Coincidentally, in our Friday Bible Study, we discussed Romans eight, which includes these amazing lines. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” One day “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-22).
In honor of Earth Day, our Bible Study spent a few minutes talking about what it means to say creation itself will know the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Our specific question was this: are animals included in the kingdom of God? When I picture God’s kingdom, I tend to think exclusively of human beings and angels, who look a lot like bigger, handsomer, scarier human beings. But is that right?
Our readings for this morning suggest that it is not right, that animals do have a place in God’s plan and in God’s kingdom.
I begin with a bit of context for our reading from Acts.
When Jesus died, all of his followers were Jews. They were Jews who had accepted Jesus as the messiah. In the weeks and months immediately following Christ’s resurrection, the Jesus movement spread rapidly, but still entirely among Jews. Jesus’ followers continued to obey the Jewish law and to worship in the Jewish temple. They also gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of their crucified and resurrected Lord. But the Jesus Movement had not yet broken with Judaism, and all of Jesus’ early followers identified as Jewish.
Just before our reading from Acts picks up the story, Peter baptized Gentiles—non-Jews—allowing non-Jews to join the Jesus movement for the first time.
As our reading begins, circumcised believers—that is to say, the Jewish leaders of the Jesus movement—were scandalized at what Peter had done. They assumed that Christ came only for them, that Christ’s grace and love did not extend to Gentiles, that God’s covenant was only for the right kind of people.
Peter himself had shared their prejudices. But God taught Peter, and now Peter is teaching them, that their idea of God and God’s kingdom is too small. What Peter and the others were inclined to call unclean—that is, beyond the reach of God’s love—God declares clean.
The lesson Peter learns from all this is that Gentiles are part of God’s kingdom after all. That is a BIG deal. We, who are overwhelmingly Gentile Christians, are heirs of that first Gentile household baptized by Peter.
But Christians learned that lesson long ago. At this point, Christians are pretty clear that we are called to make disciples of ALL nations, that God’s grace and love extend in principle to all people.
But there is more to learn from Peter’s vision.
What struck me for the first time this week is the place of animals in Peter’s vision. Peter’s vision was of “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” animals that Peter had thought of as unclean but that God declares to be clean.
The lesson from Peter’s vision for us today may well be about those animals. To assume that God’s kingdom is just for us, just for human beings and not for animals and the rest of creation, that may well be to repeat the mistake of Peter’s contemporaries, to narrow the scope of God’s redeeming grace and love, to draw the boundaries of God’s kingdom too tightly, to exclude creatures of God that seem “unclean” to us but that God declares to be clean.
In fact, as best we can tell, God’s kingdom will literally teem with life. The Bible is actually pretty clear on this point, even though we often ignore what it says. All of creation “will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” God’s redemption extends in principle to every creature under heaven.
One of the places to see a picture of God’s exuberant kingdom is our Psalm for this morning.
The Psalmist summons all of creation to join together in praise of God. He begins by summoning the heavens and the angelic host, the sun and moon and stars, all of whom are called to give praise to God. He invites the sea monsters who inhabit the very deepest part of creation to join the angelic hosts in praising God. He calls to the world we know best, to the mountains and all hills, to the trees, to the wild beasts and cattle, the creeping things and the flying birds. Last of all, the Psalmist addresses us, human beings, “all peoples”: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile.
Our Psalm shows that in God’s kingdom, all of creation will join together in songs of praise to our God, in God’s kingdom all of creation participates in the heavenly choir.
This matters. This matters because we often fail to treat the rest of creation as if creation deserves “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” that Paul described. When we violate creation, when we drive other species to extinction, when we contribute to climate change, when we pollute our world, we are obstructing God’s redemptive work and opposing God’s kingdom. That is sin.
On the other hand, when we do our best to protect the integrity of creation, to create space for other species, to clean up our messes, we are working with God to bring God’s dream for creation into being.
That is ample reason to love and protect God’s creation.
That also helps us to understand the full import of Jesus’ words in our gospel reading.
Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I often preach that we have to practice loving each other so that we can get a little better at love. What struck me so forcefully this week is an updated version of a lawyer’s earlier question to Jesus. Jesus has told the lawyer to love his neighbor. So the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love?
In response to Jesus’ new commandment, the commandment in our gospel reading, we might ask, who is “one another”? Who do we have to love?
To which Jesus seems to answer, all of creation. Jesus calls us to love the creation that God declares clean, the creation that is part of God’s covenant plan, the creation that waits with eager longing for redemption, the creation that will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, the creation that joins angels and archangels and all the company heaven in singing songs of praise to God.
My prayer for us this week is that we can follow Christ’s commandment, that we can love creation as God calls us to love it, all of it. And I pray this in the name of the One by whom all things are created and in whom all things have their being. Amen.