18 Mar 2012
“‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up ...’” (John 3:14) In the name …
Nicodemus sneaks out in the night to speak with Jesus, and Jesus enters into a long and complicated conversation with him. However you come to Jesus, He’ll meet you there. Even if you’re embarrassed, hesitant, unsure about coming to Jesus, like Nicodemus was, Jesus will be there. He’ll engage you where you are. He probably won’t let you stay where you are, but He’ll go wherever He needs to be with you. To me, that’s one of the defining messages of His life, and it’s made absolutely clear in His cross. His is a ministry of embrace, not of shoves. We heard today the words: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it.” He couldn’t, and the reason is because “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” What kind of love is that? Can we appreciate it? Can we at least try?
I saw a picture in the newspaper this past Wednesday of a grieving aunt. Her two-year-old grand-niece had drowned in a septic tank. The eyes said all that needed to be said of the sadness and the shock. We can all respond to that kind of grief. We can all begin to imagine the horror of what they are going through. But who of us can appreciate what the cross means to God? Who of us can begin to understand that God allowed for the cross to happen, that God did not intervene to save Jesus even though He could have? The cross is why I am absolutely certain that God changes. How could God be the same after the cross as He was before? If God was unmoved and unchanged by what happened to Him on Good Friday, He would be not much of a god. He’d be a statue, not a living, caring God.
But why did He allow it to happen? Sometimes we hear of what is called “ransom theology.” That Jesus’ death substituted for our death. That Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice in the eyes of God that would be worthy of the forgiveness of our sins. That God intended the death of Jesus. That God’s anger, or at least His justice, was satiated somehow by the death on the cross. To me that paints a strange and unfamiliar picture of God. What if, instead, God still allows for the death of Christ, but not to satiate His justice, not to find retribution, but because God had no choice. There’s a famous German theologian by the name of Moltmann who speaks of God’s absolute power and freedom to do as He wills, but that God in his freedom and power sets limits for Himself. He will not contradict His own nature. God could, but would not do, an ungodly thing. His freedom and power are undiminished, but are not unlimited, because God limits Himself.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” These are some of the most powerful and memorable words of the New Testament. God reveals Himself in Jesus as love, and Jesus’ love reveals God. The First Epistle of John says it even more concisely: “God is love.” When Jesus’ ministry and message end-up so offending the authorities of His day that their response is violence, Jesus cannot change. God cannot change. His nature insists that the only possible response is still love. Jesus cannot flee. He cannot turn to violence. He can do nothing less than love: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” The sacrifice of the cross is not to satiate the justice of God. The sacrifice of the cross is the tragic consequence of Jesus’ complete commitment to God’s nature of love.
God allows for the Son to die, what Moltmann refers to as “the Crucified God.” God suffers and dies on the cross because Jesus is God incarnate. We can all accept that God experienced life through Jesus, but we sometimes hesitate to say that God experienced death through Jesus. This is what Moltmann means by “the Crucified God.” He’s emphasizing the point we often stress that the man Jesus dies, and also that God shares that whole, horrible experience in Jesus. The cross is not so that Jesus’ blood is shed like some Old Testament sacrifice on the altar. The cross and Jesus’ blood are a sacrifice because God could do nothing less than accept the judgment passed against Him. This is the beginning of an understanding of what it means when we say, “God so loved the world.”
We can understand a grieving mother, but I don’t know if we can fully appreciate this kind of love. But Lent is our chance to try. It’s not about condemnation because Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world. It’s about salvation. It’s about God meeting us wherever we are. And it’s about asking us to come to where He is. Jesus met with Nicodemus even though Nicodemus was embarrassed of Jesus. But He didn’t let Nicodemus leave unchallenged. We are confronted with the choice of belief by Jesus. Can we accept the truth of this kind of love? Of this kind of God? The Crucified God is not only about forgiveness. The Crucified God is about example. Can we live like God as Christ has shown us?
A drunk who smelled like beer sat down on a subway bench next to a priest. The man's tie was stained, his face was plastered with red lipstick, and a half-empty bottle of gin was sticking out of his torn coat pocket. He opened his newspaper and began reading. After a few minutes, the man turned
Fr. Randolph Calvo
to the priest and asked, "Say Father, what causes arthritis?" The priest seeing a sermon opportunity replies, "My son, it's caused by loose living, being with cheap, wicked women, too much alcohol, contempt for your fellow man, sleeping around with prostitutes and lack of a bath." The drunk muttered in response, "Well, I'll be darned." Then he returned to his newspaper. The priest, thinking about what he had said, nudged the man and apologized. "I'm very sorry; I didn't mean to come on so strong. How long have you had arthritis?" The drunk answered, "Oh I don't have it, Father. I was just reading here that the Pope does." Judgment can often backfire. Love can hurt, but it will always point us toward what is right and holy. May those words “For God so loved the world” help us to better understand the cross and what the cross expects of us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)