Our human harmony with all of life is grounded in the great, all-encompassing, self-giving of God.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
The texts for the Seventh and last Sunday of Easter present a strange but fascinating interlude concerned with unfinished business from Jesus' passion. In the first lesson from Acts, Jesus’ disciples have just returned to the city of Jerusalem from “the mount called Olivet,” where they witnessed Jesus' ascension. They go to “the room upstairs where they were staying” --the room in which they celebrated Jesus’ last supper? (The suggestion is from Luke Timothy Johnson's from his The Acts of the Apostles. Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 34), returning, perhaps, to the place of the pre-resurrection experience of Jesus’ presence. Luke draws a vivid picture of a community united in prayer as they await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, so they can go into the world where Jesus on Mt. Olivet has just sent them. But theirs is not a complete community. Standing up in their midst, Peter interrupts their prayer to bring up the need to replace Judas in the circle of the disciples. Maybe the upper room brought it sharply to mind. One of the original circle of twelve disciples, who were being prepared to replace the religious and political leaders of Israel who rejected Jesus, had fallen away. It was an order of first importance to replace him before Pentecost, John suggests, “because the integrity of the apostolic circle of Twelve symbolized the restoration of God’s people” (Johnson, p. 39).
As Johnson observes, “the seriousness with which [Luke, the author of Acts] takes the problem and the narrative attention he devotes to its solution are both instructive.” The reading from the Gospel of John adds to that seriousness with a quotation from Jesus' high priestly prayer, in which he acknowledges that one, if only one, of those God had given him would be lost, “so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” As he anticipates sending his disciples into the world, Jesus prays that his Father will protect them “from the evil one” to whom Judas' had succumbed (John 17:12). Taken together, the lesson and the Gospel serve to underscore for all those who join in that ministry the importance of understanding Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, so as to prevent a similar breach in the unity of the community. What is quite remarkable here is how relevant this interlude and its cautionary warning turn out to be, in relation to our concern for care of creation. Unfortunately the verses assigned for the reading from Acts do not include vv. 18-20, the very verses that are keys to developing this insight, because they are “fulfilled scripture” and therefore highly relevant to understanding Judas's betrayal. Including those verses in the reading for this Sunday will be essential. We follow Johnson's interpretation of them in context, and at some length.
Noting that Luke's account of Judas' death differs markedly from that of Matthew 27:3-1, Johnson argues
. . . that everything, including the scriptural citations, centers on the defection of Judas as one of the Twelve. And as he does so often, Luke uses the disposition of possessions as symbolic. Judas does not return the money as a sign of repentance, but goes to buy a farm with the payment for his wicked deed (1:18). This action stands in direct contrast to his “having a share in this ministry (1:17). Rather than be one of those who “left their own things” and will “sell their farms” and “call nothing their own,” Judas separates from the group by his purchase of property for himself. We notice that, like Annanias and Sapphira, who will later be described as doing the same thing, Judas is said to have been possessed by Satan (Luke 22:3; Acts 5:3) and to have "entered into a conspiracy” to get the money (Luke 22;4-6; Acts 5:9). Spiritual disaffection is symbolized by physical acquisitiveness (Johnson, p. 39-40).
Johnson sums up the significance of Judas betrayal and death as follows:
Judas' fate and that of his property is intertwined. He dies on the farm and his dwelling place is to be deserted (1:10). And, as his property is vacant, so is his place in the apostolic circle; therefore “let another take his office” (1:20). Each stage of the story is symbolized by the disposition of possessions: Judas' apostasy from the Twelve is expressed by the buying of a farm, his perdition is expressed by the desertion of the property, that empty property expresses the vacancy in the apostolic circle. That Luke intends just such an interpenetration of the notion of authority and the symbolism of property is shown by the final statement concerning Judas, that he left his “Place” (topos) in the ministry precisely by his “going to his own place” (ton topon ton idion, 1:25).
Luke, Johnson concludes, not only “solved the problem posed by Judas’ betrayal by reintegrating a leadership of the Twelve for this people that awaits the promised gift of the Holy Spirit,” Luke has “also prepared his readers to see in the restored people a community that calls nothing its own and shares all its possessions as a sign of its spiritual unanimity” (Acts 2:41-17; 4:32-37) (Johnson, p. 40).
In our view, Luke has also shown us the crux of Jesus’ reorientation of the community to God’s creation, following on his displacement of the temple as the center of worship where heaven meets earth. All this talk about farms and place in the community suggests that Judas' acquisitiveness is not merely symbolic of spiritual disaffection, it also embodies an orientation to creation that has to be overcome and repudiated by the community as it begins its mission. Judas’ replacement by another disciple who had been part of the company of followers “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up” represents the completion of this reorientation. It represents the restoration of the community of God’s people to the wholeness of the new creation. It is a distinctive feature of this community that pretension to self-sufficient ownership of land has no part in the community's relationship to the creation which sustains it in life. For this community, all creation will be a “common good” for which the community shares responsibility for righteous use and restorative care, but possesses no sovereignty or right of ownership over it.
The replacement of Judas thus serves as a bookend, as it were, to match the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, which included the story of Ananias and Sapphira referenced by Johnson. Beginning with that Sunday’s readings we can discern in the season of Easter the development of a consistent reorientation away from the relationship to creation represented by the religious and political leaders of the temple-state, to that embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our comment of the readings of the Second Sunday of Easter, we argued that the concern about possessions is grounded in a theology of creation as the expression of what M. Douglas Meeks, in his book on God the Economist, calls “the self-giving life of the Trinitarian community of God” God, he wrote,
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 (Meeks, p. 114).
Relationships in the community are to reflect the manner of God's relationship to God's creation. Thus, in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, we noted the importance of relationships in the community as relationships worthy of heaven. “What makes the relationships heavenly,” we quoted from Norman Wirzba, “is that God is present and known in them (John 17:3). As such, heaven is the ultimate and complete realization of Home, the place of perfect nurture and celebration.” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011 p. 213-14.) Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his “ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet” (Wirzba, p. 214-15; cf. our comment in this series on the Third Sunday of Easter).
In our comments on year B, we have emphasized the significance of Jesus’ displacement of the temple as the sacred place where, indeed, “heaven meets earth.” Accordingly, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we saw how Psalm 23 served to point up the contrast between the unity of the community and the preoccupation of the temple authorities with relationships of power and privilege that, as we wrote, “render impossible the experience of “home place' in the very location where it should be expected to prevail.” Again Norman Wirzba's insight is helpful in describing for us the failure of relationship typified by Judas' conspiracy with the temple authorities to betray Jesus. By providing for themselves, he writes, people
. . . often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them (Wirzba, p. 89).
On the following Fifth Sunday of Easter, however, the Gospel offered us “'hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement—that is, in our time for the restoration of the creation in the face of the displacement of the human community from the earth that sustains it, the alienation which is at the heart of the environmental crisis.” The metaphor of the vine, we suggested, serves to root the resurrected Jesus in the earth, and God his Father with him. This “rootedness” means for believers that their “ministries of feeding, healing, forgiving and reconciling” continue, as Wirzba writes, “in the world God's own life-building ways that have been in place since the first day of creation. They will garden creation as God does. Jesus is the vine that makes possible every fruit-bearing branch” (Wirzba, p. 67; cf. our comment on the lections for the Fifth Sunday of Easter).
We conclude, in summary, as we wrote in our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: finally all creation joins in praise of God because “the way the human community is healed in the death and resurrection of Jesus is seen to be the way the vine grows in the new creation of God. The way things work in ecological community is the way things will work in the human community re-created by God's love.” Both communities are caught up together in the life of the Trinity whose persons “are the constant movement of offering and receiving, a movement in which there is no holding back and no one is ever alone (Wirzba, p. 231). When humankind lives in harmony with the way of life of otherkind, their consonance is grounded in the great, all-encompassing, self-giving of God.