The Gospel in Miniature
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) 14 March 2021
Laetare Sunday 10 a.m. Said Mass with music, live-streamed Homily Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon
The Rev. Fr. Anthony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D., homilist
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
God, Take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Martin Luther called this verse, “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.”
Jesus here is speaking to Nicodemus, a devotee to Mosaic Law but a secret follower of Jesus. Jesus has told him about being born from on high. Nicodemus has misunderstood this as some kind of second physical birth: it’s all about identity or group affiliation, based on who your mother was. Jesus corrects him and says this is about starting a spiritual life in God, which is uncontrollable like the wind or breath. He then adds: just as Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the desert to heal the Israelites suffering from snake bites, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross for all the world to see and be healed.
Note that God here loves “all the world,” not just chosen people. This birth from above is for everyone.
Jesus being raised on the cross like the healing bronze snake on the pole speaks against, not for, the idea of transferred punishment. The thing that heals the Israelites is a representation of the very thing afflicting them.
So how is Jesus on the cross like this?
Looking on the true nature of the evil we suffer and inflict, identifying their exact nature, is the start of healing, the beginning of recovery. Lifting up a graphic representation of the fiery serpents heals the Israelites through, it seems, some kind of sympathetic magic. Likewise, hoisting Jesus high upon the cross is a prime example of human evil, a representation of the very problem it cures. Jesus’s sufferings are the example par excellence of how rotten we human beings treat each other, of how badly we distort God’s good creation. Look at the nature of our evil, lose false conceptions about the heart of darkness and cruelty in us at times: only then can we embrace Jesus, the God who loves us so much that he chose to become one of us and suffer such evil. Trusting this loving God on the cross heals us.
We read in Deuteronomy that anyone who is hanged on a tree is accursed (Deut 21:23). Paul says that thus Jesus became a curse for us, became sin for us (Gal 3:13). This does not mean that Jesus was bad or evil. It means that the very fact that we human beings did this thing to him, the fact that we are capable of such cruelty to each other, points to our need for transformation and enlightenment. In looking at this horror, we see the nature of our ills, and in trusting the one so cursed we find redemption and reconciliation with God and each other. This is not transferred punishment, but the mystery of God becoming one of us, suffering along with us the worst that we can mete out to each other, dying alongside every other human being, and then being rising as Victor.
That’s why the passage continues, “God loved the world so much that He sent his only son.” Note: it’s the world we’re talking about here. In John’s Gospel, that means the wicked world, the big, bad, dark world that rejects the light. It doesn't mean the good and glorious creation that God declared in Genesis 1 to be so very good. Rather, in John, the phrase means: “God loved bad guys so much….” “God loved messed up humanity so much…” “God loved those who dwell in darkness so much…” “that he sent his only son, so that everyone who trusts him, finds faithfulness in him, gives their heart to him, should not perish, but live eternally.” The Greek of the passage is clear—the people who trust Jesus have already attained the unending life his sending was intended to provide to the world.
The point is the universality of God’s love and of God’s gift to all.
But a gift is a gift only if it is accepted by someone. That is what looking at Jesus, or looking at the snake, is all about. Salvation is there. Healing is there. You just have to turn your hearts toward its source and trust.
This is not a call to a formal acceptance of a doctrine of salvation by grace, or, God forbid, of transferred punishment. It is an invitation to trust Jesus, to be in relationship with him.
“But what about people who decline the invitation?” you might ask.
The passage is clear: Jesus came to save, not to judge or condemn.
The refusal of people to accept the gift freely given won’t bring judgment or condemnation. Rather, it is their very act of refusing that means they, at least for now, cannot enjoy the blessings of relationship and trust.
Jesus of Nazareth taught the arrival of God’s Reign, of God being fully in charge, right here, right now. His teachings demand much from us, but also give us compassion and enable us to be instruments of God’s compassion. His cruel death on the cross came from the sickness of the powers of his age, in some ways very much with us to this day.
But his rising from the dead vindicated his teaching and meant the cross was not meaningless, that life is not random or pointless. Christ’s victory over death saves us by pointing all the more to God’s love in the face of the sickness of broken humanity. If Jesus on the cross is like that bronze snake, it is because we are the snakes that are biting ourselves, ruining God’s good creation.
I pray that this week we may reflect on this passage, so public and popularly misused, and find in it the point John’s Gospel is trying to make: God loves everyone and is compassionate. In following Jesus, in trusting him, we can also be compassionate and overcome the sickness that often infects us and our society. Thus victory is won, brokenness healed, and rescue achieved.
In the name of God Amen.