In Pentecost, the whole creation is in process of being reconciled and incorporated into Christ.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Day of Pentecost Year B
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In our comments for the Season of Easter we have shown how the death and resurrection of Jesus are brought to bear on the life of the community he gathered, in such a way as to anticipate and initiate the restoration of all creation in and through the Christian community. The readings for the Feast of Pentecost, we find, recapitulate the features of this movement, only now with focus on the agency of the Holy Spirit. As Gordon Lathrop frames the meaning of the Day on the basis of the Gospel reading from John 15, “the Spirit is God present” in our assembly, “seeing to it that the words and actions of Jesus Christ are alive in our midst as powerful words and actions, judging and forgiving, sending, giving life. The Spirit is all that belongs to Christ, all that pertains to him—and thus all that truly pertains to the ancient God—alive here and declared to us” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 67). Alternatively, as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it in commenting on the reading from Acts 2, “Luke's Pentecost story is a rendering of the primordial Christian experience of the resurrection.” Only “here the emphasis is not on what happened to Jesus, but what happened to [the disciples]: the ‘fact’ of Jesus’ new life is verified by the ‘fact’ of their new experience of power, manifested by their bold proclamation of ‘the great deeds of God’” (The Acts of the Apostles. Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 45).
The focus, to be sure, is on the community of believers as the reconstituted people of God. However, in coupling these two powerful narratives of the gift of the Spirit with select verses from Psalm 104 and the lesson from Romans 8, both of which further reference the Spirit, the church makes it clear that the “great deeds of God,” “all that belongs to Christ,” and the work of the Spirit present in the assembly, concern all of creation. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (104:24); “when you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (104:30). “Psalm 104 celebrates God’s creation as a rich and beautiful reality, but one that is entirely dependent on the ‘face’ and breath of God,” comments Lathrop. “Singing this psalm today, Christians may celebrate that the intention of the Spirit, poured out in the assembly, includes the renewal of all the beloved world” (Lathrop, p. 73). Even more comprehensively, the reading from Romans 8 offers hope in the Spirit, not only for “ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,” but also through us, as children of God, for the “whole creation” that “has been groaning in labor pains until now,” as it “waits with eager longing” to “be set free from its bondage to decay and . . . .obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-23).
That both of these readings for the Day of Pentecost make the connection between the presence of the Spirit in the community and God’s love for the creation should suffice to make care for creation a top priority for preaching in Time after Pentecost. Psalm 104:24-34, 35b is the appointed psalm for the Day of Pentecost all three years of the lectionary; we have discussed its significance for our concern for creation in the comment for the Day of Pentecost, Year A, drawing both on Joseph Sittler’s interpretation of the psalm as “ecological doxology” and on that of Arthur Walker-Jones, who finds it to be “one of the longest creation passages” in the Bible, a portrayal of the “direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures.” In the psalm, Walker -Jones points out, “God is the spirit of life in all creation.” There is, he notes, no need for mediation by either King or temple because God's presence “is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year A; the quotation from Walker Jones is from his The Green Psalter, p. 120.)
The significance of this universal availability of God’s presence will not be lost on those who have followed our argument in these comments on the lectionary for year B, concerning the displacement of the Jerusalem temple as the locus where heaven meets Earth unto Jesus, as key to understanding how the narrative concerning Jesus comes to provide fundamental orientation to creation. (See our summary of this argument in our comment on the readings for the Sunday and Week of the Passion, Year B). First in Jesus, then in the Spirit of Jesus, access to God is open everywhere. It is striking in this regard, that, as Walker-Jones further notes, the psalm shows much more of what we would call ecological awareness than does Genesis 1-3 and that its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric.” The goodness of creation is celebrated without reservation: unmarred by the ‘fall’ of Genesis 2 and 3 and far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy, without setting aside an awareness of nature “red in tooth and claw” so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Comment on Day of Pentecost, Year A; Walker- Jones, p. 142). Reading this particular psalm is accordingly highly appropriate for the Day of Pentecost, which sets out parameters for the church’s mission as witness to the resurrection: it suggests a re-orientation to creation as the new creation into which the death and resurrection of Jesus ushers us, a re-orientation intended and open to the all humankind.
Romans 8 follows a similar trajectory. The passage speaks of hope that the “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay, in the day when it “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:22; in order to allow the full weight of this passage to register with the congregation, the reading should begin with verse 18). A strong argument for an eco-theological interpretation of this text has been presented by David Horrell, Cheryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate in their Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis. We summarized their argument in our comment in this series on an earlier occurrence of the text from the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A as follows: the authors set the passage within a narrative structure in which
an "enslaved-to-decay creation has been subjected to futility by God.” But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co-groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning, and, similarly, a shared hope” (The quotation is from Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, p. 82).
In the passage, the hope for creation is—again quite fittingly for the theophany of Pentecost—focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons/children of God.” They are leading characters of the narrative, the authors suggest,
since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused. In terms of the plot, these children of God are crucial for the progression of the story of creation from groaning to freedom. Yet the character most crucial to the progress of the plot is also a character little evident in the explicit wording of the passage: God. . . .God’s actions, hidden within the force of the so-called divine passives, are clearly the crucial motor of the entire plot, as encapsulated in nuce within two (passive) verbs: creation was subjected . . . will be liberated (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, p. 83.)
Romans 8, to their mind, is “a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17), a narrative in which verses 19-23 so enigmatically include the whole of creation as co-groaning” (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, p. 83.)
Combined with Colossians 1:15-20 as a parallel narrative of the “reconciliation of all things,” the authors argue, our reading is
focused on the world-transforming act of God in Christ, an act with cosmic dimensions and implications. Just as humans are transferred from old to new creation by their incorporation into Christ, dying with him and beginning a new life, empowered by the Spirit, so too the whole creation is in process of being reconciled and incorporated into Christ, and so into the life of the One who will in the end be all in all.
From this insight, the authors conclude, follow a set of “ecoethical responsibilities” on the part of the community of faith which incorporate as normative principles an ”other-regard” and “corporate solidarity” in relationship to creation that is derived from the “christological paradigm of self-giving for the sake of others” (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, p. 193). In the weeks to come in the season of Sundays After Pentecost, we need to be alert for opportunities under the guidance of the Spirit to develop the implications of these principles for care of creation.