Not long ago I was talking to a well-meaning, but somewhat confused, fellow Christian—not a member of our parish—about the recent speech Pope Francis gave to congress. He was frustrated. “I don’t understand this Pope,” he told me, “why is he so concerned with the environment? He wants to save the world, but doesn’t he realize it’s all going to burn up?”
Now, I’m not about to give you a lecture about climate change or about our government’s environmental policies. I could offer you my opinion, but what good would that do? I’m not a scientist nor am I running for office, and this is after all a homily and not a lecture or a stump speech, but I would like to address his theological point.
First, Christians should indeed care about creation, because God does. God cares about the world because he made it! When he finished his act of creation he declared that it was very good, and he instructed men and women to care for and cultivate his good creation as its stewards.
Secondly, God’s ultimate plan for this earth is salvation not destruction. Our passage from Revelation speaks of a new heavens and a new earth, but this doesn’t mean that God is going to scrap the old creation. God says, “See I am making all things new.” He is repairing and salvaging what was broken.
We should understand this the same way we understand what the scripture says about making us a new creation in Christ. There is indeed a kind of death that needs to happen, but there is also resurrection! As Saint Thomas says, “Grace does not destroy nature, it perfects it!”
Later in the service, we are going to baptize two new Christians, Cora Stringer and Connor Murdock. Baptism is an effectual sign of God’s power to make all things new. Just as being washed with water is a removal of dirt from the body, just as Noah’s flood was a washing away of wickedness from the earth, just as Pharaoh’s armies were drowned in the Red Sea but the children of Israel passed through unharmed, so in baptism are we washed clean of corruption, purged of evil, and our enemies drowned in its waters. The waters of baptism are God’s means of making saints out of sinners.
When we baptize with water, God baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. When the Bible talks about the earth and its works being burned up and destroyed with intense heat, we need to read it in light of other places where it says that he has established them forever and where he says he will set creation free from its bondage to corruption and decay.
The fire that God sends upon the earth, like the waters of baptism, is for the purpose of new creation, of restoration, and purging from evil. Like gold that that is passed through the fire, all that is dross is burned away. What is the dross that is passing away? It is the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, the power of sin and death and all the grief and sorrow that follows with it.
We who have been baptized in Christ are being rescued from the evil in the world and in our own nature, but God does not save us from the world so much as for the sake of the world. God graciously calls us to be his partners, his agents of healing and restoration in a hurting world that is still all too full of tears. This is what it means to be a saint. All Saints are the lights of the world in their generation.
Just as the Genesis story speaks of the fall of human beings precipitating the fall of creation as well, of unleashing the forces of sin and death in the world, the New Testament speaks of the salvation of human beings as precipitating the salvation of the creation as well, of unleashing the forces of new creation in the world.
Saint Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God [That’s us!]. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Those who are baptized into Christ have the first fruits of the Spirit, the down payment on the new creation, the new Heavens and Earth. God brings that glorious future into the present. He gives us his promise of salvation and declares that we are Saints by the grace of God.
There is a sense in which all the baptized are Saints of God. That is Saint Paul’s favorite way of referring to us, but the Church has also uses the term “Saints” in particular to refer to those who are already enjoying the glory of Heaven.
The grace of God received in baptism is more than just a onetime event. When we are baptized, we receive the assurance of salvation, but we are also ushered into a life of ongoing repentance and discipleship. We must continually recommit ourselves to our baptismal promises. The Bible teaches us that we are saved through faith in Christ and through baptism, but it also teaches us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to press forward to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. God has called us saints but he is also perfecting us in order that we may be qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
In the promises of baptism, Christ has called us forth from our tomb. Just as he called out Lazarus, he has called us from death to life, but also like Lazarus we still have the stench of the tomb on us. Even those who have been called to new life in Christ, through baptism, continue to struggle with the lingering effects of sin in this life, but Christ assures us, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
To return to where we began, I think my friend was frustrated because of his sense that the Gospel was about our personal salvation and the hope of immortality rather than some project to save the world. He is partially right, the Gospel is indeed about our salvation, about living a life of repentance and pursuing holiness, but that is one piece of a larger hope. We shouldn’t drive a wedge between holiness and working to make the world a better place, because the two goals are related, they are inseparable.
To Christians only concerned with the salvation of their soul, God challenges them to share in his love for all creation. To those who want to make the world a better place and are concerned about the future of the earth, God teaches them that the way he will save the world is by making them a Saint. This is what the world is waiting for.