Sin, Salvation, and Climate Action

Excerpted from a sermon at Altona Mennonite Church on September 11, 2022, called “The Gospel for All Creation.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of salvation often as “liberation” or “redemption” from “evil powers.”

For Paul these “evil powers” are forces that control us, yet which seem to be beyond our control. And for Paul the most basic of these evil powers is human sin: our individual habits of harm that wound ourselves and others, and our collective systems of harm that do the same but on a larger scale.

Let me name three of these evil powers that are especially strong within us and among us, causing devastation and destruction and death not just for humanity but for all creation: the sins of pride, greed, and violence.

In our pride, we as humanity have centered ourselves within creation and elevated ourselves above creation, instead of centering the Creator and lifting up creation. In our pride we have subjugated creation for our own ends instead of caring for creation as an end in itself.

For centuries now we as a western, industrialized society have sought to master creation in order to extract as many resources as we can out of it, all for our own purposes without any thought of the impact on the rest of creation, or even future generations. Even when we have known better, as we surely have for decades now, in our arrogance we have downplayed or ignored the problem.

As for greed, our greed as a western society is well-known. We have developed deeply ingrained habits of consumption and accumulation, always striving for more and newer and bigger and better. We have developed an entire economic system dependent upon consumption and accumulation.

This has caused tremendous harm to ourselves as human beings. We have objectified each other, seeing our core identity as producers and consumers and even objects to consume rather than as persons created in God’s image, having inherent worth and dignity regardless of our ability to produce or consume.

But our greed has also caused tremendous harm to the rest of creation. Instead of seeing the earth as a sanctuary created by God for the flourishing of life, the earth is viewed as a repository of resources to be extracted in order to sustain the capitalist engine of production and consumption and accumulation.

The consequences to species and ecosystems, and the impact on vulnerable peoples as the earth heats up, are catastrophic.

Out of our hubris and to sustain our greed, we have committed violence against creation and one another, causing destruction and death. We as so-called “developed” nations have exploited and violated the poorest and most vulnerable among us, including vulnerable ecosystems and species, all in order to maintain our lifestyles of convenience built on consumption and accumulation.

Our pride, our greed, and our violence. These are three of the most evil powers of sin at work both in human hearts and in the structures and systems of our society. And, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the wages of sin is death”: our pride, our greed, and our violence has paid as wages a devastating death not just for humans but also for the rest of creation.

But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that in Jesus we can be liberated from our pride, our greed, and our violence. We can be liberated from these evil powers that dominate and destroy us and the world which is our home.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Jesus shows us a better way, where we are freed to live in humility and compassion instead of hubris, in simplicity and generosity instead of greed, in ways of justice and peace instead of violence. Jesus taught and lived out these things in resistance to the pride, greed, and violence of his day.

Jesus “humbled himself,” Paul says in another Christ hymn in Philippians 2, “he humbled himself, took on the form of a slave,” and died a slave’s death on a Roman cross.

And this humility was driven by compassion: multiple times the Gospels say that Jesus was “moved by compassion” to respond to the needs of others. Jesus shows us a better way than human pride, a way that prompts us to work together for the good of each other and all creation.

Instead of greed, Jesus taught and lived out simplicity. Freeing ourselves from the need to accumulate more, being freed from the chains of Mammon. Instead, trusting in God for our daily bread: just what we need, no more, just when we need it, not before.

This way of simplicity leads to generosity. Because we can hold our possessions lightly, because we trust that God will provide for us when we need it, we can be generous with what we have when others are in need.

And Jesus taught and lived out the way of nonviolence, living in harmony with one other and all creation: loving both neighbours and enemies, and attending to “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field.” This is a way that resists evil non-violently, walking in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable even if that means a cross.

This is the good news of Jesus: that we can be liberated from the evil powers that dominate and destroy us, including our own pride and greed and violence. And the key to experiencing this good news? It is as Jesus himself said when he first came proclaiming the gospel: “Repent and believe.”

We need to turn away from our habits and systems of harm, our ways of pride and greed and violence—we need to repent.

And we need to believe—not simply “believing certain things to be true,” that’s not what biblical faith is. Rather, biblical faith is trusting in God and committing ourselves to God’s way. Walking in Jesus’ way of faith, walking in Jesus’ way of hope, and walking in Jesus’ way of love.

My friends, here is where the good news of Jesus intersects with our eco-mission as a church: when we live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, when we live out the faith and hope and love of Jesus, when we live out our liberation from pride and greed and violence, we will see creation renewed.

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.