Annie recently told me about a post she saw on Facebook by one of her friends who has children. It was one of those tips and tricks sort of post that parents share to make life a little easier. Her friend had apparently discovered that she could use a muffin tin to make rice crispy treats that were all the same size, so that way none of the children would complain or throw a fit about who had the bigger piece. Annie had a mix of amusement and astonishment. With all of her grade school teacher-ness she laughed and said she couldn’t ever imagine something so ridiculous as children fighting over the size of rice crispy treats. I just smiled, thinking back over the many years of my siblings and I uttering those cringe-worthy words, “But that’s not fair” about practically every single thing that we could compare amongst ourselves.
A little more than a month ago on the day we heard the Gospel lesson of Jesus walking on water, you heard me preach about God not being fair. I said that God is not fair, that God does not try to be fair, and God does not desire fairness. Certainly basing it on what most of us understand today as fairness I am very confident that God never once seeks that out. But I also explained that God is just. God’s justice, mercy, and grace go far beyond any concept of fairness we might have, and most certainly transgresses on the sort of fairness that insists we are the masters of our own universe.
The parable we hear today from Jesus comes just after someone has asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life, and Jesus talks about it being hard for the rich man to get into heaven, harder than passing a camel through the eye of a needle, and the last lines before our reading begins today are, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Those words are repeated at the end of today’s reading. One would think that Jesus really wants to emphasize those words, and that they are quite important.
This parable is one of my favorites, and it is incredibly rich with allegory that offers different layers depending on who this is being addressed to. In the first place, Jesus is teaching this to his disciples, who very much are the first laborers in the field, and who will go on to inherit the ministry and found many Christian communities. This parable is also only in the Gospel of Matthew. That matters because this Gospel was written to a community that had a lot of longtime Jewish Christians in it, mixed with newer converts who were also most likely Gentiles. This parable is a reminder to them that they share equally in the wages of labor in God’s kingdom. Some theologians have also seen this as applying to the generations of Israel, those who followed Abraham, and those who lived by the Mosaic Law.
The parable is also one that allows us to consider our own work and life in our Christian communities, in our discipleship, and how we approach our siblings in Christ. For us we also have to struggle with the broken and false narrative known as the, “Protestant Work Ethic” which pervades American Culture and which directly contradicts what Christ proclaims as the Kingdom of God. But that is the beauty and the challenge of this parable: it lays bare a simple explanation of what it means for God to be just.
Within the parable there are two questions which are most important to focus on. They are both in verse fifteen. First the land owner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And then he asks, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” The answer to both of these questions is unequivocally, “yes”. Yes, the land owner is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. Likewise God’s grace is handed out in what we would consider radically just, or maybe even too generously. Which leads to the second question and our answer. Yes, we are envious of God’s generosity. We are envious of others’ gifts, or happiness, or talents, especially when we feel that they haven’t put in what we’ve put in.
This is a hard one for us to grasp. How many of us, and I’m counting myself among the guilty here, have howled when we’ve been a customer of a company for years and we don’t get half the incentives or price breaks of the Johnny come lately that just signed up? Because we are human, because we are sinners always in need of God’s grace, we find ourselves stuck often in loops that resemble a childish faith. We hope that someone, “gets what’s coming to them” or perhaps that, “karma will catch up with them.”
It’s hard because we want to be right, we want to be good, we want to be patted on the head for doing what we think God wants. But that is not what should drive our discipleship. Those that serve God out of fear alone miss the point. They become unwilling servants. But those who labor for the Kingdom of God with joy get to experience glimpses of that peace and love which Christ heralds into the world.
God’s grace and mercy are just. My salvation is not dependent on you, or yours on mine. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and mercy more than we already have. The generosity that Christ teaches through this parable is hard for us to conceptualize mired in a sinful, broken world that values dominance, violence, and greed. That is why we must struggle to live those values, that’s why discipleship truly is hard work.
I’d certainly like to tell you that this parable is also advocating for a just society, for a world where everyone’s needs are met, where there is true justice. But I’m not going to say that because I don’t think that’s the point of this particular parable. Jesus does preach about a world where are people are valued equally, where we do not bow and slave at the altar of empire, where we do not sit in empty mansions while children of God freeze to death outside. That most certainly is preached by Jesus, just not in this particular parable.
This passage is about God’s grace. It’s about salvation, about God’s just, merciful salvation that is given to all of us. It is given to those we think should get it and it is given to those we don’t think should get it. Even the most vile, evil of humans is still loved by God, still offered grace even as we stand there and grumble against the landowner. It is our task, our call as Christians, as followers of Christ to work on ourselves to see others as God sees them. To try and conceptualize the generosity that Jesus speaks of in this parable, to understand that God’s mercy is greater than we can fathom.
Kathryn Blanchard says, “God’s standards of justice and value are consistently presented in both the OT and the NT as alien to human standards, but God’s people are expected to behave according to these alien standards, neither demanding their rights nor begrudging others’ good fortunes. […] this parable tends toward radical equality in the church, in which all are equally near to receiving God’s gracious reward.”
We are called to labor in the God’s fields. Some of us labor harder and longer than others, but in the end we all receive the same reward. This parable asks us to examine ourselves and to see if we are those grumbling against the landowner, or if we are grateful for our daily bread. The Christian message is one of hope. Hope in God’s kingdom to come where mercy and justice flow like living water, hope in our salvation and resurrection, hope in the reconciliation of all creation at the end of all things. That is why we are reminded in our funeral liturgy, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
I don’t remember which comic it was that I heard it from, but I clearly the joke that they stated they had psychic abilities. But their abilities were very specific. Their psychic powers only worked when they were driving, and the knowledge that was revealed to them was limited to if a fellow driver on the road’s parents had been married when they were conceived or not. The comic was of course referring to their extraordinary ability to use a plethora of colorful names for the other drivers on the road, and I think the joke was so well received because we can relate to the uncharitable thoughts or perhaps the unkind words we mutter under our breath when we encounter those who don’t seem to have the same mastery of automobile use as we do. Not that I find it relatable at all.
Driving is a great example of the ways in which we expect others to be far more superhuman than we expect of ourselves. When we do something and make a mistake, we often shrug and say, “well, I’m only human. We all make mistakes.” But when that so-and-so in that shiny dumb car changed lanes for the third time without a blinker…well…we tend not to shrug and say, “well, they’re only human.” Or perhaps we might have heard from our parents or said to children that mind boggling phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Somehow it seems to be a common trait of humanity to hold a different set of standards for the world around us, or at least offer ourselves more mercy when we don’t meet the standards we set. Popular television shows us that we also seem to enjoy watching other people receive their just desserts for messing up in Hell’s Kitchen or being judged on any number of activities from pottery making to whether they can renovate a home. The reality that this country seems unable to value life enough to end the use of execution – state sanctioned murder – is among the darker sides of this same craving for punishment.
So it is no surprise that right after Jesus explains how to handle the situation when someone has wronged you as we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, that Peter chimes in to ask exactly how many times we’re supposed to forgive someone. Thank you Peter, always there to ask the questions that we know we shouldn’t ask! A question that seems to be a matter of importance as the disciples jockey to figure out which one of them is greater, asking how to deal with those who wrong you, and see Jesus’ ministry begin to take shape and the sort of following he is attracting.
Last week’s Gospel message was, in my opinion, where we start to pick up speed in the Gospel of Matthew. Now we are getting deeper into Jesus’ ministry and starting to handle harder and harder teachings and parables. For the majority of what remains in this Season after Pentecost, we will hear a lot of Jesus’ parables and reflect on difficult and sometimes even rather confusing teachings about the Kingdom of God and our life as followers of Christ.
Today is no different. This passage is one that historically has been both difficult but also rather universally understood. Difficult in terms of its application to our lives. Difficult to put into practice and difficult to find the subtleties and nuance of forgiveness. Universally understood though as well, because historically speaking, whether your translation says ‘seventy- seven’ or ‘seventy times seven’ we all know that it means a number ludicrously large and that God forgives completely so he calls the body of Christ to do the same.
The parable is best seen in three parts. The first part is the servant is brought before the king to whom they owe an outrageous debt. This is a debt that just could never be paid back. The amount of money owed is equal to roughly one hundred million days of labor or two hundred seventy nine thousand nine hundred seventy two and half years of labor. How this servant comes to owe this much money to the king is always a fun speculation, but the important thing here is that it’s immense. The king threatens to sell the servant and his family to satisfy some of the debt. The servant, full of fear, begs for mercy.
This is echoing the idea that our debt to God is more than we can ever expect to repay, and likewise he stands ready to mete out punishment for that debt, or sin. That is in many ways the basis of the Law of Moses. The many ways the Law expects people to live, the sacrifices to make, the observances that are required, are all in hopes of paying off some of that debt. Most traditional interpretations will also emphasize that the king or God never fully intends such harsh punishment, but that without facing the drastic measures the servant will never repent or see the weight of their debt. It is often thought that without acknowledging the full weight of our sin, we cannot fully grasp the enormity of God’s mercy. You see this especially in Calvinist teachings.
There is no need for despair though, because the king has a quick willingness to forgive the servant who has faced the enormity of their debt and begged for forgiveness. The second part quickly follows as this newly forgiven servant leaves and immediately encounters someone who owes them a miniscule amount…a day’s labor worth of wages. Witnesses watch in indignation as the servant has the person who owes them this small sum thrown in a debtor’s prison even after he begged for forgiveness, just like the servant did to the king.
Which brings us to the third and final part of the parable. The King, upon being told of what had occurred, had the servant brought back before him, and sentenced to be tortured until his entire debt was repaid, which we already know is impossible. In examining this parable, Kathryn Blanchard writes, “God, it seems, does not take kindly to notions of “cheap grace”; moreover, God is responsive when fellow servants cry foul. Those who truly understand the magnitude of God’s mercy must pay it forward to their debtors. Faith in God, Martin Luther insists, naturally brings forth acts of love towards neighbor. The servant’s unwillingness to forgive reveals his lack of gratitude, which brings him crashing back into his own debt.”
But we also know that forgiveness is a tricky road. We can see over and over passages like this that are used to justify forcing victims of abuse to stay with their abusers. We can see it used to justify any number of great wrongs. That is not the intent here, and we must find a nuanced approach to understanding how forgiveness works in our lives. We must also acknowledge that we are never going to be as good at forgiveness as God is, so we must continually seek his forgiveness for failing to achieve it.
Presbyterian minister and author Marjorie Thompson writes, “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…. Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound's power to hold us trapped is broken.”
It’s not easy to forgive, especially when we justifiably hurt. But I wonder if we really notice that every single week when we come to this altar, we are asking God’s help in doing just that. Do we notice that when we pray the Lord’s prayer, invited with the words “As our savior Christ taught us, we are bold to say” that we ask God to, “forgive us our trespasses, debts, sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Do we really want to God to forgive us as much as we forgive others? Or do we mean that we want to be as good at forgiving as God is?
There’s an old story that comes from the church council records in Sixteenth-century Switzerland where when asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, a man pretended he didn’t know it because he knew that if he said it he would have to forgive the merchant who cheated him – and that was something he had no intention of doing.
Author Annie Dillard writes, ““On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
Forgiveness is not something that is achievable instantly. It takes work, and it takes God’s grace to help us to find ways in which we forgive those who have hurt us the most and to repair relationships. It is not forgetting. God does not forget our sins when they are forgiven, but our acknowledgment of them is a step for us to find forgiveness. Do not confuse the limitless forgiveness God calls us to with an unhealthy toleration of hurtful behavior. Christ asks us to look at ourselves and be more worried about the speck in our own eye than the log in our neighbors’. Finally, be careful what you ask of God, when you pray to forgive us as we forgive others. It is part of our work as followers of Christ, but it is also holding that very same mirror to ourselves and sometimes that reflection is hard to gaze upon.
Proper 18 Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
What makes someone a Christian? Some might say that you have to pray a particular prayer, and, as the common phrase goes, accept Jesus into your heart. Others might point to baptism, as we do, often held as a sacrament but if nothing else seen as an initiatory rite. Our canons define membership within this body of Christ, requiring one to receive communion three times a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if you just simply got a different answer from every single denomination you ask. And usually, they will also be happy to explain to you how others are not Christians, or how other churches fall short of being ‘true Christians’.
Humans seem to like to create structure. We do it in almost every interaction we have with another person. We ask them what they do or where they live or perhaps where they went to school. The information we learn about them helps us to decide who is above the other. Even children, without a lot of prompting or training create hierarchies on playgrounds. Certainly as an Anglican priest, as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I will am not exactly going to condemn structure. I like structure too.
But when it comes to the life of Christians, when it comes to all the commands that we are given and all the ways we are to live our lives, our reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans helps us by summing up the point of all of it. “Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” That is the greatest commandment given to us by Christ, and everything else he teaches us, everything else he calls us to is in pursuit of Loving one another. When you take up your cross, as last week’s call was, you do so out of love for others. When you study scripture, when you prayer, when you come to this holy altar to partake of the blessed sacrament, you do it all to deepen within yourself a knowledge and resolve to better love.
Yet, I’m going to be a bit bold in saying that frankly, we suck at it. You hear from me time and time again a reminder that failing to live up to Jesus’ commands is no excuse for giving up, and that God knows and I’m pretty sure we know too that we are going to fail. But we have to keep working at it. There is a well known quote from famed Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti who says, ““People think I'm disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.” Devotion to the way that Christ calls us to, means striving for that love, using all the tools at our disposal to find ways to harness it.
When Jesus, through Paul’s admonition, calls us to love one another, it is not an invitation to an easy route by saying, “I love you, because Jesus says I have to, I just don’t like you very much.” This isn’t about gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to begrudgingly love another. It is both the goal and the fruit of a life dedicated to Christ. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work. It takes work with your own internal struggles and it takes work externally when applied to the relationships around you. Every single human being is a child of God, and Christ calls you and me to love them. To really truly love them, not just tolerate them.
Loving others does not mean though, that we just accept everything they do or say. While I am firmly convinced that Jesus teaches pacifism, while I point again and again to the Garden at Gethsemane when he takes the sword from Peter’s hand and reattaches the ear of the soldier as the way of refusing to harm others to save yourself, Jesus also makes it pretty clear how we are to deal with problems that arise amongst ourselves. Our Gospel lesson today shows us that Jesus knows conflict still will exist between people, and so there must be ways to resolve it.
The first thing I want to say about this Gospel reading today is to explain the sixth word in that first sentence. Church. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you”. Before we go any further we need to define that because this passage has been used and misused a lot over the centuries. Interestingly, most translations use the term ‘brother’ instead of ‘member of the church’ to translate the Greek word used. The important thing to understand from this is that there was no ‘church’ as we think of it in Jesus’ time. That hadn’t happened yet, even though our translation from the New Revised Standard Version wants to use that word. Jesus is talking about the people in your life, whether those people are the closest to you or the kid that bags your groceries every other week. This applies certainly in different ways when it is someone within an insulated circle, but the core teaching applies universally.
Jesus is calling us to be responsible for mending the connection between ourselves, making us responsible for enacting that in loving ways. Matthew 18 is about humility, about being willing to have those difficult conversations with the hope and aim of resolving conflict. When it comes especially to the body of Christ, our community here, it is even more pertinent. St. Paul reminds us that one part of the body cannot say to another part, “I have no need of you”.
Of course in this day and age, our church communities are complicated by the way society functions. In its purest form, one would be right to say that the church is not a, “voluntary association of like-minded individuals that regulates its corporate life by the will of the elite, the powerful, or the majority; it is a fellowship of believers unite with one another in Jesus Christ under his headship.” as Charles Hambrick-Stowe writes. But Hambrick-Stowe also acknowledges the other side of that coin: “In contemporary North American church life, these hurts are commonly dealt with by one or more people leaving the church in anger, join in another church down the street or dropping out altogether. […] God’s grace is thwarted among the very people called to extend that grace to the world.”
We must do everything we can to extend that reconciliation. The path that Jesus lays out is not there to be used as a bludgeon against those we don’t like, it is offered as a way to lovingly return to communion. But what happens when it doesn’t work? What do we do if we just simply cannot seem to get that other person to reconcile, to see the division, to acknowledge the deeper issues? Jesus says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
Again Jesus says something that has been taken a few different ways throughout history. It’s like that’s a theme or something. This passage in particular has been used repeatedly throughout history and in many different Christian cultures to justify shunning, expulsion, or just plain cutting somebody off. But I wonder, when Jesus says to treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector if he has in mind how he treats those folks. Jesus’ ministry is reviled over and over by the religious authorities for his transgressing the lines, for eating meals with Gentiles and tax collectors, for talking to them and equals, for respecting them, for loving them. The Gospel this comes from is even named after a tax collector, the Apostle Matthew.
Hambrick-Stowe writes, “The rest of the world writes people off when things reach a certain point. Jesus’ saying, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heave, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, is susceptible to multiple interpretations. […] Jesus could mean this: if we in the church do not forgive and heal, who on earth is going to do it?”
What Christ calls us to is hard work, through the Love he commands, and in pursuit of the reconciliation we know is to come in the Kingdom of God. This is about the most loving and open of reconciliation. This is about us struggling against our own feelings of hurt, our own tarnished pride from being wronged, and loving anyway. Of opening our hearts, our lives, our homes to those who would refuse to reconcile with us. This teaching of Jesus shows us the power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall, when we fail, when we stumble or hurt. This is a tough directive for us, and it will push us past the comfortable, easy boundaries we like to rest on.
Jesus never said any of this was easy. Perhaps in light of this passage and the one to come next week, you’re more ready to opt for that cross, that symbol of death, we talked about last week. All too often we forget what it means to be a Christian, we focus on the tasks that point us in the right direction, but we don’t want to move that way because we know the work gets harder the closer we get. The words of the 1960s hymn written by Fr. Peter Scholtes kept running through my head while I wrote this sermon. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
In classical church architecture and art there were often elaborate paintings or sculptures that adorned the walls above altars. This is at the point in history where all altars were still East facing, and the priest faced the altar with the people, instead of turning towards the people. The art was often meant to offer images to reflect on as the mass is said, images of Christ’s suffering or of Christ’s resurrection. Throughout history these altar pieces often became more elaborate, with multiple panels that would swing aside to reveal a different painting, and this offered the church the ability to show several different scenes from our holy scripture throughout the church year.
There is one altar piece in particular that came to mind when I studied the readings for today. The Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. It’s on display in a museum now, but originally it was created in the 16th century for the Antonine Monastery in Isenheim. The Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony were a monastic order that existed for the care of plague sufferers. Their purpose was to take in those afflicted and care for them in the hospitals attached to their monasteries. These are all critical facts to understand why the altarpiece is so unique.
The most famous panel is the first one, and it depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. But why it’s important is that the painter chose to do something no one had ever seen before. He put plague sores all over Jesus’ body, reflecting the suffering of those that would have been in the hospital for similar illnesses. It shows patients that Christ suffers with them, that he knows their pain and that they do not have to fear their ordeal.
So often I see our faith trying to sanitize the image of Jesus’ life to leave out his brutal death at the hands of the authorities. We want to focus on ministry Jesus walking around the Galilean hills preaching and healing people. Or we want to focus on the triumphal post-Resurrection Jesus, who has conquered death and Hell and assured our salvation. Those are both wonderful and important aspects of our faith and the good news of Jesus Christ, but they are not the whole story and we see in our Gospel lesson today what happens when Peter tries to convince Jesus to leave that part out.
After Peter has spoken the truth of Jesus’ nature as we heard in last week’s Gospel, Jesus now pushes further in his education of the disciples about what must come next. No doubt this is hard for the disciples to hear, especially with the foundation established about Jesus’ divinity! Certainly now he must take Jerusalem and cast down all those that oppress them! But that is not the route God has laid out, and it is not our path as followers of Christ. To be clear though, none of this makes a difference if we didn’t have the assertion last week of Jesus’ divinity. Otherwise, this is just another martyr for a cause.
Charles Hambrick-Stowe writes, “The cross […] makes sense only in connection with knowing Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. There is no great theological meaning in martyrdom for an ideal or in death that otherwise results from force, injustice, misunderstanding, or accident. Only if Jesus is who he says he is – and he identifies himself as Savior and Son of God by blessings Peter’s confession – does the gospel build to redemptive climax and hope-filled conclusion.”
We often give Peter a pretty bad rap for how he responds to what Jesus says. Really Peter often ends up being the one to exemplify the wrong response. But it is no surprise that he reacts so strongly to Jesus’ assertion that suffering and death must come. Peter tries to find a different way, to argue that surely there can be triumph without defeat. He even pulls Jesus aside to convince him otherwise. We are told that Jesus rebukes Peter in a very strong manner… “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus’ rebuke is not fully directed at Peter though. Peter’s words take Jesus back to the desert and the temptation that the Deceiver offers him…all the world’s power if Jesus but bows down and worships. All of the victory with none of the sacrifice. This is not the way it is to be, and Jesus knows this. He is trying to teach his disciples the importance of this and because they are human, because they don’t know any better, they are looking for a resolution that doesn’t come at such a price.
Then Jesus gives us an even harder teaching to grasp. If we want to follow him, as his disciples, then we too are invited to take up our cross and follow him. Hambrick-Stowe writes, “Astonishingly Jesus offers crucifixion to those who would follow him. In a bold assertion of God’s boundary-crossing grace, Jesus takes as his logo the grim killing tool of the world’s superpower: “Take up [your] cross”. If you want to follow me, deny yourself; if you want to find your life, give up your life. Jesus dies in our place, but not to exempt us from the cost of discipleship. The gospel is an invitation to death before it bestows new life. This is how God’s love will redeem and resurrect sinners from the futility of life devoted to profit in this world. Because Jesus dies for our sin, we may now give ourselves to him and die to the powers that posses and control us. Atonement that is for us will involve us.”
This doesn’t mean that we affect our own salvation. God has assured that. What this invitation does do is offer us a path to follow Christ, as we so often proclaim that we do. But we want the easy way. We want to carry a cross for a few miles that has a wheel attached to the bottom of it so it makes it easier. We want to carry a cross that is about a minor hardship. In Jesus’ time, the cross was not a symbol of hardship, it was a symbol of death. Christ calls us to life that puts us in harm’s way. When we stand for the Justice of God, the Love and Peace that God calls his people to, we will be standing against the world that lusts for power and control.
We want to look for the easy way, to put the values of the world above the values of God. We don’t want to hear when the Gospel contradicts our way of thinking. We argue that it sounds too political, or too antiquated. Perhaps that it just doesn’t apply in this particular situation. But deep down we know it does. We know that time and time again we fail to live up to Christ’s invitation to take up our cross. Whether it is because we are afraid of the consequence, or the wood is too heavy, or the journey seems to hard.
And yet, Christ knows as well that we will fail to do as asks. He knows that we are imperfect, that we cannot measure up. He moves ahead with the plan of salvation all the same. Just because we know that we aren’t perfect doesn’t excuse us from following Christ, from taking up our cross. There are examples we can look to, Dietrich Bonheoffer who stood against the Nazis, Jonathan Myrick Daniels a freedom rider who died protecting a black girl from white supremacists in 1965.
There is still so much suffering in this world, so much worship of power, of wealth, of domination. We are called to stand outside of that as followers of Christ and to be willing to take up our cross…an emblem of death… for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The old hymn says, “Take up your cross; let not its weight; fill your weak spirit with alarm; Christ's strength shall bear your spirit up; and brace your heart and nerve your arm.”
Second Sunday in Lent Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Many of you know that I grew up attending a non-denominational evangelical church in Oregon. It is one of those places where the preacher talks for at least forty five minutes, where the baptistery is behind an old velvet curtain at the back of the stage, and where every single word in the bible is expected to be taken literally, without context. In that kind of church memorizing verses is a highly prized activity. As someone attending youth activities and a pseudo-boyscouts-esque church group called AWANA, I was tasked with memorizing verse after verse, Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:8-9, and of course John 3:16 all ring a bell for me. We would get awards for how many we could memorize and recite perfectly, and looking back, I can also tell you I had little grasp of what I was reciting.
I don’t think it’s too big a statement to say that John 3:16 is one of the few verses in the Bible that has captivated billions of Christians throughout the centuries. While it certainly has a place now in the modern Evangelical culture, and by extension perhaps you recall the use of it in Professional Wrestling and other sports, even Martin Luther found this verse to be highly regarded. He wrote that this verse was, “the Gospel in a nutshell.”
Yes, it does sum up the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that hits the high points: God’s love, Christ’s redemption of the world, the path to salvation. It’s a good starting place when explaining the good news, but it’s nowhere near enough to fully explain it. And as much as I’m sure there are people here today who can recite John 3:16 from memory, I would suspect that number would drop to probably zero, including myself, that can recite John 3:17 from memory.
As I studied today’s Gospel reading, one of the two pieces that captivated me most was that last verse, 17. So often our theology of redemption relies heavily on the verse before it that the next one is lost. It leaves me to wonder what sort of faith I would have grown up with if the words, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” were just as important.
John 3:16 is a great verse, when it isn’t used to guilt people into a Christian faith, which is how I saw it used most of the time. Adding on verse 17 offers us a more robust theology. God did not arrive on Earth, incarnate as a human to condemn anyone, but to assure that we would have access to the Kingdom of God at the end of all things. No matter how broken we are, how bad we are, how many times we fail or frankly no matter how many times we succeed, our salvation is assured by Grace because of God’s steadfast love for his creation.
That’s really what Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus in the first part of the gospel reading. Nicodemus has come to him and told Jesus that he likes what Jesus is teaching, and that Jesus must surely be sent by God to be able to do what he’s doing. But Nicodemus ultimately stops short of recognizing Jesus and the messiah and of being willing to step into the light as a follower of Jesus in this moment.
Jesus is offering to Nicodemus an explanation that foreshadows of course the crucifixion. This is the second thing that really caught my attention in this passage. Jesus refers to the story of when the Israelites in the book of Numbers, had been speaking out against God and Moses. So God sends serpents into their midst, and people begin dying from the bites of these serpents. God then tells Moses to create a serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the bronze serpent will be saved from the bites of the real serpents. All they have to do is look at it and they are saved.
In a way Jesus is teaching that we have to be willing to look, to gaze upon the instrument of our salvation, or more clearly put we must take an action rather than to just really like what Jesus says, like Nicodemus. Our salvation does require more from us than a cursory luke-warm okay-ness with Christ and the Gospel. Our faith requires action…it requires us to take a step and be reborn as Jesus says, in water and spirit. We must be baptized into the body of Christ, and we must live our faith, always striving to improve. We must look upon the act of saving love by God. The result of taking on his shoulders all the evil that exists in the world.
Mthr Mary Ann Hill writes, “But evil isn’t then healed, as it were, automatically. Precisely because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. You might as well try to teach a snake to sing. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust: to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.”
Nicodemus struggles to find that trust in Jesus. He comes to Jesus at night, in the darkness, to hide from the world his interest in Jesus. This is the first of two times that Nicodemus visits Jesus in the darkness, the second time is near the end, and Nicodemus does try to intercede with the Pharisees on Jesus’ behalf. But still he is unwilling to step into the light as Jesus says we must all do. He is willing to fully commit and be born again, though clearly in this first encounter that terminology is just very confusing for him.
Author George Stroup, writing on this passage says, “For many Christians, the gospel is summarized by the words in John 3:16. Everyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but will have eternal life. Some Christians, however, understand faith or “believing in Jesus” to be simply what one does with one’s mind. In John’s Gospel, being born from above and believing in Jesus are clearly not so much about what one does with one’s mind as about what one does with one’s heart and one’s life. […] In John’s Gospel believing and doing are inseparable. Nicodemus lives in the darkness and the shadows of this story until its conclusion, when he emerges publicly with Joseph of Arimathea, who is also a “secret disciple”, to bury Jesus.
Christ calls us to do more with our faith than passively letting it sit on a shelf collecting dust. We are meant to be reborn, to step out into the light, to herald the good news to a world mired in fear and sin. The good news that not only God loves the world so much that he takes our form and bears the burden of our sin, but also, as verse 17 reminds us, that Christ came into this world not to judge us, not to point out when we fail at our faith, but only to save us and to be where we cast our gaze when we need to be reminded of God’s love and salvation.