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

Friday, 13 April 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 4 2018

Numbers 21.4-9
Ephesians 2.1-10
John 3.14-21

What bites you, cures you. Not, perhaps, the best advice for a hangover – not drinking quite so much in the first place is far better than the “hair of the dog that bit you”.
But there is wisdom here, nonetheless. Many ancient cultures recognised this as a medical principle. What bites you, cures you. A small dose cures what would harm you in large amounts. If you had the flu jab this winter that is what was going on: a harmless dose of virus immunises you against the full thing.
Today, in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites are bitten by poisonous serpents, but they look at an image of a serpent on a staff and live.
This symbol is not confined to ancient Israel. The serpent raised up on a staff is very ancient, and found in many cultures. It is the badge of the Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, and is still seen, for example, on the flag of the World Health Organisation. Snake bite kills you, but there is something powerfully curative there as well. It is a holistic symbol: opposites are at war within, but reconciling them brings harmony.
In the Book of Numbers, too, contradictions are resolved. God sends poisonous serpents, but then provides the means for curing their bite. It seems as though God is acting in opposite ways, but we are to see beyond the opposites. The Israelites have turned away from God in rebellion: the bite of the serpents punishes but also corrects, bringing them back to God. What is really wrong with them is their alienation from God, of which the serpents are a visible sign. And God provides the means of overcoming their alienation, in the form of a visible sign. What bites you, cures you.
It’s significant, then, that Jesus chooses this episode to illustrate himself. Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘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’.
Jesus is the cure for the bite of the poisonous serpent, the devil who brings death. But somehow his being lifted up also shows us what the problem is.
The problem is the culture of death that, one way or another, puts people on crosses. Jesus was killed by religious people, the powers that be, who thought that he threatened them. He became a scapegoat, an expendable person, as summed up by Caiaphas, in John Chapter 11: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed”. The death of Jesus was the small dose of violence, inflicted on an outsider, in an attempt to save the group from the greater violence that would destroy them.
That’s how human beings tend to function. But we’ve got it all wrong. The fundamental human problem is that we turn away from the God of life towards death. This is what we call sin. At the root of it is our disordered desire, as we saw last week in the ten commandments. Instead of desiring God, who gives us life without limit, we desire what other people have got, and think we have to take it. There may not be enough life to go round, so grab it while you can, and make sure other people don’t. This is the snake that bites us, the poison that torments us. One way or another, all sin comes down to this: failing to believe that God really gives life without limit.
God gives, that’s the key. We don’t have to take. We can’t. This is what Paul means in Ephesians today when he says “by grace you have been saved”. Grace is gift, freely given, not earned, not merited. Just because that is what God is like. God gives. “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.”
God gives us himself, showing us his love. God gives us the man on the cross, who shows us what we are, what we have been. This is the snake that bites you, this putting people on crosses, and all that it represents. But this is also what cures you, because it is God’s love in the very place where we seek death. We have turned away from God to cast out the scapegoat, and, lo!, the scapegoat is God, turned towards us. Loving us. Desiring us. Unmerited, unearned. Redemption, salvation, the cure of sin, the gift of eternal life.
Eternal life is the life that God lives. Eternal life is not this passing life, carried on indefinitely. It is something other, the life of God, who is outside of time. It is life without limit. This passing life is limited, and we know what that is like. Eternal life, God’s life, is outside our experience. It has to be given to us from beyond. We have to be “born again” or “born from above”, as Jesus says to Nicodemus.
And this is grace, gift, freely given. To receive it, we simply have to turn to Jesus and believe in him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; they will do what is true, and come to the light.
Grace is so simple. And yet it seems so difficult! It seems too good to be true! Even Christians struggle to believe it. Does God really just give us all we need, even God’s own life, eternal life? Just because that’s what God is like?
Yes, God does. But we try to resist. Our old human nature keeps telling us that there has got to be a catch. Yes, grace, but. But we’ve still got to earn God’s favour somehow. God can’t really be that good.
“I don’t receive communion, I’m not good enough.” “I must try harder, I don’t want to let God down.” “Maybe if I say more prayers God will notice me.” All these things have been said, to me, by Christians. And I dare say there is something similar whispering such things inside of me, too. It takes a lifetime, really, to get used to the fact that God means what God says.
“I’m not good enough.” That has nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus is good enough. Receive, then, the gift that he longs to give you.
“I don’t want to let God down.” God, as St Paul says today, “loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ”. Now it’s obvious that dead people can’t earn anything, least of all their own resurrection. That is what grace is. As freely given as resurrection given to the dead. Why do we suppose that grace is some kind of bargain, as if God could possibly need anything from us in return?
And, trying to make God notice us. Look at the cross. God has noticed us.
What bites you, cures you. Opposites are at war within us: sin and death; God and life. The poisonous bite of sin should make us look to Jesus, who shows us both the problem and its cure.

God loves us. For no reason at all, except that that is what God is like. God raised us to life when we were dead in our sins, utterly helpless. As sheer gift. Because that is what God is like. It is Jesus, lifted up on the cross, who shows us this. It is Jesus who cures us. That is the heart of the Gospel. Believe in Jesus, accept the free gift of grace, and live. And, as we tend to pinch ourselves, and think that this can’t really quite be true, it does no harm to hear and proclaim that message again, and again.

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