Today’s gospel contains perhaps the most famous of all verses in the Bible: “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” (v. 16). In the Methodist Sunday school in which I grew up, we used to memorize scripture verses, and I’m sure that this was the very first one I learned.
In my young adulthood I left the church and went on pilgrimage looking for God. During that time, John 3.16 was the one verse I always remembered and could quote exactly. It crept in and out of my conscious mind during those somewhat arid years when my intellectual life was blossoming and my spiritual life was languishing.
During that time, I also remember vividly the musical setting of “God so loved the world” from Stainer’s Crucifixion, which our Methodist choir sang every year on Good Friday. I could remember almost exactly the style in which we were taught to sing it. I knew all the crescendos and decrescendos, the changes in tempo, the attention to the words. I could sing the whole thing for you right now, even though I haven’t heard Stainer’s music in years. It haunted me, it pulled at my heartstrings. God so loved the world – God loved the world so much – it was like an unconscious mantra that kept me connected at some subliminal level, to the Good News I had grown up with.
But I didn’t understand it. Why would God’s love for us cause God to send his son to die?
I found an answer to that question not through studying theology but through reading poetry – especially that of George Herbert, the 17th century Angican priest and poet. In poems like “Love bade me welcome,” Herbert’s passionate love for God touched me deeply, and I began to grasp the depth of that divine love – a love which would go so far as to die for the world.
Another experience affected me deeply while I was still a seeker. As a young woman living in Minneapolis, I joined the choir of St. Mark’s Cathedral, where the choirmaster believed passionately that the function of music and liturgy was to lead people to God. It was hard not to get hooked. And one Sunday, I heard something quite remarkable in a sermon. The preacher said that seekers of God outside the church were like people who try to appreciate stained glass art from the back side. One can see the beauty of stained glass, he said, only from inside the church, when the light is streaming through it. Likewise, one can understand the church only by being welcomed into the fellowship of the body of Christ.
That was the point of conversion for me – conversion in terms of turning around. I started looking for the stained glass from inside. And I began to see that the central message of the Christian faith is about love and passion – the love of God and the passion of Christ, yes – but it is also about the love and passion of our response to that good news.
All through scripture we see examples of this generosity of God, in response to human sin. Time after time, human beings wander away from God, and God intervenes. One example is mentioned at the beginning of the gospel for the fourth Sunday in Lent:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The reference is to the incident from the book of Numbers when the Israelites get sick of eating manna in the desert, and are ready to go back to Egypt. God sends poisonous snakes to punish them for their complaining, and then instructs Moses to make an antidote to the poison – a bronze snake on a pole. When the Israelites look on the bronze snake, they are healed. Now this practice is condemned elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures as idolatry. Here, however, it can be seen as a kind of homeopathic medicine, where the disease is cured by the very thing that caused the illness. With a difference, however. The serpents, who crawled on the ground, were the punishment, the result of Israel’s turning away from God. The cure was to look up rather than down to the ground, to see the bronze serpent as a sign of God’s healing – and so they found life in the very source of death.
The Greek word translated “lifted up” means both to physically raise, and also to exalt, reminding us that Jesus’ crucifixion is also the climax of his earthly kingship. The passage from Ephesians underlines this double meaning when it refers to us being raised with Jesus.
But God, 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.
In comparing Jesus to this image of a bronze serpent, John also underlines his absolute conviction that Jesus is in fact God, whose self-giving love led to the crucifixion and beyond it to the resurrection and ascension – the final “lifting up.” As in the homeopathic principle, Jesus’ death destroyed death forever.
So the reason for Jesus’ passion and death is to bring us to life and to health. And what is the motive? Why does God go to all this pain and trouble? The motive is, of course, love: “God so loved the world . . .” It is pure grace, pure gift, as Paul tells us. God created the world in love; the risen Christ among us calls each of us into a relationship of love, with each other and especially with God; and in that love Christ sends us into the world as his body, to minister to his brothers and sisters – our brothers and sisters.
But the tragedy is that Christ’s body, his church, sometimes acts as if God sent the son to the church and not to the world. And then we, the church, forget that we are saved by the pure grace of God, the pure gift of God’s self-giving love in the passion of Christ. When that happens, the church (that is, we) can undermine the pure gift of God’s love.
We try to set boundaries, to judge, and to insist that people fulfill our expectations and agree with our theology and our standards in order to be welcomed into the body of Christ. And we expend a lot more energy on dealing with our internal conflicts than we do on the mission which God calls us to on behalf of the world.
But Paul says, “by grace you are saved.” Not by meeting the standards of a particular church or group within the church, but by accepting the saving love of Christ.
And how do we accept it? By experiencing, it of course, and for most people, the strongest experience of Christ’s love is mediated through those people he calls his body. If people in the world do not find the love of God in the friendship and acceptance and affirmation and support of those in the church, where are they going to experience that love? I found it in a choir, and in people doing liturgy together in a way that said to me, we know the love of God and want to share it. Others find it in other ways in the church.
And once we have found it, we accept our baptismal mission: to be the body of Christ, to be Christ in the world.
So instead of succumbing to the temptation to think that God sent his only son for the sake of the church, we might paraphrase John 3.16-17 this way: “God so loved the world that he sent the church into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world, through his body, might be saved.” God loved the world so much that he sent you and you and you and me to be Christ’s body, to bring that amazing grace of God’s free love to the world God created.
May God bless each of you as you journey through Lent toward Easter. May God give you the grace to share the suffering of his world that you might also be an instrument of resurrection life in his world
Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March, 2009
Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
Sisterhood of St. John the Divine
A religious community within the Anglican Church of Canada