Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.
Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.
Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.
It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).
While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).
Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.
Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).
This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.
But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).
Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.
It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.
But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).
Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.
Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).
What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).
For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.
Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.
But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.
Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.
Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.