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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

John 3:16
distributed 3/23/07 - ©2007

It is Lent, a season when many Christians commit themselves to reflect on, and re-connect with, the core of their faith. These six weeks leading up to Easter provide a beloved and historic discipline for spiritual growth.

I presume -- with little factual basis! -- that very few congregational prayer groups, and few published study guides, are calling these faithful people to Lenten reflections on the fullness of God's creation. In most churches, and in the personal devotions of most Christians, Lent is not a time to ponder ecology.

It is my conviction that the absence of ecological awareness is a serious problem to our spiritual health, our theological perspectives, and our understandings of mission and ministry. That's not a big surprise to the regular readers of these Notes.

This year, in particular, the absence of ecology in our Lenten reflections set us up for a problem when we finish Holy Week and Easter. In 2007, the two weekends immediately after Easter bring us (1) the Step It Up day of political action on April 14, and (2) Earth Day on April 22. For many Christians, those events will seem like odd intrusions into their newly-refreshed religious consciousness. They will experience a sharp cognitive jolt when they move from their joyous celebration of the resurrection, and then encounter rallies about global warming, and worship that pays heed to the natural world.

The problem is not with the two "environmental" events. The dissonance happens because our faith has been too narrow.

A few days ago, I was blessed by an extended conversation with a man who is part of a new "green team" in his Episcopal church. Their group is doing great work about energy efficiency and other environmentally responsible practices. But my friend raised a concern that these projects often come across to members of the church as "add-ons" to what the church is about. He spoke to me of his conviction that we need to see our relationship with the whole creation as a matter that is at the very center of our faith.

That Episcopal congregation is not alone is seeing environmental concerns as extraneous to the faith. Last Monday, I spoke at a Lutheran "legislative day" in Denver. The ELCA Synod leadership is working to bring "the environment" into the concerns that are at the core of their advocacy work. They, too, have found that many people see this as an extraneous topic. To nudge the Lutheran advocates in the right direction, I expanded on the "voice for the voiceless" theme that I wrote about in last week's Notes.

After the luncheon, I had a short conversation with a seminary student who had recently discovered the presence and implications of an important word in the Greek text of the Bible. He learned that the word "world" in John 3:16 is translated from the Greek word "cosmos." He was delighted that this very familiar text spoke so clearly about God's love for the whole creation. In an accurate translation of John 3:13, he heard precisely what my Episcopal friend believes is so essential -- an expression of the core of our faith which claims a deep care for creation.

That familiar verse in John is considered by many to be one of the best "sound bites" about the Christian gospel. Several years ago, people who wanted to evangelize the un-churched held up signs at televised sporting events that simply listed chapter and verse. A poster at a golf match or football game saying "John 3:16" was a sufficient statement of the Christian good news.

It is good news, indeed, that God's love is for the cosmos. But if we're not very clear about what John means by "the world", then the door is open to serious problems.

A colleague has called my attention to a passage from a resolution that was approved by the United Church of Christ's General Synod way back in 1977:

Whereas many people have committed to memory John 3:16 - 'For God so loved the world that God gave God's only begotten child' and though this verse has become one of the best known and often-quoted verses in the Scripture, we have failed to take cognizance of one of the key elements of this verse - 'world.' We have believed, rather, that God so loved the church, or the well-behaved people or the Christians, but not really the world; i.e. the whole people.
Thirty years ago, a mainline Christian denomination thought it was necessary to point out that God loves the whole world, not just the church. Unfortunately, that very basic statement still needs to be repeated often and clearly today. But there is a profound error when we equate "the world" with "the whole people."

Betsy brought that old resolution to my attention because it was quoted in the 2005 legislative briefing book of the UCC. The erroneous statement about the scope of God's love was lifted up just two years ago as a guiding perspective in that very liberal denomination -- the denomination in which I am an ordained minister.

I have been privileged, through the 20 months, to serve as a member of the "Environment and Energy Task Force" of the national United Church of Christ. As a task force, we have found it necessary to stress an awareness of the cosmos, of the whole creation, as the context for God's love. When we limit God's love and concern to "all the people", then the environment is seen as an add-on, or even a distraction from, caring for all the people.

In the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church -- and I'm sure many other denominations -- there is a deep-seated and widespread misunderstanding. The core of our faith, and the heart of our ethical concerns, is seen as dealing with God's love for the people, and just the people.

It is time to reclaim, and re-proclaim, that astonishing good news in John 3:16. "God so loved the world" -- the cosmos, the whole creation -- "that he gave his only Son."

If we take that good news to heart, then we'll know that caring for all of God's creation is never peripheral to our faith.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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