We have reached the final part of this three-part series, looking at how caring for the whole creation – including the human part of creation – goes to the heart of the Christian faith and how it does so because it is rooted in the community of God in the Trinity.
We looked in Part 1 at God as a God of justice: a God who raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, and who calls us to be active in doing the same. And, in Part 2, we looked at God the Son as Lord of all creation, who loves and values all things that he has created – people and the wider natural world. So now, in Part 3, we will consider God the Holy Spirit, beginning once again with the Scriptures, this time starting with Romans 8:19-25.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Whilst of course the apostle Paul himself didn’t use punctuation, let alone chapters and verses, it is apt that this whole chapter of Romans 8 is given the title in my Bible of, ‘Life through the Spirit’. This wonderful chapter sees Paul delighting in the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who are in Christ Jesus, and it highlights the eschatological role of the Spirit in God’s creation, moving it towards its perfection in Christ (thank you to the brilliant late theologian, Colin Gunton, who first drew my attention to the eschatalogical role of the Spirit). We see this starting right at the beginning as the Spirit, the breath of God, hovers over the waters, bringing order out of chaos. The Spirit is thus fully involved in the work of creation and then continues working through the Scriptural narrative in a number of ways, in the life and ministry of Jesus particularly, and then we see that journey culminating in the vision of the future in Revelation 21 and 22, where the Spirit and the bride say “come”.
It is that new reality that we are drawn towards through the Holy Spirit – that earthy, physical, heavenly reality of the transformed heavens and earth where God dwells in our midst, death and suffering are no more and in which the wider natural world is fully present with trees and rivers.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us as the firstfruits – the downpayment and guarantee of that future that we are being moved towards. The Spirit helps us to keep looking forward, to anticipate that vision and live our lives in the light of it – the future when, as Romans 8 says, the children of God will be revealed and the whole creation set free.
We have a crucial role to play in this movement of the Spirit. As I reflect on this I find myself coming back again and again to a quote (given to me many years ago by Bishop Graham Cray when we were doing some teaching together) by a Catholic theologian, Peter Hocken, who said, ‘The Spirit has been given both as the firstfruits and as the hope of liberation, and we are stretched between the two’.
Don’t we feel that stretching so much?! There are many wonderful things in this life that I deeply enjoy, and yet I am not comfortable here. I see the headlines of a billion marine animals dying from the Canadian heatwave, of people dying from floods in China and western Europe, of world leaders refusing to take meaningful action to keep us to within 1.5 degrees of warming…. and I cry and rage and lament and grieve. I long for a different reality and know that I must faithfully, patiently work towards that reality despite what I see around me.
The Spirit’s work in our lives enables us to do that; helping us to pray in our weakness, giving us hope ‘for what we do not yet have’, causing us to bear fruit in our characters (try reading Galatians 5:22-23 from the perspective of faithful living in response to the climate crisis) and manifesting supernatural gifts (again, try reading through 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 and see how they may be used in our climate action!). As we look towards the future, we know, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 15:58, that our work in the Lord is not in vain. It may sometimes feel futile, but we have the promise that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives will ensure that our efforts will, somehow, last into and show in the age to come.
So let us keep working, rooted in the Trinitarian God: our God of justice, the Lord of all creation, and the eschatological Spirit who keeps us moving forwards in hope.
I want to conclude this blog series with this short video from Tearfund, highlighting the climate crisis and calling us to play our part in caring for creation, joining with the Father, Son and Spirit as we do so, acknowledging that care for the whole world is at the heart of who our God is.
Please do watch it, use it with your churches, and may we stand together in prayer and action.