(based on a homily preached on the fifth Sunday of Easter, 2010)
The word “new” comes up five times in the readings for this Sunday, especially Revelation 21:1-5a. New heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem, I make all things new, new commandment.
The new is generally better than the old, but we sometimes get hurt trying out the new. Example: the motor vehicle. It is good for a lot of people, but 33,000 people were killed last year in motor vehicle accidents. That is a lot fewer than thirty years ago, which suggests that we may someday reduce the number to zero. We’re doing better, but we haven’t learned enough yet.
The same thing is true of capitalism. It is a wonderful invention, but it kills people just like the motor vehicle does. We haven’t learned to do it well.
The story of Adam and Eve is not about obedience, it is about the human tendency to push the limits, to try new things. God could have inserted a gene into Adam and Eve that would have made the tree unattractive to them. God knew they were likely to eat of the fruit of that tree. Their being driven from paradise was not a punishment, but a description of how you can get hurt when you try something new. Did God say “Go for it”? The story does not put those words into God’s mouth, but it could have.
Instead of inserting the gene, God inserted himself into the human story, in Jesus Christ. God became vulnerable. Love is vulnerable, faithful involvement. When you are vulnerable, you get hurt. Love is more important than not getting hurt. God got hurt.
The new commandment will lead to the new heavens, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem. The new commandment is “love one another as I have loved you."
The old commandments are the famous ten: thou shalt not (kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness). They are part of the old heavens and the old earth. The One on the throne says “Behold, I make all things new.” He makes all things new by showing us what happens when we live vulnerably and faithfully with one another.
We may be facing the greatest environmental disaster in history—not the Gulf oil spill, but that and a whole list of related things: global warming, poisoning of our waters by the thousands of chemicals we invent, nuclear war. The disaster, if it comes, will have been caused by our pushing the limits. We invented all these new things and they can kill us. We need a theology that can cope with even the ultimate disaster. A theology based on obedience will not do the job.
Of course, each of us as individuals face disasters as terrible to us as the end of the world would be to all of us. Marital failure, cancer, Alzheimer's.
The theology that can do the job is a theology that sees creation as unfinished. God is constantly creating, and letting humans play with creation. God creates thousands of species and eliminates thousands of species. Not all environmental disasters are “man-made.” God created a creature that could share in this process of creation and destruction, because that creature could also love, and love is the most important thing ever created. Love will survive any disaster. That is the lesson of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The deniers of global warming are not evil people. They may, like all of us, be partly motivated by self-interest—they may be making money off the present system and don’t want to see it changed. But fundamentally they are part of a human race that has not yet learned how to do technology without killing itself. Maybe we’ll learn in time, maybe not. Regardless of whether we do or don’t learn, we can love.
We thought that smoking was cool, but it gave us lung cancer. We thought we knew how to make a marriage work, but it didn't. Those things don't stop us from loving.
Love will offer us a more promising path toward dealing with, or even preventing, the disasters than will politics and brute force.
Traditional theology says that humans cannot find salvation without grace. The special kind of grace that we call “sanctifying” (holy-making) is really the Spirit of God, God's breath blowing on the coals of our hearts to make them white hot with love. Without that wind, we cool off.
We believe that the wind is there, that God is present in our midst in Christ Jesus, and that we can love, regardless of how wounded we are, as individuals or as nations.
The Book of Revelation was written to give hope to people who were faced with obstacles and dangers. The image of a new heavens and a new earth is meant to give hope in the midst of very unfinished old heavens and old earth. Only when we have hope can we open ourselves to love.