Pentecost 2021

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Day of Pentecost, Year B (2021)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

As he finishes one of his best-known poems, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry calls his readers to “practice resurrection” (The Mad Farmer Poems, Counterpoint, 2013, p. 21). These outrageous verses issue a challenge to rethink the tenets of standard economics. After all, calling farmers to plant sequoias and view one’s chief crop as forest that shows a profit from the two inches of topsoil accumulating every thousand years certainly takes the long view necessary to nurture the fullness and intricacy of life.

The very notion of “practicing resurrection” could not have been more alien to members of the early community who awaited “being clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), whatever that meant. Hadn’t they been disbelieving and shocked by the appearance of their rabbi whom many considered a ghostly presence (Luke 24:36-40)? All that was left to them was a vague sense of expectation as they gathered at Pentecost.

They could not have been prepared for what they experienced. First, there was the “sound like a violent wind” (Acts 2:2) that filled the room. Not only are “wind/breath” and “spirit” interchangeable, but they point to deep formative experiences among God’s people. In the first creation narrative, we recall that “a wind/spirit from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). As different  as the next creation story is, breath/spirit are indispensable to animating the human one formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). And the very survival of this community escaping slavery is ensured as “the LORD drove the sea by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” (Exodus 14:21),  preventing slaughter by Egyptian charioteers. This wind/spirit event is so transparent that little explanation was necessary.

Images of fire were just as familiar. Not only was Moses called by the divine presence in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2f.), his people were led through the wilderness at night by a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). Those who celebrated Pentecost as a commemoration of the Sinai event could hardly have missed the connection with the fiery presence of the Holy One on the mountain (Exodus 19:18). Now the narrator seems to connect the presence of fire with the sudden emergence from the mouths of these rustic Galileans of a stunning variety of the languages spoken in the known world. No wonder the great variety of the observant who had settled in Jerusalem were bewildered, amazed, and astonished.  For suddenly they all heard the story of new creation in their native tongues.

But that is not all. As they remembered the richness of the Torah, the old story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) came to mind with its “explanation” of the origin of linguistic diversity. As Richard Pervo suggests: “By reversing linguistic disunity, the experience is revealed as both an eschatological event of new creation and a utopian restoration of the unity of the human race.  In this thrilling narrative Luke expresses fundamental theological principles: the gift of the Spirit is the present eschatological benefit, and this gift is for the whole human race” (Acts—A Commentary, Hermeneia, Augsburg-Fortress, 2009, pp. 61-62).

It is just this breakthrough made possible by the spirit/breath and the fiery gift of comprehensible speech that frees members of the earliest community to “practice resurrection.”  That is, by the intelligibility of their speech and by forming a new community of radical sharing, they become living witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It is a transformation that grows out of these not-so-bewildering phenomena in biblical context and distributes Easter newness to all.

As we reflect on this text in light of the needs of the earth and its life in 2021, it is clear that the contemporary faith community is also called to live out this universal pattern of hope. That is, it should be collaborating with all who are working to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to the 80% of the earth’s population for whom they are little more than fantasy.  Certainly the current situation in India should wake us to this need for the spirit-breath of healing, a need which persists through most of the Global South.

But we also need the Spirit’s windy fire to expand our concern to the whole of creation by beginning to hear the rich language of otherkind. Not only is going beyond anthropocentrism possible; the biblical tradition requires it. For example, when we consider the full experience of Sabbath delight as the goal and complete expression of creation as it was intended to be (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 86), then we must revisit Sabbath commandments.  Both texts (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) include non-humans prominently.  For example, the Deuteronomic version includes rest for oxen, donkeys and all livestock (Deuteronomy 5: 14).

As we face the “sixth extinction” we need to listen to philosopher David Abram who reminds us: All things have the capacity for speech — all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings. Indeed, what is perception if not the experience of this gregarious, communicative power of things, wherein even ostensibly “inert” objects radiate out of themselves, conveying their shapes, hues, and rhythms…? (David Abram, Becoming Animal, quoted in Terri Windling’s Myth and Moor blog, terriwindling.com, April 29, 2021, “The Broader Conversation”). Must we not see the gift of Pentecost comprehension extended to all beings?

Certainly Psalm 104 celebrates the animacy of creation. Grass, plants, cedar trees, mountains, rocks, singing birds, goats, rabbits, lions, and even the great leviathan all point to a lively interdependence. “When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust. When you send forth your spirit (breath), they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:29-30).  And the full extent of this breadth of concern continues because the creativity of God is ongoing. Wirzba deepens this by insisting that “…the life of creatures is in some sense a participation in divine life because it is only the animating presence (spirit or breath) of God to creatures that keeps them from returning to the dust from which they came” (Wirzba, p. 47). And what is living out this participation but “practicing resurrection?”

By completing Easter, then, the Spirit cracks open the possibilities for new relationships that have yet to be realized.  As is common in classical historiography, events are interpreted by the words of a prominent actor. While Peter’s eligibility for this role is questionable since he last appeared in the Luke-Acts text denying Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), he now appears as the most prominent leader of the Jerusalem community. To give meaning to these phenomena is a task as thankless as explaining a joke and losing its life. But Peter soldiers on interpreting the events in terms of the prophet Joel.

Nevertheless, by quoting this post-exilic prophet, Peter cloaks the events with the respectability of tradition.  Once more we hear the Lukan theme of universality: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The Day of the Lord, instead of being history’s last chapter, brings a new beginning.

As Paul reminds us, this newness is always lived out in the midst of struggle. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now….” (Romans 8:22). This makes it very clear that the focus of divine concern is not limited to humankind, but is cosmic in scope. Whether we are reflecting on the climate crisis, species extinction, human overpopulation, or Covid-19 and potential future viruses, we are going through the long labor Paul describes.  This is both what we can expect and what we share responsibility for.

Far from imaging romantic “tests” the Holy One puts us through to prove our piety, we struggle with the results of our hubris: “claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:22). The chorus of groans is our own doing.  Without doubt human violation of ecological limits is responsible for the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, and the rarely considered loss of nutrient-rich topsoil. Biologist Stan Cox of the Land Institute warns “The Covid-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world in which our activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergencies…Covid-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature….” (“Civilization, Heal Thyself,” Land Report, Spring 2021, p. 12).

How do we find this harmony? Where does the collective birthing process begin? An implicit warning from Paul may help. The solution for the groaning the early community shared with the rest of creation will not come from Imperial Rome. Pauline scholars remind us that after the fracture of the Roman Republic, the cult of the emperor was elevated (especially by Augustus) as the divinely-ordained source of healing and justice (David G. Horrell and others, Greening Paul, Baylor, 2010, p. 84). Our text offers a subtle counter-cultural alternative. Very little additional reflection would have been necessary to realize that the Empire was, in fact, a major source of ecological degradation. Deforestation, soil erosion, military cattle “rustling” and the impounding of land to reward military service made the Imperium an unlikely source of comfort.

Members of the faith community in the U.S. are in much the same position. Although we may be experiencing, if not the sunset of the American Empire, at least the late afternoon, the U.S. military projects power with more than 700  bases, outposts and installations throughout the world. No other nation has even 10% of this number. Americans pay for this military presence with a “defense” budget as large as the 10 next nations combined. The massive nature of this resource allocation has not prevented American military failure in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, as these failures mounted, we have seen a budding cult of militarism evidenced by observances at sporting events, the desire of a recent president for North Korean-style military parades, and the widespread adoption of military equipment by urban police departments.

As military expenditures have continued to grow, domestic services have been hollowed out from the inside.  Not only has the continuing Corona-19 pandemic exposed the weakness of the public health system, but the nation continues to lead the world in virus deaths. At the same time, the political system has been unable to meet common challenges, with representatives spending increasing time fundraising for what seem like endless campaigns with few real financial limits. Yet political leaders, business executives, and even economists repeat the mantra of endless growth, forgetting that earth is a finite planet. Add to that the growing inequality of wealth, the racial caste system, structural unemployment due to robotics and poor training, then we have to ask: is this a system capable of dealing with the climate emergency? As Bill McKibben has pointed out: while the long arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, “the arc of the physical universe is short, and it bends toward heat” (“The Climate Crisis” blog, New Yorker online, May 5, 2021).

Clearly, easing the groaning of creation will have to be a collaborative journey that includes governments, faith communities, interest organizations, global NGO’s and groups we still cannot even imagine. The goal will be enhancing and learning from the entire membership of the creation community as we go through the labor pains leading to a new creation together.  For the Christian community in humble service, it will be a way to make the Spirit of God at home (Greening, 211) so that we may “practice resurrection.”

Our Gospel Reading also helps us to comprehend how the coming of the Spirit “completes Easter” for the Acts community. As the spirit-wind and fire take them completely into performance of Creation and Exodus—the heart of their tradition—they experience the mutual harmony emerging from the recovery of shalom on what Peter understands as the Day of the Lord. This is the breath of new life which empowers them to bear witness (John 15:27).

But this witness is far more than verbal testimony. Rowan Williams suggests this en-spirited resurrection faith “represents the restoration of a lost or occluded capacity in humanity, the capacity to be a mediatorial presence in creation, a priestly vocation to nurture the harmony and God-relatedness…and to articulate its deepest meaning in terms of divine gift and beauty”(Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, Bloomsbury, 2018 p. 223.) Priesthood is not understood solely as altar service, but as a radical act of sharing gifts. As Paul Evdokimov writes: “In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer is called to act as priest of all of life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into a an offering, a gift of glory” (Wirzba, p. 263).

Earlier in John’s Gospel, the question is asked: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6: 28)  While hospitality and welcome into the faith community is important testimony, the story told by how we live cannot be overrated. Turning personal and church lawns into gardens (community gardens?) and planting shrubs and flowers to attract pollinators enhance our lives and witness to the importance of all creatures great and small. Not only can we embrace the “three r’s” — “reduce, reuse, and recycle”—we can add a fourth: “refuse.”  After more than a year of “pandemic lockdown,” what have we discovered to be unnecessary? Has the realization that we live in a finite world that cannot sustain endless growth piqued our interest in the “degrowth movement?” (See degrowthus.org) These are all “priestly” acts.

Yes, these all take effort and stir up opposition. No wonder the Johannine narrator echoes Paul in using the imagery of labor pains which, despite their sharpness, bring joy (John 16:20-22). This metaphor suggest that, despite Jesus’ absence, with the power of the Spirit’s midwifery, followers already experience the new creation: “So the human being whose birth into the world transforms pain into joy is humankind created anew as part of the rebirthing of the whole creation” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John: An Earth Bible Commentary, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 195-196). With this generativity comes the courage and call to “practice resurrection.”

Tom Mundahl, Elm Cottage, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2021.