Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Dream of the Earth

John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, had the luxury of time. Written around the end of the first century, or even as late as 120AD, up to half a century after Mark wrote his terse, almost telegraphic account of Jesus’ life and death, ending with the mystifying and ambiguous account of the empty tomb – probably a generation after Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels – St John’s Gospel bears the marks of sustained theological reflection. What did it all mean? What exactly is God up to here? What does it mean that this Jesus, who we have come to know not just as a prophet and a miracle worker but as one who is so intimately at one with God that he can only be described as God’s self-disclosing Word made flesh – what does it mean that we have experienced Jesus’ life among us and what has changed as a result? Do we just get back to business as usual, is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection when it comes down to it just an electrifying if rather obscure tale – or has it changed something? Given that our world is just as violent and competitive as ever, given that the suffering of the world’s poor continues to be mocked by the obscene over-consumption of the rich, given that our footprint on God’s creation is ever more destructive – does Easter actually change anything?

Centuries of hymns and sermons tell us that the resurrection of Jesus is the promise of eternal life – somewhere else, perhaps in heaven – a promise that the frailty and foolishness, the pettiness and the general ho-hum-ness of our lives in the here and now will somehow be redeemed as we enter into a new quality of life in the hereafter. Twentieth century preachers – especially after two World Wars - emphasised the point that actually, this eternal life is something we don’t need to wait until after we die to experience – the experience of life in its fullness – eternal life – is something that Jesus models and promises us if we take the risk of living as Jesus lived, loving wastefully and forgiving indiscriminately. Eternity is experienced in the life-giving act of reconciliation, the dying-to-self commitment to compassion and mercy and justice.

Well, it’s true. Paradoxically it is our self-preoccupation that cuts us off from really living. God’s priority is for life in its fullness – and resurrection informs us death does not get the final word. Resurrection is the promise of eternal life, the promise that life is ubiquitous, irrepressible and inextinguishable. Actually, hard science already knows that. Real science already knows that it is energy or spirit that is the true bedrock of reality. Atheism is just the damp squib of pretence that matter is lifeless, the dismal attempt to deny our mortality by pretending, in effect, that we were never properly alive in the first place. Resurrection is God’s way of saying, ‘actually, you might just trust me on this’. Life doesn’t end in nothingness, and the depth dimension of eternity can be glimpsed in an instant.

But John knows his Bible, specifically, he knows the cosmic stories of creation and fall in Genesis, and he suspects God’s agenda is even grander. What is going on with the death and resurrection of the One in whom and through whom all things are created, and without whom not one thing came into being? (John 1.3) What’s going on is the completion of creation itself and John – I think – is expanding on the very first two chapters of the Bible. And this, I suggest, is very helpful for 21st century Christians, and for all who suspect that the defining issue and the greatest challenge for our time is how to live with hope in the context of a creation suffering the fallout of human arrogance and self-obsession.

We get the big picture in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the Word who was with God in the beginning, and John makes the startling claim that Jesus is nothing less than the Word and Wisdom of God, the Word breathed over the chaos of precreation and divine Wisdom who pitches her tent and makes her home with human beings – thus making our humanity holy and revealing creation as the arena of God’s concern and saving action. In the subversive language of Hebrew Wisdom theology, this recasts the first chapter of Genesis. But today we focus on the second chapter, which is of course the tale of a garden. Or several gardens, which actually are the same garden, the garden of creation.

The first garden is of course Eden, which represents the tension between God’s dream of creation in harmony and the human will to work stuff out and change it and make it more convenient. Preferably with air conditioning and cruise control. Things go awry because of our deep-down desire to make the world around us conform to our own fantasies of control. Eat this, and you’ll know what’s going on. Except when they eat it, all the Bible’s first humans see clearly is their own nakedness – their own vulnerability and transparency. Great start.

Fast-forward to another garden – this one the vision of the prophet Isaiah, living in a time of military defeat and exile. Isaiah dreams of an age of peace, an age he calls the Day of the Lord when creation has turned full circle to where it was always meant to be. No going back to Eden, there’s too much water under the bridge for that, but peace can’t just mean human beings refraining from slaughtering one another. Isaiah’s dream is for that deeper, richer reality called shalom – wholeness and fullness – and he sees that human life can only be complete when it is lived in relationship with all that God has created, and so he imagines (in chapter 11) a world in which the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear all live together – which is to say the wild and the domesticated – with nobody eating anyone else and a small child leading them. Isaiah’s picture of creation at peace is of human beings fulfilling their original purpose of being custodians and protectors of creation rather than predators and plunderers. The echoes of Eden are there, but this is the peace not of na├»ve innocence but of reconciliation. The human curators model the virtues of restraint and self-limitation, it is an ecological rather than an individualistic image of human life.

And so to the Gospel. John doesn’t do the 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – surprisingly, to me, given that the image of Jesus in the desert surrounded by animals and learning to rely solely on the sustenance provided by God is so close to the dream of Isaiah. But John does two other gardens, the first of which is Gethsemene, the garden in which Jesus faces his fears and temptations - but unlike the first humans in Eden, resists the desire for self-serving control. Gethsemene in effect is the demonic echo of Eden. Jesus’ companions are overwhelmed – he is alone with the shifting shadows, with his fears and the half-heard voices. Jesus knows that his life can only unfold as it should in dependence on the one he calls his Father, and so he dies as he has lived, forgiving and loving those who have rejected him. Jesus here is practising the priority of relationship that we call self-giving love.

The final garden is of course the garden of the new tomb, the cave of Joseph of Arimathea. The garden is not so much described as suggested – it is a place of silence and rest for Holy Saturday on which, as the medieval theologians suggested, the creative Word of God was so hidden in death that all creation must have slept, or at the least walked in its sleep, grieving and purposeless. This is the seventh day of creation, the day on which God also rests. I imagine something like the garden that surrounds the castle in which the Sleeping Beauty was hidden, waiting for a kiss. A garden desperately in need of a gardener, brambles and overgrown olives trees with ancient gnarled trunks.

But something is moving, because as the night of the seventh day draws to its close a new cycle is beginning. The first day of the week, which in Jewish mythology is the first day of creation, is the day of resurrection. A woman walks at first light across the damp grass of the garden carrying gifts for a dead lover, and finds nothing but an inexplicable absence. The stone has been rolled away – it looks at first like a desecration even in death – she calls her companions who come and confirm the mystery. But then Mary does see clearly when she sees the one she supposes to be the gardener, because that in a sense is exactly who he is. This is a renewed creation and it begins with a man and a woman standing together in a new garden. What the garden of the new tomb makes possible is a reordering of creation as it is divinely intended. The Evangelist’s implication is that resurrection ushers in Isaiah’s Day of the Lord and offers the possibility of a creation at peace.

Well so what? What good does an ecotheology of resurrection serve? For a start it relieves us of our self-preoccupation that makes even religion about me - and it reminds us that the meaning of our lives can only unfold and be understood within their proper context, which is the network of our relationships with one another and with God’s creation. It relieves us of the burden of assuming that humanity is all God has on God’s mind. It reminds us of the need for humility – in the proper sense of the word which comes from the Latin, humus – of the Earth. It introduces a proper spirituality of the physical, something the Church for most of its history has sadly lacked. Not only is every created thing an icon of Christ and a little Word of God, as the Franciscans put it, but this creation made holy in the Incarnation of the Word and restored in the resurrection of the Christ is nothing less than God’s own body. It sets us free to delight in our created surroundings, and in our own bodies, and it reminds us that our true vocation is to be lovers of all that God loves.

Resurrection, finally, is a word of hope – God saying ‘actually, you might just trust me on this too’ - that the true end of the story is not death, but the fullness of life and the shalom of the Earth.