Lent 2A Sermon (1999)

2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 3:1-17;
Gen 12:1-4; Romans 4


How does a preacher preach on the passage that contains John 3:16, arguably the best known and most loved verse in all the Bible? You can’t improve on it, that’s for sure. It’s all there in one little verse — the “Gospel in miniature,” Luther called it. Yes, it’s all there: God’s unconditional love for us, faith in Jesus Christ, and life, eternal life. That’s the bottom line here, I think, life. God loves us and wants us to really and truly come alive. When Jesus says “eternal life,” we usually think just of that life that comes after death, don’t we? Well, it does mean that, but I’m convinced that it also means much more. For life to be eternal, it can’t mean just what happens to us after we die. When God offers us eternal life through Jesus literally dying for us, that life begins now. I suggest to you that “eternal life” basically means true life. God is offering us the means to truly come alive and to live life to the fullest, not just in some hereafter, but somehow beginning today with the hearing of that promise and the embracing of it in faith. It takes nothing less, Jesus tells Nicodemus, than being born again, being born from above through the Holy Spirit. And it would take nothing less than Jesus being lifted up on the cross; Jesus compares himself to the bronze snake that Moses lifted up on a pole to save the people of Israel from their snake bites so long ago. Yes, Jesus tries to tell Nicodemus, he would literally be dying to give true life to people like him, to people like you and me. Dying to give us true life.

Yes, Nicodemus’ jaw must have dropped when he heard that one. He couldn’t understand. I think that my artist friend Harry Antis captured the drama of that moment quite well. Born again, from above? God’s Son dying to give us true life? What’s this all about? He couldn’t understand. I thought about trying get into the character of Nicodemus for the sermon today, as I occasionally do, in playing the part of one of the characters in the story.

But what I’ve decided to do today is a sort of getting into character but not Nicodemus’. I’d like to fully be myself today, and just for a few minutes once again share a piece with you of what has absolutely changed my life in the last almost-seven years. I feel born again in many ways, because something has helped me to see this gospel promise of life even more clearly than before. Primarily, it has done this by showing me how my life is so involved in death, and why it literally took Jesus dying to offer me true life. Jesus had to die to show me just how much my life is wrapped up in death.

This is a bit risky, I admit, to fully be myself here today, because I’m aware that a lot of this sounds crazy to folks, as crazy as being born again sounded to Nicodemus. So I often hold back. What I’m about to share with you informs everything I understand about myself and about the world, but I most often just let it kind of hover in the background. Today, I want to more fully share it because a text like John 3:16 cries out for us to really understand what’s at stake, to understand this bottom life of true life and why Jesus had to die for God to be able to give it to us.

What I’m talking about is the anthropology of René Girard, an understanding of who we are as human beings, which I occasionally talk about explicitly. His ideas are something he says he gleaned from other people, other writers, primarily the gospel writers. But it extends their insight in the form of a theory that takes us back to the very beginnings of humanity so that we can more clearly understand what the gospel is trying to show us about ourselves — why it took the Cross to show us. Today, I want to at least give us another glimpse of Girard’s work — that’s all we can do in a few minutes — but I think in just a couple minutes I can give you the core of what this is all about for me, just like John 3:16 gets to the core of what the gospel is all about.

For the glimpse of the core of Girard’s theory I need to take you back to a dark time. It’s a midnight story like the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. And it comes at the birth of the human race itself. These are our ancestors of thousands of years ago near the dawning of the human race. Girard says it was a very dark, violent time because the mechanisms which helped keep the peace in animal communities had quit working for our ancestors who were beginning to evolve beyond their animal neighbors. A new mechanism to keep the peace had to come into being or our ancestors would have all killed one another. And this, he says, is the mechanism: someone amidst all the chaos made a dramatic gesture, a demonstrative finger-pointing, if you will, and everyone began to imitate it. Soon everyone was joining in to blame this one person for all the anger, all the violence, that was going on among them. And before they new it they were standing around a dead body, perhaps half buried in the stones they had killed him or her with. But do you know what? They also had seemingly magically achieved a new peace. They had all come together around this person who they saw as being to blame for their troubles, who was now also the giver of a magical peace.

This, says Girard, is where the human race begins: around the corpse of a victim whom we have collectively killed. Our problem, then, isn’t just death, but that who we are is founded in an active participation in death, namely, in collective murder. This same logic, this same mechanism, is always in the background of how we keep the peace in our communities. It is the logic of sacrifice, if you will. And I’m not talking Lenten sacrifice! That’s the kind of sacrifice we talk about these days after Jesus changed sacrifice into self-sacrifice, so that, when we say the word “sacrifice” these days, we actually mean “self-sacrifice,” giving up something of ourselves. We need to be very clear, says Girard, that the old form of sacrifice was not giving up yourself, but the majority of people in a community giving up someone else, spilling someone else’s blood for the sake of the community’s peace. That’s why, as we’ve dug up ancient cultures, no matter how wide ranging their ideas of god were, they all have something in common: namely, blood sacrifice. Everywhere we go in the ancient world communities practiced blood sacrifice. Why? Because it is a ritual re-enactment of the founding event, the collective murder upon which all human societies and cultures are founded. Yes, we are much more dependent on death than we ever typically realize, mostly because we make up gods to take the responsibility for our violence. The gods demand this violence from us, we say. Even in our modern society where the gospel has made us at least more sensitive to get God mixed up in messiness, these false gods have been replaced by ideologies, grand ideas for which we are willing to kill for. Democracy. Communism. The rule of law. You name it. These grand ideals are worth killing for, we say. Yes, says Girard, we are more fully involved in death than we ever care to readily admit to ourselves.

Now, as I said, this is a risky thing I’ve done here this morning. I’ve laid out just the core of Girard’s ideas. And it must sound as fantastic and crazy as being born again sounded to Nicodemus. But I risked sharing at least the core of what Girard is offering us as perhaps at least a glimpse of sharpening what it is that John 3 is trying to show us. Yes, it sounds fantastic to say that all of human society and culture is founded on collective murder, back to the beginning of the human race. But I ask you, doesn’t that begin to help make sense out of why it took the cross to save us? God let Jesus be the sacrificial lamb slain since the foundation of our human worlds so that we might dare begin to see how much our lives really are tied to death. It took Jesus dying for us and because of us for God to be able to offer us true life. Jesus died to give us eternal life, true life, because our lives are so wrapped up in death. For us to have this new life, it will literally take being born again, not just as persons, but as human communities. We need to base our communities on something else. Jesus had his opportunity with a community leader, Nicodemus, and he laid it all on the line.

And what new thing do we need to base our human communities on? That’s the most fantastic thing about all of this: God’s love. God loves us so much that he was willing to forgive us for our even killing his Son, so that instead of condemning us, God might save us. Yes, that new thing which forms our communities in Christ must be forgiveness. We are murderers, all of us, but we are forgiven for it! And so we have the opportunity in grace and faith to begin anew. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 27-28, 1999

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