At the time of its formation 31 years ago, the Uniting Church professsed that its mission had an ecological dimension. The Uniting Church’s founding document, the “Basis of Union”, says “God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end” (Basis of Union, paragraph 3). In other words, the Church’s call is not to just serve the coming reconciliation, the restoration of relationship, between individual people and God. Or the restoration of broken down relationships between people. It also includes the restoration of relationships between people and the earth. It includes the healing of the ecological devastation caused by humans – the lost of biodiversity caused by deforestation, desertification and pollution, the death of ecosystems caused by the over-extraction of water, and changes to the climate and their impacts on all the inhabitants of the earth – both human and non-human.
Where does this understanding of the church's mission come from? A key text that informs this understanding is Colossians 1:15-23. What this text says is that God’s mission in Christ involves the whole creation. It is not just about saving souls. It is not just about transforming structures of oppression, in which humans oppress other humans. Through Christ, God reconciles, makes whole, or restores broken relationships with and in all of the creation (v20) – between humans and God, between humans and other humans, and between humans, the rest of the earth, and God. God’s mission is the healing of all creation. It is of this mission that Paul became a servant (v23). And so it is, in a world of escalating ecological damage, that we are called to be a part of this mission today. The plight and fate of this earth and all that is in it is not a sideline to the Christian story, it is a central part of it. Ecological concern and witness are not just some optional extra to Christian life, whether individual or collective life. They are not just things that we add on just because they seem good. Ecological concern and action are central to our understanding of how we live in response to God’s mission. Our mission as churches is a response to this all-encompassing grace and love of God, shown to us in Jesus.
(And by the way, the reason that I have been using the terms like “ecology” rather than “environment” and “ecological concern and action” rather than “environmental concern and action” is because ecology refers to the relationships between living things and their surrounds. “Ecology” therefore includes us humans as well and the connections we have with the rest of this earth, much as the word “creation” also includes us humans. In contrast, “environment” is a word that we use to talk about our surrounds, separating ourselves from the rest of the earth. Using the word “ecology” goes together with an understanding that we are of this earth, not separate from or superior to it.)
There are four aspects of our mission of churches as regards ecology that I want to highlight:
1) An “environmental” or “ecological” witness is a part of our living.
Environmental actions, like switching to greenpower, reducing our ecological footprint, growing some of our food, lobbying and environmental demonstration, are not just the realm of environmental organizations like WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth. They are also a part of our lives as Christians. If we do these things as individuals, they are not separate from our participation here at church on a Sunday. And it we do these things in our churches, we are not just being another “environmental NGO”. We are living out the gospel hope of the reconciliation of all creation – and we are proclaiming it to others.
2) We work for the reconciliation of the whole of creation.
Ecology means the relationship between living things and their surroundings. Ecology is about interconnection. An “ecological witness” does not stand apart from a witness to social justice. I mentioned before about climate change and its impacts on those who are already malnourished. Other examples of the social injustice that is climate change include the Pacific Islands, Burma, Hurricane Katrina.
3) We work for this together as communities.
The reconciliation of the whole of creation implies that an ecological witness is not something that we only do by ourselves, a matter of individual Christian conscience, important though that is. Reconciliation is about community. We do it together, as communities of people, or even more broadly as earth communities. So church-based actions are especially important.
4) An ecological witness is about life in all its fullness.
An ecological witness is not about simply consuming less resources, giving things up, and reducing our environmental impact. An ecological witness is also about more. Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And both our gospel readings today show the abundant love that God offers to us. To follow Jesus, a man who got nailed to a cross, is not an easy thing easy to do. But it also has rewards. In the acounts of Jesus feeding the thousands, the crowds followed him to a deserted place – but the sick were healed and the hungry were fed! One of the ways we can practice abundant life is in sharing some of our possessions, inspired by the early church who held things in common. Sharing possessions means we have less things personally, but we have more collectively, we reduce our impact on the environment, and by cooperating together we build up our community life.