4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 3:14-21;
Eph. 2:1-10; Num. 21:4-9
As we just said with the children, that God loves you and me is the simplest way to boil down the Gospel message. When we truly understand and take to heart that God is love, we begin to live anew right here today. The promise of eternal life isn’t just something that happens to us when we die. Rather, it is something that begins to happen to us the moment we believe. Our lives begin to become transformed into something which believes in the power of God’s love as the power of life itself. There is no other power operating in this world that really matters. When we take this to heart, then we begin to stop fearing all those powers of death we see around us everyday. To begin to live in hope and faith in this love is to begin to live eternally. It is to begin to love connected to the unending source of life itself. What is that unending source of life? God’s love. God loves you and me. Simple, right?
Not quite. Because we know how difficult it can be to have faith against those other power which wield death instead of life — those powers which mimic God’s preservation of life but do so on the basis of wielding death. When terrorists come wielding that power of death, it is very difficult to not trust in having more of that same power that preserves life by wielding more death. Right? In Jesus’ time, his own people were dominated by that kind of power of death in the Roman Empire, a power which sought to preserve life for Roman citizens at the expense of its enemies — which meant that a lot of Jews died horrible deaths on Roman crosses. Jews had hope and faith in the Messiah to set them free from this kind of power. But the question is always: what kind of Messiah? One who simply wields more of that same kind of power? In other words, one who will preserve the lives of the Jews by wielding the power of death over Romans?
That was Jesus’ mission in life as the Messiah, a mission that is still formidable today. It is the mission of getting us to stop fearing and wishing for that kind of power and to instead have faith in the power of God’s love, which is the source of life itself. The power of God’s love doesn’t have to preserve life by wielding death because it is the unending source of life itself. It is the power of life even in the face of death itself. Jesus’ mission thus took him to the cross, in a self-giving act of love, to show us the greater power of God’s love. He gave himself up to the human powers of death, represented by the Roman form of execution of its enemies, in order to show us the greater power of God’s love on Easter morning. Can we continue to have faith in that power of love as we continue to face the powers of death in our own time? That’s always the question of faith, and it’s not an easy one. It is so easy to fall back into the age-old faith in those powers of death, to fight fire with fire. And it is very difficult to believe in the power of love which gives itself up to those powers of death rather than wield those same powers, even if it is to preserve some life.
It all revolves around the ancient idea of sacrifice, really. Sacrifice is that old time belief that you must sacrifice someone else’s life in order to preserve your own. They used to do it religiously on an altar, thinking that that is what the gods want. But Jesus came to turn that whole thing upside-down and inside out by letting himself be sacrificed rather than to sacrifice anyone else. He came as the Lamb of God, God’s willing Lamb to the powers of our human sacrificing, so that we might finally see that there is a mightier power in the world. It is a power which can even let itself be sacrificed to the human powers of death because it is plugged into the very power of life itself — which turns out to be a power of self-giving love, the exact same kind of love that created this world in the first place.
So it’s simple and difficult at the same time. It’s as simple as the power of God’s love. But it’s as difficult as what the power of God’s love moves us to want to do — namely, if it’s God’s love that’s renewing us and giving us new life, then it is a love that calls us to break down all the barriers that our rules of sacrifice have set up, including that most basic and formidable wall between friends and enemies. In today’s second lesson from Ephesians, we have that basic Good News about God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. If we continue on just a few verses, it tells us this difficult part of what that new life in grace means. St. Paul proclaims to us:
For [Jesus Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace…. (Ephesians 2:14-15)
One new humanity in the place of two. As we begin to live eternal life in Christ, this new peace is both a grace and a challenge. St. Paul isn’t talking about inner peace here. He’s talking about the peace of a whole new humanity that formed out of all the little splinter groups we make for ourselves, the most basic one being friends and enemies.
To see both the unbelievable grace and challenge of this peace, I’d like to do two quick things: (1) lift up our theme of the Greater Milwaukee Synod this Lent, the theme of walking with the poor; and (2) I’d like to take a quick look at the context of our Gospel Lesson today, namely, Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, in which he also tells him that you must be “born from above, ” or “born again.”
First, think about poverty for a moment. Gandhi called it the worst form of violence. I think that is because, for those who aren’t poor, the poor so often do not even make our radar screen enough to even be enemies. They are perhaps more in the category of simply not being our friends, not being our family. They are thus those sacrificed out of neglect. They are those thrown to the powers of death because our very institutions are structured sacrificially — that is, our institutions preserve the lives of some at the expense of the death of others. These others need not even be our enemies; they need only be our “not friends.” What is the old saying: family first? Or nation first?
Sometimes, we even say, God first. But if we follow that “God first” with family second and nation third, then I think Jesus is shattering that whole way of doing things in the Gospel Lesson today. God so loved the world — not God so loved our family, or our nation, but God loved the world. We can see this even more by taking in the whole passage from the beginning. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see God’s Kingdom one must be born from above — though the words Jesus used for born from above can also mean born again. Nicodemus tries to figure out what being born again means while Jesus is trying to explain to him what being born from above means. It means being born from God’s Spirit to a new way of seeing the world, just as Jesus at his baptism was born from above by the dove-Spirit that descended upon him. He now experienced the world as God does — namely, with the deep, abiding love of a parent.
Now, what does this mean to seeing the reign of God’s love in the world? Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world: (1) We are born in a geographical location that can either accustom us to unjust privilege or prevent us from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. We are born in families that instill in us a sense that we are loved and too often a sense also that we are deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.
How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a Risk game board? What would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if “family first” included them all as our own flesh and blood?
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a choice not just for a new name:
It’s a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life. Thanks be to God!
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, March 26, 2006
1. This ending of the sermon is based on the ending of Sarah Dylan Breuer’s essay for this lectionary Sunday.