Sermon - 15th March 2015
God so loved the world
Scripture - John 3:14-21
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s reading takes us into the world of a poetic and imaginative Jewish mystic - we call him John even though the Gospel bearing his name is probably the work of a number of contributors from within a particular faith community. And through John we hear the voice of Jesus coming to us from inside a very particular interpretation of the Jesus story.
Enter the Gospel of John and you enter a realm of mystical poetry where the words are only the surface layer while the meaning and the message lie deep within the creativity of the writing.
Enter the Gospel of John and you enter a world of interpretation based on what John’s community saw as the values of Jesus’s life and teaching 70 or 80 years after he had lived and died. This is not an account of events in the life of Jesus such as a news journalist might write, it is a poetic, theological drama, written by experts in a mystical understanding of Jewish faith, and in which facts can be made subservient to truth.
Those 70 or 80 years of reflection on the life of Jesus before the gospel was compiled are important. It was a turbulent period for the Jewish faith and traditions, out of which Christianity was born from many sources and viewpoints; and there were many competing positions about how best to journey towards God’s truth.
Just to get a sense of what 70 years of hindsight feels like, go back 70 years from our own time and you arrive in another hugely turbulent time: you find yourself in 1945 as the second world war was coming to an end. Just think how 70 years of study, reflection and historical enquiry have altered our interpretations of what we initially took as facts about the war.
Consider how we have re-evaluated the humanitarian costs of some of the allies’ bombing campaigns on German cities. Consider how much more we now know about Nazi ideology, about international politics, and their effects on German society at the time. Consider how decades passed before many heroic deeds, and the contributions of genius minds, were known - Alan Turing’s story being just one of them. Consider how much soul-searching has taken place about the deployment of nuclear weapons after their use on Japan 70 years ago.
Now take that same process of reflection - even in a hugely different time and culture - and consider how that 70 year gap between Jesus’s death and the emergence of John’s gospel will have influenced the priorities around what John’s community needed to say about Jesus and how they needed to say it. Do that, and you get a sense of the context in which John’s Gospel interprets its message.
Throughout John’s Gospel you could include an extra phrase to the beginning of almost every episode: just add the words, ‘Believing what we now believe about Jesus, here is a story from our tradition.’ Then apply that mystical dimension which was a feature of how John’s community understood God in their world, and you get a gospel which contains some of the most beautiful and most complex narrative poetry in the Christian scriptures.
Today’s reading declares a deeply loving relationship between God and the world. But it is only part of a conversation which is happening at this point in the narrative between Jesus and another man - today’s extract brings us in part-way through a bigger discussion.
The man has come to Jesus as a secret follower who is an intelligent and accomplished person in his own community; but the outcome of the discussion is that the man either cannot, or will not, understand what Jesus requires of him as a follower; and he retreats into his secretive world of inner confusion disguised by outward respectability. The challenge for the man is that there is a commitment gap between watching the Jesus story from the sidelines and believing in Jesus as a teacher worth following.
The reference in the reading to Moses and the serpent harks back to an episode in the book of Numbers in which God sent poisonous serpents into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people complaining against God. When the people repented, God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and lift it on a pole, so that anyone bitten by a one of the poisonous serpents could look upon it and live.
But pushing deeper into the Jewish tradition, we can probably hear John coaxing us to recall the association between serpents and disobedience. In the book of Genesis, it is the serpent who tempts the first humans to disobey God, after which nothing is ever the same again. This act of disobedience symbolises the human determination to make a world without God. Here is the first example of “sin” - a deliberate turning away from the source of Life. And the serpent becomes a symbol of human rebellion against God.
And so, in the same way that the bronze serpent of Moses was lifted on a pole to deal with the consequences of an act of disobedience, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. And just as lifting up the bronze serpent was a life-giving act for the Israelite community, so - in John’s interpretation of Jesus’s life - the lifting up of Jesus on a cross will be the source of eternal life for today’s world.
It can be a challenge for us to recognise God’s love for our world of today. One view of the bible is that the whole of it can be read as God's love story for the world.
It was love that stirred God's heart at the pleading of the slaves in Egypt, that offered them both the guidance of the law and the security of the promised land, and that raised up prophets who declared God's desire for compassion to be shown to the poor and powerless.
It was divine love that carried Israel during the time of exile, and love that was celebrated with the psalms of adoration in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.
It was God's love that sent Jesus into the world where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us, but is to be shared even with our enemies and those who persecute us.
It was love that stirred the first-century church to open the doors of community not only to Jews but also to Gentiles; not only to those deemed worthy, but also those whose very existence was perceived as troubling in the culture of the time: sick people, disturbed people, disabled people, the eunuchs.
Even in our own day, when abuse of power has declared limits to God's love by the exclusion of some from full participation in their communities, God’s love for the oppressed and for justice has brought forward prophets to declare that God's love includes all people. We may not call them ‘prophets’ in today’s language, but listen for those who call for justice, equality, and inclusion, and you will hear our own contemporary prophets of God’s love for the world in which we exist.
Just as John’s community brought 70 years of reflection into their interpretation of the Good News of Jesus, so our faith community brings over 2000 years of reflection coupled with our own experience of God’s love for this world - a world with which God is actively engaged and in which Christian spirituality is still a living expression of faith.
We express that reflection and experience in language and concepts which are different to what John had at his disposal: our knowledge of the world is deeper; our models of society and community are different, especially around issues of social structure, equality and inclusion; our understanding of human biology and human psychology are much more profound; and we no longer use poetic and mystical forms of expression to the same extent in our approach to an understanding of God.
But I believe we still share the same truth that John was trying to express in his Gospel when he told the story of a man who could not cross the gap between watching and believing; the gap between observing from the sidelines and following as a disciple.
And we share the same truth about God’s love for the world which, as humans, we may not always discern with great clarity; but which, as Christians, we find in the life and message of a teacher from Nazareth, whose life ended on the cross of an imperial occupying power, but whose Good News about the kingdom of God brings light and inspiration into our lives, and puts the love of God into our hands to be shared with others.