The Jesuit priest and renowned teacher on prayer Anthony de Mello suggests an interesting spiritual practice based on the questions of Jesus. He urges us to enter a prayerful state and then imagine that Jesus is asking us one of the questions that he poses in the gospels.
Today’s gospel reading presents several questions. The first two that Jesus asks are “Why are you frightened?” and “Why do doubts arise in your heart?”
Most of us would respond to Jesus’ questions with a litany of personal concerns for our families, our health, our jobs. Expanding our realm of concern somewhat, we may tap into anxieties over an uncertain economy or our nation’s involvement in violent conflicts at home and abroad. Taking a step further back, many might express deep fear and doubt over what is arguably the most pressing and far-reaching crisis of our time: ecological degradation so vast that it threatens Earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.
Today, April 22, is Earth Day – a worldwide day of awareness and action for the Earth’s natural environment. And since it falls on a Sunday this year, churches across the country and world are called to contemplate the created order around us, repenting of the church’s responsibility in furthering the destruction, accessing our Christian tradition’s rich resources to address the crisis, and sharing together the hope that, as the psalmist writes, “we might see better times.”
There is much “dishonoring of God’s glory” to lament today. We humans are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate. The data keeps pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil, jeopardizing the health of humans and other species. Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise due to the increasing use of fossil fuels, with 80% emitted by only 19 countries. Oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, most of the world’s mountain glaciers are diminishing rapidly, and forest area has decreased by 750 million acres since 1990. Each year 27,000 species created by the Author of Life go extinct – gone from the face of the earth forever. In short, Creation is groaning as never before.
Today’s gospel reading in Luke describes a reappearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples. Jesus appears, to the shock and terror of his disciples who initially surmised that surely this was a ghost.
Many Biblical scholars believe that this particular appearance story was included in Luke to refute some problematic beliefs held by an early heretical group known as the Gnostics.
Gnosticism was a sect in early Christianity that believed, amongst other things, that matter was evil and that spirit was good. Gnostics were obsessed with achieving a release from one’s body, and escaping the evil realm of enfleshed earthly existence. Some Gnostic groups even believed that Christ was not a flesh and blood human, but instead was something like an illusion or a hologram, because surely the goodness of God could not become material.
Even though Gnosticism itself was rejected by the early church councils, the Gnostics’ tendency to separate everything into a superior and an inferior camp was very influential. For two millennia, western thinking perceived a dualism between spirit and matter. This dualism aligned spirit and reason with good, and saw matter (including Earth) as either evil, inert, or insignificant. In fact, for many years, Christians considered Earth to be nothing more than the backdrop for the human drama, a place to be endured until one could escape to heaven, far above the corrupt Earth.
The worldview that resulted from this dualism included the perceived right of humans to dominate Earth, the right of master classes to subordinate all others, the dominance of men over women, and the superiority of the white race. All acted as engines of colonialism, shaping the material circumstances of life on Earth. The process was not a pretty picture. Nor are the results.
But Christian thought is replete with messages that affirm the importance of matter, and the Luke passage is a prime example. In response to the disciples’ bewilderment and fear, Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet. “Touch me and see,” he says, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This passage in Luke is a direct contradiction of the Gnostic idea that spirit was superior to matter. On the contrary, matter is extremely important. Matter is the stuff of this Earth, and here was Jesus, incarnate, in the flesh, emphasizing the importance of the material life on Earth.
Like the disciples, we too are called to experience and value the stuff of this Earth, to see the divine spirit of God infused into the natural world around us, and to prevent its suffering. We too must respond to Peter’s call to repent, even though we may “act in ignorance,” not knowing the consequences of our actions. Peter called the Israelites and their rulers to “turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” What sins against Earth must we repent from? What times of refreshing can we imagine here on Earth?
As Christians we know that conversion and resurrection are possible. Picture the scene during the first Earth Day in 1970, as described by the Earth Day Network: “Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns: [in fact] ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.”
Today, many locales experience a different picture: awareness of climate change and ecosystem degradation is increasing, recycling is becoming more mainstream, children are learning about the environment in schools, energy efficiency is on the rise, and we see a growing market for organic products. In addition, more and more people of faith and congregations understand that their faith calls them to care for all God’s creation. The Episcopal Church has taken strong stands against environmental injustice, called congregations to reduce their energy use, passed policy endorsing strong federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and called for “responsible lifestyles” that seek to live more simply in light of the constant push to overconsume. The Episcopal House of Bishops issued a powerful Pastoral Teaching on the Environment in September of 2011 in which they write: “This is the appointed time for all God’s children to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable abode for the flourishing of all life. We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.”
We return to the questions that Jesus asked his disciples: “Why are you frightened?” To be frightened for the environmental consequences of unchanged behaviors makes sense. But Jesus also asks, “Why is there doubt in your mind?” As believers, we resist the doubt and hopelessness that we might associate with environmental realities of our time. Our tradition is a wellspring of hope, vision, and courage. Christianity’s vital role in addressing the environmental crisis is offering a moral horizon, hope and courage for facing reality. This enables us, empowered through Christ, to counter hopelessness, denial, powerlessness and to live toward more just and sustainable alternatives.
On this Earth Day, may we recall the words of 1 John: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we are capable of as a human community and as the body of Christ, is, perhaps still untapped.