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Christ in Creation

Sermon - 4/26/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 1:15-20

The text for this Earth-Day Sunday I chose from Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verses 15 through 20:

He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

There's a saying in the gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus says 'Split a piece of wood, I am there, lift up the stone and you will find me there'.

When I first encountered this a few years ago, I thought 'how silly'.  You know, sounds like something that came out of a hippie commune or something.  This notion of finding Jesus under a rock, or by splitting wood.  It's easy to dismiss the gospel of Thomas because it's not in scripture -- it's not one of the 4 gospels, you won't find it in your Bible.  It's a text from the 2nd century that was lost and then re-discovered in 1945.  Much of it is very familiar, sounds like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  But much of it is very strange, very different, like this saying.

What I think is intriguing is when you take this saying from the gospel of Thomas and put it along side Colossians, where Paul (actually, many scholars think Colossians was written by a disciple of Paul's after Paul's death) says that all things have been created through Christ.  In Him, all things hold together.

And then suddenly that saying from Thomas that Jesus can be found in all things does not sound so strange after all.  Now, I'm not suggesting that Jesus ever said this quote in the gospel of Thomas.  The Jesus Seminar, which rated all the sayings of Jesus (including those in Thomas) gave this particular saying its lowest rating -- in other words, they don't think it came from Jesus, but that it reflects later traditions about Jesus.  Indeed, quite possibly from the 2nd century.

But even if it didn't come from Jesus, it puts onto the lips of Jesus what Colossians says about the exalted Christ.  That the risen Christ is an integral part of creation.

These are great texts, of course, for Earth Day.  But what the heck do they mean?  Saying Jesus can be found under a rock, or that Christ is in all things, that all things are held together through him?

Before I go any further, I need to make a disclaimer.  These texts are not about saving the environment.  No Biblical author ever conceived that the natural world could ever be threatened by any human activity.  God, yes.  But not by humans. 

What this text from Colossians is about, and why it has significance for us today is that it has to do with Christ's relationship to creation, and therefore by extension, for us as Christians as well.

Now, we're all familiar with the idea that the earth is the Lord's and that we are to be stewards of it.  That's kind of the theme of the anthem 'This is our Father's World', and I'm sure you've heard many sermons (I know I've given many sermons) on that kind of idea.

I want to take a different approach this morning from this text in Colossians, and suggest to you that concern for the well-being of the earth is not just a matter of our stewardship (which we too often view as something that's optional anyway, kind of like celibacy -- fine for the Pope and Mother Teresa, but don't expect me to abide by that J), I propose for you that care for the earth, as Christians, is a matter that is central to the gospel message.  And therefore is not optional but is part of the good news we are called to proclaim.  That in Christ, we are reconciled to God:

And what is absolutely stunning in this passage from Colossians is the claim that through the death and resurrection of Christ not only are we reconciled to God but all things -- whether on earth or in heaven -- are reconciled to God.

In short, the entire cosmos is reunited with God because the first of all of God's creation, the one in whom all else was created, gave himself to the world and was destroyed by it.  But by raising Christ on Easter, God restored harmony to the cosmos and made reconciliation possible.

This idea that Christ is before all things and in all things is often called "the cosmic Christ".  Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, whose spiritual writings on these matters I have found most insightful (quoted him a few times as of late), says for instance that this idea of a cosmic Christ means:

He goes on to say:

The incarnation of God in all things is the cosmic Christ who is both the agent of creation and the agent of reconciliation.  That is, the one who brings us into being is also the one who brings us into harmony with God in all things.

Behind my desk, if you've ever been in my office, like most preachers, I've got a couple sets of commentaries.  I think preachers get those to make us look impressive and learned J.  One of those sets is the New Interpreter's Bible, published by Abingdon Press, one of the leading Christian publishing houses, about 10 years ago.  $89 bucks for a volume (and on up), multiply that by 12, and you almost get the costs of one of my son's Calculus textbooks at Lane Community College!  But, of course, price does not determine value.  The value of those commentaries I think far exceeds the price.  And in the commentary on Colossians, Andrew Lincoln (a British Biblical scholar) says this about this particular text:

 

That the earth is in need of such reconciliation can be of little doubt.  Did you see the article yesterday in the Register Guard?  I think it was on page 5, a small article titled "Documents show climate group ignored scientists".  Evidently there was a group employed by the fossil fuel industry called the Global Climate Coalition.  And it's purpose was to proclaim the 'good news' that climate change is natural, not caused by us, therefore there is nothing that we need to do about it.  And they've been proclaiming this for the last 15 years.

But what the article reveals is that in their initial report their own scientists said:

 

Well, guess what -- when the report was released, that sentence was edited out, deleted.  Didn't want anyone to know that.

Now, there are still a fair number of folks who don't believe climate change is real, or if it is, it's not caused by human activity.  And a few scientists still who would claim that.  But I like this cartoon:

We don't like the diagnosis because it would mean if we don't change our fossil fuel based economy and lifestyles, the earth is going to change it for us and it won't be pleasant.  And so we find the experts who will give us the diagnosis we want rather than the one we need.

President Obama picked Dr. Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy.  Dr. Chu is a physicist.  I don't know a whole lot about physics except that you've got to be a really smart guy to get a PhD in it, right?  Dr. Chu is not your average physicist, he got a Nobel Prize for his work in physics.  So he's a really smart guy.  And he was interviewed in Newsweek last week, and the first question was about global warming.  And his first response was this:

"I urge everyone to do this:  Google the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change".

In other words, look up the document.  Well I thought that would be a good thing to do in preparation for this Sunday.  Wow, did I discover a lot -- my eyes were opened to all kinds of stuff: 

And you may recall:

They won this along side of Al Gore.  Because Al Gore is a big celebrity, he got all of the attention, but they were given the prize as well.

They were formed in 1988, and their first report was in 1990:

Notice their latest report is 3 times as long (I didn't read the whole thing J).

In other words, this is an enormous global effort unlike any before that are behind these reports.

One word about the scientific process that these authors go through:

The cartoon depicts a scientists that is headed down the road with his article in hand, to have the article approved.  And on either side of the road are all these other scientists with swords and clubs and guns. And I love the one in the middle on the right -- he's got a chainsaw with a hood over his head!  And the one behind that is death.  And if you can make it through this gauntlet, you see, of scientists reviewing your article, then it is accepted.

So that's the basic process that we're talking about, that these folks have gone through in order to publish their work.

 

Four different reports, beginning in 1990 and the latest in 2007, and what's interesting is how those reports have changed.  There's a progression of certainty expressed in them:

Notice they initial said it may take a decade to detect "unequivocal" evidence of human-caused climate change.  Then, just 5 years later, they said the balance of evidence suggests discernable human influence.  That's the same year those other scientists published their report that was edited by the fossil fuel industry.  So in other words, this group is more conservative than the scientists hired by the fossil fuel industry.

In the last report, they say it is very likely (odds 9 out of 10) due to greenhouse gases.  The colored graph on the right (above) shows the rising average temperature - rising.

The conclusion of their report:

 

That 3rd conclusion (above) is the one I found most stunning -- that humans control the mechanisms of climate change.  Think about the implications of that -- we control the mechanisms for global climate change.

The report gives you all kinds of data -- the rising temperature, rising seal level, decreasing snow cover:

 

Even more impressive are the pictures -- this one was from the movie Inconvenient Truth.  This glacier in Alaska, picture taken in 1941 in August:

 

Fifty-three years later, in 2004, here's the same glacier, now mostly a sea of water.

 

Or these charts from the different continents, of the rising temperature -- the rose area shows the range of temperatures in the last 100 years, the blue area behind that shows what those temperatures would have been without the greenhouse gases causing the greenhouse effect:

And this slide of data, which is quite stunning -- from 1950 to 1998, the weather events and the economic damage caused by those events (very measurable).  In the 1950s, there were 13 weather-related events.  In the 1990's (only going up to 1998 -- before Katrina in New Orleans), there were 72 events, and you see the green bar chart showing the economic damages.

 

The effects of carbon dioxide that goes off the charts -- this is 10,000 years of measurements from ice core samples.  In the last 50 years, you can see this dramatic rise in carbon dioxide.  That's one of the greenhouse gases that causes the greenhouse effect.

 

So what is the effect on temperatures and precipitation?  This is in the next century, their projections of changes in precipitation.  The dark blue/purple shaded areas are a 20-40% increase in rain and snow (mostly rain).  The yellow and red shaded areas are decreases of 20-40%.  In other words, a shifting of weather patterns, more precipitation in the north and south, and less precipitation in the central areas:

 

Think of the impact that would have on us.  I heard a report at the City Club about a year ago that the only ski resort that will survive in Oregon would probably be Bachelor, and maybe Mt. Hood.  Willamette Pass is history within the next 40-60 years.

The temperature changes (below) -- the light brown area is 1-2 degrees, the orange and red areas 3-4 degrees, and then the purple area (the polar cap region), 7 degrees increase in temperature by the next century.  That of course would mean the extinction of polar bears.  In fact, they say that these kind of temperature changes would possibly lead to the extinction of up to 80% of all animal and plant species:

 

So that gives you an idea of the types of changes we're talking about within a century IF nothing is done.

The good news is:

 

Mitigation -- changing the way we live, changing our practices -- will enable us to change this trajectory.

So, the report lists a number of examples of things we can do:

 

I learned just this week (Phyllis Weare enlightened me) that 40% of the energy we consume in Oregon (electricity) comes from coal-fired plants.  Even though we don't have any in the Northwest, we import that energy from those plants outside of the Northwest to supply our needs.  Coal burning is one of the big contributors to greenhouse gases.  So converting to natural gas is helpful.

The great work of our Power & Light Committee has enabled us to swap 5 refrigerators and freezers in this church to more efficient models.

These are all things that we can do, and have begun to do, and with continued development in new technology will advance.

[Phyllis Weare was then invited to review an insert in the church bulletin that surveys what we as individuals can do to change our lifestyle habits in support of the environment]

I'd like to conclude by bringing us back to that quote from Richard Rohr:

 

The gospel message is that God's mission in Christ is nothing less than the reconciliation of all creation, of all beings and all things, united in harmony with God.  In the words of that St. Patrick prayer that we began the service today:

 

If we are to arise to a new day of living in harmony in Christ with God's creation, it must begin here and now, in us, with a new commitment to live in the One who reconciles all things to God.

 

 


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