Lent 5: Tread Gently

Here are Bishop Emma’s sermon notes for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

Lent 5: Tread Gently

The Vicar of Holy Trinity Church Cambridge, and founder of the Church Mission Society, Charles Simeon (1759-1836), had carved on the inside of the pulpit, so only the preacher could see it, some words from our reading today, John 12:21, "Sir, we would see Jesus”.

For Simeon, these words served as a constant reminder that no matter how learned or eloquent the preacher (and Simeon was both), the purpose of all preaching is to point people, not to the preacher, but towards Jesus.

As we come to the final one of our 5 sermons of Lent focusing on our refreshed God for All vision, that is not a bad reminder to us too. As we live out the vision to follow daily, speak boldly, care deeply and tread gently, the primary purpose of all our words and actions is not to make ourselves look great, as individuals or as churches, but to lead people towards the Lord and saviour of the world - Jesus Christ.

Our passage today describes a scene after Jesus had gone to Jerusalem, where his disciple Philip was approached by some Greeks who spoke those words carved on Simeon’s pulpit, “Sir we wish to see Jesus”. As Greeks, and therefore Gentiles, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the inner courts of the temple in Jerusalem, but they were keen to get close to this man, Jesus, who they had probably heard about. In his response to Philip, Jesus explained the meaning of his death. He explained that his hour had come, that he would die, but through his death and resurrection, everyone - Jews and Gentiles, male and female, young and old - everyone, could be saved.

But the thing we tend to forget when we think about how Jesus’ death saved the world is - exactly that - it saved the world, … the cosmos. That includes people of course, but it also includes the whole of creation.

That’s what this fourth theme of our refreshed vision is all about; ‘treading gently’ on this beautiful earth that we not only inhabit, but which we are a part of. Of course, caring for the environment is a very good thing to do in and of itself. Many people, of all faiths and none are passionate about climate repair, recognise the need to reduce carbon emissions, to preserve ecological diversity, to protect endangered habitats, to live more sustainable lives.

But for Christians (and for some other religions too) that task takes on an added meaning. We care for the world and the environment not just because our lives and the future of our planet depend on it (which they do), but also because creation care is part of God’s plan, and therefore our calling as Christians.

When we read for example a well-known verse like John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”, we often tend to think that means people only. But the word that is used there means people, of course, but also every living thing and all God’s creation. The whole cosmos. Plants, birds, seas, mountains, animals. Everything.

How so?

Well, put very simply, at the very beginning of time God created all things. That’s what the story of Genesis shows us. But, because of sin and disobedience to God, the whole story begins to go wrong. Sin, death, sickness, and all the other things that are wrong with our world came in as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God. When Jesus died on the cross, he came to put all of that right again, not just for human beings but for the whole of creation.

Dave Bookless the director of the eco-charity “A Rocha” puts it like this:

“… the world was created good, has been spoilt by sin, but through Jesus there is the hope of salvation both for people and for the whole creation. For many years I didn’t understand this. I believed Jesus came to bring salvation for people and that was the end of it. The world didn’t matter ultimately, because Jesus would rescue us from it. Now I’ve come to see that this is only half the story. God is much bigger than I’d realised, and his purposes in Jesus are much more far-reaching than I’d ever dreamed”. (Planetwise, IVP)

Jesus was at one with creation. He lived peacefully on the earth, and when he wanted to explain the things of faith he did so through the things of nature. His stories feature fig trees, seeds, weeds, wheat, yeast, fish and trees. So, it’s no surprise that when he tries to explain the meaning of his death to those who are listening, he uses images from botany: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (vv.24-25)

Jesus uses this image of a seed falling to earth, and being buried under the earth, before growth and fruitfulness to talk about his own death and resurrection primarily, but also to show us what our Christian discipleship looks like too. It’s when we choose to live unselfishly, when we don’t put ourselves first always, when we lay down our preferences for the good of other people, and the earth, for the sake of Jesus himself, that we are most closely following the example of our Saviour.

So, I wonder if that is the attitude with which we best approach this fourth theme of our refreshed vision? In choosing to take even small steps and actions that contribute to environmental preservation and repair, to ‘tread gently’ on the earth we inhabit, we’re doing so not only because we are ‘eco-warriors’, but because we are followers of Jesus Christ, who see creation care as a key part of God’s story and of our calling to follow him.

Jesus said “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” This is discipleship, and this is mission. All we can do is show people Jesus, to lift him up in our hearts as he was lifted on the cross, and he will draw all people - and the whole earth - to himself.