Stewards of the Earth (Genesis 1:26-31)

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I’m in charge of putting our bins out.

That’s not as simple as it used to be: now domestic waste goes into a black bin, garden clippings in a brown bin, recyclable materials in a blue bin. Composting and recycling have slowly entered into the rhythms of everyday life.

This is probably good, because I’m not, by nature, an eco-warrior. I’m lazy. I consume plenty but it’s been a while since I grew tomatoes or planted a tree. I exploit creation – goodness knows the carbon footprint of my daily commute – but I don’t steward it nearly enough.

(I don’t like hurting bees. Does that count?)

This has theological implications. As early as the first chapter of Genesis, God puts humanity in charge of the world and ever since we’ve had to figure out what that means in practice, with people generally saying we should “rule” over creation, Or “have dominion” over it. Or “steward” it. We have various words, various translations to use, but their implications have to be reevaluated with every new discovery, every new trade link. And with the acceleration in technology and economic growth, our actions are outstripping our spirituality.

Here’s the thing though – we may be responsible for creation but we’re not separate from it. Nowadays we can and do exploit the earth on an industrial scale but that doesn’t mean that we should. After all, climate change and ecology in general can’t be separated from their impact on humanity – rising temperatures means increases in cholera and malaria, flooding becomes more severe, agriculture becomes more difficult. All of this has a human cost, with the poorest among us being the first and most vulnerable victims of changes in the biosphere.

It’s not just environmental problems though. The use and misuse of resources is a far more extensive and insidious issue. I admit this exposes my hypocrisy – I don’t know nearly enough about who produces my clothes or my food, or who mines the rare earth elements that sit in my smartphone. But again, our choices – our ‘dominion’ I guess – has consequences and we’re accountable for those consequences.

Issues like climate change and fair trade are intrinsically human problems, and I’m saying that with an awareness that creation is beautiful and majestic in its own right, not just as an adjunct to humanity. But if our call is to love our neighbours (and our enemies), if we’re told not to oppress the poor, or cause others to suffer, then we need to have a theology of creation care that goes beyond exploitation.

There’s an element of short-sightedness in all this. Too often various branches of Christianity have viewed the environment as a slow-burn apocalypse – if God’s going to recreate the universe in the end, why do we need to worry about it? But that’s a view that ignores that the rainforests we’re destroying produce drugs that treat cancer, heart disease and diabetes; that corporations dumping toxic waste in the middle of communities actually kill people.

We can’t be part of that. If we’re going to represent God’s kingdom on Earth then we also need to reflect his kingship. And we see that through Jesus; less than a week ago we remembered him washing the feet of his disciples and insisting that his followers would be characterised by live. That extends to all our interactions, the impact we have on the world around us.

Oppressing communities is a violence against those created in God’s image. Driving a species to extinction is violence against his creation. And we’re not called to be people of violence; our citizenship of God’s kingdom needs to be lived out in this world in advance of the next, people of compassion, not exploitation. We bear God’s image; let’s reflect it.

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Easter Monday 2014: Forgetting

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So the Easter celebrations have finished; the eggs are half eaten, the midnight vigils are over, Sunday has come and gone. It’s the most dangerous part of the Easter season – the time of forgetting.

We don’t mean to, of course, but the everyday starts to intrude – we return to work, or race to beat the bank holiday traffic to make the most of our holidays. Kids have to be fed, dishwashers need to be empty, commuting and shopping and grabbing some sleep become our realities. Easter fades from view for another year.

Okay, maybe that’s just me. I’m the first to admit I’m better at thinking about the Bible than applying it, and it’s easy to lose sight of the implications of Jesus rising from the dead 2,000 years after the fact.

Still, it’s too easy to consolidate Easter into a one-off transaction that secures one of those heavenly mansions but that doesn’t place any more demands on us, other than maybe an hour or so every Sunday. But while we don’t earn grace, following Jesus remains a 24-7 call. And that’s a challenge.

But the forgetting can take other forms. An encounter with the risen Jesus can lead to us running away – Peter meets Jesus in the upper room, but he still ends up returning to his life as a fisherman for a time. He needs at least one more conversation with Jesus to get to grips with his mission.

Because Easter is all about new life, but sometimes we experience slow-burn resurrections. We head towards life in all its fullness but we get sidetracked, we stumble, we slowly work through a lifetime of baggage and biography with the Holy Spirit graciously nudging us in the right direction.

This is why Easter is every day: resurrection isn’t a one time deal. It’s about dying to things that hold us back and the birth of something better, and it’s about the establishment of a kingdom that embodies life rather than death. Listen out for it, for the emptiness of the tomb echoes down the ages. Forgetting cannot be an option.

Easter Sunday 2014: Gardens

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Really it’s all about gardens.

The Bible, after all starts with a garden; the great cosmic scope of the creation story zooms in on a single location, a garden planted by God to home those created in his image. But the image is marred, the garden is lost, and the rest of the Bible is about a journey to restore that primal intimacy with God.

Jump forward to the end of the Bible and Revelation’s climactic description of the new Jerusalem. Here we read of a beautiful city, but one with trees and fruit and a flowing river. It’s an image of Eden restored; the journey of the Scriptures is a return to the garden.

So it’s no surprise that the Easter story is full of gardens; they’re present even at the darkest moments. Gethsemane is the place where a choice has to be made – the place where Jesus wrestles with his mission. Both Gethsemane and Eden present a choice between human desires and God’s; Gethsemane is where the right choice is made and Eden’s curse starts to be undone: “Not my will but yours” is a powerful enough prayer on its own, but praying it in a garden is a hint of where this story is heading.

And we head there almost immediately. On the agony and blood of Calvary, a dying man asks Jesus to remember him; Jesus tells him that they’ll go into Paradise together. The word ‘Paradise’ has very specific connotations; it means ‘garden’.

So the drama of that first Easter morning is played out in another garden. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at the break of dawn, finding it empty. Wracked with grief and thinking that Jesus has been subjected to yet another unthinkable humiliation, she doesn’t recognise the hidden Christ.

She mistakes him for a gardener.

It’s the most profound mistake in the Bible, because God has always been a gardener. Eden and the prophesied City of God are evidence of that and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, access to those sacred gardens is restored. And so is hope and life and forgiveness.

It’s impossible to discuss Easter without talking about new life. Sometimes that’s the sudden, miraculous revival of what once was dead, but often it’s a slower resurrection, a cultivation carried out by a loving and patient Gardener. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days – the death of hope or love isn’t always reversed overnight. But new life is coming.

Mary didn’t get it wrong. Jesus is a gardener. He’s the Adam who got it right; the one who reopened the gates of Eden and shows us the way inside.

Happy Resurrection Day!

Holy Saturday 2014: Desolation

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It’s quiet.

The chaos and horror of Good Friday are over; Jesus is buried in a borrowed tomb and the mourning now begins. Those who had gathered around the cross return to their homes wracked with tears and grief and trauma. It’s a Sabbath – no opportunity to distract themselves with work, just space to weep and to wonder where they go from here.

Traditionally Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, but we’re only waiting if we know what’s coming next. After all, Easter Sunday casts a long, bright shadow, a source of hope born from knowing how the story ends. But what about those who lacked the benefit of hindsight? To them, Holy Saturday must have been less of a pause and more of an end.

Something has to die before there can be a resurrection. But death feels so final, and if you’d seen the broken and bloody body of Jesus taken down from the cross, there may have been no question that death was permanent. To John or Mary or Peter, hope must have felt far away, absent even forever.

Maybe we need this time. Maybe there’s a reason that Jesus came back from the dead on Sunday rather than Saturday. Maybe there needs to be a time of hopelessness built into our calendars to provide some sort of solidarity with all those who struggle to see a tomorrow. Even if we know what happens in the morning it’s still easier to relate to Saturday rather than Sunday.

That’s not to deny the reality of the resurrection, but Holy Saturday gives us space to examine the places where death and grief and absence remain a present reality. Sunday is coming, yes, but after that faith is often an ongoing series of smaller resurrections. We have to work through doubt and despair and abandonment because they’re present realities in a fallen world.

So maybe the quiet of Holy Saturday gives us an opportunity to confront our doubts and fears, to be honest with ourselves in the quiet spaces before tomorrow’s celebrations. Maybe it’s a space of grace given to us to gather our thoughts and prayers, no matter how raw and primal they are, and take take them to the entrance of the the empty tomb, awaiting the dawn, awaiting resurrection.

Good Friday 2014: Crucifixion

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It’s Good Friday. The long road to Calvary has reached its awful climax and all we can do is watch in horror as the kingdoms of the world go to war with the Kingdom of God, as those who want Jesus dead unleash their most brutal, terrifying weapon.

Crucifixion was barbaric and brutal and slow – the word ‘excruciating’ means ‘to torture on a cross”. Its primary purpose wasn’t just to kill – after all, there are far more efficient ways to get rid of an enemy – but to humiliate, to horrify, to send a message. Crucifixion was all about communicating power – that’s why the Romans crucified rebels and revolutionaries, as the ultimate deterrent, as a means of stamping their authority on the world.

This didn’t originate with Rome. It’s said that, when Alexander the Great besieged Tyre, he crucified 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants, nailing them to crosses lined up across a beach. Woe betide anyone who crossed Alexander.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus was crucified. The Romans and the Temple authorities recognised the world-shaking challenge of his teachings, perhaps more than we do. After all, if we take Jesus at his word then everything must change, the status quo must be rejected, abandoned, cast aside as meaningless in the light if God’s holiness, love and grace. To some this is recognised as hope and salvation; to others it’s a threat to be overcome, a blasphemy that needs to be crushed.

And so those who perceived this threat engineered not just Jesus’s execution, but his utter humiliation and his irrevocable defeat. He was scourged and mocked and beaten, paraded to Calvary so weak that a random member of the crowd was drafted in to carrying his cross. And that very cross alluded to more than just physical death, it implied that Jesus would be rejected and cursed by God in accordance with the law of Moses.

Look at this scene again. Everything here speaks of defeat and death; even geography proclaims that Jesus is doomed as he stumbles towards Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Jesus is defeated, both physically and spiritually. This is the end.

And yet…

And yet there are glimmers of truth here, breaking through in moments and mockery and realisation that, in the upside down world of Easter, feel prophetic. The ‘thief’ on the cross – more rightly understood as a revolutionary – realises, at the last moment, the futility of his actions and aligns himself with Jesus. The sign above the cross and the crown of thorns may be mockeries but they’re also true.

And the centurion who sees something that makes him proclaim that this is the Son of God? He becomes a symbol of God’s triumph on the cross; the power structures and the tools of intimidation used by this world aren’t just defeated, they’re transformed.

Crucifixion was one of empire’s greatest weapons. But we no longer fear the cross, we see it as a symbol of hope and salvation. We don’t commemorate Good Friday as the end, but as part of a transforming, resurrecting cycle that climaxes a couple of days later with a garden and an empty tomb. The power of death and hell, of evil and compromise and oppression is shattered at the very moment they appeared to have won.

But first there were the nails, the spears, the jeering troops. We can be resurrected, but often with pain and never without change. God’s grace costs us nothing, but that’s not to say a price wasn’t paid. The pain of Good Friday was real.

And yet Sunday is still on the way.