Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” -Psalm 19
Christians have long wrestled with their place within the world. Inherent to this struggle is our received interpretation of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:14-19)
Unfortunately, the expression “of the world” has at times been misunderstood by Christians. Extreme interpretations went so far as to reject much of the created world and its goods, understanding creation to be corrupt and mortally wounded by sin. Gnosticism and Manicaesm, two movements in early Christian history, believed the created world to be evil and that true believers must rise above the created order through a hidden knowledge revealed to them by God. Sexuality, for example, was interpreted by such believers as a necessary evil, something only to be practised for the sake of procreation. In fact, some went so far as to suggest celibacy was the only pure and true way to liberation from the temptations and lures of this world.
In later centuries, other movements and sects in Christianity would give rise to extreme rejections of all that was perceived as worldly and not of God. Although these movements appeared to be harmless, they fostered a sense or a notion of the created world as somehow fundamentally flawed. Anything outside of the realm of the Christian way of being was deemed as evil and in need of reform and purification. The implications of such thinking gave rise to an ill-perceived Christian superiority. The consequences of this would be felt around the globe, particularly as Christian missionaries travelled to lands foreign to Western Europeans. The natural resources were to be tamed and dominated by the explorers and indigenous persons were subject to oppression, all with the blessing of the religious authorities back in Europe.
While many Christians would now reject such beliefs, we are only beginning to wrestle with the tragic consequences of that way of thinking. Countless indigenous peoples were brutally treated over the course of 500 years. Whole nations and tribes were devastated by the oppressive acts of European settlers. Today countless indigenous persons lack access to clean water and other basic resources, and continue to experience discrimination and violence.
It’s striking then that as we dedicate this Sunday as the National Indigenous Day of Prayer we return to the theme of creation in our scripture lessons. We hear Isaiah proclaim “the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” We sing with the Psalmist “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows is handiwork.” And we stand in awe as we hear the prologue of John’s Gospel proclaimed: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Our scripture lessons challenge us to reconsider our earlier views of the created world, to see that all God had created was good. Not only is it good, it magnifies the glory of God.
Yet what about Jesus’ saying that we are not of this world? How does that fit into our understanding of creation as good?
Jesus’ words were not meant to disparage creation, but to name the human ways of perverting and distorting the goods of this world. Typically, when the New Testament speaks “of this world” it is not in reference to the natural, created world nor does it speak of those things foreign to Christianity, such as other religious or spiritual traditions. Rather, to speak of the things of this world is to speak of humanity’s sinful ways. God created the world and gave it a particular order and purpose. Humans, through their sinful and unjust acts, abuse the world and each other. By his death and resurrection, Jesus not only restores creation to its original purpose, but transforms it into God’s glory. As his disciples, we are called to care for creation and to share in God’s mission of renewing creation. We are to see the good of God’s creation, to name it, and to magnify it.
This latter point is important. While the early Christians perceived themselves as in a struggle with the world and the foreign cultures within it, St. Paul offers another approach and perspective: not all things in this world are bad. There is good to be found in those things that appear foreign and strange to us. Paul writes to his friends at Philippi: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8). Paul has an astute way of perceiving the good within this world and challenges the various Christian communities to affirm the good they see and renounce that which is against God, as N.T. Wright notes in an easy on this letter: the disciples of Jesus “are neither to reject everything in the surrounding world nor to embrace everything.” Rather, Wright goes on to say that they are to discern the true and good in what they see.
So, too, are we to discern the good in the world. As we honour this National Indigenous Day of Prayer, I think it is time we as Christians recognise the beauty of our indigenous brothers and sisters and to truly begin the work of reconciliation. First, we need to name and acknowledge the many ways in which we have destroyed precious cultures and peoples. Reconciliation can only begin if we are willing to name the sins committed by the church. Some will object and suggest that we had nothing to do with it, yet to do so is to ignore the continued oppression and suffering of many indigenous persons. Even if we are not personally responsible for the sins of the past and present, we bear the obligation to name what we’ve done as a people and to ensure a just and peaceable kingdom for all people. That will be the only way forward in the path of reconciliation.
Secondly, I think it is worth taking some time to appreciate the many ways our indigenous sisters and brothers have cared for God’s creation and were attentive to the Spirit of God among them. As we do, let us not forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah today: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” God has dwelt with the people of this land long before our ancestors ever arrived. And through their rituals and traditions, the peoples of this land honoured God. It would be wrong of us not to see or appreciate that.
Finally, I think it would also be wise for us to heed St. Paul’s instruction: “Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” This invitation of Paul’s is not a simple nicety, but rather an invitation to draw near to all God’s people and to restore the familial bonds of God’s kingdom. It is a realisation that we can only experience God’s blessings if all can share in God’s blessings. This ought to challenge us, particularly when, as I said earlier, thousands of indigenous persons in our land lack some of the most basic of necessities and in some instances suffer the consequences of our insatiable desire for natural resources. For those of us who are called to show gentleness to all, this ought to give us pause. We have a long way to go before all God’s people can share in the fruits of the Kingdom.
My friends, as I close my reflection on today’s commemoration and the scripture lessons, I invite you to carefully listen to the collect for today, the one we prayed a few moments ago. Let us heed the words of this prayer and speak the truth in love, walk in God’s ways to justice and wholeness, and help one another to grow into the full stature of Christ. Let us pray:
Creator God, from you every family in heaven and earth takes its name. You have rooted and grounded us in your covenant love, and empowered us by your Spirit to speak the truth in love, and to walk in your way towards justice and wholeness. Mercifully grant that your people, journeying together in partnership, may be strengthened and guided to help one another to grow into the full stature of Christ, who is our light and our life. Amen.