In the last two posts, I talked about a larger paradigm for green theology (inaugurated eschatology) and Gods primary action plan for creation care (the transformation of believers). Before I conclude the series with an imaginary story illustrating what New Testament creation care might look like in real life, I will talk about the real Christian apocalypse, which I will do in two parts. To get there, though, I first need to talk about the second side of Gods action plan for the restoration of creation: worship.
Worship seems so passive, so intangible and so unhelpful for our immanent crises on earth. This is especially true when life gets so dark that it seems that only an evil God could have made this place, or when the skeptical lover of creation wonders if worshipping Jesus is really an appropriate way to care for the earth. How can the exultation of a human lead to hope for non-humans? Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that the worship of a good and living Christ is a part of Gods plan for creation care, and a big part at that. If we want to understand the true problems behind our crises, if we want to really see nature with Gods eyes, we need to bring creation into our worshipping minds eye without ever worshipping creation. This means worshipping Jesus as sustainer of all things.
This is not some new-age idea. It may seem foreign to Western Christians, yet this idea of worshipping Jesus as the cosmic Lord comes straight to us from the New Testament, from the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians. I have selected a relevant section of his letter and paraphrased it here into English:
Because of your faith, hope, and love that we heard about, we never stop praying for you and making petitions for you all. Our petition is that you might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. This is the point: that you would have a lifestyle that finds a home with the Lord Jesus and honors his example. May you have every desire to please him, in all good works, producing fruit and growing up in the knowledge of God. We ask that you might be filled with the knowledge of his will so that you would have Jesus lifestyle, made possible by being made strong in all senses of the word strong. God does this work, making you strong with the might of his glory, growing patience and calm where you usually explode too quickly. He gives you joy so that you can give thanks to God, the One who makes you sufficient. He gives you a portion of the kingdom of his saints who live in the light. God drew us out from the power of darkness and transformed us into citizens of the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have freedom and the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first fruit of all creation. All things were created in himthe visible and invisible, thrones and lordships, rulers and all powersin the heavens and the earth. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before everybody and all things are sustained in him.
He is the head of the body of the church; he is the first from the dead. He has become the one who excels all, because all the fullness was glad to dwell in him and through him in order to reconcile all things in him. Making peace through the blood of the his cross, he reconciled things on the earth and things in the heavens Colossians 1.9-20.
One of the most enduring resistances to creation care as godly living is the sentiment that Gods salvation through Jesus is about humans only. Pauls Jesus as Creator of all and Redeemer of all should put this resistance firmly to rest. Moreover, this means that, along with transformation of believers, worship of Jesus as cosmic Lord makes up the second crucial side of Gods plan for creation care. The way we worship or do not worship has tangible implications on the health of our globe.
First, we learn from Colossians about Jesus as the Creator. Jesus existed before everybody. He is the First fruit of all creation. This does not mean, as some have said, that Jesus is the first one created. Rather it means that he is the leader. Paul calls him the sustainer of all things. Some scholars have said of the earth, that we have a biosphere connected by Christ, and this should be part of the content of our worship.
Second, we learn from Colossians that Jesus is the Redeemer of all things, especially of the forces in the world that have gone astray from their allegiance to him. Thus, there are lessons we shouldnt take from the earth or from the way unfaithful angels have rebelled. Should we assume that violence in nature (a hawk stealing the field mouse, a lion taking down a baby zebra, the mountain lion mauling a wandering child through a national park) is part of the process of Gods first creation? We see these forces especially at work in Jesuss trials and death. They are also at work behind the large-scale destruction of our earth today. We tremble at the sight of these powers, because we sense that they are larger than the sum of bad human intentions. Our ecological ruin is about more than a society full of individuals with bad habits. There are powers at play that make it seem, from the dog-eat-dog of the natural world only, that we can only have life with necessary death, good with necessary evil. The patterns of our world make it seem like these forces are the true creators of this world, even if there is a good but detached God somewhere out there. This is the problem with the romantic thought that creation alone can reflect the full image of God. Paul knows this.
This is why he presents Jesus as the clear image of the invisible God. Creation cannot reveal to us that the true nature of Gods work in the universe is self-giving sacrifice and that our future destiny is peace. Jesus can and does reveal it. Foundational under all the rebellious powers is Jesus who holds all together. In his death and resurrection, he has a planted a peace that will endure. The powers will submit. Though we dont know exactly how this process will come to that peace-filled end, we know that true worship is more than an enlightened escape from the real problems of the world. True worship is an action that joins in the uprooting of evil, particularly ecological ruin, through the worship of the cosmic Christ.
What do we learn from Colossians, specifically about the true nature of universe-preserving worship? Investing in a relationship with Christ is creation care. It can lead to nothing else than a sacrificial ministry that must include care and concern for the created world. We usually see Jesus as Lord of our lives and friend, but we so often forget all that comes with Him: He is the one through whom everything around us was created, and He is the one interested in mending a broken and abused world.
We dont worship creation; the story of the Hebrews and the destruction of the contemporary world should warn us about the consequences of idolatry. Rather we let creation into our worshipping minds eye and praise the one who created it and holds it all together. To relate to Jesus in worship is to see the world living and breathing because of Him. To relate to Jesus in worship is to adopt His care and concern for the health of this universe. Is it possible to have creation in mind during worship while not worshipping creation? Yes, very much so. While we cant assume that were seeing Gods face in creation, we can imagine the universe in all of its glory with its heart beating for the love of Christ. We can join with creation in praise to God.
It is no wonder that the beauty of Cathedrals can aid in worshipping Christ and help keep the created order in mind. It is no wonder that some of our North American champions for preservation have talked about the forest as Gods true cathedral. Christian Ministries in the National Parks have understood this best, leading Christ-centered worship every summer within the forest Cathedrals of North America. Yes, true worship has positive side effects: it aligns us with Jesuss heart, reminds us of the goodness of this world, and teaches us to suffer like Him for the salvation of many. However, worship as a relational action alone, turns attention to Jesus as we adore and praise his goodness and his lordship. Worship actively actualizes Jesuss reign, which will eventually bring all evil powers under his dominion, as church historian and theologian Howard Snyder has so beautifully put it in his book Salvation Means Creation Healed:
Indwelling love overflows through Christ by the Spirit into the church, and the church responds in worship and service. We give ourselves to God (our mission to God) and he gives himself back to us with an overflow of love that impels us out of ourselves and into mission.
Balabanski, Vicky S. Hellenistic Cosmology and the Letter to the Colossians: Towards and Ecological Hermeneutic. Chapter 7 in ed. David Horrell, et al. Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical Historical and Theological Perspectives. London, New York: T&T Clark, 2010.
Bauckham, Richard. From Alpha to Omega. Chapter 5 in Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010.
Bouma-Prediger, Steven. What is the Connection Between Scripture and Ecology?: Biblical Wisdom and Ecological Vision. Chapter 4 in For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Engaging Culture 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Press, 2010.9.
Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth”s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.