A message presented to the congregation at St Andrews UC, Creek Street, Brisbane yesterday by
Dr Mike Pope,
Professor of Environmental Mission, Missional University, Ethos Environment Coordinator, Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society
A sermon on Romans 8:19-23 preached by Dr Mick Pope at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane, April 7 2019.
I’d like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to speak to you this morning. But I also have to have to brag at your expense. For those who follow Rugby Union, the Melbourne Rebels were up here a couple of weeks ago and beat the Queensland Reds. There is something else Victoria beats you at, although I am less proud to speak about it.
We had our hottest summer on record, along with four other states. However, as a consolation prize it was your hottest January on record, with rainforest damaged by fire, and record breaking rains in Townsville. All of this consistent with long term warning trends, and the warmest Australian summer on record. Now I know that some in the churches are unwilling to accept that climate change is real, but I want you to suspend your disbelief if that is you and come along on a journey with me.
Recently, roughly 150,000 Australian school kids participated in the school climate strike, and I attended during my lunch break in support. I was very proud of them. The strike is an expression of their anger at politicians on both side of the spectrum, whom they believe are not delivering enough on climate change. This generation is growing up in a different climate to the one you and I have, and they have fear and anxiety about the future.
When I went home, a friend of mine who writes for Eternity News, a Christian website, asked me to jump onto their Facebook page and answer some of the comments on a piece they had published. The article spoke about two Christian schoolgirls who had attended the strike. After 45 minutes of responding, I was despondent and had a stress headache. There was so much outrage, with comments of ‘fake news,’ poorly understood science, and poor theology.
What would you say to the youth of today? Particularly those within the church? Do you respond with denial, or simply say that God is in charge and not to worry about it? How does the church become more pro-active and less re-active on climate change?
Our text for this morning reads
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Straight off the bat, Paul is making two big theological statements that say ‘God is in charge’:
- God has subjected creation to futility
- God will set it free
So doesn’t that wrap it all up? Can’t you say ‘Mick, there’s no more to say, just sit down?’ We I think that this passage begs three questions.
- What is the nature of this futility?
- How will creation be set free?
- Is there anything we can do?
So let’s look at each of these questions in turn.
1. What is the nature of this futility?
It is best to start at the beginning. If ever like me you have tried to read the bible from cover to cover, you would have started with Genesis. We learn about the beauty of creation and its great blessing, and human responsibility in Genesis 1-2. In Genesis 1 we learn that to be made in the image of God means to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth, which means to engage in agriculture and feed ourselves. In Genesis 2 and verse 15, we learn of our vocation to care, tend, and keep the earth. We have an intimate relationship with the soil, the pun from the Hebrew being humans from the hummus. And then in Genesis 3, it all goes pear shaped, or better still apple shaped. Our relationship with the soil becomes cursed. We see the same thing at end of the book of Deuteronomy where Moses warns the people of Israel to remain faithful. Human disobedience leads to broken relationships with the soil.
So the subjection to frustration in Romans is due to the fact that God has let us run it – and what a fine job we’ve done of polluting the air and water, cutting down trees, warming the climate, and killing all the animals (60% of all living things in less than 50 years).
In Rome, Paul could also see the devastation that human misrule brought. He could see the regular silting up of the Tiber River because all of the trees had been cleared, and it needed to be dredged regularly. Although Paul and the ancients did not understand this, this swampy ground was the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. In 452 AD, those brave Huns were afraid to enter Rome because of the bad air, or malaria. There is evidence to show that malaria was one of the factors that was involved in the collapse of Rome. The air quality was also poor. Philosopher and Senator Seneca (4BC – 65 AD) wrote that
“No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the reek of smoking cookers, which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated … I noticed the change in my condition at once.”
Paul was making an observation then not in the abstract, but in the particulars of how Roman misrule produced damage to the world around him. In Romans chapter 1, he identifies the root of these problems, that we make idols out of things like wealth and power. Reformer John Calvin identified the heart as an idol factory, and Paul would agree, and link that idolatry to damage to creation.
In our day, Pope Francis notes in the encyclical Laudato Si’ that “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity.” In other words, the worship of progress, technology, consumerism and individualism, which may have once been done in ignorance, is now done in full knowledge of the consequences for our world, God’s good creation. This is recognised both within and outside of the church. Environmentalist Gus Speth says “The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy … to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation … we scientists don’t know how to do that.” But we in the church do! We know about repentance. What is needed by the church is to join the dots between sin and repentance with issues of the environment.
2. How will creation be set free?
The answer to my second question, how will the creation be set free, is found in verses 22-23.
22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Creation is suffering now in birth pains, but that suffering will one day give way to joy. Any woman here who has carried a child will know what this is like. I can remember watching my own wife with her distended belly, it getting hard to get comfortable at night. But the suffering is all worth it when a child is born. What Paul is saying is that creation is longing for the resurrection of the dead like a pregnant woman groans for the baby to come out. Renewed humanity at the resurrection means a renewed relationship with the Earth, and not the abandonment of it. Christianity is not just about going to heaven when you die like some Christians believe. Anglican theologian Tom Wright has said that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world. The future of us and the future of the creation are entangled together.
What this means is that we have a message of hope to offer the world. But what does that mean for the here and now?
3. Hope comes with responsibility
My last point then is that hope comes with responsibility. We might ask that if God has subjected the creation to frustration under our sinful misrule, and God will save it, why should we do anything? If the present state of things is God’s will, how can we contest it? Paul has addressed a similar idea in Romans 6:1 where he asks shall we go on sinning that grace may abound? He responds with an emphatic by no means!
We know that sin, idolatry, greed, and wilful ignorance of the harms we have done will lead to judgment. In Revelation it says that God will destroy those who judge the Earth. God’s judgment on sin and idolatry leads to more environmental harms, and people suffering. Why would we not repent of this? Why knowingly do things that hurt others we don’t know, or our children who will inherit this world, the very school children who took part in the strike?
If you knew that you were going to receive a heart transplant after a lifetime of drinking, smoking, and eating badly, would you wait until after the surgery, or would you start living a healthier lifestyle now? God is the great surgeon, but we are called upon to be good patients. Or imagine learning to drive in the old ‘family bomb.’ You are promised a new car when you turn 18 and get your licence, so you are not going to wait until then to learn to drive. What Paul is saying is that when we get the new car, we will discover that it is the old one, renovated to be even better than before.
Furthermore, we have a responsibility not only to live more gently on the earth, but to speak up. Paul wrote his letter to Christians in Rome, right at the centre of the biggest empire of the day. His letter could not avoid being political. Paul proclaimed in Romans that Jesus was son of God but Roman coins read that Caesar was “Son of God, Father of His Country.” Paul claimed creation groaned in birth pains while the Roman poet Horace said of Augustus Caesar that “Your age, O Caesar, has restored plenteous crops to the land.” A Caesar had to keep the crops plenteous to keep people filled, otherwise they might rebel. So Paul is making a statement that Rome was engaging in what we would now call greenwashing, that the emperor has no clothes. So when power contradicts truth we need to speak truth to power – including on climate change.
So the gospel always opposes powers gone wrong. We have both the right and opportunity to speak out as the church to call the world to repentance on matters of sin. Many Christians take a stand on gambling, slavery, medical ethics. Why not climate change? When leaders, those in business, etc aren’t acting to take better care of God’s creation, the church has the responsibility to speak out – and dare I suggest skipping a day of school to do so is ok?
So let me then close by asking, what are you willing to do to live faithfully as a good steward of creation until Christ returns to set creation free?