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Lent 4 March 11, 2018 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for March 11, 2018 | Lent IV
John 3:14-21
It was September 1960 and I could see my Lutheran father walking briskly toward our home’s front door with a serious look on his face, a face normally marked by a happy smile. As he entered the hallway, he said with considerable distress, “Can you believe it? Georgia Grits – a good Lutheran girl – is going to marry a Catholic boy. Her mother, Ava, is just heartsick.” Well, you would have thought the Russians were marching down Market Street in San Francisco, not far from our home. You would have thought the world was coming to an end given the distressful tone of his announcement.
And, then, a week later, poor Jack Kennedy, the Catholic candidate for president, had to convince hundreds of Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal ministers in a nationally televised address that he was not a puppet being manipulated by the Pope. There was Protestant light and Catholic darkness. Or was it Catholic light and Protestant darkness given the vicious smear campaign mounted by Protestant clergy against Kennedy?
It was little different as John was completing his revision of the Gospel that would bear his name, a gospel that took its final form at the end of the 1st c., a gospel that was fashioned in the midst of a tragic and bitter separation between Jews and Christians. Here is what we know today: that John, in writing his gospel, projected a terrible divorce between Christ followers and faithful Jews at the end of the 1st c. into the life of Jesus at the beginning of the century. And thus, with a naïve reading of the gospel, we could easily gain the impression that there is “Christian light” and “Jewish darkness”; there is “Christian light” and “Gentile darkness” given the first stirrings of Roman intolerance for Christians. Indeed, the Gospel of John is shot through with darkness and light, an image emerging out of the real separation between Christ followers and those who showed no interest in him or rejected Christian claims concerning him, a separation within families and among friends.
It is, perhaps, one of the greatest accusations brought against the followers of Jesus: that they have, we have, promoted and, in some Christian circles, continue to promote a dualistic view of the world – Christians saved for all eternity while everyone else is banished to non-existence or the smoldering city dump that came to be called hell. On the one hand, we hear that God loves the world; that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world; and, on the other hand, we hear that those who do not believe in the Son are condemned.
Is it a loving God or a condemning God who holds our loyalty, our worship? It’s enough to make an observer of Christians wonder if we live a schizophrenic spirituality.
Raymond Brown, among the greatest scholars of John, counsels caution as we consider this well-known text. He notes that there was a clear difference between the followers of Jesus and those who saw him as a failed prophet. There were those opposed to his vision of life with God in this world – and there are those who continue to be opposed to this vision, this way of life: those who prefer violence and intimidation over peace and respect; who promote injustice and discrimination; who laugh scornfully at the notion that God’s grace can transform the willing soul; who view mercy, being merciful, as a pathological vice rather than the virtue which makes human flourishing possible.
But, then, Brown notes: before we turn all judgmental and cast darkness on those who may oppose this vision, you and I should remember there are voices in each of us, amid the light of God’s presence, that may question or doubt or even reject elements of this vision. And, thus, you and I are called, again and again, to open mind and heart to the conversion of life that God alone can effect within us – that is, if we are willing. What did Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and American mystic, say? “There is much within me that has not yet experienced the transforming power of Christ’s presence.” There is much within me in need of the ongoing conversion of life that began in the waters of the font.
While driving on the interstate, I will see, from time to time, a sign dangling from an overpass that reads, “Jesus hearts U,” or “John 3:16.” We might imagine that John wants to convince us of God’s love. But the primary focus of this gospel reading is not on God’s love for the world – important as that might be – but on Jesus being lifted up – which, in John’s gospel, is the image of Jesus being lifted up on the cross and – and – lifted up in his resurrection: not one without the other. That is, the primary focus is on Jesus’ experience of conversion, indeed, the final conversion of his life: his dying and his rising.
I wonder, then: isn’t your life and isn’t my life marked by this rhythm of dying and rising – dying to all that which is not yet of Christ and rising more assuredly and gratefully into his life-giving presence within each of us, each other, and his sacraments of grace?
Throughout the days of Lent, I return to page 267 in the Book of Common Prayer, to the litany of penitence many of us prayed on Ash Wednesday: to those words that, in this ghastly age of public lies and false news, actually tell the truth: tell the truth of my failings – and the even greater truth, the even greater truth of God’s mercy and God’s desire for my continued, your continued conversion in Christ.
There are so few places in this world where we can hear and speak the truth of the human condition and the even greater truth that there is no condemnation – no condemnation – but only mercy.
Jesus said, “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.
“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.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
John 3:14-21