Numbers 21:4-9 / Psalm 107 / Ephesians 2:1-10 / John 3:14-21
It seems to me that there is a common theme in the lessons appointed for today, and that this theme captures the essence of what it is that Christians believe about God and about humanity.
What shall we say about the human condition? What can we say about God, and about God’s activity in our lives and in the world? What is at the heart of the Christian message, the “good news” we have to offer to others? Wherein lies our hope? Today’s lessons offer us rich insight into these questions.
If we were to summarize the common theme in today’s readings, we might say it is the movement from death to life. This is the work of God in our lives and in our world:
God is taking that which is corrupt and restoring it to wholeness and health.
God is taking those who are bound and setting them free.
God is rescuing those who are lost and bringing them home.
God is filling the hungry with good things, and lifting up the lowly.
God is overcoming hatred with love, evil with goodness, suffering with rejoicing, death with life.
So let’s take a closer look at this important theme by examining first our human condition and then God’s life-restoring action.
What shall we say about ourselves? We recognize that our world is broken, that there is conflict and strife, that there is war and injustice, that there is greed and oppression. But how bad is it, really? After the Fall, were we just a little “nicked up” but basically “good to go”? Or, were we more seriously injured and in need of real help? If we ask St. Paul, we get an even more serious diagnosis than these. He tells the Christians at Ephesus: “You were DEAD through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived”! (Eph.2:1-2a) Paul says, picture a corpse: dead, completely powerless, unable to effect any change at all in its condition, lifeless and without hope. That’s how serious your condition was. It wasn’t just that you were a little “nicked up” and needed a bandage and a couple of aspirin. It wasn’t that you were injured and needed a cast and a set of crutches. It was that you were DEAD and needed to be REVIVED! You were lost and needed to be found. You were exiled and needed to be brought home. You were starving and needed food and drink. You were completely powerless, unable to change your condition, helpless to bring yourself back to life. That’s how serious your condition was.
Is it that the Ephesians were especially corrupt? No. Paul insists that his diagnosis applies to everyone! “ALL OF US once lived… in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE” (Eph.2:3). It isn’t just notorious sinners who are dead in their trespasses. It’s all of us! It’s like we have been living in a biosphere of sin and corruption. The very air we breathe has infected us with poison. No one is exempt; no one escapes. We are all dying.
“BUT GOD,” says St. Paul, “who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us ALIVE together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Eph.2:4-6). You were dead, Paul says, BUT GOD made you alive in Christ Jesus. This is the essence of the Christian gospel: We were dead and are now alive! We were bound but are now free! We were blind but now we see! We were no people, but now we are God’s people! And it’s all because of God’s Amazing Grace! “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph.2:8).
A story is told about C.S. Lewis wandering into a gathering of theologians who were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as in the Gospel. So was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people being raised from the dead in other religions, though again, not in the precise form as the Gospel. What did Lewis think? What was Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions? “That’s easy,” he replied, “it’s grace.” (1)
This is Christian joy: that by the GRACE of GOD given through Christ and received by faith we have been rescued from death and given new life. By God’s grace, we have been set free from the bondage of sin and death, and restored to the full humanity God intended for us from the beginning. By God’s grace and not by our deserving have we been brought from error into truth, from sin into righteousness, from death into life.
This is and has always been God’s purpose and desire for us. It is the very reason Christ came into the world. John 3:16 tells us that “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.” And this eternal life is, in John’s view, not just a guarantee of a future life with God in the heavenly places; it is a present reality which we begin to enjoy here and now, a life of intimate union with God that transforms our daily existence and fills it with light.
It is both curious and tragic that a verse as mysterious and wondrous as John 3:16 has been used as instrument of judgment and condemnation rather than as a testimony to the new life God offers to all. It is one of the most popular and oft-quoted verses in the Bible. It appears on signs at sporting events, is inscribed on plaques adorning the walls of Christian homes, and floats across computer monitors as a screen saver. Is it because people really believe that God loves the world? Or because they appreciate frequent reminders that they are saved while others are not?
It might be good if, each time we quoted John 3:16, we would add John 3:17 as well. “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.” There have been a lot of Christians, in North America and elsewhere, who seem to think that condemnation is the message. Christians have sometimes acted as if wagging judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people was the best way to convey God’s message of hope. But even in the season of Lent, when we rightly focus on our sin and our need for God, we must not forget that what we have to proclaim, preach and teach is always Good News!
We have come to believe into this Good News. We have put our trust in the God that Jesus revealed, and have found new life in him. We have been raised from death to life, from bondage to freedom. This is the work of God and by grace, we have experienced it. But now the question remains: How will we participate in God’s mighty work? How will each of us, and all of us as the Body of Christ in the world, engage in the mission of God in the world – overcoming hatred with love, discord with union and peace, despair with hope? How will we be God’s hands and voices in the world, carrying out God’s purposes? How will we be agents of God’s healing, messengers of God’s love, instruments of God’s salvation?
When the Gospel challenges us to believe in Jesus, saying that only then will we find the way into the new and eternal life God is promising us, it is not speaking about doctrinal orthodoxy. It is not saying that we must embrace correct beliefs about Jesus or God or salvation or judgment. It is not speaking of acts of the intellect or of the will. No, belief involves our whole being and orientation toward God. It is the yielding up of our selves – our bodies, minds and spirits – in trust and in confidence to the One who has created us and redeemed us and called us by name. It is to enter into relationship with this God and to live connected to God’s life and power, like a branch that draws its life from the vine. Only abiding in God and sharing the life of the Trinity can we be instruments of God’s love and healing and salvation in our world. We are called to live by grace.
The words of Saint Francis can be a daily reminder of God’s purpose for us and for the world.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, Joy.
This is God’s mission in the world, and it is ours.
- Story related by Stanley Mast.
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