Selections on New Creation Week 11
Creation Care in the New Creation: Colossians 1:11–23
Professor Emerita of Theology
Read this week’s Scripture: Colossians 1:11-23
When we think about the “So what?” question that emerges at the end of the Lectio series’ four-year cycle, the focus can so easily shift entirely to us and to our response to the good news of God’s liberating salvation story. This is especially the case when it comes to the enormous and urgent needs related to creation care. The wonder of God’s gracious purpose and loving power can fade to the background of our vision. We can quickly become weighed down by the challenges of living the new creation and addressing the devastating impacts of pollution, global warming, and environmental exploitation, especially on those who are poor and marginalized. [Author’s Note 1] When we shift the focus to our response, the immense needs related to creation care can become a new yoke and weight in our lives, crowding out “the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23).
The feeling of being overwhelmed by the groaning of creation hit me personally when I was visiting a city in southern Brazil a few years ago. Though Brazil has done a great deal to address issues of climate change, I came across a large, now perpetually dry riverbed where waters had once flowed freely. It was like a major artery that no longer functioned in a previously healthy body. Climate changes that had been hard to imagine in green, cool, and rainy Seattle were clearly evident before my eyes. Knowing that even one or two degrees of increased temperature in my body make me feel miserable, it became apparent to me in that moment that the rising temperature of the earth is having an impact, and sadly, that it’s the poor and voiceless who tend to suffer most. There’s a part of me that wanted to go into a fear-based hyper-activist mode. Yet again and again, I sense God’s invitation to approach these challenges from the larger horizon of God’s love and faithfulness so that our responses will flow from God’s power and align with God’s purposes.
Indeed, the “So what?” question is vital, but it only makes sense theologically when we retain the larger wonder of who God is and what God is doing. We can then respond out of trust and thanksgiving, with humble admission that our response is a participation by the Spirit in God’s grand work of conveying hope to every creature under heaven.
Thus as we think about our “So what?” in relation to creation, we are invited to consider it in the context of the wonder of who Christ is as the Lord of all creation: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible […] — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:15–17). Christ is the one in, through, and for whom all of creation has come into existence. Christ is the one who holds all things together. That is the frame and tapestry into which our small threads may be woven. Though these threads are vital because God honors them and has invited us to participate in God’s purposes, we offer them in response to God’s gracious work — not because without them all things will fall apart. Our response is crafted, then, in faith in who God is and in what God is doing, rather than our fear and anxiety of what we have to do “or else.”
That is not to say that there are not dire and urgent needs to care for our ailing planet, which we have treated more like a smorgasbord for our own satisfaction than like God’s garden to be tended now and for future generations. There have been damaging effects of what Kallistos Ware describes as “original sin”:
The ‘original sin’ of man, his turning from God-centeredness to self-centeredness, meant first and foremost that he no longer looked upon the world and other human beings in a eucharistic way, as a sacrament of communion with God. He ceased to regard them as a gift, to be offered back in thanksgiving to the Giver, and he began to treat them as his own possession, to be grasped, exploited and devoured. So he no longer saw other persons as things as they are in themselves and in God, and he saw them only in terms of the pleasure and satisfaction which they could give to him. And the result of this was that he was caught in the vicious circle of his own lust, which grew more hungry the more it was gratified. [Author’s Note 2]
The cure for this expanding circle of lust is not through statistics revealing how bad things are or how extensive the impact of our sin is, as important as that information is. Certainly it is vital to be informed by scientific research on climate change, pollution, and other causes of environmental damage to avoid a kind of “paralyzing ignorance.” [Author’s Note 3] Yet fear and guilt as motivations for change generally only sustain action for a short time. Rather, a deeper cure lies in two central aspects of God’s reconciling work.
God’s Presence in Creation
The first is God’s intimate connection to and presence in this creation, with Christ as the “firstborn of all creation” (1:15). In Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19), fully present in our world to bring healing and fullness of life. For love of creation, God in Christ entered in, not as an avatar, but as a “fleshly body” (1:22) binding God’s self to our material reality. Thus, as our Eastern and Celtic mothers and fathers frequently observed, Christ has made our creation sacred even as he has bound and reconciled it to himself. Creation’s sacramental nature, though not a reason to worship it, does make it a window on God’s loving and caring presence here with us now by the Holy Spirit. The sacred unity of creation with Christ reveals that “every creature — every person, every stick and stone and stallion and seahorse — is profoundly related to every other creature.” [Author’s Note 4]
My mother reflected awareness of the interdependent sacramental nature of creation throughout her life. Sensing God’s loving presence with her and treasuring the beauty of the creation around her, she worked hard to make her garden a place of flourishing for robins, quail, chickadees, and squirrels, as well as for neighbors and friends whom she would invite to tea. Though she spent many hours working in her garden, it was for her a gift of being with God and sharing in God’s purposes. She created a hospitable place for everyone — a place of deep connection to God, to others, and to the birds and animals that shared that space with her. It was also a place of hard labor in which she exercised her role of “dominion” (Genesis 1:26) over plants that grew too expansive and weeds that threatened to take over. The dominion she exercised was non-exploitive because it was exercised out of love of the one who made it and with gratitude for it as God’s gift to her, and through her to be shared with others. It was a caring and protective dominion (as called for in Genesis 2:15), an exercise of wise stewardship, reflecting God’s own dominion of our Creation. [Author’s Note 5]
One of the saddest days of her life was when we had to move her away from her beloved home and garden and sell her house. The next owner came in and exercised a form of domination that has often been misconstrued as dominion. He ripped out most of the shrubs, trees, and flowers she had so lovingly planted over the fifty years she lived there. He covered the garden with gravel on which to park his many vehicles — a truck, ATV, motorcycles, and cars. All the natural life was either hacked away or ignored and left to die. Whereas before the neighbors had admired my mother’s garden, now there are tall walls to block the eyesore that her backyard has become. There is hardly anything growing there now, and no birds that gather and sing. Rather than drawing people and other creatures into this space, it has become a place of isolation and alienation.
God’s Sacrifice in Christ to Heal Creation
Second, God is not only with us, but God (in Christ) also bore the pain of alienation and exploitation that originated in our refusal of God’s ways. “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21) God was pleased to reconcile to himself “by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:20). God has not only come to dwell with us, but through the cross has also cleansed and healed us that we might be filled with love for God and for all that God loves.
Rather than viewing the cross as merely about God saving souls, we can see Christ’s crucifixion as the connection between the “revealing of the children of God” and creation “be[ing] set free from its bondage to decay” and obtaining “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19–21).
It was a vision of the dying and crucified Jesus that prepared Julian of Norwich for further visions of the greatness of the triune God and the nature of all creation. She saw creation as fragile and tiny, like a hazelnut held in God’s hands. She wondered that the hazelnut could even last, “for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; […] God made it [and] God preserves it.” [Author’s Note 6]
God is a welcoming God, who as Father, Son, and Spirit creates ways for all of creation to be drawn into God’s life and communion, and to have our healthy interdependence with all of creation restored. God is a hospitable God. The etymology for “hospitable” is richly evocative, relating to “hospital” — a place of healing; “to host” — an attitude of self-giving; and to “guest” — a sense that we are welcomed in a space that doesn’t belong to us. What does it mean to participate in God’s welcoming nature particularly in relation to creation-care?
First, to share in the nature of our hospitable God and to live out the truth that all things have been reconciled to God in Christ means a radical reordering of our approach to creation. How can we continue to be complacent about the ongoing degradation of the very elements of creation that have been drawn into reconciled relationship with God in Christ? Should we not begin, with Saint Francis of Assisi, to approach these elements as part of our family: “brother sun” and “sister moon,” “brother wind” and “sister water”? [Author’s Note 7] In our deep interconnectedness — knowing that if one member suffers, all suffer — can we continue to be complacent if there are no visible problems in our part of the world, while knowing that people and other creatures live in places deeply impacted by global warming, pollution, and neglect of creation care?
Second, if we affirm that Christ has first place in everything, how can we as Christians continue to compartmentalize our faith into dualistic perspectives that divide the spiritual from the material world, the sacred from the secular, heaven from earth? [Author’s Note 8] God’s presence and saving reconciliation extends to “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).
Third, does it make sense to cling to our lifestyles of greed and acquisition when we realize that God has enabled us “to share in the inheritance of the saints” and has “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,” which we share with others throughout the world (1:12–13)?
Rather than complacency, compartmentalization, and clinging to damaging lifestyles, God in Christ offers us new perspective, purpose, and power to live in harmony with God’s own love and care for creation.
First, a new perspective emerges when we perceive the presence of the kingdom of God in our midst, and we trust that the new creation has already commenced. We sense the invitation and privilege of sharing in God’s work by the Spirit to bring the kingdom to bear on all the realities of brokenness, destruction, and alienation in our world. We pray as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), affirming that God’s will is for the kingdom of God to come to earth, not for Christians to anticipate escaping the planet they helped trash to an other-worldly existence someday. [Author’s Note 9]
With P.T. Forsyth we can sense the challenge but also the greater victory already accomplished: “I sink under what has to be done for the world, till I realize that it is all less than what has been done […] The world’s awful need is less than Christ’s awful victory.” [Author’s Note 10] And we can “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith” knowing that the “hope promised by the gospel […] has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). There is no part of God’s creation that is not included in God’s concern and God’s purposes. We can affirm with the psalmist, “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD” (Psalm 36:6). We can rejoice, as Ellen Davis writes, “For mountains and rivers, God’s judgment means freedom — free at last from our doubtful mercy.” [Author’s Note 11] And we can actually begin to learn from our brothers and sisters in creation:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being. (Job 12:7–10)
Second, we can receive from God a new purpose. Rather than diminishing the health and fruitfulness of creation, grasping as much as we can for fear of scarcity, we can live out of the abundance of God’s goodness and grace. We can seek to share in the kind of fecundity that Jesus expressed by turning a few loaves and fish into a feast for the multitude, by turning water into wine, and by giving his own life for the sustenance of all creation. Jesus promised his disciples, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” (John 14:12). [Author’s Note 12] We may not feed multitudes from five loaves and two fish, but joining our resources together with others is a way in which God seems to do wonders. For “God is so free and grand, that he works wonders where man loses heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly.” [Author’s Note 13]
God has enabled us “to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:12). We are co-heirs with Christ. Wise stewardship comes when I can trust that God has provided more than enough for all, and when I live in a sense of the abundance of God to be shared rather than fear of scarcity that makes me want to cling. God’s purpose for us from the beginning was that we would wisely tend and care for the garden (Genesis 2:15). This includes joyous sacrifice, for “the invitation to the feast of reconciliation is an invitation to sacrifice.” [Author’s Note 14] Even as Christ’s sacrifice for us made us “holy and blameless” (Colossians 1:22), we are called to share in Christ’s sacrificial love through which creation may be liberated and healed rather than defiled.
And finally, God has given new power to make all of this possible. We are freed from the trap of relying merely on our own strength and wisdom, and thus from stumbling around in the darkness. God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). We need not resign ourselves to helpless complacency, for by the Holy Spirit we are “made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power” (1:11). We need not compete with other people and nations over finite resources, for our lives are now caught up in Christ, “in [whom] all things hold together” (1:17). And we need not shake our heads in confusion as we discern how best to care for creation, for we live in Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3).
We are invited, rather, as sons and daughters of the living God to share in God’s presence, purpose, and power, recognizing with the psalmist:
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you. (Psalm 145:9–10)
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