The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year B (2015)

Divestment as the "new abolition" where, inspired by the Spirit, we relinquish “property” for the common good.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Year B  2015

                                                                                                            By Dennis Ormseth


Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year B (2015)

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19


As congregations hear the readings for the last Sunday of the Easter Season, few participants will relate them to resolutions discussed at synod assemblies and other church gatherings this spring regarding divestment of funds held by the church for endowment and retirement in the fossil fuel industry. But the strange episode in our first reading this Sunday of the replacement of Judas by Matthias in the circle of Jesus followers offers food for thought relative to those discussions. The narrative offers a fascinating culmination for our reflections on the significance of the Easter lectionary for the church's commitment to care of creation.  


Jesus' disciples have returned to the city of Jerusalem from “the mount called Olivet,” where they witnessed Jesus' ascension. They go to “the room upstairs where they were staying”—the room in which they celebrated Jesus last supper? (The suggestion is Luke Timothy Johnson's from his The Acts of the Apostles.  Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 34)—returning, perhaps, to the place of the pre-resurrection experience of Jesus' presence. Luke draws a vivid picture of a community united in prayer as they await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). Reminded by this setting, perhaps, Peter stands to interrupt their prayer with a concern to replace Judas in the circle of the disciples. It was an order of first importance, Johnson suggests: one of the original circle of twelve disciples who were being prepared to replace the religious and political leaders of Israel who rejected Jesus had fallen away. He must be replaced before Pentecost “because the integrity of the apostolic circle of The Twelve symbolized the restoration of God's people” (Johnson, p. 39). The seriousness of Peter's concern is echoed in the Gospel reading, in which Jesus' priestly prayer on their behalf brings to mind the danger to the community represented by Judas' defection: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” Jesus prays, “but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). The Psalm's admonishment is accordingly appropriate: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers” (1:1). We are fairly warned here to avoid Judas' error.


 Remarkable here is how relevant this interlude and its cautionary warning turn out to be in relation to our concern for care of creation. The verses key to this insight are unfortunately omitted from the reading, however, in spite of the fact that both John and Luke point to such scriptures as fulfilled by Judas' betrayal (John 17:12, Acts 1:16). As they portend a desolation of homestead and (consequent?) removal from responsibility for oversight, they should be restored for the reading. Noting that Luke's account of Judas' death differs markedly from that of Matthew 27:3-1, Johnson argues . . .


that everything, including the scriptural citations, centers on the defection of Judas as one of the Twelve. And as he does so often, Luke uses the disposition of possessions as symbolic. Judas does not return the money as a sign of repentance, but goes to buy a farm with the payment for his wicked deed (1:18). This action stands in direct contrast to his “having a share in this ministry” (1:17). Rather than be one of those who “left their own things” and will “sell their farms” and “call nothing their own,” Judas separates from the group by his purchase of property for himself. We notice that like Annanias and Sapphira, who will later be described as doing the same thing, Judas is said to have been possessed by Satan (Luke 22:3; Acts 5:3) and to have "entered into a conspiracy” to get the money (Luke 22;4-6; Acts 5:9). Spiritual disaffection is symbolized by physical acquisitiveness (Johnson, p. 39-40).


 Johnson sums up the significance of Judas betrayal and death as follows:


Judas' fate and that of his property are intertwined. He dies on the farm and his dwelling place is to be deserted (1:10). And, as his property is vacant, so is his place in the apostolic circle; therefore “let another take his office” (1:20).  Each stage of the story is symbolized by the disposition of possessions: Judas' apostasy from the Twelve is expressed by the buying of a farm, his perdition is expressed by the desertion of the property, that empty property expresses the vacancy in the apostolic circle. That Luke intends just such an interpenetration of the notion of authority and the symbolism of property is shown by the final statement concerning Judas, that he left his “Place” (topos) in the ministry precisely by his “going to his own place” (ton topon ton idion, 1:25).


Luke, Johnson concludes, not only “solved the problem posed by Judas' betrayal by reintegrating a leadership of the Twelve for this people that awaits the promised gift of the Holy Spirit;” Luke has “also prepared his readers to see in the restored people a community that calls nothing its own and shares all its possessions as a sign of its spiritual unanimity (Acts 2:41-17; 4:32-37) (Johnson, p. 40).


In our view, Luke has also shown us the crux of Jesus' reorientation of the community to God's creation as a key aspect of their post-resurrection existence. All this talk about farms and place in the community suggests that Judas' acquisitiveness is not merely symbolic of spiritual disaffection; it also embodies an orientation to creation that has to be overcome and repudiated by the community as it begins its mission. Judas' replacement by Matthias thus represents the restoration of the community of God's people to restored relationship in the new creation. It is a distinctive feature of this community that pretension to self-sufficient ownership of land has no part in the community's relationship to the creation which sustains it in life. For this community, all creation will be a “common good” for which the community shares responsibility for righteous use and restorative care, but possesses no sovereignty or right of ownership over it. 


The replacement of Judas thus serves as a bookend to match the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, in which the story of Ananias and Sapphira referenced by Johnson stands over against the appearance of Jesus to the disciples and his breathing on them of the Holy Spirit. In our comment on those readings we suggested that the concern about possessions is grounded in a theology of creation as the expression of what M. Douglas Meeks, in his book on God the Economist, calls “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God.” God, he wrote,


has a claim on the creation and all creatures, “not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator.  At the heart of God's act of liberating/creating is God's suffering and self-giving.  God's work of suffering is the source of God's claim, that is God's property in creation. God brings the world into being through God's costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God's because God's power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God's grace (Meeks, p. 114).


Jesus' conferral of the Holy Spirit empowers the restoration of relationships in the community that reflect the manner of God's relationship to God's creation. Accordingly, the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter underscored the importance of relationships in the community as relationships worthy of the Lord who now reigns from heaven. “What makes the relationships heavenly,” we quoted from Norman Wirzba, “is that God is present and known in them (John 17:3)” {Food & Faith:  A Theology of Eating. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-1). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his . . .


ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet” (Wirzba, p. 214-15).


In turn, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we saw how the use of Psalm 23 served to point up the contrast between the unity of the community and the preoccupation of the temple authorities with relationships of power and privilege. Again Norman Wirzba's insight is helpful in describing for us the failure of relationship typified by Judas' conspiracy with the temple authorities to betray Jesus. By providing for themselves, he writes, people . . .


often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighbor-hoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them (Wirzba, p. 89).


On the Fifth Sunday of Easter the Gospel on the contrary offered us “'hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,”—e.g., in our time for the restoration of the creation in the face of the displacement of the human community from the Earth that sustains it, the alienation which is at the heart of the environmental crisis.” The metaphor of the vine, we suggested, serves to root the resurrected Jesus in the Earth, and God his Father with him. This “rootedness” means for believers that their “ministries of feeding, healing, forgiving and reconciling” continue, as Wirzba writes, “in the world God's own life-building ways that have been in place since the first day of creation. They will garden creation like God does. Jesus is the vine that makes possible every fruit-bearing branch” (Wirzba, p. 67).


We conclude, in summary, as we wrote in our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: finally all creation joins in praise of God because “the way the human community is healed in the death and resurrection of Jesus is seen to be the way the vine grows in the new creation of God. The way things work in ecological community is the way things will work in the human community re-created by God's love” and in its relationship with the other communities of Earth. Both communities are caught up together in the life of the Trinity whose persons “are the constant movement of offering and receiving, a movement in which there is no holding back and no one is ever alone” (Wirzba, p. 231). When humankind lives in harmony with the way of life of otherkind, their consonance is grounded in the great, all-encompassing, self-giving of God. 


Churches are increasingly engaging discussion on the issue of divestment of endowment and pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry (See a current list of ELCA Synods where resolutions are either anticipated or passed, // The argument for divestment is made very powerfully as summarized recently by Ben Stewart from Chris Hayes’ “The New Abolitionism”:


  • scientists have identified a limit to how much carbon can go into the air if we hope to avoid cataclysmic damage to human civilization (565 GT by midcentury)

  • there’s 5X that much carbon in known, extractable reserves right now (2,795 GT)

  • countries and corporations are counting all of that carbon as wealth, but they can only cash it in if they burn it. 

  • thus, we are charged with convincing or compelling these countries and corporations to count those “assets" as being worth zero, nothing.

  • (there’s one clear historical precedent for such a huge amount of “assets" suddenly being ruled no longer “property” — the abolition of slavery in the United States.)


The challenge to “business as usual” is clear: those holdings are typically defended in the name of the fiduciary responsibility of their managers to gain the highest return to their investors. The right to exploit such assets is held to be fundamental to the capitalist system. It needs then to be asked, how do these investments stand up to the “Judas test”--doesn't the possibility of reflecting the right relationship between God, community, and  earth in the new creation inaugurated in Jesus' resurrection and to be embodied in church practice override our concern to “provide for ourselves”?


For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: