Climate Justice: 2 Easter

Wounds of creation, wounds of Christ

April 12, 2015

Focus Scripture: John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” (John 20:19)

Every year on the Sunday after Easter Day we listen to that marvelous and mysterious story we just heard from the Gospel of John; the story of Jesus showing himself to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day and returning a week later to reassure the disciple whom we call “Doubting Thomas” that, yes, the Risen Lord is real.

“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, showing him the wounds. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas finds his faith and says, “My Lord and my God.”

During these 30 Days of Action, Episcopalians are reflecting on how this gospel story connects with the climate crisis in which we find ourselves. What happens when we take our concern for God’s creation and hold it to the light of this story about the wounded and risen Christ? What word of hope, what word of comfort or challenge is God speaking to us through this gospel text? How do the wounds of Christ connect with the wounds of God’s creation?

Maybe that’s the place to begin: with the wounds of God’s creation. I know I’m not the only one who sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, anxious about the basic health of the planet that God has entrusted to our care. Open the newspaper, turn on the news, scan your computer, and the latest bulletins roll in: extreme storms; record-breaking droughts in some places and massive deluges in others; melting glaciers, thawing tundra, rising seas; oceans turning acidic because of the carbon dioxide that they’ve absorbed.

When it comes to climate disruption, the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is not a future threat. It is a looming and all-too-present reality. Burning fossil fuels is releasing gases into the atmosphere that make the world’s climate increasingly hot and unstable. Of course there has always been some natural variability in the planet’s average temperature, but ever since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been forcing the climate to change in a way that human beings have never experienced before.

In just two centuries – only a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. The average worldwide temperature is rising, and if we stick to business as usual and keep on our present course, we could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. That may not sound like much, but, in fact, it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit.

Climate change isn’t just a quote-unquote “environmental” issue – it’s a “civilization” issue. It’s not just about polar bears – it’s about where our grandchildren will find clean water. It’s about how societies will handle growing epidemics of infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. It’s about where masses of people will go as rising seas drive them from their homes or when the rains don’t fall and the fields turn to dustbowls. It’s about hungry, thirsty people competing for scarce resources and reverting to violence, civil unrest or martial law in the struggle to survive.

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. So when I turn to today’s gospel story, my heart goes out to those disciples huddled fearfully in that locked-up house. One thing is certain: They are not in denial any more. They have seen the crucifixion. They have witnessed trauma and brutality. They are not about to claim that Christ’s wounds on the cross were not real, any more than we can pretend that the wounds to God’s creation are not real. Like we who face the climate crisis, the disciples have been looking death in the face, and they are scared.

What happens when we witness trauma? We feel helpless, frightened and overwhelmed. We go numb. And maybe it’s worse than that – maybe in ways we never wanted or intended, we participated in that trauma; maybe we share some responsibility for what happened and we can’t bear the sense of guilt. I wonder if the disciples feared not only something outside themselves, but also something within themselves. I wonder if, in going through the trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion, they had learned some things about themselves that they had never realized and never wanted to see. Perhaps they now recognized their own violence, their own capacity to do harm, as when Simon Peter drew his sword during Jesus’ arrest and sliced off a man’s ear. Perhaps they now recognized their weakness and fearfulness when they failed to stand by their dearest friend and teacher. Most of them had abandoned Jesus and left him to his fate; one of them had denied him three times. I wonder if after his death they felt, not just frightened, shocked, and sorrowful, but also guilty and ashamed. I wonder if they were whispering anxiously to each other, “What have we done?”

That’s a question that besets us, too, as we look around at the effects of burning fossil fuels. What have we done? When we look at the unintended but very real consequences of our way of life and of an economy that is based on fossil fuels – when we see the web of life unraveling, when we see dying coral and melting ice caps, when we see raging floods in one part of the world and growing deserts in another, when we hear how many species are dying and how scientists tell us that we’ve launched the sixth major extinction event in the planet’s history – no wonder so many of us feel paralyzed. Like it or not, intentionally or not, we’ve set something deadly into motion. What have we done? How can we live with ourselves? Can we be forgiven? What will set us free to change course and turn around?

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).

Can you feel the impact of that moment? The Risen Christ comes to his frightened, guilty, traumatized friends and says “Peace be with you.” He brings them peace. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Even though they have abandoned or denied him, he loves them still. In fact, in this one short passage Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times, as if the disciples need to soak up that message, to hear it again and again – not only to undo Peter’s three-fold denial, but also to ensure that all of them, and all of us, experience that forgiveness deep in our bones. I suppose that is the beginning of our resurrected life: when we hear and actually take in how much God loves us, and how completely we are forgiven and set free to live a new life.

If we think that we’ve missed out on that experience – if we think that only other people get to know they’ve been forgiven, that love will have the last word, that life will triumph over death – then here is our good friend Thomas, wanting more than second-hand accounts of the resurrection. He wants to know its reality in his own lived experience. Thomas is insisting on a personal, direct experience of the Risen Christ, and that is what Jesus gives him. Jesus goes looking for Thomas, even moving through closed doors to find him. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says to the astonished disciple, and invites him to reach out and touch his wounded hand and side. In the intimacy of that mysterious encounter, Thomas’ faith is kindled. His doubts drop away, his fear turns to courage, and his sorrow turns to joy. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims, in what can be read as the highpoint, the climax, of John’s gospel.

What do the disciples see as they gaze at the wounds of the risen Christ? I think they see the harsh reality of violence, suffering and death, but now they see something else, too: the wounds are radiant. They are filled with God’s presence. They are lit up with love, as if light is pouring from Jesus’ wounded hands and side. Yes – violence is real; trauma is real; death is real; but the love of God abides, endures, and can never be destroyed.

In the power of that discovery, the disciples are sent out to bear witness to the love that conquers death. For Jesus doesn’t just give them peace – he also sends them on a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”  (John 20:21), he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. That release of energy and hope galvanized the early church. The Book of Acts recounts story after story of men and women so filled with confidence in the reality of the Risen Christ and the transforming power of the resurrection, that they became healers and justice-seekers. They disrupted the habits and patterns of the unjust status quo. They confronted the unjust political and religious powers of their day and proclaimed the reign of God.

And so it is for us. When we see and touch the wounds of God’s creation and grasp what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,”(1) we can receive again the peace and forgiveness of the Risen Christ. We can breathe in again the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. And then we can head out into the world to become healers of creation. Individual actions add up: We can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, and quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can install solar panels, eat local, organic foods, support local farms and land trusts, maybe even leave them some money in our wills. Maybe this congregation can form a “green team” or a “creation care committee” – whatever we decide to call it. Maybe we can join Interfaith Power & Light and learn to save money as we save energy.

As individuals and congregations, we can and should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to make a transition to clean, safe, renewable energy, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, as well. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? 400 parts per million, and climbing. So we have work to do. One place to begin is to join 350.org, which is inspiring a global grassroots movement to tackle climate change.

I like to imagine a church, to imagine a diocese, in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of church we need today. We are facing the greatest challenge that human beings have ever faced, and I pray for the day when we commit ourselves to creating a world for our children and our children’s children that is habitable, peaceful and just.

Christianity has a powerful message to bring to a frightened and imperiled world: Yes, climate change is real, but so is the reconciling and liberating love of God. Anxiety about the future, anger and fear about the present, and regret and guilt about the past are not enough to sustain our efforts to care for creation. It is the forgiving love of God – that endless, self-sacrificing, hidden outpouring of love that we receive in every heartbeat, in every breath, in every moment – that alone will sustain our efforts to become healers of creation, both now and in the years ahead.

Like the disciples in today’s story, we don’t want to huddle in fear. We want to step out together as the Body of Christ and to greet the future with Christ’s love and peace. I give thanks for Doubting Thomas, for he expresses and symbolizes our doubt: doubt that we can stop catastrophic climate change, doubt that we can make a difference, doubt that God will be with us, doubt that resurrection is even possible. Whatever our doubts may be, wherever we’re holding back, Jesus invites us today to open ourselves to the gift of his forgiveness and to his energizing Spirit.

Jesus has faith in us, and in what we can do in his name. “Reach out your hand,” Jesus says to Thomas, and to all of us. There is so much healing that we can do, so much power to reconcile that God has given us, so much life that we can help bring forth. The Risen Christ has given us everything we need. Today at the Eucharist we will stretch out our hands to receive the body and blood of Christ, just as Thomas stretched out his hands to touch Christ’s wounded hands and side. May we open ourselves to receive the love that is stronger than death and that will never let us go, and may we then embody that love in the world around us in every way we can.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas serves as missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and maintains the website RevivingCreation.org.

 

(1) In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” which begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.”

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  1. […] Bullitt-Jonas, missioner for creation care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, put it in a sermon written for the Sunday after Easter: “Climate change isn’t just an ‘environmental’ issue […]

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