Tag Archives: Nicodemus

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

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

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

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

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

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

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

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

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

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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