2021.01.23 (& 01.28)
(Note: This is the script of a workshop delivered online at the Mission Week for the Comagape Christian Conference, UBC, Vancouver BC. The general preaching framework in this message is based on the keynote speech I delivered at the Justice Conference Asia 2018 in Hong Kong, modified and updated with additional materials and relevant references. Another location-specific variant of this message was present at the Zion Bishan Church, Singapore, 2020.10.04)
Good evening! On behalf of my colleagues from the A Rocha global family, greetings to you all!
Before going into the topic today, allow me to say a few words about A Rocha and myself. A Rocha, which means “the Rock” in Portuguese, is an international Christian faith-based nature conservation organization, working in biodiversity science research, education and hands-on community-based conservation projects. Currently we have projects in twenty countries and regions, while cultivating like-minded communities and networks in a few others. With my combined background in urban planning, pastoral ministry and Christian mission, my role at A Rocha is to encourage the churches here in Canada and the Asia-Pacific regions to engage in creation care as an essential dimension of Christian faith and calling.
Now back to our topic today. I am afraid I have to begin in this way: we are living in a deeply troubled world, politically, economically, and environmentally. And I have not even mentioned the word “pandemic” as we are all still in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis globally. Here let’s zero-in on the environmental front.
The world we found ourselves in
Some of you might still remember that last summer Vancouver was covered by an intense layer of smoke with burning smell for up to almost a week, not just once but twice. The key air quality indicator, PM2.5, was above 110; normally it should not go beyond 10. The smoke was from the wildfires burning south of the border in Oregon and Washington. Around the same time, there were at least fifteen large-scale wildfires burning in California alone. Exactly one year ago, severe bushfires burning through eastern Australia: one third of the entire Australian population was impacted; thousands of homes destroyed. Similar wildfires have been devastating the Amazon rainforests in Brazil and rainforests in Indonesia for many years… It seems this kind of disasters has become a normal part of our lives. Yet, wildfires are merely part of the stories.
Let’s look briefly at another example: tropical storms. The Atlantic hurricane season of 2020 was so bad that it saw a record-breaking 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the US, while one Category 4 and one Category 5 storms hit Central America within a window of two weeks. Unprecedented! Further away in the Asian Pacific region, Super Typhoon Mangkhut struck Hong Kong in September 2018; the force of destruction was so strong that even vast amount of glass façades of many seemingly invincible commercial buildings were shattered. Another mega Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines a few years prior to that, killing almost 10,000, leaving over a million people homeless. Even developed, supposedly well prepared nations are not spared: for the last several summers, Japan has been hammered by heavy downpours and severe typhoons one after another, causing widespread damages. Meanwhile, for over a decade, severe heat-waves, prolong droughts, increasingly unpredictable monsoons and powerful cyclones have been hitting the Indian subcontinent continuously, in some areas with unprecedented floods while in others with crop-killing droughts. Similar phenomena can be seen all around the world …
While tropical storms, droughts, floods, even wildfires, are all natural functions of the earth systems, their severity and frequency have drastically escalated in recent years; and in all these we can pinpoint the “forensic” fingerprints of the “climate disruption”, caused by relentless industrial activities and excessive consumption of everything in the last 150 years, all by us, the humans.
In 2018, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released one of its most important special reports, Global Warming of 1.5oC. That report concludes that these catastrophic effects of run-away climate change are coming on faster than scientists had previously predicted. Quick, drastic and massive global actions in response are required. We were told that need to cut our greenhouse gases emission in half by 2030, and then net-zero by 2050, before it’s too late to turn the tide.
In addition to catastrophic weather phenomena, climate change is also the reason of the massive bleaching of coral reef reported around the world. Not only the survival of numerous marine species is at stake, this affects the livelihood of 500 million people in many improvised nations.
Climate chaos also bring social instability and collapse. Remember the Syrian civil war, which is still taking place? On top of the brutality and destruction, the subsequent refugee crisis spilling over into Europe is the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII, with millions still stranded in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordon, and the Balkans. Researchers now can trace one of its courses to a four-year-long drought, so severe that it was not seen in 900 years, one of vivid evidence of human-caused climate change.
And, don’t forget the well documented massive demise of marine lives and sea birds, chocked or starved to death by plastic waste – OUR plastic waste.
According to the latest edition of The Living Planet Report, released last October by World Wildlife Fund International, the populations of all mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have dropped almost 70% since 1970. That report reminds us, ”these are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth… We destroy our planet at our peril – and it is our only home.“
I could go on with this list with more to cover …
I understand that among the audience this evening, there would be friends coming from a non-Christian background. And I also realize that many intelligent people, past and present, have pointed the finger to Christianity, believing that Christians do not care about the environment, perhaps even being one of the main culprits of the ecological mayhem we are facing today.
On this, first of all, I would like to apologize to you for our apparent indifference, and even for our obvious negligence. Yes, we are guilty as charged.
In the meantime, I would like to assure you that although we Christians have been neglecting this area of concerns for a long time, the well-being of the earth is in fact should be at the core of our message to the whole world, which we call the Gospel, according to the Bible we often claim adherence to. Yes, please believe me: the dire situation we just glanced over IS a gospel issue, as declared by not just one but many recent major Christian confessional statements!
A Gospel Issue??
Okay, you might have tons of questions on this now. And I know, the majority of folks, including many Christians, think that the Gospel/Good News we talk about or refer to all the time is about “believing in Jesus so that we can go to heaven after death.” It’s all about the “human souls” being saved. So now you tell me the environmental chaos is a gospel issue?? What on earth does the Christian Gospel have ANYTHING to do with pollution, climate change, species survival, and suffering communities?
Let me start my response with this: we Christians need to acquire a much bigger, and more accurate, definition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!! What IS the Gospel then? So, Let’s begin to explore Okay? Just a little warning: this thought journey will be rather dense, perhaps even “foreign” to many of you. Please stick with me, and we can chat more in the Q&A time afterward.
Euangelion, the Greek word for good news, was commonly used in the Roman Empire, in a very particular way. The heralds of the Caesars (in another word, the official messengers of the “emperors”) traveled to the imperial colonies and towns, proclaiming: “LISTEN! Here is the good news (euangelion): the almighty Caesar, our Saviour, and his powerful armies have defeated our arch enemies! Peace and prosperity have been finally bestowed upon us!! Rejoice!! THIS IS the GOOD news!!”
Precisely in this context, the followers of Jesus boldly declared ANOTHER gospel, the good news of ANOTHER Saviour, the One who was condemned to die on a cross, yet, has resurrected, thus defeated the ultra-enemies of all – the Evil one and death; they were declaring the Gospel of the ONE true Lord Jesus who came to bring life, hope and reconciliation of ALL THINGS!
Contrary to what we just went through, we Christians often reduce the gospel to something about individual salvation, destined for a certain spiritual realm or “otherworldly home”. In doing so we truncate the Bible’s teaching as a whole, and therefore reduce our understanding of God’s purposes for the whole creation, and our place in those purposes.
The actual scope of the Good News is much broader, according to the whole of the biblical accounts. In the following, I will unpack this Good News in its fuller extent, and along the way, examine these THREE important aspects: God’s purpose – Shalom, our place in that Shalom – the Royal Priesthood, and a biblically faithful posture of our purpose and place – our Faithful Presence.
The Good News in a much larger Story
The Gospel begins not in the New Testament, nor at the fall of humans, but at the beginning of everything. Let’s put on the lens, or more precisely, the “ears” of those women and men who first heard the stories of Genesis.
These folks were in exile, uprooted from their ancestral lands, enslaved under the Babylonian rule. And the operating principles of that foreign superpower were shaped and reinforced by a creation story. In that story, the world they saw and lived was the result of a bloody war between self-indulging and raging gods. All humans were merely necessary nuisance – the annoying figurines created to perform dirty and unwanted jobs for these gods. For the Hebrew outcasts, there was no purpose, no meaning, no dignity, no good news!
Breaking into this apparent hopelessness, there was an extraordinary story – the poem-like Creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2, inherited from their ancestors. These biblical accounts as a whole present a drastically different picture to them, filling with divine generosity, abundance, community, and purposes. The Sovereign Lord God brings creation into being, in an uncontested and serene manner. The process is harmonious and orderly, first opening up spaces by separating (i.e. light and darkness; water above and below; dry land and sea), and then filling these spaces or realms with corresponding creatures, abundant and diverse! In the ears of these ancient audiences, the whole creation was the royal palace of the Sovereign Lord God, coming into being simply through his verbal commands, no battle and no squabble. Everything was created good, beautiful, purposeful, naturally held together.
What about the people – these enslaved and desperate hearers?
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the air… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:26…)
Here the writer of Genesis powerfully reminded them that they were created by the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, with a noble purpose: thrive and rule as the royal representatives (“the image”) of the Sovereign God in the created order; not out of violence or necessity, but loved and dignified.
How about the human “rule over” or the controversial word “subdue”? To a lot of people including critics of the Bible, these words mean violence, domination, and boundless exploitation. But look carefully and in proper context, while “subdue” does imply “force employed”, it is definitely not an endorsement to act as a brutal ruler like the Babylonian overlords. In essence, it’s a word picture of farming: a farmer working on the land with some physical forces – the stones being dug up, collected and removed, soil being tilled and irrigated, so that the land would be fruitful! And these royal representatives were supposed to REFLECT the characters of the Sovereign Lord God in their relations WITH the created order: kindness, generosity, tenderness, love, even sacrifice; these characters are often echoed in many other biblical passages such as the Psalms.
Moving into Genesis 2, we see the tone and style changed. Here, our ancient hearers were led into a different scene; it’s no longer the royal palace but a place of worship. Yes, the Garden of Eden was described in such manner that, to the ears of the ancient Israelites it was the prototype of the Tabernacle (the movable structure for worship as they were travelling in the desert onward to the Promised Land) and later the Temple in Jerusalem. Yes, the whole creation is now the Temple of the Lord God. Furthermore, something extraordinary had happened: God himself installed his own representative, Adam, in his own Temple, through breathing into the man’s nasal, which was a widely observed religious ritual of inauguration-installation in the ancient time. You see: This Adam was installed with a twofold function: work it and take care of it; these two phrases were in fact the same terms describing the priestly functions in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3: 7-8).
Here the man was merely “Adam from the Adamah” (dust of the earth), the same kind of “living being” as the other creatures in the sky and in the water and roaming on the lands. Human was part of the created community, no more, no less. Yet, a special call and commission was bestowed upon him, and in fact to all of us: we are to be the Sovereign Lord God’s royal priests in His realm, the whole of creation, reflecting His characters to the world in rule and care, AND bringing forth the fullness of the creation to God the Creator in worship.
The problem, OUR problem, is that, we throw away this call and commission; instead, we tried to enthrone ourselves as equal to God – that’s the essence of the Fruit of Knowledge on Good and Evil. Therefore, everything went into chaos ever since.
Leaping forward, when the descendants of Abraham were liberated from the Egyptian enslavement by the Lord God – the almighty Liberator, they were summoned to meet Him at the foothill of Mount Sinai. Through Moses, the Israelites were told (Exodus 19 4-6), “You have witnessed my mighty deeds rescuing you from Egypt. Now if you obey me and keep my covenant, you are mine, and be a kingdom of priests.”
And with this call, the people were given the Mosaic Law. Despite the tedious implementation and requirements, these laws could be roughly categorized into three dimensions of reconciliation – between God and human; among fellow human beings; and between humans and the lands. On that third dimension, the Bible instructs the people of God to give sufficient rest to livestock and labourers, and even leaving food for wild animals. When the people of God, this priestly kingdom, lived according to the Law, the other nations would see that the Lord God was indeed in charge. And the biblical “shalom” would be manifested.
Shalom is a very unique vision in the Bible. Commonly understood as “peace”, Shalom is way more than peace or tranquility. It’s wholesome flourishing of everything; it’s well-being in all dimensions: physical, mental, spiritual, relational, social, even ecological; it’s about relationships restored; it’s about justice manifested; it’s about integrity lived and practiced. When the three basic dimensions of reconciliation are accomplished – God with humans, among fellow humans, and humans with the rest of creation – then Shalom there is!
As we all know now, according to the rest of the Bible, the Israelites failed to live up to this commission, being the showcase of the true Sovereign’s care to the world. Judges after judges, kings after kings, they failed miserably, not just individuals but the whole nation. So they were expelled from the Promised Land, being chained up into captivity by brutal superpowers.
In the eve of dismay and exile, various prophets spoke up, on the one hand with judgement and condemnation, on the other hand, promises of restoration, return, and good tidings. Just give you a sample of such Good Tidings:
“How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” “
(Isaiah 52:7, c.f. Romans 10:15 – referenced in the famous “missionary” call)
The Bible declares that the Lord God will return, and he will rule among his people again. This is the Good News, in the Old Testament prophetic fashion.
Leaping forward for 400 years, to the time of Roman domination, when Jesus announced the Gospel of the Kingdom, when the disciples followed his footsteps and preached the Gospel of Heaven, when the early church gathered and witnessed to the world, these prophetic good tidings of God returning as the real Sovereign echoed deeply and profoundly.
As we examined earlier, the “euangelion” – commonly understood as an imperial announcement: “Caesar is Lord and Savior” – was now a proclamation of ANOTHER king, but of entirely different class, manners, approaches, and promises. “Jesus is Lord of all and FOR all”!!
When the Gospel of John declares,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,“ ~ John 1
John the Apostle was essentially proclaiming that the Sovereign Lord God has returned, pitching his tent among his people, showing forth everywhere his glory, which actually means his all-encompassing presence. As the glorious presence of the Lord God was manifested in the person of Jesus throughout the Gospel, the visions of Shalom were invoked once again – turning water into wine, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring the outcast, liberating the possessed, even raising the dead.
Leaping forward to the end of John’s Gospel, this same Word, the resurrected Lord Jesus, appeared in front of his fearful but anticipating disciples, and told them:
21 … “Shalom be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” ~ John 20
His disciples were sent “into the world”, the same way as God sent his only beloved Son pitching the tent among his people once again. AND they were sent to engage into the mission of reconciliation and shalom-making. They were “installed” into this commission, with a perplexed gesture of “breathing on” the disciples by the resurrected Jesus; in fact it was a powerful reminder of Genesis 2 – the Lord God installing his priestly representative – now not just one but many. The “forgiving sin” reference was simply shorthand of the designated core functions of the biblical priesthood.
One of the twelve Apostles, Peter, wrote something similar in his letter to the churches:
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2)
[New Heaven and New Earth]
And this is not the end of the whole story. The authors of the New Testaments, the Apostles, filled their letters to the churches with hopes of restoration, renewal, New Heaven and New Earth!
They knew well that the End they were anticipating was NOT GOING to a disembodied heaven that was detached from their physical and spiritual realities. It’s the restored New Heaven and New Earth COMING instead; the Heaven, that is the realm of God, will come re-joining and renewing the Earth. YES, perhaps to the surprise of many, there is absolutely NOT a word in the Bible, EVER, talking about an immaterial heaven where people will go to eventually. It’s a long-held myth which is not ease to debunk in a few words. I wish I could have more time on this, but we need to move on.
Our roles in that Big Story of God…
Now, let’s return to the Priesthood bit. By now I hope you can see that God’s intent for his people to be his royal priestly representatives in the whole of created order is very consistent throughout the Bible. And this Priesthood is not confined within religious rituals or spiritual dimensions. It’s a bi-directional vocation of reconciliation, reflecting the Lord God’s characters in all aspects of lives, while speaking on behalf of the creation and bringing forth the fullness of the creation back to God the Sovereign in worship. It’s entailed in the threefold reconciliatory relations: between God and humanity, among humanity, and between humanity and the rest of the created order (the lands).
I know that the terms and concept of “priest”, “priesthood”, like the references to “king”, “kingdom”, “sovereign”, “royal”, is archaic, hierarchic and ritualistic; perhaps it’s also problematic, particularly with the astonishing revelations of sexual and racial abuses committed by clergy and the institutional cover-up. How could we “modernize” this original and fundamental call for all of us, while appreciating and in keeping with its biblical essence?
There are quite a few suggestions going around already: ambassador, mediator, envoy, etc. They all have their merits. Yet to me, I found another metaphor equally helpful.
Professor Tom Wright of St. Andrews University suggests that humans are created as the “angled mirrors” in the created order – reflecting God’s characters and rule to the creation, while reflecting the creation back to God in worship and advocacy.
The Royal Priesthood in our time…
How would this work? Let’s imagine: you are a chef; you do not just love cooking but also are very talented in the arts. On the one hand, you know well about the various ingredients and their potentials. You do not just know and use them, but go extra length to care for the ways the produces being planted and animals being raised, the farm workers being treated, the soil being taken care of and enriched… On the other hand, you prepare the dishes or the banquets to your patrons (or friends or family), presenting to them a wonderful manifestation of how food can and should be, in the meantime, bridging them to see the worlds of those produce and animals and farm workers and soil, which might have been hidden from their sights, now revealed thought your arts and care… This is the work of a “priest”, not necessarily complete, but definitely showing forth many essential aspects of it nevertheless. Remember, the angled mirror!
Or, you are an investment adviser! What on earth does an investment adviser have ANYTHING to do with the gospel, creation and justice? You are not simply dealing with dollar signs, numbers, portfolio, spreadsheet or indexes, but people and places, or perhaps even ecosystems and natural habitats, and the wellbeing of all these on both ends: that is, those who are impacted by the investment you are proposing and managing, and those who are investing through you… This is the work of a “priest” or “angled mirror” in a wholesome fashion.
The parallels could be found almost everywhere, every kind of settings we found ourselves in…
So far, we talked about God’s purpose – Shalom, and our place in that shalom – Royal Priesthood. Does it mean that we are going to change the world? We are going bring forth that shalom, with our ability and means? It’s all depending on us, right? Well, the biblical answer is “No”… Here come the biblically faithful posture of our purpose and place – our faithful presence.
Let’s go back to the Gospel of John:
At the scene depicted in John 20:21-23 we covered earlier, the resurrected Jesus appeared in front of his fearful yet somewhat anticipating bunch of disciples. He said to them: “As my Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
Jesus was essentially saying that “I am sending you all now in the similar fashion as God the Father has sent me.” How was Jesus being sent? In what way or fashion?
In fact, we find the answer in an important echo right at the beginning of the same Gospel, in John 1:14. Jesus the Word was sent to dwell among us, the world, “pitching his tent in our neighbourhoods.” And that is the glorious presence of the Son with us, full of grace and truth.
According to Jesus, his followers, meaning all Christians, are sent to be his presence in the world with grace and truth, just like he did for the Father. So, to be His presence…Perhaps it is not really us making the changes ultimately; it’s Christ himself bringing forth the changes; Yet we have a part to play: being a faithful presence of this Christ who really makes the changes.
Where would such grace-and-truth-filled presence be in our world today then? I imagine these presences, full of grace and truth, would be… in the climate marches initiated by young people; on the pulpits or in the classrooms teaching old and young; in the local community gardens advocating food security and climate resilience; on the campaign trails for climate conscious politicians; in the corporate boardrooms discerning for decarbonized financing; among those fleeing from their homelands because of climate and environmental disasters providing aids or welcoming them to our homes; in the engineering labs testing newer generation of energy saving technology; in planting trees or restoring wetlands; or in…wherever we are and meant to be…
Now I hope you would be able to see that, for Christians, creation care is not just about recycling or changing to LED lighting… Creation care is not merely about Christian activism on the environmental front (well, appropriate actions are great and badly needed by faithful followers of Christ, no doubt!); nor even it’s merely about being a good steward for the earth.
It’s about something way more profound. It’s in fact at the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He has come as the Lord of ALL and for ALL, and let me emphasize again: He is going to reconcile and restoring ALL THINGS, things on earth and in the heavens. We the followers of Christ proclaiming the Gospel are to bear witness to this grand objective, and that witness includes, among many aspects, our relations with the lands, the oceans, the wildlife, farm animals, plants, insects, and other human communities, as well as our ways of living in and interactions with this wonderful creation of the great King, in the economy, politics, culture… Yes, it’s about everything under the Lordship of Christ! Yes, this is the Gospel call!! And to be honest, as you could imagine, it will not be EASY but it will be HARD. Resistance and setback will be a guarantee; and it will be a life-long journey. Nevertheless, this is the biblical call for all humanity right from the beginning, and now in Christ, this call has been lifted to a whole new horizon. Here we have a great challenge and invitation, from Christ himself, to every one of us here to follow him in this call.
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