Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 4 2012

2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
That is said to be the most famous verse in the Bible; Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms give it in dozens of languages. But it is also one of the most revolutionary texts as well, and perhaps we don’t notice that so much because we are so familiar with it.
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel is told as part of John’s grand announcement of the person and purpose of Jesus. As Duncan was telling us last week, this began with the great prologue, “In the beginning was the Word”, and continues with the call of the first disciples, the wedding at Cana, and the cleansing of the Temple.
Through all these stories John is telling us that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. He is the light come into the world, the light of God in whom there is no darkness at all, as the first letter of John says.
What is revolutionary about this is that it undoes the way that humanity has been used to thinking about God from the beginning.
Most ancient cultures seem to have imagined God or the gods as being larger versions of themselves. More powerful, but just as tricky, deceitful and violent. Just pick up any book of Greek or Aztec myths for examples. The gods needed to be bargained with. You had to earn their favour, perhaps by killing enemies, or by offering animals in sacrifice. If you didn’t, the gods might curse you by sending a plague or by ruining your crops.
But myths and sacrificial rituals disguised a grim reality. Ancient societies were riven with dangerous rivalrous desires which threatened self-destruction. Sacrifice and myth were an unconscious way of diverting that violence onto expendable substitute victims.
And because this was bundled up with people’s intuitions of the Divine, people came to imagine that this was what God was like. God or the gods had to be bargained with and appeased. God was wrathful and demanded sacrifices.
But the Jewish people had seen beyond this. The law of Moses sought to restrain sacrificial cults and violence by imposing ethical conduct, the ten commandments. And the prophets through the centuries had spoken of a God who wanted justice, not sacrifice. A God who spoke of new beginnings when his people had gone astray, and who promised that through them salvation would come to the whole human race.
John in his Gospel is saying that Jesus is the completion and the fulfilment of that revelation. In Jesus what was promised by the prophets has arrived.
And Jesus reveals that God is entirely about love. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.” There is no talk at all of bargaining, or sacrifices, or wrath, or curses. Here we are, helpless sinners, and God has come to meet us where we are, freely and of his own love giving himself to us. Asking nothing in return except that we receive the gift.
And when Jesus talks of being lifted up on the cross, as the serpent was lifted up by Moses, he is saying that it is through the cross that this gift of God will be made known to all. By being lifted up he will be exalted, glorified.
The cross represents all the sacrifices and expendable victims that humanity thought God required.  Remember, it was the religious people who put Jesus to death, because they thought he was a blasphemer and under a curse. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he places himself at the heart of the violence that we thought God wanted, and does away with it. The cross is the revelation of God’s love. It is God’s subversion of our demands for sacrifice.
So when Christians use the word “sacrifice”, as we do in the Mass, we are saying something revolutionary: the “sacrifice” of Christ is God’s offering of himself to us, out of his love, not our offering something to God to persuade him to like us.
The Father does not condemn the world. Not at all. Nor does Jesus. And yet there is condemnation, as we have read. “Whoever does not believe is condemned already.” But this is not God’s doing. If we refuse to come into the light of God’s love, then we choose to remain in the darkness of the old sacrificial way of thinking, trapped in rivalrous desires which end up only in violence and death. Our choice is its own judgement.
But our choice cannot change the nature of God, cannot change the offer of God’s love, which still remains. God is patient, and repentance is always possible.
To turn to Christ, to repent, is not a one-off choice, like ticking the box for an insurance policy. Repentance means turning around, changing our whole mindset. It is a process of transformation. And it issues in a changed life.
St John says that if we live by the truth then we come into the light, and it will be plainly seen that what we do is done in God. And the letter to the Ephesians this morning says that God’s work in us results in us living the good life as he means us to.
Living a good life is not at all about trying to persuade God to like us. That is an idea that belongs in that old sacrificial mindset. God loves us first, our acceptance of that gift then opens us up to live according to his love. St Paul says, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God”.
This is our good news, our Gospel. God loves us. Anyway. Regardless of who we have been. And God gives us his Son that we might be transformed, and live according to his life. That is good news for us, and it is good news for everyone, without exception.
“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

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