Look, all you have to see is a West Texas sunset, or Mt. Hood on a clear day, or a Miguel Cabrera home run to know that creation is good. Whatever the results of “the Fall,” creation did not stop being good. Our bodies didn’t stop being good. The earth didn’t stop being good. Creation still bears the blessing of the affirmation of the creator: it is good.
I can say this because the biblical pictures of the future intentions of God include resurrected bodies and a new creation, which includes a new earth. So, while our bodies and the creation are subject to decay, they do not fall under the category of things God no longer cares for or hopes to glorify. Paul doesn’t argue for the eternal nature of the soul that survives death. Instead, he looks forward to a bodily resurrection from the dead. And creation will not simply be burned up in an Armageddon at the end of the age. Instead, Paul says in Romans 8, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Our bodies and all of creation are the the focus of God’s ultimate concern in redemption.
Yet, somewhere along the way Christians adopted a gnostic view of life in which our souls are good and eternal and our “flesh” is temporary and bad. At death, we will be free from our bodies and this old world to be eternal souls in a distant heaven. As a result, our view of what counts as mission has been severely limited. “Saving souls” is the only thing that counts. Engagement with the material conditions of creation is not only secondary to God’s concerns, it gets in the way of mission proper. Concern for a thriving creation is a distraction.
The future Mrs. Love (in just 18 days) is a recycling fiend. Until recently, I’m not sure she would have seen that as serving God’s missional intentions for creation. It was a cool thing for her to realize that care for the earth was a vital aspect of spirituality properly defined as participation in the eschatological purposes of God. Recycling is mission. Caring for a garden is mission. Growing good, nutritious food is mission.
Now, I know Christians aren’t the only people who recycle. In fact, I once had a church member point out to me after a sermon one Sunday, that care for the earth is a thing that the neo-pagans and new-agers have been all about, not typically a thing Christians have done. He thought this association would discredit the need for Christians to care for the earth. We care about the eternal, they care about the temporary. Not only is this a distortion of the Christian message, but I think its great when our interests, born of our faith, coincide with the interests of others.
I would say, though, that understanding of our own motives is important. We think of these things as mission because we long for the future day when God will be all in all, when God’s glory will be seen in all of creation, when God’s good reign will be fully present and all of creation will experience the redeeming work of God. In fact, what allows these actions to become Christian testimony is our ability to bring to words our motivations for this kind of work. When we plant and water and harvest, we are longing for that future day when there will be no hungry or poor. When we share from our gardens, we are longing for that day when we will share a common table in the Kingdom of God. In other words, when we care for the material conditions of our neighbors or the earth, we are making our hope visible.
I know so many faith communities that are leaning into this impulse. A Christian neighborhood in Durham, NC, has a community garden that has a labyrinth built into its design. A missional community in Pontiac, MI, has been given vacant lots in distressed neighborhoods for community gardens. A church in Gresham, Or, has turned their large green space into row after row of garden plots open to those in their community. My son’s new monastic community in Abilene, Tx, was given vacant lots where they have rehabilitated the soil with the help of chickens, and planted a garden pollenated with bees they keep on the property. This list could go on and on. And here’s the deal. In many of these instances, this partnership with the earth is creating communities where none existed before. You might say, the earth mediates the relationships. Conversely, I know of several congregations who do “disembodied” “outreach” to others where new communities are not the result.
So, never led an evangelistic study? Doesn’t rule you out for participating in the mission of God. Find yourself a place to participate in the renewal of creation and watch what happens.
“…when we care for the material conditions of our neighbors or the earth, we are making our hope visible.” Yes, Mark! I have come to realize how true that is as I care for and pray for the physical/social/spiritual needs of those who come to the “healing rooms” (a house where people wanting healing of some sort join teams of two-three pray-ers go into rooms of a house in groups to pray in a small community). I wasn’t so interested in this work (people’s physical condition) until I stepped into it and realized how vital it is in generating hope and healing, re-connecting with God, and building/strengthening community. The first prayer time might start out with an “us v them” or “pray-er v pray-ee,” but by the end, it’s really obvious that we are all in this together, and that we’re only practicing what we first received. In fact, team members take their turn standing with the others to “get prayer.” In all of this, the sense of community becomes so strong that over time some of the “pray-ees” become full-fledged partners in the prayer team. In this way, the house itself becomes at least in part that “mediat[or of] relationships.”
I have been wondering (since yesterday) what exactly is a new heaven? I know I’m off topic, but you did bring it up. I’ve heard that phrase all my life and never gave it a thought before. I mean, the old heaven will be new to me.
Ronda, I think it’s best understood as the ancient way to describe creation–heaven and earth. So, Paul’s phrase, “new creation” might be a summary of saying new heaven and new earth. I don’t think here it refers to a place people occupy when they die.