacrifice; but as the gift of their creator for the man’s redemption, the pigs could be deemed worthy for sacrifice, a transformation we explored in our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. More likely, in view of our status as beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifice, we should not consider animal sacrifice as in any way appropriate; but still we might ask, what sacrificial acts by the church in conformity with the death and resurrection of Jesus would serve to free up enough people to effectively sweep our society into the divine drama of “generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope”?

Our other readings lend encouragement for such a course. Selected for its close consonance  with the narrative of the Gospel, the first reading from Isaiah 65 portrays God imploring those “who do not seek [him]” but “sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels,” to give up their “garden sacrifices” and offerings of “incense upon the mountains,” so that God can bring forth and establish anew “descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains, as a remnant that will resettle the land (Isaiah 65:8-9). Indeed, later in the same chapter the prophet looks forward in hope to “the new heavens and a new earth” that God will create, in which “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” By including verse 65:17 as a postscript to the reading in the assembly, a bridge can be built to the marvelous vision, accordingly to which

. . . the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. . .

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking i will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:22-25).

Moreover, Psalm 22:19-28 encourages the congregation to believe that God will not despise nor abhor “the affliction of the afflicted;” indeed, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (22:27). And the second reading from Galatians promises to make all who in Christ Jesus have faith, to be “children of God,” irrespective of whether they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; no longer naked as the Gerasene demoniac, but clothed with Christ, all will belong to the “offspring of Abraham.” Holding to these promises, might not we, like the Gerasene demoniac, be freed to seek out God’s new creation?

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

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3

Preaching on Creation: Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2) in Year B (Ormseth12)

Vine and Branches Rooted in God’s Good Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on hope for all who live in exile from good Earth,

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As part of Jesus’ Last Discourse, this use of the metaphor of the vine for the Christian relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciple, so richly amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is also full of significance, perhaps largely unrecognized, for developing the church’s understanding of its vocation in relationship to the creation.

The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine. On this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” A like truth is that a vine cannot live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. And as a recent trip through the vineyards of western Oregon reminded this writer, good fruit like the pinot noir grape depends very much on the soil it grows in! This is to say that as the relationship of vine and branch is part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser (or the gardener) and the vineyard in which the vine is planted, so also we might expect that the metaphor in biblical context is a lively, expansive set of images, which encourages imaginative development of the metaphor’s potential. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” in Old Testament literature, where already in Exodus 15:17, it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your bode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis, Fortress Press 1997, p. 255).

Thus, in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, namely Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah.” On the other hand, in that God intends that the vineyard should produce good grapes, “failing that (v. 7b), Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard.” The combination of generosity and destructive judgment (Lutherans might see gospel and law here) is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the regiving of the land after exile.” As such, the metaphor expresses

“both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine. The vineyard must be productive, yielding in obedience the fruit intended by the planting” (Brueggemann, p. 257).

Against this Old Testament background, we want to suggest, the development of the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” in our time for the restoration of the creation in the face of the displacement of the human community from the Earth that sustains it, which is at the heart of the environmental crisis.

In this context Jesus’ claim to be the “true vine” would appear to mean that he is the true Israel that produces the rich fruit God desires from the land. Raymond E. Brown discusses this possibility at length in his commentary on John. The issues are too complex to discuss here, but Brown shows that the combination of parable and allegory characteristic of John’s Gospel allows for this interpretation. The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree, frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here,” he writes. It is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” And because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72). It is therefore quite possible, he suggests, that John is here contrasting Jesus and his followers as the real vine with the false vine. A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Thus if, as we have noted, John’s “description of the vine and the branches echoes OT passages dealing with the chastisement of Israel,” it seems reasonable to conclude that “the Johannine writer may well have been thinking that God had finally rejected the unproductive vine of Judaism still surviving in the Synagogue” (Brown, pp. 674-75).

In this light, it is important to note that in John 15:1-7 there is no reference at all to the land. The reader of earlier comments in this series on the lectionary for year B might recall that we regard Jesus’ displacement of Jerusalem and its temple as the central meeting place of people and God as a key to interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our orientation to creation. Do only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the community? Or is it the case that the relevance of land is nonetheless assumed? Wouldn’t displacement from the vineyard in fact entail the destruction of the very possibility of life for the vine?

One needs, we propose, to think afresh about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil; it needs to be rooted in the earth. Vine and branches have little purchase on our imaginations apart from their rootedness in soil. The following story illustrates the point. A recent synod assembly was held in a large suburban church that featured a sanctuary filled with trees, rocks and water running over stone walls. Speakers addressing the assembly made beautiful use of the biblical metaphors of trees and plants. Close observation of the trees and the rocks into which they were planted revealed, however, that they were without soil. They didn’t need soil because both plants and rocks were in fact plastic imitations, very skillfully done, to be sure, but without even the possibility of real life. For this observer, the power of the metaphors we were hearing was entirely vacated. Real vines need soil; vines growing in the imagination without it cannot be true. Applied metaphorically to the life of a human being, and particularly to a human being who represents an entire people, as in Jesus’ claim, this requirement of the metaphor still holds: human beings, created by God as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, need adamah, earth, for life. The “true vine,” one might say, needs to be rooted in earth; only so does it make any sense to consider whether or not the branches of the vine are fruitful.

And so it is: If the presence of God has been displaced from Jerusalem to Jesus ‘the true vine,” that presence must nonetheless still be rooted in earth. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the Johaninne context, the claim that Jesus is the true vine reclaims the Jewish heritage of the land for the future of his community. Jesus the vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation , “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” Not by natural limitation, of course, but rather by virtue of the intent and commitment of God’s love (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And just so, God “is glorified by this,” says Jesus, “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

This interpretation of the Gospel reading places strong emphasis on the importance of what Brown called “the anti-Synagogue polemic in John.” Brown has his own good counsel on this matter for readers of his commentary; John’s “harsh statements about ‘the Jews’ must be understood and evaluated against the polemic background of the times when it was written (The Gospel According to John I-XI. New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 368). We would add, however, that the displacement of the presence of God from the temple under the control of the Jewish authorities to the person of Jesus and the body of Christ, as his presence came to be identified in the Eucharistic worship of the Christian community, liberated the experience of that presence from the social and political bonds in which the practices of the Jewish political and religious elites in Jerusalem had expressed it. This is undoubtedly what the mutually hostile polemic was largely about. Nothing illustrates that liberation so dramatically, perhaps, than the narrative concerning the Ethiopian eunuch in this Sunday’s first lesson. The eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple; custom would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home to Ethiopia, he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who shows him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” already in this exchange the good news of the reorientation to creation as the gift of a loving God is becoming a reality everywhere on what we now understand to be one planet in a marvelous universe (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).

The liberation from the temple and its governing authorities of the experience of God’s love makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all of Earth—as the gift of God’s love serves as the soil in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus, we appropriate sing in today’s psalm text that

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.”

God’s “rootedness” in the earth, in other words, is not limited to one mountain, or even to one land. It is available wherever there is water (even in the desert) by means of which we can enter and become part of a “new creation.” Once seen as limited to a “holy land,” that experience is now opened up in the presence of Christ to all who inhabit this “sacred earth.” The vine grows where the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. The fruit that once died on the vine gains new life, as it is grafted into “the true vine,” which grows up out of the good soil of all God’s creation. This is indeed hope for all who live in exile from that good Earth. As Norman Wirzba writes,

“True followers are beloved friends of Jesus who know from the inside what the intention and the life of the Father is all about. If they are grafted onto Jesus—most basically by continuing Christ’s ministries of feeding, healing, forgiving, and reconciling—then they will be continuing in the world God’s own life-building ways that have been in place since the first day of creation. They will garden creation like God does. Jesus is the vine that makes possible every fruit-bearing branch” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 67).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com