Greening the Lectionary

A Theological Response to the Ecological Crisis: Reflections, Reviews, Comment.

Year C - Easter

Easter Day: Isaiah 65.17-25, 1 Cor 15.19-26, Luke 24.1-12

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed Alleluia! The liturgical colour may be celebratory white or gold but Easter Sunday is a “Green” day. Churches will be decorated with flowers, the Easter Garden transformed, and nature metaphors such as chicks and lambs will be pressed into service to speak of new life. Even the time of year, spring, echoes the message of the day, as the earth teems with new growth after its period of dormancy. It is a day when the natural world and the world of faith seem to be intertwined.

The association in our imagination between Easter and the natural world is so strong that it can come as something of a surprise to discover what a low profile it has in Luke’s narrative. We might have expected nature to have exploded with the joy and excitement of resurrection moment, birds singing a symphony, flowers spontaneously blooming, or indeed the trees of the field clapping their hands, but no such imagery is deployed. The setting of the tomb in a garden and Jesus being mistaken for the gardener is found only in John’s Gospel. Nature rises to the occasion in Matthew's Gospel, delivering an earthquake to announce the “earth shattering” event, but Luke makes no mention of this. His focus is clearly on the experiences of the human witnesses, their confusion, doubt and amazement.

Although Luke is quiet on the nature front, the Old and New Testament readings more than make up for this. Isaiah paints a compelling picture of God creating new heavens and a new earth. A place of joy and delight, where weeping and distress are things of the past, lives will be long, the land will be fruitful, and peace will reign to such an extent that nature will no longer be “red in tooth and claw”. The wolf and lamb shall feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Whilst Paul focusses on the image of first fruits, describing the Resurrected Christ as “the first fruits of those who have died”.

Paul would have understood “first fruits” with reference to the practice of offering to God the first of the grain, fruit, or vegetable harvests. Doing this was an act of trust; trust that a greater harvest would follow. Jesus’ resurrection then, is not a one-off event, but the first of numerous resurrections. The resurrection he experiences will one day be shared by those who belong to him. It may be whimsical, but I liken this to snowdrops and spring. When the snowdrops bloom it is still winter, spring is a long way ahead, but those first flowers stand as a reminder and a promise that winter will not last forever and that, in due course, other flowers will bloom and spring will return. Jesus’ resurrection contains a similar promise for the future.

The image of first fruits can be extended to speak of the resurrection as the first fruits of the new or “renewed” creation - a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Isaiah's vision is fulfilled and God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. Then death will be no more and all things, including the natural world, will be restored and redeemed.

Amid the desperation of the environment crisis, the message of Easter is, as it always has been, one of hope. God can bring triumph out of disaster, joy from sorrow, life out of death. There is no situation so bleak that it cannot be redeemed. The good news is that in the renewed creation, we will continue to enjoy, delight and appreciate the natural world. But this does not mean we treat the Earth any way we wish, with no consequences, expecting God to pick up to the pieces.

Those who believe in the resurrected Christ are called, like him, to be “first fruits of the new creation”. They are to live as if the new creation in all its fullness and glory is already here, show what it will be like and point others to it. In such the "new creation" community values such as seeking peace, a thirst for justice and respecting the Earth will be second nature, and every day will be, like Easter, a "Green day".

Easter 2: Revelation 1:4-8 John 20:19-31

Warnings about the imminent end of the world used to be the province of religious eccentrics bearing placards calling us to repent, but times have changed. Now scientists and activists, school children and protestors are all at it, calling for repentance with a fervour which has little to do with God’s forthcoming judgement and everything to do with an ecological time bomb that we are ignoring at our peril. The end of the world could indeed be "nigh".

A Christian perspective on the the end of the world features in today’s reading from Revelation where an image of Jesus’ second coming is presented. Jesus will return to earth, bringing judgement and establishing God’s kingdom. This message was written to a persecuted people and would have brought them hope and comfort. The end of the world was something to be looked forward to as a time where wrongs would be righted, suffering ended and faith vindicated.

Liturgically speaking, Christ’s second coming and the “end times” are a particular focus in Advent, but Easter and the “end times” are intimately connected as the Resurrection is given as a pledge of what is to come, a foretaste of what life will be like when God’s Kingdom has indeed come “on Earth as in Heaven”.

How we understand the “end times” and the nature of Christ’s return affects the way we live now and in particularly how we view the earth and the ecological crisis. For example if we believe, as some American Evangelicals do, that Christians will be “raptured” into Heaven before the Earth is destroyed, then climate change is hardly a worry is it? Indeed, ecological disasters might even be something to welcomed, as part of God’s plan, speeding up Christ’s return.  If we believe that at the coming of Christ there will be an entirely “New Heaven and New Earth” then it hardly matters if this one is all used up does it? Those who believe that the Resurrection isn’t really about Christ establishing a kingdom but about enabling us to go to Heaven when we die could be forgiven if they view the Earth as transient and disposable. After all salvation means escaping both our bodies and the world.

Our Gospel today stands as a corrective to all these attitudes. The resurrected Jesus has a body, he is living and breathing and Thomas is able to touch him. Elsewhere we note that he eats and drinks. He is not some disembodied spirit. We can also notice a radical continuity between what is and what has been. Jesus is still recognisable, and his hands and his sides still bear the marks of the nails and the spear. This is very much the same Jesus who hung on the cross. The Resurrection does not negate or wipe away that experience, it is transformed, but the damage inflicted is still in evidence.

For those who like me, believe that when Christ returns it will be to renew this Earth and establish the Kingdom here, rather than establish a completely new world this is important. It suggests that the transforming, renewing power of the resurrection which will ultimately extend to the whole of creation, will not undo the wounds we inflict upon our world in the here and now - like the wounds of Jesus they will remain as a testimony to what occurred.

Christians are a people of hope, who hold that the ultimate destiny of humanity is to be part of a joyful, peaceful kingdom, where pain and suffering have ceased and God is sovereign, but this hope cannot blind us to the reality of the ecological emergency we face. To say “don’t worry, God will sort it all out in the end” is to presume upon God and put him to the test. That isn’t faith, it's complacency. Perhaps then it is time for Christians, eccentric or not, to once again pick up placards, this time to demand repentence and justice for the natural world. For if our destructive actions towards the Earth can have eternal consequences so too can our loving ones.

Easter 3: Acts 9:1-20 John 21:1-19 "What Christians know about change"

If the life, death and resurrection of Jesus mean anything they mean change. Quite simply life cannot go on as before. Jesus’ teachings challenged the received wisdom of his day, moved the ethical goalposts and questioned the status quo. His death was an indictment, not only of those who called for his death and nailed him to the cross but of the whole human race, whilst his Resurrection calls into question the assumptions that everyone takes for granted. To accept the truth of it means everything must be different.

Perhaps that is why Saul was so vehemently opposed to the embryonic church, as it challenged his understanding of the world and his place in it. His change from one who breathed threats and murder against the disciples, to one who proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogues, was a dramatic one, triggered by events no less dramatic and we can be certain that his life will never be the same again.

When we join the disciples in today’s Gospel, we see that they have returned to the comfort of what they know – fishing. Amid the turbulence and confusion in the days following Jesus’ resurrection, we can imagine them looking to the familiar routine of boats and nets for reassurance. However, this state of affairs is only temporary. For Peter, in particular, the focus will change from fishing to pastoring, and he is asked to go beyond the safety of the familiar and predictable and to where he has no wish to go, for the sake of the Lord whom he loves.

The change that knowing the Risen Lord Jesus demands of both Peter and Saul is grounded in forgiveness. Jesus’ threefold commissioning of Peter, mirrors Peter’s threefold denial, and the incident is frequently referred to as “the restoration of Peter”, whilst Saul’s support for the stoning of Stephen and clear hatred of Christians does not preclude him from being God’s chosen instrument to bring good news to the gentiles.

Change is never easy. We resist it, it is easier to stick with what we know, but we are deluded if we imagine that we can adequately respond to the environmental crisis we face without it. At the very least, lifestyle changes such as reducing our meat consumption and flying less will be necessary, in all likelihood we may need to reconfigure all of the assumptions on which our society is based.

Against this background Christians have wisdom to share. Although we are considered to be the most conservative of people we know a great deal about living differently, turning our lives around and actively choosing new and better paths. We know what a struggle change can be, how we can’t be perfect all the time, and that for the most part change doesn’t happen all at once. It requires us to be patient with each other, encourage each other and rejoice over small successes. At its heart it requires forgiveness of self and others, otherwise we just give up at our first failure.

We can’t believe in the Resurrection and carry on living as we did before and we can’t face up to the facts about climate change and do nothing. Christians know that whilst change is difficult it isn’t always negative, it can be worth the effort and be a force for good. The ecological crisis may well be the Damascene encounter which converts us to a greater respect for the natural world and a fairer and more just world. Such a conversion might well be challenging, but arguably it is long overdue. 

Easter 4: Psalm 23, Revelation 7.9-17, John 10.22-30 "Shepherding Creation"

One of the big problems for any Christian wrestling with environmental issues and the Bible is what to make of the ecological “text of terror” that is Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over every living creature that moves on the ground”. This text has been put in the dock, accused, with some justification, of encouraging the thoughtless exploitation of the natural world. It presents a view of the Earth where humans are in charge. We are the rulers of the planet, the masters of all we survey. The Hebrew word translated here as subdue is particularly problematic as it is used elsewhere to mean, enslave, molest or even rape.

Whilst there are many compelling revisionist interpretations, for me, the key to removing the terror is look at how God himself shows dominion and subdues, which is where this week’s lectionary texts come in. Shepherds undoubtedly have dominion over their sheep. They are supremely in charge, they decide when it is time for the sheep to rest and when it is time for them to wake, when to move and where to move to. Inevitably there will be occasions where the sheep need to be subdued, to prevent them from going off in the wrong direction or to stop them being a danger to themselves or others, but there is no element of coercion or enslavement.

The Biblical Shepherd leads from the front, taking the sheep to green pastures and still waters and guiding them along the right paths. Even when things get frightening or dangerous he remains with the sheep. He doesn’t leave when the going gets tough. He knows the sheep, they are familiar with his voice, he calls them as we might call our dog and they walk behind. This is explicit in this week's Gospel reading, where those who do not belong to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, fail to recognise him and do not follow, but those who do belong to him recognise his voice and respond to it.

The Shepherd is able to lead the sheep because he knows the sheep, has lived alongside them and has spent considerable time with them. There is a sense in which they are “all in this together”. The image of the Shepherd then, is a helpful way of thinking about the incarnation. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as both the lamb, and the shepherd. Imagine it, a shepherd who knows what it is to be a lamb, and a sacrificial lamb at that! In Jesus, God has experienced what it is like to be part of this creation, in all its horror and glory, and so has earned our trust and the right to lead, even to rule.

It is also a helpful way to think about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Whilst being mindful that we are part of nature, and not separate from it, we do seem to have a disproportionate amount of power over the destiny of the planet compared to other species and it is incumbent on us to exercise this wisely.

If the way of the Good Shepherd is the way that God exercises power, it is reasonable to suppose he expects those who bear his image to exercise it in the same way, with concern, fairness, self-sacrifice and even tenderness. When we consider humanity’s relationship with natural world through the lens of the Good Shepherd, we may well find ourselves moved to confession and repentance as we note how far we have fallen short and much room there is for improvement. Let us commit to do better.

Easter 5: Acts 11.1-18 "Radical Inclusion"

Radical inclusion is a bit of a buzz word in church circles at the moment, although precisely what it means and whether it is being achieved is much debated. Inclusion as we understand is not an explicitly Biblical concept and some, like the "Rich Young Ruler" exclude themselves. However, the ministry of Jesus does seem to be one of “widening the circle”, engaging those on the margins or who are deliberately ostracised.

As this week’s reading from Acts highlights, there is nothing new under the sun and inclusion was as contentious in the early church as it is today. Following his visit to the home of Cornelius the centurion, Peter finds himself criticised for eating with uncircumcised men and is forced to justify his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Should he have shown such radical inclusion in the face of religious conventions and tradition?

Initially Peter had, like those who are now questioning him, assumed that the salvation achieved through Jesus was limited to those who were Jewish. Like many Jews of his day, he would have had little to do with gentiles, and would have deliberately kept himself separate from them. Eating with them in their homes would have been particularly problematic, as there was little reason to suggest that any food served would comply with the Jewish requirements. Thankfully, God is not constrained by the limits of the human imagination. His plans are for the salvation of the whole world, and Peter, like it or not, will play his part.

Having prepared him by way of a vision, God asks him to share the good news with Cornelius’ household. When the Holy Spirit descends upon them, Peter sees no reason to withhold baptism. His account convinces the Jerusalem church, who now rejoice that “God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life”. Although the question of how to include the gentiles continues to vex the infant church, there is no longer any question that salvation extends to them too.

God’s sphere of concern was much wider than the apostles had envisaged. Often, we too, can fail to grasp the full extent of God's grace and mercy. This passage prompts us then, to consider whether our own view of salvation is too narrow. Who are those who we consider outside the scheme of salvation, unworthy, or unimportant, too different from ourselves to matter to God or to us? Who do we consider beneath our notice or unworthy of our respect? Is God challenging us to tackle these biases?

Historically, Christianity has been an anthropocentric religion. We have thought about the incarnation in terms of God becoming man, rather than the creator becoming part of creation. We have framed the atonement in terms of individual salvation, rather than a renewed heaven and earth, and have privileged making disciples of all nations (Matthew) over proclaiming good news to all creation (Mark), but there is an urgent need to articulate something more inclusive.

Inclusion involves listening to and incorporating the voice of the marginalised and oppressed into theology and praxis. As we finally recognise the extent to which humanity has oppressed the Earth and marginalised the needs of those with whom we share the planet, is it not time to widen our circle, not only to include those people who differ from or disagree with us, but other species, eco-systems and indeed creation itself? That would be a truly radical inclusion.

Easter 6: Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10-22:5, John 5:1-9 The Sun in the Shade

Sometimes those of us who spend a significant amount of our time preparing and leading worship can find it quite dispiriting when people tell us that they find it easier to worship God on a mountainside, or in a garden than they do in Church. It shouldn’t really surprise us though. Whilst a magnificent Cathedral or an evocative liturgy are crafted to bring glory to God, we can’t expect them to provoke the same awe and wonder as God’s own creation.

The tendency to find God in nature is something that we should cultivate, firstly because anything which helps people have an awareness of the reality of God has got to be a good thing and secondly because being attentive to and appreciative of creation will engender an understanding that the natural world is to be treasured and not exploited. Nevertheless, there is a danger that because people’s experience of God’s presence in nature is so profound they begin to confuse nature with God, deifying and worshiping it. We need to remember that while God can be found in nature, he also transcends it.

The Gospel for today tells of the healing at the pool of Bethesda. A man has been seeking healing from the waters. In doing so he may have been invoking the power of nature of heal, or supernatural powers. The intriguing missing verse suggests the latter, describing how an angel came to stir the water and that the first person into the pool after each disturbance would be cured. However, since this is considered to be so unreliable it is consigned to a footnote, it is reasonable to suggest that it was the water itself that was thought to have healing powers.

Whether the waters really did have the power to heal is remains untested, as the man found no-one who was prepared to help him into the water, but we are left in no doubt about Jesus' healing power. Jesus commands him to "Get up, pick up his mat and walk.", which he does and is completely cured. It is Jesus, not the pool, who has the ability to heal.

For reasons best known to itself, the Lectionary guillotines the story at this point. An extended reading would suggest the incident is best understood in understood in terms of healing on the Sabbath, but the extract we have points us to a conclusion that the power of Jesus to heal surpasses that of the pool and urges us to look to him for our salvation, rather placing our hope in nature, or other people, or even water-stirring angels.

Psalm 67 shows creation, not as an end in itself but as something which points back to the creator. It is a psalm which celebrates the harvest, but praise and gratitude are not due to the land but rather to God. The Earth has brought forth her increase, but it is God who gives the blessing. Nature is the means of a blessing from God, but is not itself the originator. It secondary, whilst God is primary.

It is the reading from the book of Revelation though, which makes the point most explicitly. It is salutory to find that God's dwelling is a city. No scope for the idealisation of the countryside here, but there is also a sense that the glory of God is represented as a kind of “super-nature” or “nature plus”. God resides in a place where the trees bear 12 different kind of fruits, where the rivers are so pure they are crystal, and above all those great wonders of creation, the Sun and the Moon, are rendered superfluous by the glory of God. You might say God puts the Sun in the shade. What a thought- how great a god!

Pantheism – identifying God with the natural world has been an enduring temptation for humanity, from early nature religions, to those who believe in the 21st Century that they can “ask the Universe…” or “the Universe has a plan”. Our readings this week remind us that however beautiful, powerful and bountiful nature is, there is something greater. Whist welcoming and cultivating an awareness of God in the nature, we must recognise that nature is not the entirity of God's revelation to us. It remains secondary to the revelation that is our Lord Jesus Christ and that whatever awe creation inspires in us will pale into insignificance when placed alongside the transcendent glory of God.

Easter 7: Acts 16:16-34

Most people would agree that human beings are not there to be used by others and exploited for profit. They have an innate value which transcends their usefulness and as such they are worthy of dignity and respect. Their wellbeing is paramount. This is why we cheer when, in this week’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul relieves the slave girl of the Spirit of Divination which has been tormenting her.

His motivation might leave something to be desired and we might prefer to imagine him moved by compassion rather than irritation, but nevertheless we are pleased acts as he does. The spirit which annoyed Paul must have been far more irritating to the girl and she would have been glad to be rid of it. As such we might indulge in the vain hope that those with responsibility for the child, “her owners” might have been pleased to see an end to her suffering, but almost inevitably they are not. All that they are concerned with is their lost ability to make money from her. Now deprived of the opportunity to hire her out as a fortune teller, they are angry and seeking revenge.

In an account which echoes aspects of our Lord’s passion and Peter’s escape from prison, the girl’s owners unjustly accuse Paul and Silas, who are beaten and imprisoned. In an impressive show of passive resistance, they spend their time in jail praying and singing and in so doing influence those imprisoned with them. When a miraculous earthquake provides them with a means of escape, they avoid the temptation to flee, preferring to use their imprisonment as an evangelistic opportunity, and await their vindication as innocent men, rather than fleeing and being presumed guilty. Thus, they earn the gratitude of the jailor, who comes to faith as a result.

Much of this will resonate with a “green agenda” which combines a concern for the ecological health of the planet with social justice. Vulnerable people are still exploited for profit, and there is no misfortunate so dreadful that money can't be made from it. Think Bedlam, the Elephant Man or the Jeremy Kyle Show. But despite our struggle to value people for their intrinsic worth rather than their money making potential, we are at least agreed that this should be the case. Exploitation of the Earth however is a different matter, it continues to be viewed as a commodity, a means rather than an end in itself. We think of land in terms of possession and the Earth as something which exists for our benefit. We imagine that it is there for us to use as we please, a resource to generate capital.

Frequently exploitation of the planet and its most vulnerable people are intimately connected and both need to be resisted. Those who dare to challenge vested interests can expect to be met with fierce opposition. The hostility Greta Thunberg has engendered, is a case in point. But opposition met with optimistic and peaceful defiance can be an extremely effective tool in bringing others on side, just ask Paul's jailor.