Orbiting Dicta

Fifth Sunday of Easter 2019: Planet in Peril

You may have noticed that the weather has been strange lately. You should have.  It is very strange and getting stranger. “Weather” is the local version of climate, and there is little room for any doubt now that global climate change is well underway. Nor is there any doubt remaining in the view of the world’s top climate scientists that human activity is the predominant factor, the unintended consequence of an industrial revolution begun over two hundred years ago. Such is the reiterated verdict following a three-year consultation of 15,000 studies by 150 experts from 50 nations published last week in a 1500-page UN report. [For more information, see https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/]

Unprecedented destructive storms and floods may not be the worst consequence of human mismanagement of the planet.  Over a million animal and plant species are now in danger of extinction within this century, including all-important insect pollinators vital for agriculture, fish stocks in every ocean on which billions of people depend, and the great land and sea mammals. For over a decade this looming disaster has been labeled “the sixth great extinction” in the history of the planet.

Sober thoughts on this Fifth Sunday of Easter.  But early this morning I was pondering the words of the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” by F. S. Pierpoint, composed 150 years  ago:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.

Such reflections may seem to present a stark contrast to the scientists’ work as well as the second reading from the Book of Revelation, perhaps surprisingly the most

Acts 14:21-27
Rev 21:1-5a
John 13:31-33a, 34-35

ecologically-informed work in the Bible, drastically most of the time, as it details the destruction of the living planet because of human sinfulness – not too far a remove from the UN panel’s dire predictions. On the other hand, not only does Revelation champion the redemption of the earth (“The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth” Rev. 11:18).  It also draws to a close with the most astonishing of promises: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev.21:5). We may fail to save creation from our own foolhardiness, but the Creator will not be cheated.

The first reading sounds a vastly different note, taking us back to the foundation of the Christian churches in southwest Asia.  If you were to look on a map for Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Perga, and Attalia, you’d have to look very carefully in the area of south central Turkey.  You’d also have to use a very old map.  Because of all those ancient cities and towns, only a few are still recognizable at all.  Iconium is now Konya, Attalia is called Antalya.  Tarsus, Paul’s home town, is still there, and there are ruins in Ephesus and other cities of Asia Minor once important as the Christian faith spread to the west.  The rest are now mainly mounds of ruins, including the seven cities addressed in the Book of Revelation .

We remember them, basically, because it was there that the faith was planted, nurtured, and grew.  Luke notes, almost in passing, that Paul and Barnabas “installed elders — ‘presbyteroi,’ a word that eventually came to mean ‘priest’ —  and with prayer and fasting, commended the people to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”

And that is always how faith grows — rooted in the life and faith of the community, guided by leaders from among the community, through prayer and fasting.  Well, though prayer, anyway.  Fasting today has more to do with paleo and keto diets and other fads than the spread of faith.  But in the gospel reading, we also hear of the bond that created and preserved that community — deep and inclusive love.  It is the great commandment Jesus left us, in truth, his only commandment.

The second reading, from near the end of the Book of Revelation, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that is God’s gift to all the world, not a human creation.  We do not build this city of God!  For one thing, it is very, very big — larger than any structure ever designed by a human being, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build.  But that is another story.  Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering.  All that will be gone.  And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in that simple phrase, “See, I am making all things new.”

God is the source and energy of originality, of freshness, the Creator now making and remaking the world instant by instant, holding the universe in the palm of his hand.  And we hear three times over in the New Testament, that universe was created in, for, and by Christ, in whom it mysteriously holds together.  In Jesus, the risen Christ, God first makes everything new and fresh.

It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope.  We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things.  If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of regression.  So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain and loss.  War, violence, and ecological destruction is what we too often do.  Peace, love, and renewal is what God does… and seems to expect us to do as well.  We had better get moving!