From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.
Some Thoughts on John 3:14-21
"Nicodemus had heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep."
"Nicodemus," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.
"As a small minority, the Johannine community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the Western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, whether supported by the state or not, and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform."
Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
"Whatever our own solution to the issues of inclusion and exclusion, John?s gospel asks us to recognise that to reject the love and light and truth we see in Jesus is to choose death ? wherever and whenever we do it, and to receive it means life, life our world which God still loves desperately needs."
"First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Lent 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.
Raymond Brown wrote an article with advice for preaching John, he wrote in the article, "The Johannine World for Preachers," is the necessity to enter into the world of John and its symbolic universe. Brown, "Do not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive, be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear." (Commentary, John 3:14-21, Marilyn Salmon) With this in mind then, what are we to do with this passage?
So let us begin by remembering that these words come from a conversation that Jesus is having with the Pharisee Nicodemus. He has come to believe in God and in Jesus because of the many signs. Key to John's Gospel is not the signs themselves but the revelatory power of Jesus, who happens to be performing them. The purpose of the signs is belief in the Gospel. So it is no wonder that Jesus in our passage has moved from a previous discourse about spirit to one about God's intentions: the salvation of the world.
Second, the passage we read today follows directly upon Jesus' teaching about being born again. The baptismal conversation is important. How it plays out sacramentally is one discussion that I will not go into; nevertheless, it seems that the basic idea here is that one is born both by the spirit and through water. (Raymond Brown, John vol 1, p 142ff, has an excellent discussion of the details surrounding this particular piece of Johannine literature.)
What Nicodemus has heard so far is that while coming to believe through signs, entrance into the kingdom is not something humans can accomplish on their own. In other words your faith does not save you, only God saves you. Moreover, one is brought into the Kingdom of God through God's outpouring of the spirit. We believe in the Episcopal Church that such an outpouring is measured in the sacrament of baptism. Nicodemus then asks, "how does this happen?" He fades into the background as we move into the monologue we have for today's passage.
We receive the Holy Spirit, and we are welcomed into the Kingdom of God only through the power of Jesus' work on the cross (vs 14), his resurrection, and his ascension (vs 15). Leaning on Isaac typology (Brown, 147) Jesus explains. The purpose of not allowing death to be the final answer (just as Isaac's death was not required) is for the gathering of the world and its people. God intends the embrace of God's people and their freedom to live and be who they were created to be. The creation story will be successful. We enter the reign of God only through Jesus' work. The incarnation and Jesus' presence in the world will necessarily create a decision point for individuals: to either live life following Jesus or to live life not following Jesus - perhaps against him.
What is interesting here at this point (vs20-21) is what we typically do with this passage. While Jesus is not here to condemn the world - we do. Our human nature is to immediately divide up the world into working groups we can get our minds around. That typically means we go to the save and the not saved. We move quickly to do the judging. But it is (according to our Nicene Creed) Jesus in his second coming that will judge. It doesn't seem to stop us, so we typically take what comes next to decide who is in and who is out. I also think we do this in a way that automatically removes us from the sinning proposition and into the category of people who "do all kinds of good works." Such a missionary mindset is hardly one I think Jesus would recognize. Raymond Brown writes:
"...the purpose clauses which end vss. 20 -21 are not to be understood as giving the subjective reason why men come or do not come to the light, that is, a man does not really come to Jesus to have it confirmed that his deeds are good. Rather, the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is." (John, vol 1, 148-9)Before the cross, we are all judged. And instead of condemning, we are to engage in a conversation not unlike the one between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are to let people come to the cross for their own judgment and make their own faithful pilgrim way into a relationship with Jesus.
Our work is the invitation. We are to invite people into this sacred relationship. Not unlike Jesus, we are to make the Gospel message known: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
As Christians, we believe that this is the only way to salvation. To believe anything else is essentially to not be a Christian but to be a henotheist; that is believing there are many gods and many salvations. We have one language and one cultural story to tell and that is of Jesus, his cross and his resurrection. We are to engage the world in a conversation that allows people to be listened to and invited into a deeper, profoundly transformational relationship with God in Christ Jesus.
The world will be drawn into this relationship not by condemning the world but by disciples living transformed lives. Through the rebirth experienced in baptism, through the grace and mercy of God, and the empowering Holy Spirit, we are to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection. As we do this, people will be drawn into life with Christ and may, in turn, be discipled. They are drawn in by our example. Subsequently, like our own, their lives are transformed by their own coming to terms with who Jesus is and his work.
When we as a church community move away from this singular proposition, we are apt to argue over all manner of condemnations: sex, structure, liturgy, and polity. When we begin with this singular proposition (that we are saved by grace alone), then we may all find ourselves truly transformed as we come to the foot of the cross together.
Some Thoughts on Ephesians 2:1-10
"Even Jesus? name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means 'the Lord saves.'"
"Just As I Am," Thomas G. Long, The Christian Century, 2006.
"To be a Christian, says the text, is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him, to be enthroned with him. Spiritual? Yes. Mystical? Perhaps. Subjective? Partially. Will-o'-the wisp? Never. Experiential but inseparable from history? Always."
"From God, to God," Fred Craddock, The Christian Century 2003.
"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one real human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy and just as hard as that."
"Paul," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.
"The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you."
"Grace," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.
Paul begins by speaking about those who received their faith, baptism and the Holy Spirit. He prays that they will receive wisdom and revelation as they continue their journey.
The reality is that the following of Jesus is a journey, a process, by which people come to understand more and more their inherited faith.
I always feel Paul is buttering them up for the one-two punch. And, here he goes...he reminds them of their life before faith. You must remember that the world in which they live is diverse and filled with a plurality of beliefs and different religions. He reminds them that this faith is typically a faith which is self-centred and focused upon their own needs - their own life.
He uses powerful language about being spiritually dead and living apart from God and under the wrath of God. This language reminds me in my time that Paul is correct that living a life focused upon my needs is to live a life oriented around a god of my own making. When I focus on my needs as the primary directing power of life, not only am I the god at the centre of my universe - I worship other gods in order to control my world - money, sex, social standing, pleasing others, and many, many more.
Then we get the grace! Even though we were far off, God loved us. A fellow blogger, Chris Haslam, Anglican Diocese of Montreal, wrote:
God loved us greatly, so greatly that he brought us life together, raised us together and enthroned us together – "with Christ". Christians have been given a new status, a new life, and new freedom, in order that, by living in this way, we may be channels through whom God shows his gifts to us to the world. We are saved by God’s freely given inestimable gift of love (“grace”, 2:7). Our salvation is already happening through the medium of our “faith” (2:8), but even “this” (salvation) is a gift from God, rather than a result of our efforts (“works”, 2:9). God’s plan has always included making Christians what we are: “created in Christ ... for good works” (2:10): being saved, we do “good works”.I once learned that when emotions are deep and high, it is easier to get angry than it is to get sad or feel the pain of loss and suffering. Sadness, loss, and suffering can be so painful that avoiding them with a bit of anger is an easier way to go.
Sometimes, when we get to a passage like this, we are tempted to do the same kind of avoidance. We will find it easier to focus on how we were far off and worshipping other gods, etc., etc. "Let's have a shame fest" is always an easier answer...even better with a touch of anger. We can go to anger rather than to a place of reality where we recognize, name, and honour our deeper selves, our deeper emotions, and our deeper pain. We have tremendous guilt for what we have done and left undone. Shaming people for being beyond hope will never give them the hope they are looking for now.
I dream of a church that is preaching, teaching, and living a grace filled life. I dream of a church that is hopeful and redemptive. I hope for a church that can be honest about the pain most people are sitting in, their hopelessness, and sense that everything they experience now is "as good as it gets". The message Paul is trying to communicate is one worth communicating today: even when we were far off, God loved us. Even when we are far off, God loves us. We are given the freedom to write a new story. Every day, we are surrounded by grace and given the opportunity to move beyond our sadness, loss, and suffering. We are offered, through the continuous recreative work of god, the opportunity to put behind us the guilt of things done and undone. This is Good News indeed - we have a new life, even our failures are redeemed, and our loss honoured with an opportunity for redemption. We are forgiven, we are saved, we are resurrected, and enthroned with Christ Jesus.
Some Thoughts on Numbers 21:4-9
"What I thought might kill me became for me the way of healing. But I have still much looking at the bronze serpent to do if I am to continue my healing. Does my story in any way resonate with yours?"
"Of Snakes and Things," John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2015.
"The text for today doesn't seem like altogether good news."
Commentary, Numbers 21:4-9, Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
"What cures us from serpents? The cure is a serpent that we call forth for ourselves , even more deeply 'serpenty' in its essence than the deadly living snakes."
"Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face," Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center.
"'Kedusha' can cleanse us totally, but if we try to yoke it, to work it, it becomes unfit."
"Hukkat Commentary," Rabbi Michael Graetz, The Shalom Center.
Let me begin by simply saying that I think this passage from Numbers fits better in Lent 5b, given the themes presented in John's Gospel. Nevertheless, the powers that be have chosen to have this fall in our teaching this week. It does allow you to weave the two gospels together using the imagery here. So, let's look at the passage first from a wisdom perspective of our faith ancestors.
The great rabbi of the Middle Ages ibn Ezra explains on ha-seraphim: "Figuratively they loose their tongue to bite; thus they were sent against them" (on Num. 21:6). (Also cf. Sforno on the words, "Make a seraph figure [alt.:fiery serpent]" (Num. 21:8): "The serpent was burned by his idle words, and likewise was their sin and their retribution.") Dr. Leah Himmelfarb, Bar-Ilan University, offers, "The complainers in the desert sinned with their tongues, so, measure for measure, they were struck by the same instrument."
Part of what is happening here is the idea that the complainers receive their punishment. No grumbling is allowed in the desert. Seriously, though, what is actually at work here is linked to the story that comes before. They are being punished for their words because they doubted God and Moses.
Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, marked off by two censuses. The first census is in chapter one, in which the descendants of each of the twelve tribes are named, up to the present generation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of these men will live to inhabit Canaan (14:28-30). The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge of Canaan when the book reaches its end.Turning to the New Testament use of the passage we find something interesting. In John's Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as being lifted up, and those who look upon him shall be saved, not unlike the pole and bronze serpent of this story. (See next week's gospel.) Richard Hays, in Echoes of the Scripture in the Gospels, links this, as do many others. It is the core of Robert Farrar Capon's theology. Jesus' own lifting up is the lifting up on the cross for the sins of others. One difference is that while the bronze serpent only saved some, Jesus' promises that his lifting up will draw all to him.
Between the two censuses, among stories of battle and ritual regulations, the people repeatedly complain and rebel against Moses. God's anger is kindled by this rebellion, and God sends a plague (11:33), inflicts Miriam with leprosy (12:10), and more than once asserts that this complaining generation will die out before Canaan is reached (14:20-25 and 28-35; 20:12). It's as if God is picking off the older generation a little bit at a time; Moses admits as much, when he urges God not to kill them all at once (14:13-19).
John Wesley, in typical Wesleyan style, writes in his notes on the passage, "The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ."
Terence E. Fretheim, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Luther Seminary, offers this, "Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole." I think it is this that best captures the idea.
Jesus is offering his own interpretation of this passage. He is explaining the paradox of the gospel. That which is meant to kill will bring life to the least and loss. In the wilderness, God sets God's feet down and makes his stand there. But, it is a show of weakness rather power, of suffering rather than strength, it is surrender in the service of other that in the end brings about victory.