April 24, 2016
The Fifth Sunday in Easter
“The First Earth Day”
by Rev. Ryan Slifka
This Friday was a unique day on the secular calendar. April 22, Earth day, every year since 1970. A day marked around the globe as a day of celebration of, and action in defense of, the Earth and its environment. We don’t usually bring in celebrations from outside the church calendar in worship. One of the reasons for that is that we are trying to live in a counter-cultural story. So we’re trying to get rooted first and foremost in the Way of Jesus as a way of looking at the world. But today I think it’s worth making the connection.
Because today is the Fifth Sunday in the Easter season, the 50 day festival celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we think of Easter, we probably don’t immediately think of the earth and its ecosystems. In fact, Christians have—at least for the past few hundred years—been suspicious of feeling all too affectionate towards God’s creation. Many Christians have expressed worries about “nature worship,” worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. Which can be a valid point in some cases. But there’s another issue at play, too, and it has to do with the interpretation of the Bible—especially the book of Revelation, our scripture for this morning.
N.T. Wright, who is one of the biggest names in the last few decades in the history of the Bible and biblical interpretation tells a story of leading some weekend lectures in Thunder Bay Ontario in 1982 or 3 on Jesus in historical context, what life and the world was like in Jesus’ time. He was there to discuss the meaning of the Bible, but “To my surprise,” he writes,
the main question people had in mind was not the meaning of the parables or of the cross or the incarnation itself (God becoming flesh) but questions of ecology: some people in the church had been saying that there was no point in worrying about the trees and acid rain, the rivers and lakes and water pollution, or climate change in relation to crops and harvests, because Jesus was coming back soon and Armageddon would destroy the present world. Not only was there no point in being concerned about the state of the ecosystem; it was actually unspiritual to do so, a form of worldliness that distracted from the real task of the gospel, which was the saving and nurturing of souls for a spiritual eternity.[i]
Not all Christians have thought this way, or at least exactly like this. Not all Christians have thought this way, about God destroying the earth at the end of time. But what Wright heard does speak to a truth from across the board. It’s a criticism levelled at Christians by non-Christians all the time. I recall David Suzuki saying that Christianity has made Christians unconcerned about the state of the earth’s ecosystems , because there’s a better world than this one waiting for us in the next.
Many times and occasions we have thought of the purpose of Jesus, the purpose of Christianity, and ensuring a place in heaven for our souls when we die. I mean, I wasn’t a Christian growing up, but I thought about going to heaven when I die. I worried about whether my mom and dad would be good enough to go and whether my dog named Pepsi was going there, too. And I thought that this was what Christians believed, more or less. That the purpose was leaving the suffering and pain and all the other things that go with having a body and existing in the world. Away with all that mortal, physical, earthly stuff.
Just to be clear, though, I affirm Christian hope, that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God, like the New Creed we’ll be saying later in the service—in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. I wouldn’t be able to preside over a funeral—or a baptism—if I didn’t believe those things.
But the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. The vision is too small. Because the biblical view of redemption, is way bigger than just us and our individual souls. Because it’s about the future of all creation. And even the whole universe.
Let’s look at today’s passage from the book of Revelation. The final book in the Bible. First, Revelation has a bit of a bad rap as violent, scary, difficult too understand, filled with doomsday data to decode the date of the end of the world. But I agree with the great English novelist G.K. Chesterton when he said that, “St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” People get the book of Revelation horribly wrong. In a nutshell, Revelation is a vision of the future. Not like fortune telling, but a vision, a dream. And the word revelation (apocalypse) itself means “unveiling.” It’s a dream that lifts the veil on our world, so we can understand something true about it. Our passage comes on the tail end of this vision is of a great cosmic struggle between God and the invisible forces that hold creation back from God’s good purposes. In this dream God in Christ ultimately prevails over these powers. And creation itself set free. And finally flourishes the way God in intended it from the beginning. And this vision says that this is what God has in store for all things.
Our passage for this morning really is the climax, the pinnacle, the point of John’s vision, and the whole vision of the Bible. First, John sees the old Heaven and Earth pass away. This doesn’t mean that they are destroyed. Instead, it means that the sin and destruction caused by human hands becomes a memory. In the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, God begins to create the earth, and when God rests God looks upon the creation and calls it good. The earth is broken by human sin in that very same book. The whole story is God’s healing, God’s reclamation project between Genesis at the beginning and Revelation at the end. The world as it was, marred by brokenness, violence, and sin has disappeared. It’s the end of the world as we know it. But not the end of the world.
The sea it says, the sea is no more—the sea which for the ancient desert people of the Bible symbolizes chaos no longer exists. There is calm and peace.
Then John looks up towards the heavens, and he sees this beautiful city… the city of Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, float down from the clouds, like a bride getting ready for a wedding. Because it’s the wedding, the coming together of heaven and earth.
Then a booming voice rings out through the sky, from the very throne of God. “See,” it says, “the home of God is among mortals. God’ll be there, and all the peoples of the earth will belong to God, and God herself will be with them. People aren’t heading up to heaven. Heaven is coming to earth. God is setting up shop permanently, moving in to the neighborhood for good. The unseen reality of God, and the world we can see and touch are merging, becoming one.
And “God will,” it says, “wipe every tear from their eyes. Dead will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. “For,” it says, “for the first things have passed away.” And, it says, “the One who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” All things new. All of the sorrow, despair and destruction, pollution and pillaging that he earth knows, from the smallest atom to the tallest tree, from the most microscopic bacteria to the world’s largest whale, all the forces of destruction and desecration will be destroyed for good. God is making all things new, not making all new things.[ii] All that is beautiful, good, true in this life will not be left behind, but will be make new. All things. All things.
The problem isn’t with the Bible. It’s a problem with our reading of the Bible. It’s just too small. We are part of the story—us and our redemption. We’re part of the story, but the story’s not just about us. It’s about God bringing a whole New Creation, a renewed creation, out of the old one. This, not the end point of our individual souls, to the exclusion of everything else. The New Creation, the renewal, the restoration, the redemption of all things, is the end, the goal, the purpose, of God’s work in the world. This is the dream, the vision, that God gives John in revelation. Heaven will finally invade earth once and for good. Not just in the future. But this renewal, this redemption, this invasion has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter marks the beginning.
And this is why I’ve come to believe that Easter and Earth day might make a good mix, after all. Because Easter, the resurrection of Jesus was the very first Earth Day. It is is a foretaste, a sneak preview of the future that God has in plan for all of us, and all things. All creation. It is a vision so big, so expansive, so inclusive, so beautiful that it will not abandon a single inch or atom of those things God has called good.
And ultimately, this dream, this vision is the gift that has been given to us. One we can already experience in here and now, living in the Way of Christ, by the power of God’s Spirit. In our own lives, of course. But that’s not where it ends. God is making this dream come true in and through us. And it’s a dream that extends God’s mission of healing and reconciliation to every inch of the earth. Every broken heart and war zone. But also every rock, every bird and every tree. It’s the dream, the vision, the promise that we live our lives by day by day. This is the big story we live and hope and die by. Trusting that God is making all things new.
Let us pray.
God, your home is among us mortals. Through your Son Jesus, reveal to us your new heaven and your new earth. And through these hearts and these hands, help us to plant your New Creation in the midst of this old one. For you are the Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end.
[i] N.T. Wright, “Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree!” Plough Quarterly no. 4, http://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/environment/jesus-is-coming-plant-a-tree.
[ii] Eugene M. Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible.