Tag Archives: redemption

Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Human beings grow into divine fellowship to participate in the relief of nature’s groaning. Dennis Ormseth reflects on living in relationship.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

The reading of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse continues with this Sunday’s Gospel, with its concern for how his followers will live in his absence, in anticipation of the closing of the period of his Easter appearances and his Ascension. The passage extends the discussion of the relationship between the community of believers, Jesus, and his Father, relationships with which we were engaged by the reading of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. With promises to send the Paraclete and not ever to abandon them (“I will not leave you orphaned”), Jesus invites his followers to look forward to a future in which, by the agency of the Paraclete or “Spirit of Truth,” they will know that he is in his Father, they are in him, and he is in them (14:20). This mutual indwelling is a relationship characterized throughout by love. The relationship of Jesus and the community is one of love: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” They will be loved by the Father: “and those who love me will be loved by my Father.” And Jesus, loving them, will make himself known to them: “I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:20-21). By virtue of this circular set of relationships, the believing community is to be caught up in the divine relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Thus is adumbrated the teaching that will be worked out in the course of the Christian community’s first four centuries as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is interesting to note that all of the issues at stake in the development of this doctrine are at least implicit in the Farewell Discourse: the question of the unity of God or monotheism, which 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 church’s 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 that church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics (For 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 lectionary for the remaining Sundays of the festival season—including the Seventh Sunday of Easter (following the Ascension of our Lord), Day of Pentecost, and The Holy Trinity—will provide occasion to discuss the significance of each of these issues for care of creation. But it is the last of these issues that is still our leading concern here, as we explore the significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Farewell Discourse regarding his mutual indwelling between God and the community of faith with respect to the bond between redemption and creation.

From the readings of the previous two Sundays we have seen that the issue of location (in place or in situation) is a constant feature of the experience of redemption associated with Jesus’ resurrection. The Shepherd leads the sheep out into green pastures. Jesus goes to prepare dwelling places in the house of the Lord, which we take to mean the entirety of God’s creation. The readings for this Sunday further strengthen this theme. The psalmist, for instance, describes an experience of release from a period of testing as being “brought out to a spacious place” (Psalm 66:12b). More importantly, in his speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, Paul sketches out the works of God in terms of space and time: “The Lord of heaven and earth . . . made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and . . . allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” It is God’s presence throughout this cosmos—“In him we live and move and have our being”—which guarantees that all nations will search for him “and perhaps grope for him and find him.” As “God’s offspring” (here Paul quotes a pagan philosopher, but perhaps has in mind the metaphor of “God’s children” that he uses in other contexts), we seem especially well-suited to this cosmic search, rather than attempting to locate God in the shrines and idols made by human hands that Paul observed through the city. With the resurrection, God calls all nations to accountability for righteousness before the one appointed as their judge (Acts 17:24-29).

The appointed Gospel might appear to ignore the cosmic, creational reach of these texts in favor of the intimate communion of the believing community, Jesus, and his Father. Within the fuller context of the Farewell Discourse, however, we see otherwise. Gail O’Day sums up her analysis of the complex relationships between the community of believers, Jesus, and the Father as follows: “When the disciples live in love, and thereby keep Jesus’ word, they experience the love of God, and it is through that love that they will also experience the indwelling of God and Jesus.” She goes on to note, significantly, that while, according to John 14:2-3, the “full communion” of the disciples “with God and Jesus” occurs “in the Father’s ‘dwelling place,’” John 14:23 indicates that “love of Jesus leads to the same end. To love Jesus is to live with God and Jesus—that is, to enter into relationship with them (cf. 15:9-10, 12), to come home” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 748). Since the appointed reading ends at v. 21, preachers following this commentary may want to add it to the liturgical reading.  It seems appropriate to us to add this additional insight: Those who do “come home,” are at home were the Father is, in “the Father’s house.” That is to say, they are at home in the fullness of God’s creation. Thus it is precisely the believing community’s communion with God and Jesus, generated through the love of Jesus, which brings them home in relationship to the creation. They are at home with God in God’s creation.

The significance of this insight is developed more fully in reference to contemporary evolutionary thought by Christopher Southgate in his discussion of “the human animal and its ‘selving’” in his Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.  “Graced by the continual outpouring of divine love” in the course of human evolution, Southgate writes, the human animal enjoys “possibilities for a ‘yes’ to God that goes beyond mere selving—a usage Southgate adapts from Gerard Manley Hopkins, meaning the dynamic moment when a creature perfectly expresses its “identity, the pattern and particularity of its existence to their full potential,” i.e. “when it is perfectly itself, both in terms of the species to which it belongs and in its own individuality” (Southgate, pp.63-64).

The human animal’s “yes to God” is “based on a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, on reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, on a recognizing of all humans as one’s neighbor, and on sacrificial actions.” But as with all other creatures, humans never “selve” in any fulfilled way. The ambiguous character of the creation as evolutionary process makes that perfection impossible. “The character of created selves is typically not that of self-giving but of self-assertion, for that, in a Darwinian world, is the only way biological selves can survive and flourish” (ibid, p. 5). Evolutionary strategies “almost always involve the overproduction of offspring, and necessarily imply the existence of ‘frustrated’ organisms is a precondition of other organisms ‘growing toward fulfillment’ and ‘fulfilled.’” (ibid, pp. 64-5). Thus, in human consciousness, “old imperatives with regard to resources, reproduction, relatives, and reciprocity” develop “an addictive power:”

Consciousness seems to amplify the potential of humans for evil as well as good. Both our yes and our no to God take on formidable force; our no becomes ecologically the force to become a “plague species,” economically to perpetuate and exacerbate extremes of wealth and poverty, militarily and socially to ghettoize and ultimately to undertake genocide, religiously to crucify the Prince of Peace and Lord of Glory” (Ibid., p. 72).

Our cognitive and emotional resources combine with these biological imperatives to foster “greed, lust, rape, and exploitation of the weak, of the poor, or other species.”   Thus,

“[w]ith our emergent faculties comes a greater and greater need of God—a need not just to receive from God but to dwell within the life of the Trinity, to live within and from the patterns of the triune love. It is the Incarnation, finally, that opens up the being of God in a new way, offering us both the most profound of examples, and a new possibility of being at home within the life of a God who has taken human experience into Godself” (Ibid).

It isn’t that Jesus himself was “at home,” within either the life of God or the creation. On the contrary, Southgate observes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have Jesus confess that while “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt.8:20; Luke 9:5). The Christian conviction is instead “that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. . . The human being has no true home, but only a direction of journeying, into the heart of God in Godself.” What Jesus does to prepare for his disciples, we might say, he does also to prepare for himself. And as he said, “Where I am, there you may be also (14:3).

The model is Trinitarian and, indeed, is more than mere model. It is “not just that a human being fully alive has a quality of life that is like the quality of life that is within God, not just, in the famous saying of Irenaeus of Lyons, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive, but also that a human person living in free, loving, undistorted relationship with others has been drawn up into the life of the Trinity, and participates in that life” (Ibid., p. 73). But this is finally the human animal’s true “selving” as image of God or, more fully expressed, as image of the divine Trinity. As Southgate concludes, “On this model the imago Dei is the imago Trinitatis, the capacity to give love, in the power of the Spirit, to the radically other, and by that same Spirit to receive love from that other, selflessly. But we only grow into that image as we grow into God, as we learn to dwell within the triune love. We never possess the imago independently of that indwelling, that journeying toward God’s offer of ultimate love (Ibid., pp. 72-73). And thus there emerges within human beings that “possibility of a larger ‘yes’—of a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, of reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, of recognizing all humans as one’s neighbor, and of self-sacrificial actions. This possibility will be realized within the web of relationships in the creation, as humans’ grow into the life of divine fellowship and participation in the divine transformation of the biosphere, the relief of nature’s groaning” (Ibid, p. 115).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@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).

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C
By Robert Saler

Ecumenism as Ecological Lure

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

There is a common saying in ecumenical circles known as “ecumenism of the trenches.” As many preachers this week turn to Jesus’ so-called “High Priestly Prayer” and its specific call that Christ’s followers “be one,” ecumenism in general may well be on the minds of both preacher and congregation.

The notion of “ecumenism of the trenches” suggests that, to a certain degree, both Christian division and formalized ecumenical discussions (such as the good work done by the World Council of Churches) are reflective of a certain kind of stability. When Christianity is in a stable place, then Christians have the luxury of fighting over doctrines; meanwhile, involvement in formal ecumenism, while good, is reflective of substantial resources commanded by the various dialogue partners.

But for creation care preachers, can the threat of ecological catastrophe AND the gospel promise be a way to move the conversation forward?

Perhaps we can again consult Joseph Sittler’s work for inspiration, particularly his most famous—and directly ecumenical—speech, “Called to Unity.”

Joseph Sittler’s “Called to Unity” address was very controversial in its time. Even though the 1954 WCC Assembly in Evanson, IL had already tasked a number of theologians (including Sittler) to consider the issue of Christology in relation to church unity in preparation for 1961, Sittler’s argument—that the future of the church’s proclamation depended upon understanding the planet not simply as the site of God’s creation but also as the site of Christ’s redemption—did not go over well. It went against too many established theological categories.

Despite its lukewarm reception in the early 1960’s, the speech soon came to be regarded as a crucial opening salvo in Christian concern for environmental matters. Since most historians of environmentalism would identify the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as a watershed moment in the American public’s awareness of ecological degradation, the fact that Sittler was writing about environmental concerns as early as the mid-1950’s generally warrants him at least a footnote as a “pioneer” in the writings of contemporary ecologically-oriented theologians. And to the extent that Sittler’s speech can be understood as calling for a kind of “ecumenical environmentalism,” then we can say that his vision has come largely to fruition in the work of theologians and churches (including the ELCA and the LCMS) who have taken up the challenge of relating Christian discipleship to care for creation.

Central to Sittler’s legacy is the idea that the work of creation care happens best when it is related to central questions about how Christians understand God’s work of redemption in the world, inaugurated in Jesus Christ and continued in the work of the Spirit and Christ’s church. As he put it:

A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his [humanity’s] home, his definite place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor, and in caring relationship with nature, his sister.”1

This theme of understanding redemption as encompassing all of creation such that nature is not simply the disposable backdrop against which the drama of human salvation history plays itself out (as in the Left Behind series, as well as in much popular eschatology stemming as far back as Origen), but rather as an integral part of our human identity and the identity of God’s kingdom—to the point that salvation makes no sense apart from the context of redeemed creation itself (as in the Book of Revelation)—has informed the best contemporary ecological theology.

Moreover, Sittler’s vision runs even deeper than simply the strategic shared activism of church bodies. It is MORE than just ecumenism of the trenches! According to him, the unity toward which the church is both “thrust and lured” is best articulated by means of a “Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.”

What Sittler’s speech hints towards is not simply a coming “ecumenical environmentalism” but also the possibility of an “environmental ecumenism,” one in which the sort of ecumenical work to which Sittler devoted much of his career (and with which the WCC remains charged) operates with an expanded imagination concerning the body of Christ existing in greater degrees of interconnection around the shape of the world’s need and the ongoing scope of God’s salvific work.

The burden of a challenge toward “environmental ecumenism” would perhaps move us past the old saw that “doctrine divides but service unites” towards a more theologically robust sensibility of incarnation: that to enter into deeper modes of understanding the church Christologically allows us to engage what Sittler calls humanity’s “strong ache” in a world in which nature’s plasticity to human desires has, ironically, constituted nature itself as a new kind of threat—particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable humans on the planet. If ecumenical unity is a future reality to which the present is nonetheless continually “lured,” then Sittler’s speech invites us to think about how this present lure can be comprehended most fully by continually relating our ecclesiology to our Christology, and vice versa.

And for the preacher who wishes to capture the congregation’s imagination as to what can be possible when ecological catastrophe is taken as a “unifying” threat, but also what can be possible when God’s redemption is seen as impacting all of creation, the lure is to try to find ways to make that vision real for the congregation. What rivers near you need to be saved? What are the ways in which divisions among us as citizens of the planet—race, class, income, geographic area, etc.—spill over into churches? What would healing look like?