15 Mar 2015
“‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up …’” (John 3:14) In the name …
This past week commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Selma. Those people were empowered by the ideals of America, but also by God. Many of their leaders were church pastors. As they prepared to start their march they sang the hymn “God will take care of you.” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDroNc1-RzE] They marched quietly. They marched with their hands in their pockets to show that there would be no violence at least on their part. When the Alabama State Police came at them with batons and dogs, they did not fight back. They trusted the words of their sung prayer: “God will take care of you.” John Lewis was a young man of 25 at the front of that march. A 75 year old US Representative John Lewis introduced our President at that same bridge this past week. He said he never could have imagined on that day half a century ago that he would be introducing an African-American President of the United States. This is not about the politics or popularity of that man, but that was a proud moment for our country. We have come a very long way in our appreciation of what it means to profess “all men are created equal.” And when our President spoke, he praised the ones who marched that day 50 years prior, but then to everyone listening he asked, “How may we repay that debt [to them]?”
The Justice Department released a scathing report about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The numbers seem to show that African-Americans are unfairly targeted. Similarly, a relative of mine was a past president of the SAE fraternity in Worcester. That’s why the news report caught my attention so quickly when those intelligent, college students in Oklahoma chanted gleefully last week about keeping their fraternity white and about the history of lynching in the south. We have definitely come a long way in our country, and for this we can and should be proud, but this doesn’t mean that we’ve finished the journey. There is still truth in the President’s question: “How may we repay that debt?”
About ten days ago I offered my Ecumenical Lenten Discussion over at the Sunderland Congregational Church. I used a picture of the lynching of two black men surrounded by a celebrating crowd beneath their mutilated bodies. I used that to try and convey the image of Jesus on the cross. We may become desensitized to the image of crucifixion because we so closely associate the cross with the resurrection. The picture of the lynching was to try and get across the image of Jesus’ horrid process of death and the gleeful spectacle that it created. During Lent we focus on the cross. We speak of Jesus’ death for us. We see in the cross all that Jesus has done for our salvation. It’s probably put in no more memorable a phrase than the one we read today: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’” (John 3:16) In my edition of the Bible that verse merits its own paragraph. There used to be a guy at sporting events holding up a sign with just 3:16 on it and everybody knew what it meant. God could do no more for us than give up His own Son in such a disgusting manner as public crucifixion. But just like with Selma, the weight of the question after such a profound act remains in place: “How can we repay the debt?”
And I think John is asking that same question in today’s Gospel. The dialogue is between Jesus and Nicodemus, a religious leader and teacher. Jesus brings up the image of the serpent that Moses raised in the wilderness. According to the Book of Numbers, Israel had sinned against God and they were plagued by snakes. They asked for mercy and God commanded Moses to forge an image of a snake and place it on a pole. Those who looked to the image would be saved. Jesus’ reference is obvious here. But the story of the image of the snake doesn’t end with Moses, and Nicodemus would have known this. Centuries later a reforming Jewish king named Hezekiah purged the land of all idols, and one of them was this forged image of a snake. It even had a name of its own now: Nehushtan. People had turned this work of God into a god of its own, into an idol. They remembered its power, but they forgot why it was powerful. They wanted the miracle of healing, but they forgot the God who healed. Both the Moses and Hezekiah stories of the snake would have been known to Nicodemus, and both would have been their intended meaning.
John’s Gospel is warning us subtly to not only focus on what the cross has won for us at such an extraordinary cost to God. We have to ask ourselves why it was offered, and 3:16 tells us beautifully, “Because God so loved the world.” And this brings us back to the question, “How may we repay that debt?” We can’t only take the forgiveness, only take the hope of life after death, and not come to terms with a God who loves us each this much. We can’t repay God for the cross, but we can be changed by the cross. This is what Bp. Hodur preferred to speak of when he talked about the cross in terms of regeneration. Redemption may sound more familiar, but that’s the message of Jesus paying the price and it’s all done. Regeneration is that Jesus paid the price so that we could live reborn, which was Jesus’ first discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus didn’t die to do it all for us. He died so that we could live like He did and continue His work. This is how we show our respect for the cross and the God who died on it.
Heroes crossed the bridge in Selma 50 years ago, but their work continues still today in what we need to do every time we encounter racism. Jesus accepted even crucifixion rather than abandon us. His work still continues today in what we would do. Whatever we do for church, whatever we do that is pious and generous, kind and peaceable, whatever hurt or harm we try to heal or right, that is our response to John 3:16. The cross is not just the forgiveness or promise of heaven it won for us. It’s the new life it shares with us. May we come to better understand this power and inspiration of such a loving God so that the work Jesus began may continue to advance through us and our church. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo