Tag Archives: Spirit

Day of Pentecost (May 23) in Year B (Mundahl21)

Practice Resurrection Tom Mundahl reflects on the story told by how we live.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Day of Pentecost, Year B (2021, 2024)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

As he finishes one of his best-known poems, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry calls his readers to “practice resurrection” (The Mad Farmer Poems, Counterpoint, 2013, p. 21). These outrageous verses issue a challenge to rethink the tenets of standard economics. After all, calling farmers to plant sequoias and view one’s chief crop as forest that shows a profit from the two inches of topsoil accumulating every thousand years certainly takes the long view necessary to nurture the fullness and intricacy of life.

The very notion of “practicing resurrection” could not have been more alien to members of the early community who awaited “being clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), whatever that meant. Hadn’t they been disbelieving and shocked by the appearance of their rabbi whom many considered a ghostly presence (Luke 24:36-40)? All that was left to them was a vague sense of expectation as they gathered at Pentecost.

They could not have been prepared for what they experienced. First, there was the “sound like a violent wind” (Acts 2:2) that filled the room. Not only are “wind/breath” and “spirit” interchangeable, but they point to deep formative experiences among God’s people. In the first creation narrative, we recall that “a wind/spirit from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). As different  as the next creation story is, breath/spirit are indispensable to animating the human one formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). And the very survival of this community escaping slavery is ensured as “the LORD drove the sea by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” (Exodus 14:21),  preventing slaughter by Egyptian charioteers. This wind/spirit event is so transparent that little explanation was necessary.

Images of fire were just as familiar. Not only was Moses called by the divine presence in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2f.), his people were led through the wilderness at night by a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). Those who celebrated Pentecost as a commemoration of the Sinai event could hardly have missed the connection with the fiery presence of the Holy One on the mountain (Exodus 19:18). Now the narrator seems to connect the presence of fire with the sudden emergence from the mouths of these rustic Galileans of a stunning variety of the languages spoken in the known world. No wonder the great variety of the observant who had settled in Jerusalem were bewildered, amazed, and astonished.  For suddenly they all heard the story of new creation in their native tongues.

But that is not all. As they remembered the richness of the Torah, the old story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) came to mind with its “explanation” of the origin of linguistic diversity. As Richard Pervo suggests: “By reversing linguistic disunity, the experience is revealed as both an eschatological event of new creation and a utopian restoration of the unity of the human race.  In this thrilling narrative Luke expresses fundamental theological principles: the gift of the Spirit is the present eschatological benefit, and this gift is for the whole human race” (Acts—A Commentary, Hermeneia, Augsburg-Fortress, 2009, pp. 61-62).

It is just this breakthrough made possible by the spirit/breath and the fiery gift of comprehensible speech that frees members of the earliest community to “practice resurrection.”  That is, by the intelligibility of their speech and by forming a new community of radical sharing, they become living witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It is a transformation that grows out of these not-so-bewildering phenomena in biblical context and distributes Easter newness to all.

As we reflect on this text in light of the needs of the earth and its life in 2021, it is clear that the contemporary faith community is also called to live out this universal pattern of hope. That is, it should be collaborating with all who are working to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to the 80% of the earth’s population for whom they are little more than fantasy.  Certainly the current situation in India should wake us to this need for the spirit-breath of healing, a need which persists through most of the Global South.

But we also need the Spirit’s windy fire to expand our concern to the whole of creation by beginning to hear the rich language of otherkind. Not only is going beyond anthropocentrism possible; the biblical tradition requires it. For example, when we consider the full experience of Sabbath delight as the goal and complete expression of creation as it was intended to be (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 86), then we must revisit Sabbath commandments.  Both texts (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) include non-humans prominently.  For example, the Deuteronomic version includes rest for oxen, donkeys and all livestock (Deuteronomy 5: 14).

As we face the “sixth extinction” we need to listen to philosopher David Abram who reminds us: All things have the capacity for speech — all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even ostensibly “inert” objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms…? (David Abram, Becoming Animal, quoted in Terri Windling’s Myth and Moor blog, terriwindling.com, April 29, 2021, “The Broader Conversation”). Must we not see the gift of Pentecost comprehension extended to all beings?

Certainly Psalm 104 celebrates the animacy of creation. Grass, plants, cedar trees, mountains, rocks, singing birds, goats, rabbits, lions, and even the great leviathan all point to a lively interdependence. “When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust. When you send forth your spirit (breath), they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:29-30).  And the full extent of this breadth of concern continues because the creativity of God is ongoing. Wirzba deepens this by insisting that “…the life of creatures is in some sense a participation in divine life because it is only the animating presence (spirit or breath) of God to creatures that keeps them from returning to the dust from which they came” (Wirzba, p. 47). And what is living out this participation but “practicing resurrection?”

By completing Easter, then, the Spirit cracks open the possibilities for new relationships that have yet to be realized.  As is common in classical historiography, events are interpreted by the words of a prominent actor. While Peter’s eligibility for this role is questionable since he last appeared in the Luke-Acts text denying Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), he now appears as the most prominent leader of the Jerusalem community. To give meaning to these phenomena is a task as thankless as explaining a joke and losing its life. But Peter soldiers on interpreting the events in terms of the prophet Joel.

Nevertheless, by quoting this post-exilic prophet, Peter cloaks the events with the respectability of tradition.  Once more we hear the Lukan theme of universality: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The Day of the Lord, instead of being history’s last chapter, brings a new beginning.

As Paul reminds us, this newness is always lived out in the midst of struggle. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now….” (Romans 8:22). This makes it very clear that the focus of divine concern is not limited to humankind, but is cosmic in scope. Whether we are reflecting on the climate crisis, species extinction, human overpopulation, or Covid-19 and potential future viruses, we are going through the long labor Paul describes.  This is both what we can expect and what we share responsibility for.

Far from imaging romantic “tests” the Holy One puts us through to prove our piety, we struggle with the results of our hubris: “claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:22). The chorus of groans is our own doing.  Without doubt human violation of ecological limits is responsible for the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, and the rarely considered loss of nutrient-rich topsoil. Biologist Stan Cox of the Land Institute warns “The Covid-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world in which our activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergencies…Covid-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature….” (“Civilization, Heal Thyself,” Land Report, Spring 2021, p. 12).

How do we find this harmony? Where does the collective birthing process begin? An implicit warning from Paul may help. The solution for the groaning the early community shared with the rest of creation will not come from Imperial Rome. Pauline scholars remind us that after the fracture of the Roman Republic, the cult of the emperor was elevated (especially by Augustus) as the divinely-ordained source of healing and justice (David G. Horrell and others, Greening Paul, Baylor, 2010, p. 84). Our text offers a subtle counter-cultural alternative. Very little additional reflection would have been necessary to realize that the Empire was, in fact, a major source of ecological degradation. Deforestation, soil erosion, military cattle “rustling” and the impounding of land to reward military service made the Imperium an unlikely source of comfort.

Members of the faith community in the U.S. are in much the same position. Although we may be experiencing, if not the sunset of the American Empire, at least the late afternoon, the U.S. military projects power with more than 700  bases, outposts and installations throughout the world. No other nation has even 10% of this number. Americans pay for this military presence with a “defense” budget as large as the 10 next nations combined. The massive nature of this resource allocation has not prevented American military failure in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, as these failures mounted, we have seen a budding cult of militarism evidenced by observances at sporting events, the desire of a recent president for North Korean-style military parades, and the widespread adoption of military equipment by urban police departments.

As military expenditures have continued to grow, domestic services have been hollowed out from the inside.  Not only has the continuing Corona-19 pandemic exposed the weakness of the public health system, but the nation continues to lead the world in virus deaths. At the same time, the political system has been unable to meet common challenges, with representatives spending increasing time fundraising for what seem like endless campaigns with few real financial limits. Yet political leaders, business executives, and even economists repeat the mantra of endless growth, forgetting that earth is a finite planet. Add to that the growing inequality of wealth, the racial caste system, structural unemployment due to robotics and poor training, then we have to ask: is this a system capable of dealing with the climate emergency? As Bill McKibben has pointed out: while the long arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, “the arc of the physical universe is short, and it bends toward heat” (“The Climate Crisis” blog, New Yorker online, May 5, 2021).

Clearly, easing the groaning of creation will have to be a collaborative journey that includes governments, faith communities, interest organizations, global NGO’s and groups we still cannot even imagine. The goal will be enhancing and learning from the entire membership of the creation community as we go through the labor pains leading to a new creation together.  For the Christian community in humble service, it will be a way to make the Spirit of God at home (Greening, 211) so that we may “practice resurrection.”

Our Gospel Reading also helps us to comprehend how the coming of the Spirit “completes Easter” for the Acts community. As the spirit-wind and fire take them completely into performance of Creation and Exodus—the heart of their tradition—they experience the mutual harmony emerging from the recovery of shalom on what Peter understands as the Day of the Lord. This is the breath of new life which empowers them to bear witness (John 15:27).

But this witness is far more than verbal testimony. Rowan Williams suggests this en-spirited resurrection faith “represents the restoration of a lost or occluded capacity in humanity, the capacity to be a mediatorial presence in creation, a priestly vocation to nurture the harmony and God-relatedness…and to articulate its deepest meaning in terms of divine gift and beauty”(Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, Bloomsbury, 2018 p. 223.) Priesthood is not understood solely as altar service, but as a radical act of sharing gifts. As Paul Evdokimov writes: “In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer is called to act as priest of all of life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into a an offering, a gift of glory” (Wirzba, p. 263).

Earlier in John’s Gospel, the question is asked: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6: 28)  While hospitality and welcome into the faith community is important testimony, the story told by how we live cannot be overrated. Turning personal and church lawns into gardens (community gardens?) and planting shrubs and flowers to attract pollinators enhance our lives and witness to the importance of all creatures great and small. Not only can we embrace the “three r’s” — “reduce, reuse, and recycle”—we can add a fourth: “refuse.”  After more than a year of “pandemic lockdown,” what have we discovered to be unnecessary? Has the realization that we live in a finite world that cannot sustain endless growth piqued our interest in the “degrowth movement?” (See degrowthus.org) These are all “priestly” acts.

Yes, these all take effort and stir up opposition. No wonder the Johannine narrator echoes Paul in using the imagery of labor pains which, despite their sharpness, bring joy (John 16:20-22). This metaphor suggest that, despite Jesus’ absence, with the power of the Spirit’s midwifery, followers already experience the new creation: “So the human being whose birth into the world transforms pain into joy is humankind created anew as part of the rebirthing of the whole creation” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John: An Earth Bible Commentary, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 195-196). With this generativity comes the courage and call to “practice resurrection.”

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2021.

 

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year B (Ormseth12)

Liberation and Restoration of the Whole Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the relations of the Holy Trinity encompassing all things.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Holy Trinity Sunday, Gordon Lathrop suggests, “gives us words and images for articulating and celebrating how every Sunday meeting is enfolded in the very life of the Triune God. The day is a kind of archetypal Sunday.” It also echoes Pentecost, he notes: “like Pentecost, sums up the meaning of the whole Easter Feast” (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Trinity Sunday, in New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 75). On both counts, we are gratified to note that the texts appointed for Holy Trinity in Year B are especially helpful in advancing the concern for creation that is the focus of this series of comments.

Lathrop beautifully summarizes the meaning of John 3:1-7 as a statement about God:

“God is the One who loves the world and is saving it, even though the world is marked by refusal, ignorance, and sin (cf. 1:10, 29). More: God blows as the wind, bringing to birth and to life that which cannot be born in our world—believers, not just religious observers. More: God is encountered as the one who is called, in the language of Jewish hope and Jewish apocalyptic, the ‘Son.’ This one nonetheless appears not as a superhuman figure clothed in light, a mythic redeemer, but astonishingly, with a ‘glory’ and an “’scension’ which include our worst sufferings and ignominy. This dynamic presentation of the work of God-as-triune, one of the biblical sources of the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, will give the preacher of the day occasion to present the vocation of the baptized assembly as a calling to show forth the rich life and love of this God in the world, a life and love which deeply contradict the world’s expectations of ‘God’” (Lathrop, p. 77).

The God we encounter in Jesus, that is to say, is the source and goal of all things: the God whose spirit “swept over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2) and who is the future of all things, the one to whom the Son brings all creatures—however deep and all-encompassing the suffering through which they must pass. It simply cannot be emphasized enough that the love emanating from this God, whom we encounter in the weekly gathering of the Christian assembly, is for the world—the cosmos, where cosmos is understood to encompass all things (See our argument for this interpretation in our comment on the same text for the Second Sunday in Lent, year A). And the vocation of the baptized assembly thus involves love for what God loves and care for that for which God cares.

The means by which human creatures are drawn into this comprehensive narrative of creative and redemptive love with its consequent vocation, it is important to note, are water and the Spirit. Water, commonly used for spiritual purification, here bears new meaning as life restored in the Spirit. As Lathrop points out, the discourse from which the text is taken follows on the first two signs in John’s Gospel, the “new wine” that replaces the purification water at Cana (John 2:1-11) and the cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem as a proclamation of the coming new temple (John 2:13-22) (Lathrop, p. 76). In these two signs, taken together with the accompanying discourse, we again encounter this grand motif of the Gospel narratives to which our reading of Mark introduced us already in the season of Advent, namely, that Jesus replaces the temple in Jerusalem with all its associated rituals as the locus of the believer’s encounter with God. As we have asked before: Is then the community that gathers in Jesus’ name thus “liberated,” not only from the observance of temple ritual but also from the meaning of those rituals, which so often provided a life-giving and enhancing orientation to creation? No, decidedly not, this text assures us: The ritual may be abandoned, but the meaning and its orientation to creation is reaffirmed and even strengthened by means of reference to more archaic, foundational theophanies. Water and the Spirit, present at the beginning, is the source of all life. The water used in Christian baptism is, as Lathrop puts it, “water used no longer for the intentions of religious anxiety, for the observance of purity laws as at Cana, but water poured out with the presence of the Spirit, water flowing in the restored kosmos of God, as a community is healed in the crucified Christ and made witness to God’s love for the world” (Lathrop, 77).

Reference to the temple and its replacement by Jesus in and through the Spirit reminds us that the powerful manifestation of God to the prophet Isaiah was in the temple. The choice of this theophany as the accompaniment to the Gospel narrative on this Sunday is striking. The alternative readings offer the theophanies of the burning bush in the wilderness and at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The God we encounter in Jesus, these alternatives emphasize, is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, who with Moses are intensely associated with the history of God’s covenant with Israel. While linked to that same history, the theophany of Isaiah 6 clearly transcends it: the glory of God spills out beyond the temple to fill “the whole earth;” the seraphim, heavenly beings of the highest order, praise God as thrice holy (the ostensible reason for selection of the text for this Sunday’s celebration of the Holy Trinity). The God we encounter in Jesus, if God of the wilderness and God of the covenant, is also the God’s whose judgment upon the kings of Israel results in the exile of their people and the devastation of their land. “How long, O lord,” the prophet asks and the Lord replies “until cities lie waste, without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”(6:8ff). The sacred desire of Isaiah’s thrice holy God, that is to say, is for justice that encompasses people and land together in a new creation; visions of that new creation bracket the prophet’s book (Isaiah 2; 11; 65-66), Terry Fretheim notes, and oracles concerning creation are more frequent in the middle section of Isaiah (40-55) than in any other prophet, no doubt due to the historical context of the community in Babylon to which they were addressed (Terry Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, p.184).

That the God we encounter in Jesus is the God of all creation is also the thunderous affirmation of Psalm 29: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.” It is a voice that “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” “flashes forth in flames of fire,” “shakes the wilderness,” and causes the oaks to whirl.” Enthroned over the flood, “the Lord sits as king forever.” The images here are violent; God is likened to a warrior king. While the Christian expectation of this God may indeed be captured in the closing plea for strength and peace for God’s people (so Lathrop, p. 80, “This awe-full God is the God for us and for all the world”), it is important to note that the psalter itself also gradually incorporates into its praise of God more earth-friendly understandings. As Arthur Walker-Jones shows, in relation to psalms like 96 and 97, God’s glory will come to be seen “’in life-giving righteousness, not in the destructive thunderclouds. The Creator comes not with a show of power but with righteousness and justice” (Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2005, p. 159; the quotation is from Norman Habel and Geraldine Avent, “Rescuing Earth from Storm God,” in The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001, p. 43).

The trajectory of Israel’s faith in the God of creation, this suggests, leads to Jesus, God’s only Son. He was given for the salvation of the cosmos. And as the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us, following up our second lesson from the Day of Pentecost, “led by the Spirit of God” we join him as “the children of God,” for whose revealing the groaning creation awaits. Life within the relations of the Holy Trinity is eternal life, the purpose and goal of which is the liberation and restoration in time to come of the whole creation.

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

Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Everything Is Changed Dennis Ormseth reflects on reorientation of the community to God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

In the first of these comments on texts for the Sundays of Easter, Year B, we took note of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan’s exploration of the iconography of the Resurrection in the Ancient Church and their observation that the Western Church visualized Jesus’ Resurrection as individual, with Jesus alone, while in the Eastern Church. It is pictured as universal, with Jesus joined to humankind. The difference was significant to the Crossans, we recall, because the universal resurrection has important consequences for the public square that escape the western, individual version. We have explored some of these consequences, with particular interest in those relating to creation and its care. In this comment, we return to an issue raised by the Crossans as to why their preference for the universal resurrection can’t be defended simply by an examination of the New Testament witnesses. There is no “direct account of the resurrection” that would settle the matter, they explained. “As a result, Christians have had to imagine that moment.” The universal resurrection is inherently more difficult to imagine, they submit; but this doesn’t matter for their argument, because “at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Rising up with Christ:  The Eastern Church’s Communal Vision of Resurrection, Christian Century, January 31, 2018, p. 24).

But is this really true? And if so, what reality does the metaphor of the resurrection actually create? Answers to these questions are important for both the Crossans and for us. The Crossan’s argued that the universal resurrection has consequences for humanity that could turn it from the course of reciprocal violence which can ultimately destroy us and devastate the earth; we have argued that those consequences also include avoidance of environmental destruction and eventual restoration of creation. Our question is, then, given that there are ample and powerful metaphors attached to the experience of the resurrection, as recorded in our sources, what evidence do we see that these metaphors in fact “create reality,” and in particular, reality in the public square that makes a difference for the environmental crisis of our time?

Does, for example, the pre-crucifixion teaching and practice of non-violence produce a post-resurrection practice of non-violence in the ongoing life of the community of the church, as the Crossan’s argument suggest it should? We read reports of the resurrected Jesus’ greeting his disciples with “peace,” suggesting the acceptance of this mandate by the early Christian community. But what of the future, when the authority of his person is diminished after his departure? Similarly, does the resurrection practice of the communal meal, which we have associated with both the Eucharistic meal and a sustained orientation of the community to the earth in the mode of divine self-giving, actually create a communal life oriented to the earth as life-sustaining gift of  creation? We have read the report of the participation of the community in the new economy of the Holy Trinity from the Book of Acts, which takes the metaphor of self-giving love to another level, but what evidence is there in the development of the church’s life that this understanding actually took hold? Are these instances anything more than spontaneous and random actions generated by the astonishment of the community at their first hearing of the news of the Resurrection? Or to take the question further in consideration of the more dramatic metaphors we have encountered: what evidence is there that the economic practices of the community exhibit the characteristics of the “great economy” of the Good Shepherd or that the community of the Vine planted and husbanded in the holy vineyard produces truly good fruit of either natural or social kind, making the best use of such gifts of good soil, water, sunshine and good company? Full exploration of such questions would require extended investigation in the history of the church, of course, which we are not prepared to do here. The readings for this final Sunday of Easter do nonetheless give support, however fragile, for the notion that these Easter-tide metaphors did actually shape the reality of life in the early Christian community in the aftermath of the Resurrection.

Indeed, the episode in our first reading this Sunday of the replacement of Judas by Matthias in the circle of Jesus’ followers offers a fascinating instance of the significance of the resurrection for both the church’s presence in the public square and its commitment to care of creation. Jesus’ disciples have returned to the city of Jerusalem from “the mount called Olivet,” where they witnessed Jesus’ ascension. They go to “the room upstairs where they were staying”—the room in which they celebrated Jesus last supper? (The suggestion is Luke Timothy Johnson’s from his The Acts of the Apostles.  Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 34)—returning, perhaps, to the place of the pre-resurrection experience of Jesus’ presence. Luke draws a vivid picture of a community united in prayer as they await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). Reminded by this setting of Judas absence, perhaps, Peter interrupts their prayer and raises his concern to replace Judas in the circle of the disciples.

The gathering thus addresses the concrete reality of its future presence in the public square.  It was an order of first importance, Johnson suggests: one of the original circle of twelve disciples who were being prepared to replace the religious and political leaders of Israel who rejected Jesus had fallen away. He must be replaced before Pentecost “because the integrity of the apostolic circle of Twelve symbolized the restoration of God’s people” (Johnson, p. 39). The concern, in other words, is with the authenticity of a metaphor of great importance to their future existence. The seriousness of Peter’s concern is echoed in the Gospel reading, in which Jesus’ priestly prayer on their behalf brings to mind the fact that while Judas was the only one of the disciples that was lost, the danger to the community which that defection represented was real. Anticipating the ascension, Jesus prays,

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-19).

At stake here is the public witness of the church in the hostile context of the Jerusalem under the Roman Empire. The action initiated by Peter is a first step on the way to the constitution of a New Israel, with the circle of the Apostles creating something of a communal participant in “the public square” that anticipates the authority of ecumenical Councils and other structures of ecclesiatical governance that will contend over extended time with imperial authorities, largely non-violently, to create a new society. The danger presented by Judas betrayal is not primarily physical, but ethical. The admonishment from this Sunday’s psalm is accordingly appropriate: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

Remarkably, this interlude turns out to be relevant not only in relation to the Crossans’ concern for the reality-creating power of the resurrection metaphors, but ours for the orientation to and care of creation as well (The verses key to this insight, Acts 1:16–21, are  omitted from the reading and should be consulted here). Noting how Luke’s account of Judas’ death differs so markedly from that of Matthew 27:3-10, Johnson emphasizes that everything, including the scriptural citations, centers on the defection of Judas as one of the Twelve. But

“. . . as he does so often, Luke uses the disposition of possessions as symbolic. Judas does not return the money as a sign of repentance, but goes to buy a farm with the payment for his wicked deed (1:18). This action stands in direct contrast to his ‘having a share in this ministry’ (1:17). Rather than be one of those who ‘left their own things’ and will ‘sell their farms’ and ‘call nothing their own,’ Judas separates from the group by his purchase of property for himself. We notice that like Annanias and Sapphira, who will later be described as doing the same thing, Judas is said to have been possessed by Satan (Luke 22:3; Acts 5:3) and to have “entered into a conspiracy” to get the money (Luke 22:4-6; Acts 5:9). Spiritual disaffection is symbolized by physical acquisitiveness” (Johnson, p. 39-40).

In both instances of this orientation to self, the result is death. Neither Judas nor Annanias and Sapphira get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Johnson sums up the significance of Judas’ betrayal and death as follows:

“Judas’ fate and that of his property is intertwined.  He dies on the farm and his dwelling place is to be deserted (1:10). And, as his property is vacant, so is his place in the apostolic circle; therefore “let another take his office” (1:20). Each stage of the story is symbolized by the disposition of possessions: Judas’ apostasy from the Twelve is expressed by the buying of a farm, his perdition is expressed by the desertion of the property, and that empty property expresses the vacancy in the apostolic circle. That Luke intends just such an interpenetration of the notion of authority and the symbolism of property is shown by the final statement concerning Judas, that he left his ‘Place’ (topos) in the ministry precisely by his ‘going to his own place’ (ton topon ton idion, 1:25)”.

The metaphorical key to the story is clear: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it; and let another take his position of overseer’ (Acts 1:20). Judas’ loss of his property replicates Israel’s loss of the land. And the election of Mattias anticipates the restoration of divine presence in the community, which will lead to the common thriving of the community.

Indeed, in our view, Luke has shown us that Jesus’ reorientation of the community to God’s creation is a key aspect of their post-resurrection existence. All this talk about farms and place in the community suggests that Judas’ acquisitiveness is not merely symbolic of spiritual disaffection; it also represents an orientation to creation that has to be repudiated and remedied by the community as it begins its mission. Metaphors whose substance seemed to have been vacated by events are to be re-appropriated for the future community’s well-being. Moreover, verses from Psalm 1 remind us that the connection of symbolic significance of metaphor to social and natural reality can run in both directions: those who “delight in the law of the Lord” are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:3-4).

A related metaphor from the Resurrection readings seems pertinent: the Vine-dresser does indeed cut off the branch that fails to produce good fruit, but only in order to spur new, healthy growth (John 15:16). Similarly, by participating in the self-interested economy of the “hired hand”, he showed himself to be no good shepherd; so his place has to be taken by another. Luke, Johnson concludes, not only “solved the problem posed by Judas’ betrayal by reintegrating a leadership of the Twelve for this people that awaits the promised gift of the Holy Spirit;” Luke has “also prepared his readers to see in the restored people a community that calls nothing its own and shares all its possessions as a sign of its spiritual unanimity (Acts 2:41-17; 4:32-37) (Johnson, p. 40). Judas’ replacement by Matthias thus represents the restoration of the community of God’s people to right relationship to the land that will sustain them in the new creation. The Creator’s economy of self-giving is newly installed as the normative way of life. It is a distinctive feature of this community that pretension to self-sufficient ownership of land has no part in the community’s relationship to the creation which sustains it in life. For this community, all creation will be a “common good” for which the community shares responsibility for righteous use and restorative care, but possesses no sovereignty or right of ownership over it. The future history of the monastic movements in Christian history will represent repeated attempts to give this model sustained existence. And our present experience of a society organized almost exclusively on the basis of private ownership of property, with only restricted concern for the common good, makes consideration of the experience of the newly resurrected community more relevant than ever.

Thus we arrive at the end of the Easter Season, waiting, like the disciples, for the renewed gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us for the mission that is ahead of us in the Anthropocene, when the fate of all living things hangs on our care for God’s creation. We are well advised at this moment to take seriously the suggestions of those who pray for the coming of the Spirit whose full name is “Spirit of Creation” not only Spirit of God. Hear, for example, this good counsel from Mark Wallace, which is based on his reading of the event of Pentecost:

“When the Spirit inspired the formative pentecostal gathering in the book of Acts to speak in other tongues, an eschatological rupture from the past occurred in which the ancient prophecy was fulfilled that the Spirit would pour out itself onto all flesh.  It was said that the fulfillment would be distinguished by excessive and impossible signs of the Spirit’s presence: some would have visions, others would prophesy, and blood and fire and smoke would cover the earth (Acts 2:14-21). Today the haunting prospect of mass environmental death bears traces of just such a cataclysm. We too have entered a new era marked by a similar apocalyptic break with the past, where the Spirit is again at work to foment aberrant, unorthodox life-styles (‘these ones are full of new wine,’ Acts 2:13)”.

This is not the description of the Spirit familiar to generations of the faithful whose main concern was only the extension of belief in Jesus, for the sake of an eventual, individual resurrection. Everything is changed, and there is once again, reason for hope:

“We are being asked to abandon old mores in favor of a new biocentric and nonconformist theology and ethic. We are being wooed by the Spirit to desert custodial language of dominion and stewardship in favor of an earth-centered religious discourse: all creatures are best served when humans abdicate their identities as overlords and defer instead to the wisdom of the Creatrix who renews and empowers the common biotic order. If we allow the Spirit’s biophilic insurgency to redefine us as pilgrims and sojourners rather than wardens and stewards, our legacy to posterity might well be healing and life-giving, and not destructive of the hope of future generations” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, pp. 169-170).

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

Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Living the Ecological Vocation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the source of new life for all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! . . The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Some six weeks ago, we joined in praise to God with these verses from Psalm 118, rejoicing in the good news of the Resurrection of Jesus. The voice here is markedly singular. Taking it as the voice of the Risen Jesus, we could easily assume that what we celebrated that day was only his individual resurrection. As we listen to the psalm for this Sixth Sunday, however, we hear something decidedly different:

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 4:1-4).

As the season of Easter draws to a close—the Feast of the Ascension follows in four days—the Psalm for this Sixth Sunday presents a final chorus of joyous praise from “all the ends of the earth.” The song is clearly communal and inclusive of all humanity. And there is more: the statement of praise bridges from God’s covenant with Israel to God’s love for all the earth, and “the earth” that sings is not only human:

“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:7-9)

What is particularly interesting to us, of course, is that otherkind as well as humankind is called on to sing these praises. The praise, as it were, ratifies the point of view we have taken in the comments on the texts for these six Sundays, namely, that Jesus’ Resurrection is an event involving all creation, both humanity, past, present and future, and in the words of our initial guides, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “a transformed earth and within a transfigured world” (Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23, 25). Repeatedly in these texts we have seen that the resurrection is understood to include a community that steadily reaches for universality, is steadfastly characterized by the crucified Jesus’ messianic practice of non-violence, and is bound together in a communal meal. The non-violent character of the community is established by the continuity between the crucified and risen Jesus; it is expressed in risen Jesus’ greeting of “peace.” The community’s meal binds the community to the earth in an economic practice that is modeled on God’s own self-giving in creation. The texts for the last two Sundays invited deeper exploration of these themes: the metaphor of the Good Shepherd drew us deeply into an exploration of the “great economy” of the creation, and encouraged us to resist the self-seeking, “hired hand” economy that always wants to be the only economy there is, humans only welcome. And finally, last Sunday’s texts provided the ultimate “green” anchor for a narrative of the Resurrection of the Earth: a vineyard, in which soil, vine, and branches are tended by the holy gardener for the sake of all creation.

Is this a viable and effective vision for the redemption of the creation? We have asked this question repeatedly along the way. The universality of the Resurrection, the non-violent character of the community and the centrality of its meal practice are clearly represented to some degree in each set of texts for the Easter Season. But there is more to the question: we have also seen the need for a particular understanding of the presence of God within the community. Relocated from the Jerusalem temple to the person of Jesus, and then to his “body” as presented in the fellowship meal, God’s presence is experienced as very “down-to earth.” God is present, not only transcendently above Creation, but in, with and under it. It is the Triune God we encounter in these texts, whose Spirit speaks from the Creation, as well as to Creation and on behalf of Creation. Indeed, reflecting back over the season, this is perhaps the most significant lesson we have learned for the sake of care of Creation: the church needs to think consistently of the Spirit as always joined to Creation. It is the Spirit of Creation we meet in these texts, as much as it is the Spirit of God. And it is the Spirit of Creation on whom we can call for insight and strength in our care of Creation.

We meet this God again in the readings for the Sixth Sunday. In the wake of the resurrection, the Spirit is moving the community forward into the future by crossing the ancient red line between Jew and Gentile. This Spirit is also joined to the Creation in the waters of baptism, as it always will be going forward. That is not its only point of connection, however. It is also the Spirit which in the developing life of the church will be intimately allied with the creation in sounds of music, not from the lyre and the trumpet only, but from orchestras of string and brass instruments, and in hymns and anthems sung by choirs and congregations. If the “hills are alive with the sound” of their praise of the Creator, to adapt a familiar phrase, it is the Spirit that engenders their singing. And when even the roar of the seas and the clapping hands of the floods are heard as praise, it is due to the Spirit’s transformation of their voices.

Beyond the scope of these readings, Elizabeth Johnson provides a more complete description of the Spirit’s ties to Creation. The Spirit is also linked to wind, as in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, when the spirit of God “blows like a wind over the face of the waters, and the world begins to take shape.” Fire also manifests the special approach of the Spirit, as it “sets human hearts on fire and inspires boldness.” “Blowing like wind, flowing like water, flaming like fire, the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things,” she writes, evoking “better than more abstract words the presence of the Creator Spirit in the natural world, in plants, animals, and the ecosystems of the earth. The whole complex, material universe is pervaded and signed by the Spirit’s graceful vigor, blowing over the void, breathing into the chaos, pouring out, refreshing, quickening, warming, setting ablaze,” which characterizes the “loving presence of the living God as such, beyond anything we can imagine, creating the power of life in all things.” Johnson draws here on Hildegard of Bingen in noting that the combination of wind and fire stirs “everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all.” Correlative “to the vivifying presence of the Spirit of God throughout the natural world, Johnson concludes, “is the blest character of that world itself.” Its “inner secret” is the dwelling of God’s Spirit within it. Instead of being distant from what is holy, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, being itself imbued with a spiritual presence” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, pp.138, 150).

Finally, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we encounter the Spirit as love, embedded in the reality of the living creation. As the reference to “bearing fruit” in John 15:16 reminds us, the Gospel reading follows directly on Jesus’ description of his relationship with his disciples in terms of the metaphor of vine and branches which the church read last Sunday; thus the power of that metaphor is now fully developed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an act of the Spirit’s love that bears this fruit of full community. As soil, vine and branches work together to produce fruit, so God’s love creates the community that recognizes in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the source of its new life. When the actions of humankind conform to this understanding, otherkind indeed has reason to rejoice. Elizabeth Johnson puts it this way, at the conclusion of a work in which she has listened carefully to what “the beasts” have to say:

“. . . commitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all. The immediate aim is to establish and protect healthy ecosystems where all creatures, including poor human beings and plants and animals being driven to extinction, can thrive. The longer-term goal is a socially just and environmentally sustainable society in which the needs of all people are met and diverse species can prosper, onward to an evolutionary future that will still surprise.”

This is the vision, she concludes, “that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect”: “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God . . . . [L]iving the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love” (Johnson, pp. 285-86).

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

Third Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. In the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, p. 208).

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

Sunday August 7-13 in Year A (Thompson)

All-Encompassing, Hopeful, and Embodied Faith

This week Lutheran’s Restoring Creation is excited to offer a guest commentary from Andrew Thompson, a young adult seminarian.  In his commentary, Andrew reflects on God reaching us through our surroundings and how God’s active presence, within and beyond us, forms us for sustained action for the sake of the world.

LRC is always looking for new voices and diverse perspectives on the lectionary. Send an email to our commentary coordinator (contact@katrinamartich.com) to reserve a Sunday for your voice to be heard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 7-13, Year A (2020, 2023)

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Introduction

It’s no secret that the United States’ narrative of individualism and self-sufficiency has and is devastating our environment and many communities who are underrepresented in systems of power. Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda encourages an alternative way of understanding oneself and one’s spirituality which runs counter to these individualistic narratives that oppress our neighbors and God’s creation. Moe-Lobeda names this lens “Critical Mystical Vision,” which includes seeing “what is going on,” “what could be,” and “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 113-114, Kindle). Moe-Lobeda planting her ethic in this ground of critically acknowledging one’s experience, seeing new pathways to take for the journey ahead, and God’s continued guidance towards that longed-for state of affairs of dynamic relationality offers hope for the journey and energy towards making it a reality (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, 120 Kindle). By continuing to develop the portrait of God actively abiding within us through creation, we are provided perspectives and practices which cultivate inspiring hope. This hope grounded in faith acknowledges despair and pain and seeks to do something about it, moving the parishes we serve and beyond towards a more communal worldview and brighter tomorrows.

1 Kings 19:9-19: Embodied Faith in the Sheer Silence

The Kings reading for August 9th begins this week’s expansion of this Western-influenced perspective of God. This exploration of Elijah’s story follows Elijah’s lone prophetic witness against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, which resulted in the LORD being revealed boldly to the community as the giver of water and fire, primary elements of sustenance and life (1 Kings 18:17-46). While this demonstrated God’s sovereignty as greater than the perceived power of Baal affirmed by members of the Israelite community and leadership at the time, Elijah also unsettled the status quo in the process, leading him to flee after Jezebel threatened his life (1 Kings 19:1-8). We enter into the 9th verse of chapter 19 with Elijah spending the night in seclusion within a cave in Mount Horeb, the site where God had cared for the Israelites with water from a stone and provided guidance in the form of a new covenant from a fire (Exodus 17:6; Deuteronomy 4:9-15).

God reaches out to Elijah, asking him why he is there. Elijah responds, explaining that he has continued to answer his call, and even so the present oppressive system continues to exploit the agrarian culture at the time for their own gain and idolatrous practices, thus breaking the covenant with God for the Israelite people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Gale A. Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53: The Ministries of the Prophets Elijah and Micaiah” in Fortress Press Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., Matthew J. M. Coomber, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, David A. Sánchez, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, Kindle). By breaking this covenant and exploiting the agrarian culture at the time, they also “[deprive] the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” as these vulnerable populations especially relied upon gleaning practices in the fields, as outlined in Deuteronomy as well (Deuteronomy 26:12-13, 27:19; Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53,” Kindle). Elijah’s response to God feels drenched in the question of “Why?”—Why does this pain and suffering continue to happen, and why do my neighbors and your people continue to suffer as the covenant continues to remain unacknowledged and they seek to take my life? Elijah shares his story and experience with hopes that the status quo may be changed and seeks guidance about how to make that happen. How often do we find ourselves asking these questions too, especially when like it feels as though justice is nowhere to be found and God does not seem close by?

In their first exchange, God commands Elijah to go outside the cave and listen, “for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). We recall here that when Moses experienced God passing him by, he too was encouraged to stay by himself inside the cleft of a rock or a cavern (Exodus 33:20-23). At that moment, the very same signs that accompanied God’s presence listed in Isaiah 29:5-6 occur outside the cave, including a whirlwind so strong that it split the mountains, an earthquake, and then a fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). However, the writer(s) of 1 Kings reports that the LORD was not present in those spaces, and that after the fire there was “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:13 NRSV). Elijah seems to have discerned that God’s presence was not communicated via the classic mediums for the divine to be revealed. Upon hearing the silence, however, Elijah responds to God’s invitation to leave the cave and experience the LORD passing by. Upon arriving at the entrance of the cave, God asks again what Elijah is doing at Mount Horeb. Elijah repeats his response, and this time the writer(s) reports that Elijah discerns how God will restore justice to the land, namely in the means they understood at the time, which was by putting righteous leaders back into leadership positions.

So, what changed between these two sets of questions and responses? God reveals Godself and the will of God in a vehicle that is atypical to how God has been most clearly revealed in the past to God’s people. The prophet Elijah thus receives a broader lens that God’s movement is not limited only to the more easily perceptible movements of nature or in bold displays of divine intervention. Instead, even in the absolute stillness of the air, God is still moving and is still present with God’s people—hearing the cry of the oppressed, stirring people’s hearts towards ensuring justice for the sake of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, and unsettling oppressive systems which seek to silence the voices of prophets who are speaking truth to power. God’s presence is not limited only to the mediums themselves, but it is communicated into us through such means. Whether it be within the cave, within the clouds, within the fire, within the water, within the stillness—God also stirs within us, towards our very innermost selves, to remind us of God’s abiding presence. God’s presence does not just linger there either. God’s presence communicated through these creative means revealed to Elijah the means for how justice would be offered in his time. God’s revelation to Elijah appears to have encouraged him to continue the work he has been called to do, as in the very next verse he goes forth to anoint Elisha, thus continuing the process of unsettling and dismantling the oppressive political system at the time.

The 1 Kings passage invites readers to reflect over two questions: How do you see God moving in this world and within you, and how are you going to respond? On the road of activism, silence can sometimes be viewed as a scary wall, indicating that one’s actions they once believed were in line with their vocation are actually running off track or are not making a difference. The question people in this position may encounter next is “What comes next?” This seems to be a root of the response Elijah offered to God’s question: “What are you doing here?” Through Elijah’s encounter with God in and through nature, he seems to have found an expanded perspective that is grounded in his continued faith and results in new directions to explore. While we treasure the narratives where God is moving in big and bold ways because they are exciting and often deliver the justice we long for on a daily basis, we are invited to expand our lens like Elijah so we may remember that milestone moments are not the only places where God is active. God is also present and moving in those moments which seem like anything other than momentous; we see here that God can use the stillness, the space we inhabit, the things we perceive and experience each as leaping off points to move us, and in the process reveals God’s will of compassion and justice. So, once the LORD passes by you in this way, what will you do next?

Psalm 85:8-13 and Romans 10:5-15 – God Revealed and Moving, Within and Beyond Ourselves

The readings for this week from Psalm 85 and Romans 10 offer more rich imagery which help us better engage Moe-Lobeda’s third aspect of Critical Mystical Vision: “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, Kindle). The psalm reading this week carries on the theme found in 1 Kings 19:9-18 of listening for God, who “…will speak peace to [God’s] people, to [God’s] faithful, to those who turn to [God] in their hearts” (Psalm 85:8 NRSV). This conception of God includes the idea that God’s glory (another term often associated with God’s abiding presence) dwells in our land, which the writer perceives as causing love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace to also be gifted to the world by extension. What hopeful imagery associated with the fruits of listening and discerning God’s active presence amongst us! The writer perceives the world as being infused with the Spirit of life, and by extension finds hope in God’s presence.

In Psalm 85:11, we are treated to another set of rich imagery: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” It first casts an expansive view of the extent of God’s presence, as God’s presence is associated with both parts of the binary of up and down. This sentiment in Psalm 85:11 resonates with the ideas shared in the opening verses of the Romans reading, which encourages readers to not pin Christ’s presence to one place by assuming the righteousness associated with faith is found in one precise direction or space. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). The English translation offered by the NRSV here makes sense but misses out on just how connected the word is to God’s people, as the “on your lips and in your heart” literally translated from the Greek is “in your mouth (stoma) and in your heart.” The Greek presents God’s presence here as being very much internalized here. This internalized focus presents yet another dynamic portrait of God’s abiding presence within us while also including how God offers faith to us right where we are and that the righteousness of God saturates the very air we breathe. These images resonate with the comforting sentiment that our justifying, reconciling, and renewing faith itself is “sparked” by God, which orients the life we live in response (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4.73-74, 110-116 in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 132, 138-139). Yet again we see how God oftentimes reveals God’s movement within us through these external means and empowers us to live in an awe-inspired and hope-filled manner if we remain tuned into God’s embracing movements.

We can see through these verses images which reflect the ongoing nature of God’s life-giving presence, whether it be within the rhythmic beats of our heart internally or a seed’s continued growth through the dirt. Both of these images are similar in the fact that they represent internal, life-giving processes which make action possible in the future. So too does the faith which springs up from the ground of our very being make possible the work we are called by God to do in this world. Such work is often hard and exhausting, and sometimes can feel as though we are stuck in the dirt; however, when we look out at the large trees and the many blades of grass tenaciously growing up and out in the air, we can see little reminders of God’s creative work in this world continuing every moment, with every breath we breathe, with whatever growth is sustained, and with every heartbeat, as the Word abides in each and every one of those spaces. We can go forth, knowing God has deeply rooted and nourished each of us in the ground from which faithfulness springs through the waters of our baptism and the Word. To use the words from the close of the Romans reading for this week, we are rooted yet are also sent as those beautiful messengers proclaiming God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace for the sake of the broader web of life, of which we too are a part and have been called to tend. The question remains, “How is God stirring you to live out the rooted-in-faith-life you have been freely given by God?”

Matthew 14:22-33 – An Invitation to Trust and Walk Upon the Mysterious Waves

The Gospel reading for this week continues our exploration of how cultivating Moe-Lobeda’s “Critical Mystical Vision” allows us to see the world through a hopeful, spiritually rich lens which informs bold action. This passage takes place in a chapter where Jesus finds out about John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of the corrupt political system run by King Herod, and seeks rest in solitude while in a boat upon the waters. He later returns to the crowds, and in his time with them communicated his compassion by curing the sick and showcasing the abundance of God by multiplying the small amount of food they had for the nourishment of all in attendance. Yet again, we see how God chooses to move through physical means to provide insights about God’s character and movement towards life for all.

After these acts of care and time spent with the community, the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus sent the disciples on a boat to go to the other side to Gennesaret, where Jesus and the disciples yet again engaged deeply with the community and Jesus provided care for them (Matthew 14:34-36). The journey in-between the two shores is our focus for this week, as the disciple’s boat is buffeted by what Bible scholar Douglas R. A. Hare refers to as waves which “tortured” the disciples. Hare minces no words about the dire predicament set before them, and that it is crucial to the narrative that this is when Jesus appears to the disciples, revealing that care and guidance are key aspects of Jesus’ activity as the Messiah (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew. Interpretation: Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. James Luther Mays, Patrick D. Miller Jr., and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds. Louisville: John Knox Press, 169). We see revealed through Jesus that God is caring and present with those amidst the storms of life, encouraging us to look out upon our respective communities for those we may accompany on the journey as well.

As we continue surveying the disciples experience upon the sea, we find the disciples looking out upon the roaring waters after a full night of wrestling with these waves to see a figure moving towards them. The disciples together “cried out in fear,” and immediately Jesus offers words of comfort (Matthew 14:26-27). At this point, Peter alone responds, asking Jesus to invite him on the waters too if his Lord is in fact there. Jesus offers the requested invitation. Peter then steps out upon the waves, begins to walk towards Jesus, and as he recognizes a strong gust of wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. As he sinks, he cries out to Jesus for deliverance, and Jesus immediately reaches out to catch him. Jesus encourages him to hold onto the faith he had which encouraged him to step out onto the water in the first place and then guides him back onto the boat, at which point the storm ceases and the disciples worship Jesus.

Hare’s analysis of this passage uplifts that Peter’s stepping upon the waves is unique to Matthew’s telling of the disciples’ storm experience, suggesting that Peter represents a key representation of “…what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt” (Matthew, 169). Put another way, Peter represents to the reader the life of someone engaging in Critical Mystical Vision. The group on the waves originally saw Jesus as a ghost. Upon hearing the figure on the waves, Peter chose to see things differently, trusting in Jesus’ presence and asking to step out onto the risky waves with him. Now, this does not mean that Peter was ignorant of the surroundings he was in. The fact that he requested that Jesus himself command him upon the tempestuous waters suggests that he was critically aware of the space he was in, yet hoped through his faith that God’s power would be sufficient to carry him on the way (Hare, Matthew, 170). Even when the situation shifted and his faith was shaken by the wind, Peter again cried out in hope that Jesus would hold him up when Peter alone could not. Jesus immediately responded, and upon returning with Peter to the boat, the disciples cried out in worship, claiming Jesus as the Son of God.

And why these immediate turns to praising Jesus? My guess is this is not only because the storm had subsided. Instead, Jesus communicated clearly to these disciples that he is there to continue providing care for them, even when he had perhaps appeared distanced from them when he went away to the mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). Moreover, Peter stepped out in hope, and although the journey took a different path than he perhaps had expected, he encountered Christ. Peter chose to see with hope, and his life and the disciples lives were changed by the experience that followed. Even though he fell into the waters, had he not trusted in his faith and seen the figure only as a specter or something to tempt him, then he likely would not have had the experience which revealed a whole new relational dimension between him and Christ. Their awareness of Christ’s presence and care for them deepened immensely through his accompanying them in the storm and upon the very waters that threatened their boat. This is not to say that Peter saw everything as safe or rosy. It is clear that Peter was abundantly aware of the stormy waves; however, he fixated upon Christ for the first steps into new understanding (Hare, Matthew, 170). Through Peter’s hope and through the storm God revealed new depths to Peter’s faith. Yet again, God moves amidst nature and the discerning heart towards communicating new truths about who God is and who we are called to be in response.

The waves can represent the mysterious, presently-uncharted places for us. As we continue wrestling with how we are to answer our call to love our neighbor amidst this complex world, we find hope in the truth revealed in this passage that Jesus is already ahead of us in those currently mysterious spaces. We experience the tug to move just as Peter was called by Jesus upon the waters. We trust that Christ is with us upon those waves, ready to catch us if we begin to sink. We believe Christ still invites us to live into the faith sparked within us for the sake of those experiencing the pain and fear associated with the tumultuous waves of this life. So, where is Jesus ahead of you, providing hope for the journey ahead and calling you to join him amidst the storms which visit us in this life for the sake of those whose are being engulfed by the waves?

Questions to Ponder and Embody in Hope

Elijah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Peter each saw the world with hope and faith that God was moving and was encouraging them to move as well. They each experienced hardship and saw that the road towards living out their call was one that had obstacles and risks along the way. However, they also saw the dynamic presence of God moving on the road, both within their very bodies and alongside them in God’s creation. Out of this deeper perception and God’s reminder of God’s compassionate presence, they continued to move forward in hope that God’s will might be done through them, not for their own sake, but because they were obligated to do so by our Creator and Sustainer, and because they saw the world needed it. The questions raised by these readings before us then as called and claimed children of God are: What do we perceive? In what ways is God moving within us and within our surroundings? Where are the stormy waves God invites us to walk upon? What will we do in response as we live rooted and fixed upon the faith offered to us by God? We live out of our embodied faith and experience. We reflect on what could be with hope inspired by God’s will of justice, compassion, and dynamic relationality. We continue to step out upon the waters to which we are called, listening for God’s continued presence and guidance, whether it be found on the waves, in the fires, in the wind, in the silence, in our words, or within our very hearts. May we view the world through the “Critical Mystical Vision” Moe-Lobeda describes, trusting that God is renewing us as faith springs up from the ground to which we have been rooted, that God sends us with hope, and that God invites us to embody the insights gained from God’s movement in nature towards our very internal selves for the sake of the world.

Andrew Thompson
athompson5@capital.edu

Andrew Thompson is a second year Master of Divinity, Word and Sacrament Track, student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Andrew graduated from Capital University in 2019 with a BA in Religion and Philosophy, and much of his work embraced an eco-theological framework. Andrew presented eco-theological work at several undergraduate conferences, created an eco-theologically-centered campus ministry outline and program content for his senior thesis, and also served as a camp counselor at a Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio camp. Andrew hopes to serve the world and the church as a campus pastor, and as a continued advocate and ally for environmental justice.

Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr20)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

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

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

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

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

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

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

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

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

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

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

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

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

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

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

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

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “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”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

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).