Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

For Your Friends
distributed 4/10/09 - ©2009

Today is Good Friday. This is the day in the cycle of the church year when we lift up the absurd proposition that there is cause for rejoicing in the execution of Jesus.

The "good" of Good Friday is rooted in the belief that healing -- salve-ation -- comes to a wounded world by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who we know as Christ. In the events that we commemorate this weekend, we believe that God was in Christ, bringing reconciliation and restoration for the whole creation.

All Christians find the core of their faith in the journey through Holy Week. The progression from Palm Sunday through crucifixion and resurrection is the focal point which centers all other parts of the faith. Within the enormous diversity of the church, of course, there are many theological schools of thought about the nature of salvation, and a wide range of approaches to the hows and whys of God's saving work.

Within all of that variety, though, most Christian theology says that there is something of profound importance about the voluntary quality of Jesus' death. The stories that we read in the Gospels make it clear that Jesus was not dragged kicking and screaming to the cross. He knew that the flow of events was headed toward his death, and he did not resist them. He shared a last supper with his friends where he put his suffering and death in context, and charged them with their ongoing work.

The Gospel of John gives us the verbose side of Jesus when he shared the Passover meal with his disciples. The "farewell discourse" runs for four chapters. At the core of that long passage is this clear instruction: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you." (John 15:12-14)

Selfless love is not incidental to the Christian faith. Sacrificial love is inherent in the narrative of Good Friday. It is impossible to make theological or spiritual sense of this execution without Jesus' voluntary -- if reluctant -- acceptance of that course of events. It is essential that we see his death as a "laying down" rather than a "snuffing out."

Selfless love defines Jesus, in his life and his death. Selfless love is the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples in that final conversation. As we recount the best examples in the history of the church, we rejoice that people of faith through the centuries have, indeed, taken on that challenging commandment. We look to the saints of the church -- the famous ones and the multitudes of anonymous saints -- who have given deeply because of their love of God, and their love of friends throughout the creation. We rejoice that people of faith have chosen to love with the love of Christ through selfless service, personal sacrifice, and even loss of life.

When we seek to describe true faith and discipleship, we look to those saints as the models of love. It is not profound theological reflection, eloquent preaching, or heartfelt spirituality that is the goal. Ultimately, we use the same standard that Jesus spelled out: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

On Good Friday, of all days, let us remember the centrality of selfless love.

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The United Church of Christ's Statement of Faith has a wonderful phrase which speaks of "the costs and joys of discipleship." It is a reminder that Christ's selfless love carries responsibilities and obligations.

There is a perennial perversion of the faith which forgets the costs, and only sees the joys. Distorted forms of Christianity deny the responsibilities, and extol the benefits. One modern expression of that warped faith is what is called a "prosperity gospel." It claims that, if you love Jesus, everything will go well for you, and that you will be blessed with wealth and comfort. That's is not what I hear and see in Jesus, nor what I see in his most faithful followers.

The prosperity gospel is an extreme distortion of Christianity, but there are hints of that heresy in churches of all stripes. Far too many people believe that the Gospel is about getting us a superficial form of the good life, that it is about making us happy and comfortable. There is a strange sense that faithfulness is directed toward getting what you want, rather than working toward what God wants.

When that self-centered faith takes hold in churches, we find that it is difficult to call members to engage in appreciable charitable giving (in philanthropy, giving from your own affluence), let alone genuine stewardship which sees our role as trustees of God's gifts. When we lose track of the costs, as well as the joys, of discipleship, we struggle to entice church members into mission projects, charitable service, community life, and a deeply grounded sense of vocation. In too many churches, commitment and selfless love are foreign concepts. It is essential to reaffirm, frequently and passionately, that Christ-like love is this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. Lay it down in service, in charity, in action -- and in doing so find joy and fulfillment.

Even on Good Friday, my theology and ethics are tied strongly to my awareness of the broken state of Earth community. On this day, as every day, I am painfully aware of the relentless over-heating of the planet, of the insidious extinction of unique species, of the global spread of toxic pollutants, of habitat loss and spreading deserts which place at risk humans and other creatures alike. In that Earth community, I see the "friends" that we are commanded to love. I long for the day when The Church, in countless congregations and settings, will be clear and uncompromising in calling all Christians to active and selfless love that encompasses the whole creation.

We do not -- perhaps -- have to lay down our very lives in love for that planetary community of friends. But surely must be willing to lay down the thermostat a few degrees for a friend, for future generations, for the planet. Surely it is not asking too much to lay down a few hours for political advocacy and public witness. In the spirit of Christ, there are some who have engaged in civil disobedience, risking arrest and prison, to denounce mountaintop removal or coal fired power plants, laying themselves down for their friends.

The list can go on and on. There are ways that each of us can be more Christ-like in selfless love of God's creation. It is not that there is a shortage of opportunities or needs. What has been lacking, I fear, is a willingness in the church to call Christians into that committed engagement. We have been hesitant and apologetic about even the most trivial expressions -- to recycle or turn off the lights -- and we have been afraid to suggest genuine sacrifice.

Jesus said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." There will be rejoicing in heaven and on earth when we take him seriously, and when we do lay down our comfort and compliance and commit ourselves to the well-being of the vast community of friends.

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Earth Day is observed in churches and communities on, and around April 22. I lift up two notes about that observation this year. (1) If you are still making plans for your church's activities, Eco-Justice Ministries recommends the very good resources developed by our close colleagues of the Eco-Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches. (2) On April 22, Disney is releasing a new nature movie, "Earth". I have serious concerns about the goals and philosophy of the film. I have posted a critical commentary about the movie on our website.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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