1 Peter 4:7-11
We are observing
Earth Day this morning, even though the actual event was a week ago --
it fit better on our schedule today. And the text that we're using
to reflect upon comes from the 4th chapter of the first letter of Peter.
We've been looking at Peter for the last three or four Sunday's now, and
this text is kind of interesting to reflect on in this context.
It begins with a
The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
There was a common
assumption in the early church that is reflected in this text that Jesus
would return and usher in the end of the age. The Apostle Paul
apparently thought that would happen in his own lifetime, or at least in
the earliest letters he wrote. The later letters of Paul seem to
reflect a change in that thinking.
And I think we can
safely say, now, some 2,000 years later, that such an event is no more
likely today than it was back then when these words were written.
And I find it
incredibly odd, therefore, that those who argue for absolute inerrancy
of scripture explain away such references to the imminent return of
Jesus as references to our time, rather than to the time in which it was
How can you believe
in a literal interpretation of the return of Jesus when such an
interpretation necessitates a timetable now 1,900 years past due?
Someone left this
cartoon on the door of my office this week. It portrays a man
sitting at a table writing on a scroll, a halo over his head (presumably
a gospel author), a camel in the distance, a palm tree, and another man
looking at the scroll and says "Quit worrying about corroborating your
sources -- it's not as if anyone's going to take all this literally."
From that great
source of theological wisdom -- the New Yorker.
Christianity, you see, does not have that problem (it may have other
problems, but that's not one of them). The irony is that those who
believe that the end of the world is coming, may help bring out that end
by encouraging actions that will hasten the day because they believe
such is the will of God. And such belief, I believe, is totally
contrary to sound Biblical teaching on several fronts, and I want to
name just two this morning.
First of all, to
knowingly and willingly contribute to the destruction of the earth and
to believe that such is God's will, is the ultimate hubris denounced in
the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. You remember that
story, the inhabitants of earth build this tower to obtain the height of
God, and it is destroyed and their language is confused.
When people attempt
to play God, terrible consequences are usually the result. Those
who encourage war in the Middle East because they think it will bring
about the return of Jesus are perhaps the greatest threat to God's will
on earth that exists.
Such is totally
contrary to the teaching of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, the
writings Epistles such as this text -- "maintain constant love for one
another". The bumper sticker that perhaps you have seen sums it
all up for me: "When Jesus said 'Love Your Enemies', He Probably
Meant Do Not Kill Them".
We must be clear for
the sake of our grandchildren's future: Biblical descriptions of
Armageddon and cosmic battles between God and Satan such as portrayed in
the Book of Revelation are metaphorical stories of the struggle
between good and evil. They are not predictions of future
events, or of God's intent to destroy the earth. And to read them
as such is a terrible distortion of Christian faith, and nothing less
than the assassination of the character of a loving God.
I don't know how to
say it any stronger than that, so if that didn't get through, let me
Secondly, the idea
that the world is coming to an end and therefore we don't have to worry
about the environment is directly counter to the Biblical notion
that we are stewards of the earth. God created the earth, the
story of Genesis 1 tells us, and at each step along the way God calls it
"good". That God would then will the destruction of this good
earth is simply incompatible with every notion we have of the goodness
of creation, and the goodness of God.
One of the very
encouraging developments, I think, within the environmental movement is
the inclusion of evangelical Christianity as many evangelical Christians
and groups have joined in the effort, recognizing that this is part of
our responsibility as good stewards of the earth, to be concerned about
such things as climate change.
Former Secretary of
the Interior under Ronald Reagan, James Watt, has often been routinely
criticized for testifying in Congress that protecting the environment
was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus. And I
have been one of those who have cited him a few times as an example of
this terrible distortion of Christian teaching. But it turns out
that what actually has been distorted is Secretary Watt's words.
His testimony in Congress in 1981 was: "I do not know how many
future generations we can count on before the Lord returns".
Probably people heard that and didn't know what to make of it. But
he continued, saying: "Whatever it is, we have to manage -- with
skill -- to leave the resources needed for future generations".
So, in fact,
Secretary Watt was making the opposite point as what has often been
ascribed to him. And, a vast majority of evangelicals today agree,
saying precisely this: that because we do not know when Christ
will return, we must maintain our natural resources and protect the
environment for the sake of future generations. I welcome that
kind of perspective.
So whether one
believes that the second coming is a literal event that may come far off
in the future, or a metaphorical event that describes how the real
transforming presence of Christ is available to us today, the end result
as far as the environment is concerned is the same. God desires
the preservation, not the destruction, of the earth.
This is another
example of what we mean when we say 'Transforming Christianity'.
To eradicate the absurd notion from Christian teaching that the end of
the world is imminent, when in fact such is contrary to the image of the
goodness of God and the goodness of creation.
So what do we then do
with a text like this one in 1 Peter that says "the end of all things is
near"? Seems to be a problem.
One choice, offered
by John Dominic Crossan, is to say "Well, the text is wrong, get over
it!". But Crossan wouldn't actually say that about this text.
The other choice,
much better, is to understand what the author was saying in the original
Turns out the Greek
word here for "end" in 'the end is near' is "telos". And it is a
wonderfully rich concept in Greek and Jewish thought. It means not
the end in the sense of dissolution of things, but rather fullness,
wholeness, or perfection. It was a common topic among philosophers
like Plato, Aristotle, Philo. But more influential on the author
of 1 Peter, undoubtedly, was 'telos' as it was conceived in Jewish
apocalyptic thought in which it is presented as the final age, or the
culmination of time. When all things come not to an end, but to
their final purpose as intended by God.
And I think that's
clearly what the author here has in mind. Not the end of the
world, but the goal of creation. There's no sense of panic, that
urgency that you have to do something now, or a sense of doom.
Like the poster I remember from my college days that mimics these
government declarations of what to do in the time of a disaster, and
this one says "In case of nuclear attack: Step 1, place your head
between your knees. Step 2: kiss your . . . derrière
goodbye!". Probably wasn't that language -- I cleaned it up a
little bit for my audience J.
You see, this is not
Chicken Little announcing the sky is falling. To the contrary,
this is instruction not of how to live until that time when God's
purpose for creation is fulfilled, but rather how to live so that
purpose of God for creation is fulfilled. Maintain constant love
for one another. Be hospitable to one another. Serve one
another with the gift that God has given to you. Be stewards of
So what does that
mean in today's context, especially as we think about our
responsibilities as stewards of creation?
Albert Einstein said
that "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science
The first thing we
have to do is pay attention to what science is telling us about the
state of this planet. In the last 50 years, the population of the
earth has doubled. So think about that -- from the beginning of
humanity until about 1950, it took that long to get 2.5 billion people
on the earth. Today we have over 6.5 billion people on earth.
In the last 50 years,
the number of cars has increased tenfold. Half of them are in the
driveway (parking lot?) in front of my house
The use of fossil fuels has increased 5 times. The use of fresh
water has tripled.
The World Wildlife
Fund reports that we are consuming food, fuel, and resources at a rate
that is equivalent to 1.2 earths. The extra 20% coming from
burning up the stored, accumulated resources that cannot be replenished,
and hence cannot be sustained, and will not be available for future
generations. They say by the year 2025, we will be producing the
equivalent of 2 earths. Clearly not sustainable.
Nearly a half a
billion people today live in countries which cannot grow enough food to
feed their own people. Their numbers are steadily increasing as
population grows and available cropland either is diminished or used for
alternative purposes like for fuel. That's created an enormous
moral dilemma among those of us conscious of trying to use alternative
fuels. My wife was quick to correct me in the first service this
morning to say that that not all alternative fuels come from crops --
she drives a bio-diesel vehicle that uses fuel converted from cooking
oil and the like.
And so we read about
the growing food crisis worldwide. Ron McKenzie, who worked as an
intern for us, now lives in Mexico, and over a year ago he told us that
the price of corn had become so high in Mexico that many people cannot
afford to buy corn to make their own tortillas. This is a problem.
There was a study
commissioned by the Pentagon in the year 2003 that warns that climate
change could result in a significant drop in the human caring capacity
of the earth's environment, and potentially destabilize the
geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war
due to resource constraints. Disruption and conflict will be
endemic features of life.
David Korten spoke
here last fall, a full house here in the sanctuary. He spoke to
our Prime Time class, I'm sure those members remember when he was here.
Went to the same school as Carl Isle, they knew him as a kid, and now he
has become this famous author. He writes in his book - The Great
Turning: "How we humans choose to respond to those changing
circumstances will determine whether the situation degenerates into
persistent wars for the last of earth's bounty, or, brings forth a new
era of cooperation based on an ethic of equitable sharing to meet the
needs of all."
And Korten lays forth
in this book his vision for how that latter is not only possible, but
how it is already beginning to take shape. What I found absolutely
fascinating in reading his book is how central theology, and the story
of Jesus is to his vision of what he calls "Earth Community", that will
replace Empire as the dominant force for how the world is run.
He says that the
dominant image of the God of Empire is a distant, divine monarch.
A super-natural being who acts by interceding in human affairs, often
violating the laws of nature in the process, who favors one particular
group over another, who rules through appointed representatives, demands
absolute allegiance, exclusive loyalty, and extracts vengeance no
enemies and unbelievers.
that results in empires that behave in similar ways and therefore become
The God of Earth
Community, on the other hand, is a very intimate God. Present to
us at all times, favors all people, lives within the created order, acts
within the laws of nature, reigns in the hearts of people, exhibits love
and compassion for all, especially the poor and disenfranchised.
"We are quite literally living in a relationship with the spirit we call
God in every aspect of every minute of our lives. For we have no
existence apart from this relationship. We have only the choice to
be true to the relationship or to betray it".
statement coming from one who is not a theologian, not a Biblical
scholar, not a church leader, devoted his life to international economic
development to help the poor of third world countries. And has
come to this kind of conclusion, of a different way of how we have to be
in the world. And sounding a theme that some will recognize from
Jim Wallis' "God's Politics" that our Monday-morning group has just
finished, he says: "Those who wait for a distant God to intervene
miss the point. We are not here to obey a God jealous of his
authority, but to engage with creation as partners in grand adventure.
We are the ones we have been waiting for."
Many, I know, look to
current events in the world -- to population growth, to climate change,
to peak oil, hurricanes and droughts increasing, food crises, housing
crises, market collapse, wars, rumors of wars, and Pat Kilkenny leaving
the University of Oregon, you know, all those kinds of disasters, and
they understandably despair.
So hear this message
of hope from Korten's conclusion:
"Rather than given
into despair in this often frightening time, let us rejoice in the
privilege of being alive at a moment of creative opportunity
unprecedented in the human experience. Peace and justice for all,
and a sustainable relationship to the planet are within our reach.
The next step in our own journey is to create societies that support the
development of the fullness of our positive human potential as we
advance our understanding of how we might best develop that potential
and apply it to the service of the whole. Progressive Christians
refer to it as creating God's kingdom on earth. A world of deeply
democratic societies in which all people have the opportunity to carry
forward the work of creation through productive and fulfilling lives,
and dynamic, creative, and balanced relationships with one another and
the living earth."
This is our call.
Transforming the world. The end, the goal, of all things, that is
so near and dear to us, that we will live and act as good stewards of
the grace that God gives to us.