Climate Change

The Boldness to Love in Truth and Action

Today, on Earth Day, we’re sharing an abbreviated version of a sermon preached by CRE director Andrew R. H. Thompson at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, yesterday. You can watch the full sermon here.

We find ourselves in today’s readings surrounded by an abundance of threats: walking through the valley of the shadow of death, seated at a table in the presence of enemies, or with Peter and John, facing down the religious officials, who, according to the surrounding texts from the book of Acts, have imprisoned and threatened them. In the face of these threats, again and again, we hear words of comfort. Indeed, they’re some of the best-known words of comfort in the whole Bible.

The Lord is my shepherd, who revives my soul…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, who loves them, and who lays down his life for them.

Surrounded by danger, we are promised comfort, tranquility, love. But behind these words of comfort there’s something else.

There are hints here of a deeper struggle, a struggle for power, a struggle for life itself.

The 20th century Episcopal lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow was a friend of the radical Catholic antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan. And in the days following Berrigan’s arrest by the FBI, Stringfellow found himself reflecting on the story we heard today from the book of Acts.

He found himself wondering why healing a man who couldn’t walk  and proclaiming the resurrection would be so threatening to the authorities that they would have Peter and John arrested  and put on trial.

Stringfellow’s answer was that the state –  whether the Roman empire or the modern state –  is built on violence and death. Stringfellow was thinking about the violence of war, of the forcible suppression of voices like Berrigan’s, and of the violence of racism. Today, anticipating Earth Day tomorrow, we could add to that list the violence that climate change and an exploitative economic system do to human beings and to all creation. In the face of a violent system, healing and proclaiming the resurrection  are dangerous. They show that there is a power  greater than the violent power of the state or the economy, greater even than death.

But there is another curious thing about this story: Why are the authorities so interested in names? When they see Peter and John’s miraculous healing their question is not just, “how is this possible?” Rather, it’s “by what power or name did you do this?” And Peter’s response is “By the name of Jesus… for there is no other name under heaven  given among mortals  by which we must be saved.” The power of God’s name reappears in the psalm and of Jesus’s name again in the Epistle.

These references to the power of names  are part of a tradition that runs through the entire Bible. Starting in the Old Testament, God’s name is virtually synonymous with God’s power, and it is part of God’s victory over all the powers of the world – what the Bible calls authorities, rulers, and principalities. Wielding God’s name – and in the New Testament,  Jesus’s name – gives the disciples the power to reject worldly powers, the powers of violence and death. In the Gospel reading there is no mention of Jesus’s name, but he does name his power –  the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. The worldly forces that would take his life have no real power over him.

This manner of speaking, associating the disciples preaching and healing with God’s victory over worldly powers, is meant to empower us. By framing worldly conflicts with authorities as part of a struggle between cosmic powers – a struggle that God has already won –  these passages are meant to give us reassurance and confidence in the face of whatever dangers or threats we face….

And just like the authorities who arrested Peter and John, the powers of our world –  which for Stringfellow could be corporations, governments, and ideologies – these powers  resist this message, they seek to silence it. They deny or suppress the truth, they dismiss or marginalize those who proclaim it, but in the end it will not be silenced –  this is the power of the resurrection, the power that the readings associate with Jesus’s name.

In the verses following the reading from Acts, the authorities don’t know what to do with Peter and John, since the people have seen what they have done in Jesus’s name, and are in awe…  But they know they can’t let the word get out, and they command Peter and John not to tell anyone. The apostles refuse, saying, “we cannot keep from speaking.”

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.”

“I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.”

These familiar verses have comforted generations of Christians. But in them is more than comfort – in them is a message of hope in the face of threats, of life that is more powerful than death. In the resurrection  God overcomes all the powers of this world. By this, John writes, we can reassure our hearts, we can have boldness before God. We can love, he says, not in word and speech, but in truth and action.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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