Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Sixth Sunday of Easter
1 John 5:1-6
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4) The season of Easter draws near to a close and the Feast of the Ascension follows in four days and the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter will take note of the dramatic shift in the immediacy of Jesus’ presence with his disciples. Meanwhile, the Psalm for this Sixth Sunday of Easter calls for a final chorus of joyous praise from “all the earth.” We are reminded that an almost identical call for praise from Psalm 96 accompanied the readings of the Christmas Gospel. So, at the end as well as the beginning of Jesus’ life, all creation joins in great, wondrous praise of God.
Why this call for praise from all the Earth? According to the psalm, it is because “The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.” Reading this in the context of Easter, we take this statement to refer to the victory over the powers of death in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The statement of praise thus creates a bridge from God's covenant with Israel to God’s love for all the Earth: “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (98:3a), and “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” (98:3b). The significance of this victory is global in scope. At the Lord’s coming, “he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” God’s promise to Abraham that his faithfulness would be a blessing for all the earth is fulfilled; the great work of salvation is now accomplished. So indeed, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (98:1).
What is particularly interesting for us relative to our concern for care of creation, of course, is that again otherkind as well as humankind is called upon to sing their praises. Part of the chorus is clearly to be sung by human voices, accompanied by lyre, trumpets, and horn (98:5-6). But the full ensemble includes voices of the non-human creation as well: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth (98:7-9). Other-kind, it seems, also has reasons for praising God. Arthur Walker-Jones suggests that for the psalmist, here and elsewhere, all creation has common reason to praise God, because “all creatures are subject of God’s just reign.” Their joy “at the presence of the Lord” is due to their expectation that “he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity”(The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009. p. 146).
But if justice is the common theme to both humankind's and otherkind’s praise, is this justice the same for both these two realms of creation? Is justice for otherkind identical with that for humankind? Or do they differ in some significant way? At stake is our understanding of the relationship of social justice among humans to an ecological justice that encompasses all creatures. As has been frequently noted, churches are very concerned about social justice in one aspect or another, but rarely do they relate this to ecological justice. And when they do, human or social justice is more often than not taken to be the broader framework within which questions of ecological justice are to be answered, given the nearly singular focus in these texts on the significance of God's marvelous works for human beings. In Walker-Jones analysis, however, it appears that ecological justice is the “broader framework” within which the psalmist includes social justice (Walker-Jones, pp. 145-48). But if this is so, why do our lessons seem to focus almost exclusively on the human realm? As the psalmist of Psalm 98 notes, these “things” have been done “in the sight of the nations” (98:2); God will judge “the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Again in the lesson from Acts 10, only humans are of concern, it seems, as Jews and Gentiles are brought by the Holy Spirit into one community. And the Gospel appears clearly to be concerned only with humans: keeping commandments, abiding in love, and friendship pertain to the life in the community of Jesus’ followers. The readings might in fact seem to support the prioritization of humankind over otherkind in the “marvelous things” God has done.
We recall Terry Fretheim's argument that we hear the psalmists’ call for a symphony of praise as an acknowledgment of the “range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness: Listing various creatures together—as in Psalm 98, the sea and all that fills it, the world and those who live in it—with mention of their particular capacities for praise, e.g., the sea’s roar, the waters’ clapping, the hills’ singing, renders “each entity’s praise . . . distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole.” The structure presupposed by the Psalmist is in this way clearly consonant with an ecological perspective (see our comment in this series on the readings for the “nativity of our Lord' in year B; cf. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 255-59). And yet the singular focus on humankind stands out. So what exactly is the relationship between the two realms, or sub-realms, of justice?
The Gospel reading provides us an insight that contributes to an answer to this question. The reading, we note, follows directly on Jesus’ description of his relationship with his disciples in terms of the metaphor of vine and branches, as the reference to “bearing fruit” in 15:16 reminds us. Last Sunday we had occasion to observe that vine and branches together produce fruit from their common rootedness in the soil of the earth. Raymond Brown shows that . . .
vs. 9-17 with their theme of love are really an interpretation of the idea of bearing fruit in 8” and “the whole of 9-17 is still very much related to that imagery. . . . Elsewhere (vi 57) we heard that life was passed from the Father to the Son so that the Son might communicate it to others; now (xv 9) it is love that is passed on. This is fitting because Jesus is speaking in 'the hour' when “he showed his love for his own to the very end (xiii 1). Yet the partial interchangeability of “life” and “love” cautions us against thinking that by “love” John means something primarily emotional—besides being ethical, “love” is at times close to being something metaphysical. . . for John love is related to being or remaining in Jesus.
As imaged in the metaphor, according to Brown (who follows Martin Dibelius here), the Father's love is “not a question of unity of will existing by virtue of an affective relationship but a unity of being by virtue of a divine quality” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 680-82)
Thus the power of the metaphor is fully developed: If the relationship of vine and branches is a model of the intimacy of the relationship of the Father, Jesus and the disciples, then Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is in turn an expression of both the intensity of that relationship and serves to bind Father, Jesus, and the disciples in “the way of expressing” that love. Together they will “bear fruit,” which is not to be understood primarily as individual acts of love, but rather as a sustained action which, like Jesus life, death, and resurrection, brings into being the community of those whom Jesus loves. As soil, vine, and branches work together to produce food, so God's love creates the community that sees in Jesus’ life and death the source of its life.
But is the relationship between the natural vine and the vine who is Jesus merely metaphorical? Again Fretheim helpfully reminds us that with the use of nature language for God there is always “an ‘is’ and an ‘is not.’ But if such language is truly descriptive of God, then the realm of nature reflects in some way in its being what is the reality which is God” (Fretheim, pp. 256-57). So also with the relationships in which God in included. That is to say, the relationships of the metaphor reflect in their reality something of the reality of the bonds between the Father, Jesus, and the disciples. The key element here, we suggest, is the unity of being, action and result. As the reading suggests, the status of Jesus followers as “friends” depends on an analogous unity of being and action resulting in the formation of the community. The vine’s life given for others is an essential aspect of Christian life, Brown argues; indeed, as sacrifice of self it “a major point of difference between Judaism and Christianity.” While both the Old Testament and the rabbis “recognized the sanctity of risking one's safety for another . . . they did not command it” (Brown, p. 682). If so, the significance of the displacement of the temple by the person of Jesus in the narrative of the events we have been following from Lent through Easter is captured precisely in this metaphor. Life in Christian community is like the life of the vine: rooted in God, fed by the vine, growing fruit, the Christian community properly understands itself as embedded in the right workings of the creation.
Jesus life, death, and resurrection is an act of love that creates sustained community. We see the evidence in the reports from the lesson: The rift between Jews and Gentiles is being bridged in a community that incorporates both. The vine is more than mere metaphor; it is an expression of how relationships develop in both realms of otherkind and humankind. Other-kind, we want to suggest, therefore has reason to rejoice because the way the human community is healed 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.
Eco-justice in this sense is the broad framework within which humankind can recover its right orientation to creation. Then humankind lives in harmony with the way of life of otherkind. But the correspondence derives from a greater, all-encompassing source. “The language of sacrifice and self-giving” in this understanding, “should not come as a surprise to those who wish to participate in God’s gardening ways,” as Norman Wirzba notes, because . . .
Christ is the embodiment of God's nature as the one who gives without end. Christ reveals the “eternal kenosis” that is active in the divine Trinitarian life, and so demonstrates that “God desires to give and realize his love in what is other.” God's original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God “makes room” for what is not God to be and to flourish.
But when the actions of humankind conform to this understanding, otherkind indeed has reason to rejoice!