The Rev’d Canon Jeremy Clark-King
The Rev’d Canon Jeremy Clark-King's sermon preached at Choral Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Lent.
At one of the churches I have served, they have a rood screen with a cross over the middle. That is a screen at the chancel step with a cross on the top. The word ‘rood’ is old English for ‘cross’.
On the beam, under the cross, a shaped plank of wood has painted on it ‘God so loved the world’, words from today’s Gospel. The interesting thing is that in an archival picture, originally it was painted – God loved so the world. ‘So’ in the middle under the cross.
It is important because the word we translate ‘so’ does not mean here ‘really’ or ‘a lot’ as in ‘God really loves the world’, but can also be translated ‘in this way’.
When Jesus met Nicodemus at night and had that wonderful conversation, Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the way in which Moses brought God’s healing to the people in the wilderness. Jesus turns Nicodemus’ attention to the Old Testament and reminds him of Numbers 21:8-9 where God displayed love for sinful, rebellious Israel by giving them a means of physical salvation from the venomous serpents that were sent in judgment for their wickedness.
But the bronze serpent was not some sort of remote healing device. Nor is the cross a magic talisman.
As Mark Davis, a presbyterian New Testament scholar comments,
“God responded to Moses’ prayer by demanding that he erect a pole with a bronze serpent, so that those who had been bitten by God’s punishment might look and live. Salvation in this story comes not as an omnibus cure for spiritual ills, but as a way of reckoning with the structural evil of rejecting God’s provision. The people were required to look directly at the result of their unwillingness to accept God’s provision.” (from Left Behind and Loving It website)
With Jesus and Nicodemus, we have a one to one meeting by night.
Now what is also happening is hidden in English as we now don’t have singular and plural words for ‘you’. In this passage Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus in the plural. So, we get the sense that Jesus is speaking not only to the person before him but also to the whole of the religious establishment of the day...perhaps even to our religious institutions today.
Mark Davis again: “If that is the context of John 3:16, the theology of personal salvation is surely misguided in two respects. First, it is wrong to isolate the individual’s personal fate from the context of community. No individual is named as the culprit in this story; it is about the community’s collective complaints, shared horror, and communal redemption. If the elevation of the bronze serpent interprets for us the elevation of Christ on the cross, salvation includes our own reckoning with how we either accept or reject Jesus as God’s provision. And the cross, of course, is not merely a device for elevating something so that all can gather around and see. It is an instrument for inflicting torture. That is the sin we must gather to see, to look square in the eyes, and with which we must reckon.” (ibid.)
God loves, in this way, the world. The crucified one is held up before us.
We are brought face to face with the consequences of our choices. And we are brought face to face with the cost and grace of salvation.
It is difficult to contemplate the cross for long.
God will not wipe away the tear from our eyes until we learn how to weep.
Just as Jesus made a connection with the sign of the Bronze Serpent, so he also made a connection between the Last Supper and the Cross and Resurrection. In the Cross and in the meal we celebrate here
See each other differently
See the whole of creation in a new light
See ourselves as beloved
God loves the world in this way.
Like bronze serpent, the climate crisis holds up before our eyes the consequences of our action. And not just as individuals, but collectively, over the last 200 years or so. Over that time, we have made choices that are now coming back to bite us. We have made choices that mean, for us to continue as we are we would need more than just this planet. to sustain our consumption. If everyone lived like me – we would need 3 1/2. Globally we will need 2 planets by 2050.
We have one – this one.
God beheld and loves the whole of creation. Christ gazes into that love. That relationship is constant and sustained.
We must not be distracted or self-pacified by just looking at our own life or our own interests.
In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes,
“I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”
So, in our life as Christ’s followers, as Christ’s hands, feet, hearts, minds and voices here now can enact God’s love. We make the space in our loves to allow the awareness of God’s love to well up within us, to rise up. We in our common life learn to be the place where the act of God can come alive.
A friend of mine, Trudy Lebens, a Canadian priest and theologian, writes “Nicodemus’ question about being born again is a question about the deep plunge into reality as it resonates in the life of the cosmos. And that plunge will require commitment and bravery. Jesus models courage in the face of the unknown, willing to defy the temptations of power for compassion in relationship, willing to defy the punitive forces of politics for the integrity and solidarity of community. For Christians, our reception of Spirit and water must be more than signs. It must be a way of life that seeks relationship, empathy, honesty, and openness to revelation, especially when we are anxious or fearful.”
Be not overwhelmed by the scale of what we need to. Do not turn away from it either. It is together that we stand a chance of finding the solution to all that besets the world.