Easter Season Text Commentaries by Dr. Ormseth

Dennis Ormseth served from 1991 to 2005 as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that emphasizes care of the earth as part of its mission. In retirement, he has served on the executive committee of Congregations Caring for Creation, an interfaith network promoting care of the earth as integral to spirituality and social justice in Minnesota congregations of faith. Holding a Ph. D. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Dr. Ormseth is also a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He taught religious history and the history of Christian thought at Luther Seminary and Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was campus pastor for Lutheran students at Purdue University in Indiana.

 
Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Easter Sunday

Psalm 1181-2, 14-24

Jeremiah 31:1-6

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 28:1-10 or

John 20:18.

The good news of Easter is “Jesus is risen from the dead.” The readings for Easter Sunday in year A authorize the following three major points regarding care of creation:

1. The servant of God’s creation—who suffered death at the hands of his people’s leaders and the Roman Empire’s governor on account of his obedience to the will of God for the healing of creation—has been vindicated. The women came “looking for Jesus who was crucified.” They went away with the news for his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” And on their way that very same Jesus revealed himself to them. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus also was revealed to Mary Magdalene, who, strikingly, first took him to be “the gardener.”Her sight was not complete, but she was not mistaken. Whether back home in Galilee (Matthew) or with her in the garden (John), Jesus is recognized as the servant (gardener!) of creation whose obedience to the will of God led to his death. As Peter said in his sermon in Caesarea, the disciples were “witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem” and that “they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). We have found reason in our comments on the lections for Epiphany and Lent to characterize his obedience (“all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem”), in terms of “the servant of creation’s rule—namely, do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what human beings might find more desirable and wise according to our own understanding and interests, (see our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday). In the resurrection, accordingly, his service of creation is vindicated by God as God’s own will.

2. In the faith of the church, the resurrection of Jesus is associated with an expectation for the restoration of creation. It will be like the return of God’s people from Egypt: the “people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” They will be restored to the land: “Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit” (Jeremiah 31:2, 5). The gardener will do his work in the new creation. The prophet envisions a return to the mountain of Zion: “For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 31:1, 5). The Lord shall reign from the mountain that is at the center of creation and, as the representative of the earth’s ecology, the mountain will give thanks (see our reading of the place of the mountains in the ecology of God’s creation, in the comments on lections for the season of Epiphany, especially the Third through the Eighth Sundays).

3. The restoration of creation includes, prominently, the “forgiveness of sins through his [Jesus’] name” (Acts 10:43). As we discussed in our comment on Passion Sunday, we take the “forgiveness of sins” to mean “much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).” As Warren Carter shows in commenting on Matthew 26: 17-35, “forgiveness of sins” is more appropriately translated as “release from sins.” We are to be released from a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of Jubilee, effects release from and a transformation of sinful imperial structures that oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. Jesus’ death establishes God’s justice, or empire, including release from Rome’s power (See Carter’s Matthew and the Margins, p. 507)

Release from sins “has personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions” (Ibid., emphasis ours). It encompasses all creation: indeed, it looks forward to a new creation. What this means, objectively, is more a matter of vision than description. Thomas Hosinski envisions the “ultimate providence” as a “redemption of the suffering, fragmented, disharmonious world,” in which all creatures are not simply received into God, but are transformed, ‘purged’ and harmonized in the everlasting unity of God’s own life” (Quoted from Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. by Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto, p. 147, by Christopher Southgate in his Groaning of Creation, p. 87). To live in the light of Jesus’ resurrection is to anticipate as fully as possible that new creation in our own lives.

 
 
Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Second Sunday of Easter

Psalm 16

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

The good news of Easter is that the Servant of God who was obedient to God’s loving will for the whole creation, even to giving up his life for it, has been raised from the dead. By his resurrection, his service to God’s beloved cosmos has been vindicated (See our comment on the readings for the Resurrection of our Lord). The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter provide for the following amplification of this good news:

Peter’s sermon to certain Israelites among the crowd gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost makes use of Psalm 16 to show that Jesus’ resurrection fulfills a prophecy of David. With a slight shift in perspective, this use of Psalm 16 provides content to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection by confirming David’s expressed hopes: in Jesus’ resurrection we see that a human being, though mortal like David, can nonetheless genuinely “live in hope.” That Jesus was “freed from death” means that his “soul” was not abandoned to Hades; nor was his body subject to corruption. The whole person, soul and body, that is to say, will know “the ways of life.” The NRSV translation of Psalm 16 puts this more simply and directly: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life.” (16:9-11a). The human being, in its wholeness, can indeed hope to embrace and enjoy “ways of life” made known by God.

This hope, moreover, is not limited to David’s flesh (i.e. to his descendants, including Jesus) alone, but to all whom the Spirit communicates it (2:33, outside the verses assigned for reading). It is the “ living hope” with which, according to the reading from 1 Peter, the Spirit endows an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last times.” (For a provocative discussion on the possible meaning of “heaven” for the whole creation, see Christopher Southgate’s chapter on “Heaven for Pelicans? Eschatological Considerations,” in his Groaning of Creation, pp. 78-91). That this promise speaks to an eschatological destiny does not diminish its value or effect for the present time. Warren Carter makes the point emphatically in his comment on this text:

The reading sets out a classic “already and not yet” understanding of Christian existence in which mercy and new birth are known but God’s saving purposes are not yet completed. Resurrection initiates a beginning and guarantees the end. This “now and not yet” perspective, often lost in mainline denominations because of embarrassment over some fundamentalist scenarios of Jesus’ return, places the present in the context of the future. The present is a conflicted and paradoxical existence evidenced here in suffering (because the world is not as God wants it

and resents challenges to its claimed autonomy and [in]vested interests) and rejoicing (because God is at work and the future is sure).. . . This future orientation is often, wrongly, understood to mandate ethical passivity or societal escape (‘to hell with the rest of the world”). But hope, faith, and love are never passive in the biblical tradition. They constitute an engaged way of life marked by the struggle of resurrection life against all forms of death, in anticipation of God’s future. (New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, “The Season of Easter,” pp.22-23.)

The significance of this eschatological destiny for care of creation is this: the destructive power of the dominion of death is already broken; the dominion of life for which the Servant of Creation gave his life will not only endure, but will grow strong within the creation as it is renewed by God’s Spirit, until it is completed in God’s own time. Carter puts it this way, in commenting on the second lesson for Easter Sunday, Colossians 3:1-4:

Of what significance is resurrection? In this Colossians text, resurrection . . . creates an alternative, counter-cultural way of life that confronts human injustice and displays God’s cosmic, reconciling, re-creating purposes. It witnesses to Christ’s resurrection as part of God’s cosmic transformation, and anticipates its future completion. Believers live for personal and social transformation (Ibid., p. 7).

And, we would add, for the restoration of creation, as “they/we confront dominant social patterns and values: social exclusion and hierarchy, economic greed at the expense of enough, self-serving power, selfish consumerism, racial and sexual and gender prejudice. They/ we anticipate God’s coming just world” (Ibid.).

As the Gospel for this Sunday makes clear, this confidence in the realization of God’s purposes needs to stand firm in the face of both fear and skepticism. The challenge of skepticism is particularly important in our cultural context, dominated as it is by the epistemology of science. Our science cannot inform us with any certainty about any life that is described as “eternal,” in the commonly understood sense of that term. From this perspective, we remain as subject to the power of death as ever, not only physically but psychologically, culturally and politically, and our scientific organizations remain largely subservient to its power as well. The power of death thus continues to play on that skepticism to keep us from trust in God’s promises. Failing that faith, our sense of mission of service to creation lacks power to persevere.

The gospel addresses both fear and skepticism together. Jesus appears to the disciples as they gather behind doors locked on account of their “fear of the Jews.” Jesus addresses them, for the first of three times in the reading, with the greeting of ”peace”—meaning not merely “peace of mind” but “the wholeness and right relatedness of God’s world marked by justice and righteousness (Psalm 72)” (Carter, p. 24). The greeting thus recapitulates the expectations Jesus has had for them in his teaching and work, and he immediately commissions them to continue that mission by breathing on them, thus conferring the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit active in the Creation, confessed by the church in its creed as “the Lord, the giver of life”—not, in other words, the usual sort of powers that we call upon to address our problems, individual, social, or environmental! So much for our fear of death! Life lived in the presence of God is eternal life.

Life in the power of the Spirit conferred by Christ turns our fear into courage for the mission of care of creation. .

As Carter points out, the exact nature of the mission is difficult to discern in the immediate context of this reading. The text emphasizes “the forgiveness of sins (20:23). But throughout the Gospel, Carter notes, “sins have to do with rejecting God’s will, particularly Jesus whom God has sent,” citing 3:19-21, 8:21-24; 9:39-41; and 15:22-24. Strikingly, each of these passages underscores the importance of what we have described as “the rule of God’s servant of creation”: “do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what human beings might find more desirable and wise according to our own understanding and interests.” John 3:19-21 belongs to the story of Nicodemus, which we read on the Second Sunday in Lent for its disclosure of God’s love for the cosmos. At 8:21, Jesus assures fearful disciples in anticipation of his death that “the one who sent me is with me, he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” John 9:39-41 belongs to the story of the man born blind, again a text that we found rich in significance for the care of creation, because there, too, what Jesus did, he did “so that God’s works might be revealed” (See our comment on the Fourth Sunday in Lent). And as John 15:22-24 concludes, the sin of his opponents is that they do not recognize these works as the work of God in the service of the cosmos God loves. What the gift of the Spirit empowers, accordingly, is the “release from sins,” in Carter’s phrase. “We are to be released from a world contrary to God’s just purpose” (see our comment on Easter Sunday). The community gathered by the Spirit is a community engaged in mutual “release from sin.”

With Jesus’ appearance to Thomas, the gospel addresses more directly our skepticism about the resurrection. Jesus appears to the skeptical Thomas who has not had the benefit of Jesus’ earlier appearance to his disciples the week before. But the narrative does not so much set Thomas apart from the other disciples, as it does lift up a very significant aspect of their coming to faith. As for them, so for Thomas: to see is one way to belief. It is important to note that Jesus’ word to him, as Carter suggests, would be better translated as “do not be faithless.” Faith, that is to underscore, not knowledge, is what Thomas lacks, and therefore his skepticism does not really engage our difficulties with modern scientific methodology. It has rather more to do with the viability of the mission just assigned than it does to the truth of the resurrection appearance. Thomas’ insistence on seeing Jesus hand and putting his hand in his side, not only seeing but feeling Jesus’ body, serves to confirm that the person who appeared to the disciples is the same Jesus who did the works of God, and died on the cross on account of his obedience to God’s will.

For us, it reinforces the conviction that he is the servant of creation we saw him to be in the narrative of the Gospel, and not just a spiritual appearance, or worse, an appearance of a spiritual being who was not necessarily fully incarnate in the cosmos. If that were the case, his works would serve mainly to demonstrate his “supernatural” being, thus diminishing their significance as service to the creation. Thus, this narrative of Thomas’ progress from unbelief to belief strikes most forcefully against the form of skepticism that the church has encountered throughout the history of its doctrinal development, namely the doubt as to whether the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who struggled with the dominion of death throughout his completely human life. Docetism, angel Christology, .Marcionism, Gnosticism, Arianism, the list goes on: all sought to find a way of pulling God’s Son out of his incarnation, out of his embrace of the Earth. That which is of God and that which is of the Earth were deemed essentially incompatible and

therefore irreconcilable. Seeing Jesus’ hands and pierced side, Thomas was moved to believe that he was indeed that same servant of God’s creation. He was released from his disbelief to embrace “the servant of creation whom God had sent” as “my Lord and my God.”

The Gospel, its author maintains, was written so that we too may so believe, even though we have not seen his very hands, or touched his side. In the future, the narrative of his life will suffice in the power of the Spirit, “the lord, the giver of life,” to do what seeing the hands and side did for the disciples. As for hands, and for the suffering that marks of the nails and pierced side symbolized, those will be supplied by those followers of Jesus who continue doing the servant’s works. As Carter concludes his comment on the Gospel, “those who were not there are not excluded from God’s purposes. The Gospel continues those purposes, making God’s presence and life available to readers/hearers. Telling these stories, carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, matters enormously, especially in a secularized world that would rather pursue wealth, power, self-satisfaction. . .”) (Ibid, p. 26). And so does caring for God’s creation.
 
 

Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Third Sunday of Easter

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

Christ is Risen! The Servant of God’s Creation lives, and his rule of care for creation has been vindicated! The new creation is begun! If this is the message for care of creation from the first two Sundays of the Season of Easter, the readings for the Third Sunday extend the significance of the resurrection for that care in the following way:

It is deeply significant for care of creation that in the Gospel of Luke the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to his disciples first in the breaking of bread. The gathering, preparation, and eating of food for the sustenance not only of human life, but also of all living creatures, is a primary web of relationships within the creation. The rituals surrounding meals are accordingly incredibly rich in meaning, and they offer important clues to the orientation of the gathered family or community to the creation that sustains them. The Gospel reading does this for the Christian community. In it Jesus is anew what he was before, host to a meal that, as Warren Carter writes, is “in line with many throughout the Gospel that reveal God’s purposes, manifest God’s presence through Jesus, and anticipate the future completion of God’s will.” The actions of the meal—“he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30)—are nearly identical to those both of the feeding of the five thousand in chapter 9 of Luke and of the Last Supper at 22:19 (Warren Carter, New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, “Easter,” p. 16). Both occasions recall the manna that fed Israel in the wilderness, but they also point to the future mission of the disciples. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, in the feeding of the five thousand, "The wonderful abundance of food stands as a double lesson to the Twelve; abundance is found not in the power to purchase with money, but in the power of the Lord; and, those who give receive back even more extravagantly... But his account has another element of anticipation. Jesus here appears as one who provides food for the people. His authority to preach and heal, in other words, is symbolized by table service. This is made explicit at the Last Supper, when he tells the Twelve, “Am I not among you as the one who serves?” (22:27) (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 149).

Clearly, in the narratives of the resurrection, Jesus returns as the servant who restores creation. The importance of this appearance and those similar to it in the resurrection narratives is indicated by the fact that in the Luke-Acts sequence this first meal becomes part of the course of repentance, baptism, and reception of the Holy Spirit, by which the first converts in response to Peter’s Pentecost sermon are incorporated into the Christian community: they devote “themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”

(2:42); this verse is, unfortunately, not included in the assigned reading, although it can easily be added to the lector’s reading in order to secure this point. By the time the Pentecost narrative was written down, the “breaking of bread” had become a regular part of the community’s gathering. Eating and drinking of Earth’s bounty according to the Lord’s invitation and instructions was firmly established as an essential part of that community’s life and its hope for things to come.

In the breaking of bread, they recognized the Servant of Creation; and so do we. The specific nature of the Lord’s service to creation continues to be disclosed in the worship of the church, when the congregation remembers that Jesus “took bread, and gave thanks; broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.’” The words of the Eucharist do more than simply recall the words of Jesus at the Last Supper; they re-present the pattern of the grand narrative of the Gospel. As in the course of his life Jesus brought forward the gifts of God to the people of God into the crux of his death and resurrection by which he makes them available to all the world, so now he re-gathers those followers who had forsaken him into new community: he blesses them with stories of his life-giving presence; with their participation in the meal, he gently “breaks” them open to take in his life-renewing sustenance for others; and he then sends them out into the world as his co-servants of the creation. It is what Gordon Lathrop refers to as the “sacrophiliac” ordo that underlies the formation of the canonical Gospels and represents the model for an economy that works for the restoration of the creation, even as it governs the gathering of Christian congregations around word and meal every Sunday:

Sunday after Sunday, we, too, are invited to encounter the life of the triune God embracing and holding the life of this world. Sunday after Sunday, the actual stories of this world are gathered up and reoriented by the parables and stories of Jesus and, thus by all the reorienting stories of the Bible. Sunday after Sunday, a little meal is set out for all to eat, recapitulating the death and resurrection of Jesus, setting out the body and blood of Jesus for us to eat and live. Sunday after Sunday, our own worldviews are reconstituted, and we are made witnesses to the triune God’s engaged care for the beloved, wounded Earth. Of course, this repeated ordo is also full of concrete things from the Earth: real people, actual languages, concrete communal stories and folk tales, diverse cultural music, a real place, water and fire, and, as Irenaeus of Lyons never tired of pointing out in his resistance to second-century Gnostic interpretations of Christianity, real bread and wine. Just as with the canonical Gospels, the central materials of this very material meeting are not disembodied ideas and spiritualities devoid of Earthly connection. But it is finally the ordo itself that reorients us, again and again, toward the real earth where we live, reconceived as “world” held in the love of the triune God. God is present, healing us and turning us toward our neighbors and toward the beloved Earth (Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, p. 135.)

The church’s weekly celebration of the Eucharist accordingly enacts an image of a “holy-ground economy, a constant economic proposal, a hole in closed and self-justifying economic systems and maps, and an invitation for all of our economic systems and maps to relate to a wider world in earth-care and in the mutual sharing of food” (Ibid, p. 149). Perhaps this is what the author of the First Letter of Peter was calling for when he wrote to “the exiles of the dispersion” calling for “genuine mutual love,” that is, to “love one another deeply from the heart.” For only a love that reaches beyond all self-interest whatsoever to trust in the God “who raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory” will suffice to empower a love that can embrace all of creation.

 

Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Psalm 23

Acts 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Christ is Risen! The Servant of God’s Creation lives, and his rule of care for creation has been vindicated! The new creation is begun, and is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread. This is the message for care of creation from the first three Sundays of the Season of Easter. The readings for the Fourth Sunday extend the significance of the resurrection for that care in the following way:

The rich significance of the Gospel reading for this Sunday is nicely, if typically, summarized by Warren Carter in his response to the text in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, as follows: “With its christological, soteriological, eschatological, and ecclesiological material built on the previous nine chapters of the Gospel, [this passage] asserts fundamental aspects of Christian identity and existence in the Johannine worldview. Jesus is God’s anointed, sent from God to reveal God’s loving salvation (3:16) by laying down his life for the sheep (10:15). To so believe allows one to enter ‘life’ now. To do so is to become part of a people, a community, centered on and founded by Jesus.” What is typical about this summary is that, while tracing out the implications of the key metaphors of shepherd, sheep, and gate to the sheepfold in terms of the relations of the savior to those saved and the life which they will have “abundantly,” he fails to note that those who ‘come in and go out” of the gate “find pasture” (10:9).

The shepherd of Jesus’ speech to his disciples, that is to suggest, does what the shepherd of Psalm 23 does: along with restoring one’s soul, encouraging and comforting one in the face of death, and leading in right paths, “he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters,” and provides abundantly “all the days of my life.” The relationship between shepherd and sheep unfolds in a sustained way within the pastoral environment imagined by the Psalmist, and joyfully entertained by generation upon generation of the faithful who have drawn on this Psalm to describe their relationship with God. Like most commentators, Carter characterizes the life of the faithful without reference to place. Even Raymond Brown, who misses hardly anything in his thick commentary on John’s Gospel and does in fact note that those who go in and out through the gate “find pasture,” comments that “vs. 10 makes it clear that in speaking of pasture, he is really speaking of fullness of life.” In his view, what matters is not place, but the struggle between the thief who comes to destroy and the shepherd who gives eternal life (Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, pp. 394-5).

To be clear, we are not suggesting that Jesus is talking about a literal pasture, any more than he means literal shepherd, sheep, or gate. His speech is metaphorical. And yet, “pasture” refers to a real place no less than shepherd refers to a real leader, sheep to actual followers, and gate to

genuine passage. The complex of relations brought to mind by his metaphor is incomplete without the lived-in context of the creation that shepherd and sheep share. A people or a community, centered on and founded by Jesus, the servant of creation, will flourish in the context of a creation that, especially in view of the resurrection, is being restored. That real context, we would argue, is no less significant for interpretation of these readings than the reference to “all things” that the Pentecostal community gathered by Peter “had in common,” according to Acts 2:44, or the bread they broke at home and the food they ate “with glad and generous hearts.” Carter rightly asks with respect to how they share in “God’s life,” “in what appropriate ways is the church to live out this life? There are no divisions among the sheep,” he notes, but “there are plenty among us. Only one criterion is identified for entering the sheepfold and belonging to the sheep. How may criteria operate in contemporary faith communities to exclude?” So also, is there not but one pasture, the environing creation, concern for which is properly shared by both shepherd and sheep? What are the operative criteria for care of the commons in which we find sustenance for living?

We think this view is sustained by reading the Gospel in the context of the story that immediately precedes it in Chapter 9, the healing of the man born blind in the aftermath of the Feast of Tabernacles. Readers of this series of comments will recall that in our interpretation of the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, which also includes Psalm 23 as well as John 9:1-41, we maintained that John was not “merely making use of the metaphorical resources of the Feast of Tabernacles” (the water essential for the flourishing of land and people, which was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man washed) “to make general claims about Jesus, such as ‘Jesus saves’ or ‘Jesus makes the (spiritually) blind to see.’” For John, “Jesus really does care for the creation.” So also here: the metaphor of shepherd and sheep, we maintain, is incomplete without reference to pasture. The sheep who were going astray but who now “have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25) need pasture; human life needs a sustaining place in nature; a restored creation complements a fulfilled life. The hope set forth in those Lenten texts is encouraged anew here: “those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” For they share in the calling of the shepherd who was also the servant of creation, and whose service was vindicated in his resurrection from the dead.

Two specific environments are possible places in which a congregation can give witness to their love of their shepherd: the church grounds and local farms/ food suppliers. That the metaphor calls for wariness concerning false shepherds who destroy suggests that the faithful might also need to watch out for false pasture, i.e. the pasture that appears to be a sign of well-being but in fact is not. The green expanse of lawn surrounding the church building may evoke the field surrounding an English manor house, but the artificial fertilizers and herbicides needed to keep it looking good is death to the wild plants and fish that are watered by runoff down through the watershed. A greening of the life of the parish that theologically grounded is might well include installation of rain gardens and prairie restoration, as a more righteous pasture. Similarly, members of congregations will find it important in light of this teaching to consider what they eat, both when they come together and at home. Educational programs on growing and

purchasing food will help them understand what “green pastures” might mean, however that is best understood with reference to local circumstances and economic feasibility in rural and urban contexts.

 

  

Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter 

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

 

In the Gospel readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter and the two following Sundays, Jesus takes leave of his disciples in his Farewell Discourse and with his High Priestly Prayer. While set in the context of the evening meal prior to his crucifixion, the Discourse and the Prayer clearly anticipate the situation of those disciples after the resurrection appearances. The “fundamental question” of the Discourse, as Warren Carter suggests, “concerns how people live in Jesus’ absence.” Our question is: “What does it tell us, if anything, about care of creation?” Plenty, as we have come to expect from the readings of the first four Sundays of Easter. Although Jesus will no longer be seen among them as before, his presence will nonetheless be experienced in the various ways the readings of recent Sundays have suggested—through the telling of the Gospel stories concerning Jesus’ works (Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:30-31), with the breaking of bread (Third Sunday of Easter, Luke 24:13-35), and in the intimate, life-sustaining relationship of shepherd to sheep (Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:1-10). As we have seen, each of these sets of readings provides a basis for considering our call to care of creation.

 

The Gospel for this Sunday does present an especially strong challenge for our interpretation, however, with its focus on Jesus’ future return and a promise of “permanent, intimate relationship with God.” As Warren Carter points out, interpretation of 14:2-5 is commonly dominated by the funereal context in which it is most commonly heard: Jesus goes to prepare places for those who die (Carter, New Proclamation Year A, 2002, “Easter,” p. 47). It is significant that there is a tradition of interpretation that understands Jesus’ words about “dwelling places” to refer, according to Raymond Brown, “to stations on the road to God,” an interpretation that “would also have suited the Gnostic theory that the soul in is ascent passes through stages wherein it is gradually purified of all that is material” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 619). While allowing for multiple meanings, Carter does not think that this view can be sustained in the context of John’s gospel. He and Brown agree on an alternative reading, according to which, as Carter notes, John uses metaphors of space to suggest relationship (Carter, p. 47). Gail O’Day shares their view, arguing with respect to the correlative image of “my Father’s House,” that 14: 2 -3 draws “on the traditional imagery of heaven as God’s home to describe the new reality that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension make available to the believer.” Indeed, it is “critical to the interpretation of Jesus’ words here.” She insists

that the reference to “my Father’s house” not be taken as a synonym for heaven. Instead, this reference to the Father’s house needs to be read first in the context of the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus, a form of ‘residence’ that has been repeatedly stressed from the opening verses of the Gospel (e.g., 1:1, 18). Throughout the gospel, location has consistently been a symbol for relationship.”

Reinterpreted from John’s eschatological perspective, the “language about place promises the disciples a share in Jesus’ relationship with God (cf. 13:8), a share that is made explicit in the concluding promise of v. 3: “so that where I am, there you may be also” (O’Day, pp. 740-41).  Similarly, while exploring several possibilities that have to do with either life after death for believers or Jesus’ parousia, Brown proposes that these references to location constitute a set-up for misunderstanding, typical of John, which he will use for setting out the proclamation of Jesus as “the way, and the truth and the life,” which Brown thinks is the relational heart of this text (Brown, p. 627).

 

We would agree that 14:6 is the heart of the text, but propose that the metaphorical connection between location and relationship set out in the “many dwelling places” of “my Father’s house” is nonetheless key to its understanding. As we proposed in our comment on the readings for Good Shepherd Sunday (Fourth Easter), the metaphorical connection between location and relationship operates in both direction. That is to say,: as pasture may mean life for the sheep, the sheep’s life requires the real habitat of pasture. Living relationships require space, or more fulsomely following Brown, place or situations. It happens to be an ecological principle, often missed in lists of the needs of living being. All living beings require their niche in nature; humans require their place in both community and nature. Jesus, we may recall, knew this:  “Blessed are the meek” (those who make place for others), he said, for “they shall inherit the Earth” (See our comment on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5, in Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). Accordingly, we need to explore another avenue of interpretation, one that sets the saying of 14:6 in the larger context of Jesus’ life and ministry.

 

Gail O’Day points out that Jesus’ farewell discourse conforms to the pattern of a genre familiar in the ancient Mediterranean world. Characteristic of the form is “the gathering of family and/or followers by the dying or departing man, the announcement of approaching death or departure, prophecies and/or promises and blessings, a review of the man’s life, the naming of a successor, final instructions, and a prayer,” all of which appear here. In O’Day’s view, significantly, the “most instructive comparison may be between the Johannine Farewell Discourse and the farewell speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy,” which we have considered earlier in this series of comments, those on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany and, briefly, on Passion Sunday. O’Day points to their similar aims: 

Through the literary device of the farewell speech in Deuteronomy, the traditions of Sinai and Moab are given a fresh hearing, a ‘representation,’ in a new setting, because they are presented as being spoken in this moment for this people. . . Deuteronomy was not written for a people about to enter the promised land, however, but was written centuries after Moses for a people who had long lived in the land. . . . The Fourth Evangelist has a similar aim with the Farewell Discourse.  Jesus speaks with confidence and knowledge about the events of the future, about his relationship with God and his disciples, about the advent of the Paraclete, and about the disciples’ future. The voice of Jesus in the Farewell Discourse is the voice of one who says, ‘But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (16:33).  . . The voice of Jesus that speaks in the Farewell Discourse is, therefore, that of the risen and victorious Jesus (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 738).

But we suggest that the significance of the comparison goes deeper; it concerns content as well as literary form. At the conclusion of Moses’ discourse, the Deuteronomist has him say, “Choose life so that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).” And in his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The connection is important, we would argue, for an understanding of Jesus’ mission of care for creation.

 

As we noted in our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Moses has, as it were, foreseen that the people will forsake the covenant God established with them at Sinai, with the consequence that the land will suffer what we would call ecological devastation and the people will no longer thrive in it. People and land can only thrive together. We saw in this a view that is consonant with the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, namely, that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” We also noted that, contrary to Moses, who spoke from Mount Nebo with no expectation of himself entering the land, Jesus’ story unfolds in the land: he moves through it, gathering his community of followers, going towards Jerusalem and his final conflict with the religious and political authorities in the city. This is his way; and it goes through the land. And as we saw in following his course through the season of Lent—from his temptation in the wilderness to the confrontation with the Sanhedrin and Pilate—on this way, he did indeed clearly “choose life” over the dominion of death. As we noted in commenting on Matthew 26:1 on Passion Sunday, Jesus’ teaching (as represented in the Matthean Epiphany and Lenten readings) constituted a fulsome response to Moses’ farewell; with steady purpose and absolute consistency, he showed himself to be the obedient Son of God who serves God by serving creation (See our summary in the comment on the readings for Passion Sunday).

 

His way of obedience led to his death on the cross. That he was raised from the dead means that his way was vindicated as the true way of life that leads to God. It is accordingly entirely appropriate that Jesus responds as he does to Thomas’ protest, here in the reading from John’s Gospel (“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”), with “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). As Raymond Brown comments, this saying is about Jesus’ mission to the world:

If Jesus is the way in the sense that he is the truth and enables men [sic] to know their goal, he is also the way in the sense that he is THE LIFE (zoe). Once again, this is a description of Jesus in terms of his mission to men [sic]: “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” (x 10). The destination of the way is life with the Father; this life the Father has given to the Son (v 26), and the Son alone can give it to men [sic] who believe in him (x 28)” (Brown, p. 630-31).

On his way to God, Jesus has held to the truth of God, and so embodied the life God gives for the sake of the creation.

 

Our second lesson says that the Christian community is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The reading reminds us that in the prologue to his Gospel, John summed up the story of Jesus life with similar words: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” To which John added this very brief summary of the course of Jesus; life: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own home (NRSV footnote) and his own people did not know him. . . And the Word became flesh and lived (dwelt) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” If the section of the Farewell Discourse before us this Sunday thus also happens to link the course of Jesus life (the way) and the truth of that way (the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth) with life lived in the very presence of  “the Father,” then might it not be the case that the “many dwelling places” in “my Father’s house”—which Jesus prepares for his followers—be similarly located amongst their own people in the land where God has found place for them to dwell, and, choosing life in him, also to thrive in concert with the land?

 

In any case, “dwelling places” clearly needs to be interpreted in relationship to the more inclusive metaphor of “my Father’s house.” The list of ways for Jesus to be present following on the resurrection appearance—which we cited at the beginning of this essay, while allowing for the relational interpretations of Carter, Brown, and O’Day—calls for a more “down-to earth” interpretation that affords place for telling the stories of Jesus’ works,  “breaking bread” in community, and, as Jesus now anticipates,  for doing the works that will be greater than the works Jesus did—for the ongoing life of the community in the world. “My Father’s House” is best seen, that is to say, indeed not as heaven alone, but as heaven and Earth, namely, the cosmos God so loves (3:16). Taking into account the web of relationships to which Carter, Brown, and O’Day point, we might suggest that God’s house is the full “web of creation.” What we have in mind is well framed by Terry Fretheim his book on God and World in the Old Testament, in a section titled “The Universality of God’s Presence in the Created Order,” from which we quote the following:

God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope; God is present and active wherever there is world.  God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. Inasmuch as God fills heaven and earth (Jer 23:24), God is a part of the map of reality and is relational to all that is not God, that is, to every creature.  In other terms, God is present on every occasion and active in every event.  From the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, there is no getting beyond the presence of God.  God cannot be evicted from the world or from any creature’s life (Fretheim, p. 23).

There are indeed “many dwelling places” in God’s house, where God, Jesus, and the creatures of creation dwell together.

 

How we are to understand this promised togetherness is a matter for further discussion, particularly when we approach the readings for the Day of Ascension and Pentecost. Suffice it to note here that Stephen’s vision of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” (our first reading for this Sunday) need not limit that understanding in terms of the vision’s spatial reference (he “saw the heavens opened” in Acts 7:56). Nor does the instruction from 1 Peter 2 to “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” restrict the building to airy, Gnostic castles in the sky. Rather, the writer does intend that we should be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This string of metaphors refers to a real community that exists in the real space and time of God’s creation. And finally, when Jesus promises that he will do anything we ask in his name, surely that name is itself the guide to what we might righteously request from our particular “dwelling place” that Jesus has prepared for us, and us for it, in our Father’s house. As we concluded in our comment on the readings for the festival of the Name of Jesus, which include (along with Luke 2:15-21) both the all-important creation care texts of Psalm 8 and Philippians 2, Jesus saves “by restoring us not only to right relationship with God and our fellow humans, but also to the loving service of the nonhuman creation for which God originally created us.” (Note: The Name of Jesus took the place of the First Sunday after Christmas in liturgical year 2010-11.)

 

 

Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Psalm 66:8-20

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

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

Thus is adumbrated the teaching that will be worked out in the course the Christian community’s first four centuries as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is interesting to note that all of the issues at stake in the development of this doctrine are at least implicit in the Farewell Discourse: the question of the unity of God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that that church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics (For this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172). The lectionary for the remaining Sundays of the festival season—including the Seventh Sunday of Easter (following the Ascension of our Lord), Day of Pentecost, and The Holy Trinity—will provide occasion to discuss the significance of each of these issues for care of creation. But it is the last of these issues that is still our leading concern here, as we continue to explore the significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Farewell Discourse regarding his mutual indwelling between God and the community of faith with respect to the bond between redemption and creation.

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

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

The significance of this insight is developed more fully in reference to contemporary evolutionary thought by Christopher Southgate in his discussion of “the human animal and its ‘selving’” in his Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. “Graced by the continual outpouring of divine love” in the course of human evolution, Southgate writes, the human animal enjoys “possibilities for a ‘yes’ to God that goes

beyond mere selving—a usage Southgate adapts from Gerard Manley Hopkins, meaning the dynamic moment when a creature perfectly expresses its “identity, the pattern and particularity of its existence to their full potential,” i.e. “when it is perfectly itself, both in terms of the species to which it belongs and in its own individuality (Southgate, pp.63-64). The human animal’s “yes to God” is “based on a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, on reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, on a recognizing of all humans as one’s neighbor, and on sacrificial actions.” But as with all other creatures, humans never “selve” in any fulfilled way. The ambiguous character of the creation as evolutionary process makes that perfection impossible. “The character of created selves is typically not that of self-giving but of self-assertion, for that, in a Darwinian world, is the only way biological selves can survive and flourish” (ibid, p. 5). Evolutionary strategies “almost always involve the overproduction of offspring, and necessarily imply the existence of ‘frustrated’ organisms is a precondition of other organisms ‘growing toward fulfillment’ and ‘fulfilled.’” (ibid, pp. 64-5). Thus, in human consciousness, “old imperatives with regard to resources, reproduction, relatives, and reciprocity” develop “an addictive power:”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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