The Self-Giving of the Community is Rooted in the Self-Giving of the Creator.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Year B 2015
By Dennis Ormseth
Second Sunday of Easter in Year B
1 John 1:1-2:2
Psalm 133 “speaks of brothers dwelling together in unity,” Ben Witherington III notes, and likens the condition to the pleasure of a priestly anointment of oil upon the head and beard of Aaron, and to dew falling upon the “mountains of Zion”—“a major blessing—like the dew that refreshes the plants in and around Jerusalem even in some of the dry times” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, p. 17-18). As on Easter Sunday with the reading from Isaiah 25:6-9, with this psalm the church again lays claim for its gathering around its resurrected Lord to the well-being associated in the Hebrew psalmist and prophetic traditions with the presence of Yahweh in the temple in Jerusalem. As with the readings for Easter Sunday, the power of God to resurrect Jesus from the dead is thus understood to be the power of the Creator to bring about the renewed flourishing of creation (See our comment on the lectionary readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord).
The significance of this connection between Jesus' resurrection, the presence of Yahweh and the flourishing of creation can be drawn from the readings appointed for this Sunday. Following on the resurrection of Jesus, his followers are brought immediately into the experience of the presence of God: in the first section of the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus appears to the disciples, addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, breaths upon them the Holy Spirit, and then commissions them by the power of the Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. That the presence of Yahweh as creator is manifest in this account is clear from the allusion to Genesis 2:7; as Raymond Brown notes,
Before Jesus says, 'Receive a holy Spirit,” he breathes on his disciples. The Greek verb emphysan, “to breath,” echoes LXX of Gen 2:7, the creation scene, where we are told: The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The verb is used again in Wisdom 15:11, which rephrases the creation account: “The One who fashioned him and . . . breathed into him a living spirit.” Symbolically, then, John is proclaiming that, just as in the first creation God breathed a living spirit into man, so now in the moment of the new creation Jesus breathes his own Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), New York: Doubleday, 1970, p. 1037).
That Yahweh the creator is present to the community is made explicit in the second half of the reading, in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas on the following Sunday. As Thomas moves from disbelief to belief, he confesses his faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is, in Brown's view, the “ultimate confession”:
The Jesus who has appeared to Thomas is a Jesus who has been lifted up in crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to his Father and has received from the Father the glory that he had with Him before the world existed (xvii 5); and now Thomas has the faith to acknowledge this. Thomas has penetrated beyond the miraculous aspect of the appearance and has seen what the resurrection-ascension reveals about Jesus. . . . This, then, is the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel. In Chapter I the first disciples gave many titles to Jesus . . . , and we have heard still others throughout the ministry: Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, King of Israel, Son of God. In the post- resurrectional appearances Jesus has been hailed as the Lord by Magdalene and by the disciples as a group. But it is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh (Brown, pp. 1046-47).
This confession, Brown emphasizes, is not a dogmatic assertion, but rather an act of worship. “It is a response of praise to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus . . . Thomas speaks the doxology on behalf of the Christian community” (Brown, p. 1047).
It is also clear, accordingly, that at this point the gathered disciples have been transformed into the community that worships Jesus as Lord and God, meeting on Sunday as the eighth day of creation. The community thus initiated, it should be noted, is created to endure into a new age. Jesus' appearance to Thomas serves to reaffirm that the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus exists in continuity with the body that was crucified. But it also marks the transition from those disciples who see Jesus and thus believe, to those who have faith only by virtue of the presence of God as the Spirit that continues to bring the community to life in the new creation. If there is continuity in the flesh of the human Jesus pre- and post-resurrection, there is also continuity in the presence of God by the power of the Spirit between the Jesus who is seen and the Jesus who is no longer seen, but nonetheless experienced as living Word. As Brown notes, in John 20:17, it was
promised that after Jesus' ascension God would become a Father to the disciples who would be begotten by the Spirit, and also would in a special way become the God of a people bound to him by a new covenant. The words that Thomas speaks to Jesus are the voice of this people ratifying the covenant that the Father has made in Jesus. As Hos 2:25 (23) promised, a people that was formerly not a people has now said, “you are my God.” This confession has been combined with the baptismal profession “Jesus is Lord,” a profession that can be made only when the Spirit has been poured out (I Corinthians 12:3).
The community of the resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to similarly reconcile others, will be gathered in the presence of this crucified and resurrected person in whom Godself is present. Thus in the wake of Jesus' resurrection, the followers of Jesus have become like those Hebrews of whom the Psalmist sings, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”(133:1). They do indeed “dwell together in unity,” the blessing of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3b).
Such blessing, it is important to note, entails a transformed orientation to creation. As Brown notes, the peace and joy noted in 20:20 are for John, as for Jewish thought generally, “marks of the eschatological period when God's intervention would have brought about harmony in human life and in the world. John sees this period realized as Jesus returns to pour forth his Spirit upon men [sic]” (Brown, p. 1035; emphasis ours).The significance of this broader vision is manifest in the first lesson for the day, Acts 4:32-35: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in the face of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that,
No one claimed owner's rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness . . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (Witherington, pp. 16-17).
The community now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God's grace” which was fostered by the meal they shared, when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ maintained in strong measure the sense of living fully in God's presence previously expected by the Hebrew community in its life centered in temple worship.
The distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned here indeed represents a transformed relationship to creation. As M. Douglas Meeks describes it in his book God the Economist, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith:
The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 leads to different forms of property . . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God's will in the community (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).
Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property which is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.
God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God's act of liberating/creating is God's suffering and self-giving. God's work of suffering is the source of God's claim in, that is, God's property in creation. God brings the world into being through God's costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God's because God's power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God's grace.
God's owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God's possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).
It is striking that a scriptural basis for the trinitarian foundation of this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday. The Gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciples, in which the presence of Yahweh the creator is communicated. And in the second lesson from 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might accordingly move readily to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God's suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property. Care of creation begins at home, where the church dwells together in unity, not only amongst themselves, but in community both with God and with all God's creation.
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288