Fourth SUNDAY In Lent, March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
CLICK HERE to listen to recorded sermon.
As we journey though Lent, it’s important to remember that the significance of God in our lives, the significance of Jesus Christ, is God’s overwhelming love for us and God’s overwhelming mercy. Often in church we can get wrapped up in the minutiae and it’s easy to forget that salvation is and has been God’s message to us for thousands of years.
My focus today is on verse 17 of our gospel. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16 “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. The one that’s ubiquitous – it’s all over on bumper stickers and mugs and other tchotchkes. The one that a member of Standing Committee threw out simply by verse to a bewildered seminarian who had been assured that the candidacy interview for the diaconate, after two and a half years of seminary, was a formality.
Because if we stop at John 3:16, we miss the part of the world being saved by Jesus Christ in verse 17. “Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God’s gift to us as God’s children is the gift of salvation. Both our second lesson and gospel affirm the saving power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We can find great wisdom, comfort and inspiration in this theological and biblical truth.
Yet, it is also safe to say that these texts have been the source of great tension over the last five hundred years or so since the Reformation. Grace is a gift freely given by God. It represents unearned and unmerited love by God. Questions abound about how we accept that grace. How are we saved? Is it by grace alone? Faith alone? Good works? Do we have to accept that grace or is the grace simply sufficient by itself?
In the past few weeks we have been talking about the Book of Common Prayer. All these questions abounded during the Prayer Book fights of the 1500s and 1600s and still endure today.
Paul tells us in Ephesians that by grace we have been saved through faith; it is a gift from God and not the result of good works. But, let’s not forget the final verse of today’s passage from Ephesians – Paul also states “for we are what he had made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
That certainly sounds like a great paradox.
Yes, grace saves us. There is no question about that. Paul also says that we have been created in Christ for doing good works and that God has planned such good works before we even do them. What we are being told is that we cannot separate our faith from grace, nor grace from good works. Perhaps there isn’t as much paradox as we might think.
As a college senior, I was a resident advisor in the dorm. I attended a small, Roman Catholic women’s college, which was could be described as fairly liberal. I had on my floor a young woman who I never really quite figured out what she was doing there. She was eighteen and a self-described born again Christian.
She told me that Mother Teresa could not possibly be saved, notwithstanding her good works because she had not accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. I first asked her how she could possibly know what or who Mother Teresa had or had not accepted in her life. But beyond that, I assured her that the gospel story is one of salvation, love and mercy. God loved Mother Teresa. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, into the world so that the whole world might be saved through Christ. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.
What we do have in each of today’s readings is a sign of God’s grace and love. God loves all God’s children and offers ways for the beloved to return to God. God offers wholeness and makes us responsible for our choices.
I do think that today’s gospel is meant for us to plumb the depths of our faith. Are we really who we say you are? Are we really who we appear to be? Are we the same person when (we think) no one is looking? And when we are who we really are, are we authentically human, or are we trying to be something else?
Are we seeking the light of Christ or do we accept the darkness of evil?
What the gospel wants from us is to live our lives remembering that Jesus came not to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him.
As imperfect humans, how can we possibly do that?
One thing is to remember that we are to simply love others with grace, kindness and patience. A deeply faithful Christian life is not an easy task, yet sometimes simple things help us to get there.
I think of a grandmother who no matter how often the neighbor girl from up the street visited, the grandmother played shoe store with her and tried on imaginary shoes. Every day.
That grandmother made a difference in that girl’s life whose own mother was often preoccupied.
In our life in Christ, will we be the grandmother with an abundance of patience and love?
We can make that choice. We can be that grandmother because we are part of a community that knows the extravagant gifts of God’s mercy and love. We are invited to live in the light of Christ – by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful. We are called to proclaim God’s love to the entire world just like that grandmother.
In today’s Gospel we have heard the declaration that God has decided to love the whole world. God does not love just those who gather on Sunday, not just the religiously inclined, not just those who have heard the name of Jesus, but the whole world.
God’s love does not coerce us into relationship, but does require us to decide how we will respond to God’s love.
Sometimes we choose to live without God’s love. We cherish grudges, even as we wish we could let our anger go. We value our independence, even as we wish we cared more for others. We stay in a dark but comfortable corner, even as we wish we lived in the light. Our story from beginning to end is sometimes selfishness, consequences, repentance, and life.
God has given us the wonderful, painful gift of choice. When we do not have the courage to choose what is best, we make no progress. Think about the money changers in last week’s gospel – Jesus was pretty clear that they had made the wrong choice.
When we choose courageously, we move forward even when our lives seem to be tough. We choose in the words we speak or do not speak, the people we love or do not even see, the thoughts we entertain or reject, the deeds we do or leave undone.
God’s way is mercy and love, not condemnation.
God has chosen to help us choose eternal life. God’s way is bringing us together by sending Jesus to us in the world and in the sacrament of the bread and wine that we share together, another sign of God’s extravagant love.
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