Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
March 15, 2015
From shootings by police and of police to fraternity chants, race tensions have been at the center of recent national attention. Because of the places I have lived and served, and because of the people I have known and worked with, these issues have personal impact on me. When an African-American pastor who is a friend of mine was a boy growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1950s, he witnessed his 18 year old uncle being lynched by a mob who didn’t like the way he looked at a white woman. No one was ever arrested, charged, tried, convicted or punished. This is just one among many things that scream, “What is wrong with us?”
In his Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn answered the question, “What is wrong with us?”
When I lay there on rotting prison straw, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains, an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
Though humorous, a conversation between Lucy and Charlie Brown in a Peanuts cartoon sheds light on this. (quoted from Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks by Brian Soffregen)
Lucy: Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown? You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!
Charlie: Well, what in the world can I do about that?
Lucy: I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble! You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?
Charlie: No, and I don't want to know! Leave me alone! (He walks away.)
Ephesians 2:1-3 describes our problem as being spiritually dead. John 3:19 describes our problem as loving darkness rather than light.
Like Ephesians 2, John 3:14-21 tells us that when we are ready to give up on broken humanity, with rich mercy and great love, God lifts up Jesus to draw us out of darkness and death into light and eternal life.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For 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.17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Just in case we didn’t get how much God loves us from John 3:16, verse 17 says that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
After briefly acknowledging that we are spiritually dead, Ephesians 2:4 introduces the Gospel as rooted in the rich mercy and great love at the core of God’s character.
This understanding of God’s character is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 103:2-3,8,10, 12-14 says,
Bless the Lord, O my soul, who forgives all your iniquity. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
And Psalm 130:3-4,7 says,
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
So that 2 Peter 3:9 can confidently declare,
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
John 3:14 is the first of several times John wrote of Jesus being lifted up. When we are ready to give up on broken humanity, with rich mercy and great love, God lifts up Jesus to draw us out of darkness and death into light and eternal life.
The comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness goes back to Numbers 21:4-9. During the Israelites’ 40 years wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, they grumbled, and God sent poisonous snakes as punishment. When they repented, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a high pole so that when people were bitten, they could look at it and live. A snake on a pole has been a symbol of healing medicine from this incident and the Rod of Asclepius from Greek mythology.
The word for “lifted up” can mean either hoisted on a gibbet for execution or exalted for reverent respect, both of which apply to Jesus’ crucifixion. We will see it again next Sunday in John 12:32 where Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
In the 80s and 90s, spiritual writer Suzanne Guthrie worked at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. Above the door of the guest house was inscribed in Latin, “The Cross is the Medicine of the World.”
Some variation of the word “believe” occurs in John’s Gospel 86 times, and is central to 3:14-21. We must ask what it means to believe to be lifted out of darkness and death into the light and eternal life and of God’s rich mercy and great love.
John 3:16 says God gave his only Son. Ephesians 2:8 says that the grace by which we are saved in the gift of God. So believing is not something we do, rather it is something we receive. Like the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness, we don’t affect our spiritual healing, even with correct theology – believing correct things about God, but we simply receive God’s gift.
Ephesians 2:1 says that we were dead. John 3:16 says that without God’s gift we perish. This doesn’t mean we cease to exist but fail to fulfill the purpose of human life. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, condemned to live forever rolling a stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down and start over again, endlessly. In his great prayer in John 17:3 Jesus defined eternal life as to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Eternal life is life in the presence of the Eternal God, and only secondarily about duration.
Thus, eternal life is about our relationship with God through Jesus, and by extension all others who share this eternal life. Traditionally, we think that people come to believe in Jesus first and then become part of the community of faith – the church. Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion), and a number of others, have observed in a society were fewer and fewer people know about Jesus, they may often come into the community of faith first, and that is where they meet Jesus and then come to believe in him. Thus, today, evangelism starts with building relationships with people.