Wesleyan-holiness theology challenges us to be a part of the redemption of all things.
Climate change. Global warming. Greenhouse gases. Rising sea levels. Dominion. Domination. Exploitation. Consumption. Tree Hugger. Eco-Friendly. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Let’s get this out of the way. Talking about care of creation is risky. Why? Because it can be political, polarizing, and confusing.
When this topic comes up it is easy to draw lines, take sides, and label one another. How can Christians talk about hot button issues without doing this? How can we who are Nazarenes, part of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition, address difficult conversations with love and respect and be the transformed community we ought to be? How can we discuss the risky things while still being a light for the world?
The answer to these questions at times has been, we can't. Such conversations are off limits. And so we’ve kept the peace by not speaking. But by holding our tongues, have we put ourselves in danger of losing our voice in the world?
No matter where we live, we often find ourselves in turbulent waters. Maybe we need to be reminded of our belief in the redemption of all things so that we can speak grace, truth, and hope into these troubled times. Maybe we need to consider the next generation—the ones who will carry on the faith we hold so dear. What legacy are we leaving them if we stay silent?
To speak up requires that we trust one another. We would do well to stop drawing up sides in our churches and instead pull up chairs and listen and learn from Scripture and from one another—to risk not having all the answers, but being willing to struggle for them together.
Creation and the Greatest Commandment
In Matthew 22:36-40, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus had just left the Sadducees puzzled and unable to trap Him. Now it was the Pharisees’ turn to try.
Jesus responds, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Many will recognize that in quoting two verses, Jesus wasn’t making one more important than the other, the first and then the second. Rather, Jesus was showing that the two belong together, work together, and truly only happen together.
When you love God with all you are, you will naturally love people. When you love people, you show your love for God because they are made in His image. Love God, love people—the greatest commandment.
We think of these words as guides for our personal salvation and our own acts of piety. Could they have implications beyond that? When we apply the greatest commandment to our thoughts about creation it changes the conversation.
Especially when Scripture tells us that:
- God declares all of creation good (Genesis 1).
- God includes all creation in the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9).
- God offers regulations for the care of land and animals in the Torah (see Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 20:19; 22:4, 6-7; 25:4).
- God’s people are tied to the land as a fulfillment of the promise and exiled from the land as a punishment (see Deuteronomy 28 and Jeremiah 4).
At every turn in the Old Testament we find the Israelites worshiping God using the elements of creation: crops, animals, trees, rocks, and water. This suggests these things matter to God— and by extension should matter to us as well.
Dominion and Jesus
Even if we were to disregard the earthiness of the Old Testament, how could we think that the stuff of this world doesn’t matter when we ponder the Incarnation? In the most amazing event imaginable, God chose to take on flesh and blood— to identify with us by becoming one with us, “being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).
In the Incarnation, God brings ultimate value to the dust of this earth and shows His love for all of creation. By choosing to redeem creation by becoming a part of it, God has given us a pattern to understand the ancient mandate to exercise dominion (Genesis 1:26).
Clearly, the model set for us in Jesus Christ is not one of domination or exploitation. The dominion modeled by Christ is one of participation that honors and cares for the other. We easily see this in His interactions with people. We also see it each time we commune at the Lord’s Table and each time we participate in the sacrament of baptism.
When we eat the grains of the field and drink the fruit of the vine we are reminded of Christ’s body and blood. When we baptize in the waters of the earth we are reminded of the redemption of life. In both cases, we find the stuff of earth being used as a central part of our liturgy of worship; we find the material matter of this world being used as a sacrament.
So, for the Christian, things like land degradation and the poisoning of water (as in Flint, Michigan, for example, and around the world) matter because we view creation as a sacred reminder to us of the Creator and as a means of grace for our salvation.
Loving His creation
The redemption we experience, then, is not meant merely for us, it is meant for all of God’s creation. We are people who don’t look to be taken out of this world, but to live into the New Heaven and the New Earth that God is bringing to pass. We are invited to bear witness to our God who is infinitely creative and working in our world to redeem His creation. Diane Leclerc reminds us:
Unlike other traditions, Wesleyan theology is thoroughly optimistic about such a restoration, indeed, transformation of human life. In Christ we have the hope that our potentiality to be truly human can be actualized. This transformation is at the heart of our understanding of sanctification. The Fall distorted the image of God in humanity; Christ’s obedience (even to death on a cross) enables the progressive restoration or renewal of that same image. And what is the imago Dei in Wesleyan theology? It is the capacity to love and be loved in divine and human relationships, as well as loving the creation (emphasis added). (Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 144.)
We are called to love God and love neighbor. We demonstrate our love for Him in our love for what He has created. Our care for God’s creation is a key way we can demonstrate our love for neighbor.
Every spring for the last five years our family has planted a garden. However, we don’t depend on whether that garden flourishes. We can get in our car and go to the grocery to get whatever we need. This is not the reality for all people in the world. Many plant a garden to live.
If there is drought in parts of Africa people may die along with their crops. If the sea level rises more in places like India, there are dire consequences. If the rainy season comes too soon or too violently in places like Haiti, plants can wash away because of deforestation and children can go hungry. The desperate need to care for creation comes into sharp focus when we get out of our comfort zones, look with new eyes, and recognize our own privileges. We can see very clearly in parts of the developing world, where many of our missionaries and fellow Nazarenes live, the way in which the earth is groaning for salvation. As the earth groans, so do our brothers and sisters.
The Church of the Nazarene was founded by those who were willing to make personal sacrifices. Our mothers and fathers of faith would go places others would not go, meet with people others would not meet with, stand alongside those the world said were unimportant. This is how we were formed. This is the “stuff” of our denominational birth.
Our history and theology invites us to continue to seek out the broken places, partnering with God and our neighbors, to bring about the redemption of all things. “We must remember in our holiness theology that we are fundamentally related to both our Creator and all creation,” writes Eric Vail. “Our life has its many textures as we live in relation to God and all else. Our salvation, then, entails full reconciliation with not only God but also with our estranged world.”
One of the ways this must happen is in the gardens, in the waters, in the forests, and the mountains of this world. We are invited to stand alongside those who can’t access what we can access and help to make a way forward with them.
A critique of our consumption
We are often estranged from our world by our level of consumption. People consume more in some parts of the world than in other parts. Some of us have privileges that others don’t have. When we are considering loving our neighbors we need to make sure our understanding goes beyond our own city or nation. The world is our neighborhood; our church is a global church; all people are our neighbors. Consumption isn’t something we just compare to those who are like us or who have more than us, it is also about looking outside of our context to people who live very differently than we do.
We need people on the outside of our lives—perhaps folks from the developing world if we're from a developed nation—to take a good look at us and offer a critique. For example, we have been in markets with people who have never seen so much food in one place in their entire lives. We have talked with some visitors who have seen our feed corn and have shared how people they know would gladly eat what we feed animals. We have sat with those who have noticed the care we take for our pets and grieve that they can’t even take care of their children in the same way.
As holiness people, taking an inventory of our use of creation is a good way to begin to address how to show our love for others. Asking questions about how we spend our money will often lead us to evaluate our consumption, which is closely tied to how we are utilizing the gifts of creation. We are seeking to bring back balance.
Not only that, but we have committed that where we get our meat matters, so we have opted to support a local family farm. It costs more, which means we eat less, but in the end this is one way for us to identify with our global neighbors and in the process move to a more ethical way of eating. For similar reasons others have opted for being vegetarian or vegan.
Whatever we choose, we need to recognize that our consumption of the food resources of our world is inextricably linked to the great commandment, because how we eat shows our love of others.
Partners in the new creation
All of these issues are enormous problems. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to even try to address them. However, our theology challenges us not to give in to apathy or even reluctant acceptance of the “ways things are.” We have been entrusted with an optimistic stance that suggests that what we do matters, that we can be a part of the redemption of all things.
So in those often repeated words attributed to John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
We are invited to be partners in the kingdom of God that is already bursting forth, but not fully realized. We are called to be ambassadors to the new creation that happens in our lives and in our world as Christians heed the call of discipleship. We are commanded to love God and to love our neighbors—this has deep implications for the way in which we treat God’s good creation, and those whom He has created. The generations who are coming after us need us to speak up, to lead by example.
Dustin and Olivia Craker Metcalf are co-directors of the Office of Spiritual Formation and university chaplains at Northwest Nazarene University.