Bearing Witness To God’s Creation

Last Friday, April 22nd, people across the country and around the world celebrated Earth Day – an opportunity to support and advocate for climate justice and environmental protection. In celebration, many faith communities offered worship services dedicated to this special date. This past Sunday, Hannah Shultz – GIPL’s Program Coordinator – offered a sermon at Heritage Presbyterian Church. Her manuscript follows.

John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, 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.”

Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Purpose of John’s Gospel

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

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Last week, Christians around the world celebrated Easter. After 40 solemn days of lent, churches were filled with jubilant choruses of alleluia. We have spent the last week celebrating as Easter people, rejoicing in the knowledge that God’s love has conquered sin and death and that we too, will be resurrected one day.

Centuries of Christian tradition have taught us how to observe this season and have left us confident in what we can boldly proclaim. The Easter celebration that we experience today looks very different than it did for the disciples, however. The scripture passage from this morning picks up the story just hours after where we left off last week. Last Sunday we heard how Jesus appeared to a weeping Mary in the early morning hours, three days after his crucifixion. Mary goes to the disciples and announces what she has seen and what Jesus has told her. Despite the good news she delivers, we know that the disciples are not totally convinced about what they heard.

When we pick up the story today, we find the disciples locked in their house in fear. I can imagine the disciples huddled together in a dimly lit room, sharing hushed conversations in small groups, daring to wonder what happens next. Their world has been turned upside down. After years of tension with religious authorities the worst scenario has finally happened. The Roman Empire crucified Jesus – their leader, teacher, and friend is gone. The disciples have every reason to believe that they might be next. Perhaps they take turns glancing out the window, trying to guess when it might be safe to leave. Perhaps they have heard shouts from the streets or maybe it’s been eerily quiet outside. Although they have heard the words of reassurance from Mary, there is still doubt and suspicion and many unanswered questions. It is within this context, at the height of the disciple’s grief, fear, and confusion, that Jesus appears.  His first words to the disciples are those of reassurance, “Peace be with you” he says. He shows the disciples his wounds, providing proof that the resurrection is real.

In the second part of this passage, we find out that Thomas was not among the disciples when Jesus arrived. When Thomas returns, the disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus, but Thomas is still unsure. Thomas says, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Jesus appears to the disciples again and Thomas gets the tangible proof of the resurrected Christ that he was seeking. Thomas’ doubt has become a popular motif in modern Christianity – we have been quick to condemn his reluctance to believe in the resurrection. However, I think that in our rush to focus on Thomas’s doubt, we miss an opportunity to consider the significance of Christ’s wounds.

For Thomas, the wounds are proof that the Jesus who is standing before him is the same Jesus who suffered evil and overcame death. Historically, Jesus’ death has not only symbolized the power of life over death, but also that God understands our suffering because God has experienced the depths of divine suffering through the crucifixion. Christ’s wounds are a reminder that evil doesn’t disappear with the resurrection – although we live in an Easter world, it is not a world free of pain and suffering. The reality of Jesus’s wounds remind us of the imperfections of our world, but also show us that death does not have the final word. Indeed, it is Christ’s full embodiment of pain and suffering that makes the transformative power of the resurrection possible. Thomas’s insistence on seeing and touching Jesus’s scars might not serve so much as a caution about disbelief, but as a reminder to the faith communities of today that death doesn’t have the last word. If we are to take this message seriously, then the question that we are left with is: How can we, as modern-day disciples, bear witness to the wounds in our communities in a way that shows that death doesn’t get the final say?

On this earth day weekend, we are called to see and bear witness to the wounds we are creating on our planet. We have cut deep into the earth, extracting oil, coal, and natural gas to power our lives. We have left deep scars in coral reefs at the depths of the sea, caused by increased ocean temperatures, rising levels of carbon dioxide, and pollution. We see the marks of overproduction, consumption, and expansion in the trash that piles in our landfills, in the empty spaces where trees once stood, and in the smog filled sky. We rely on the natural resources that have been gifted to us but know that we have not always been the best stewards of these resources.

Over the last century, we have fallen into a deep reliance on fossil fuels, commercial agriculture, and single-use products. Just as Jesus’ wounds were caused by those in power who wanted to maintain the status quo, our planet bleeds from the systems and structures that prioritize money and production over sustainability. The impacts of our actions have reverberated around the world as, globally, we face the risks associated with changing weather patterns and sea level rise.

As the planet bleeds from the wounds we have inflicted, we know that we are leaving the deepest scars in the most vulnerable of our communities. Low income and minority populations bear a disproportionate burden of the environmental and public health impacts caused by climate change. We have lost our connection to the earth as we have become farther and farther removed from the garden we were once told to cultivate and care for. We find ourselves in a similar place as the disciples were just hours after Christ’s resurrection: huddled together, knowing that things are not as they should be, wondering what comes next. We need to start by bearing witness to these wounds, by talking about the pain and suffering that our planet and neighbors are experiencing and by seeing ourselves as active players in the world’s transformation.

When Jesus appears to the disciples, he brings greetings of peace and tells them what they are to do now, in this new stage of their ministry. Jesus’s first words, “peace be with you”, which he says twice to the disciples and then again when Thomas is present, are significant. Not only are these words meant as a comfort and blessing to the disciples who are hiding in fear, but they also invite the disciples into the kind of radical peacemaking work that defined Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus bestows peace upon the disciples he tells them, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” Bearing witness requires us to be radical truthtellers and bold peacemakers and we have been commissioned to go into the world as such. The disciples are to leave the safety of the house they have been hiding in and to commit themselves to the kind of peacemaking work that Jesus started. We know that this is not a kind of peacemaking that creates an absence of conflict or accepts the status quo. Rather, this is the kind of peacemaking that flips the script – that puts the first last, accepts the outcast and marginalized, and uproots social conventions. Jesus has taught us that there is another way of living and is commissioning his disciples to go and be public witnesses to this new way of life. We, the modern disciples, have received the same call.

We show that death doesn’t get the final word when we bear witness to the wounds in our society and actively seek ways to be radically transformative in our response. We continue Christ’s peacemaking activity when we share our stories, telling others how we have been impacted by environmental degradation and listening to the lived experiences of our friends and neighbors. We follow Christ’s example when we hold those in power responsible for their decisions and we are peacemakers when we advocate to our elected officials for just policies that will reduce our carbon footprint and that better protect impacted communities. We flip the script when we refuse single use bottles and plastic bags at the grocery store, grow our own food to share with those in need, when we put solar panels on our homes and walk, bike, or take public transportation. In all these ways we serve as public witnesses to a different way of living. Jesus tells us that this work won’t be easy, that it probably won’t be popular, and that it might even be risky. However, he also reassures us that we are not alone in our peacemaking.

The second thing that Jesus says to the disciples bears just as much importance as the first. Jesus says to his disciples “receive the Holy Spirit” and he breathes the breath of the Holy Spirit over them. Author and theologian Kristin Johnston Largen writes, “In one of the most powerful aspects of this Gospel text…Christians are reminded that we do not stand alone in our attempts to follow Jesus. Instead, in the same way that the resurrected Jesus came and stood among the disciples and breathed upon them the Holy Spirit…the Holy Spirit continues to abide with us and dwell with us, making the impossible possible with the power of God.”[1]

The holy spirit unites us with God and with one another, empowering us be bold leaders in a world that may reject us. As Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, we are reminded of one of God’s first acts in the second creation account. Made from the dust and dirt of the earth, God fills us with God’s breath of life and places us in the garden and tells us to care for it. Caring for and sustaining the earth has always been part of God’s vision for humanity. Receiving the holy spirit now is a reminder of that call, but it is not just about caring for the garden. Filled with the holy spirit, we have been commissioned to be Christ’s hands and feet to the world and to be active players in the inbreaking of a new kingdom.

No matter who we are in this story – whether we are Mary Magdalene, who encounters Jesus and runs right away to share the good news, or a weary and frightened disciple hiding in the house, or Thomas who needs a little bit more time to believe, we know that we are commissioned to go and be the radical peacemakers that Jesus has called us to be. We need to bear witness to the wounds of our world in order to fully realize the potential for transformation. The climate crisis is unfolding before us in real and tangible ways, and it is only through bearing witness to this suffering that we can realize our role in helping to transform our relationship with the earth.

In the face of evil and suffering, we find hope in the resurrection. Throughout the New Testament, we are told that one day there will be a New Creation – a creation where justice is restored for all people and for the earth itself. We are invited to live into this hope and into the anticipation of the eventual reconciliation with all of creation.  Jesus’s wounds, still apparent on his resurrected body, serve as proof that life triumphs over death and love triumphs over sin. Today, as we bear witness to the scars we have left on the earth, we prove death doesn’t get the final say when we reckon authentically with the role we have played in contributing to the climate crisis and when we commit to living boldly as peacemakers, working for the transformation of ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet.  God meets us in the midst of our suffering and reassures us that this is not the last word. The holy spirit empowers us to go and love as God loves and gives us hope that, even in the face of despair and self-doubt, God will bear fruit from our work. We are an easter people – we know what God has done and what God will do and called now to bear witness to the power of god’s transformation through even the most profound wounding.

[1] Kristin Johnston Largen, “John 20:19-23, Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, volume 2, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 324.

About the Author:
Hannah Shultz is the Program Coordinator at Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. She graduated from Candler School of Theology in 2019 with her Master of Divinity. As the Program Coordinator, Hannah brings GIPL programs and workshops to communities of faith across Georgia to inspire faith-based responses to environmental concerns. She works directly with congregations to assist with developing sustainable spaces and practices, launching a Green Team, or taking environmental action in their communities.