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March 22, 2009 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depth its flow may richer, fuller be.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.
Albert Lister Peace
Show me what you find in the Bible and I will show you what manner of person you are. So stated Oskar Pfister, Swiss pastor and contemporary and disciple of Sigmund Freud, several decades ago. Noted scholar and historian of world religions Karen Armstrong recently authored a book titled The Bible: A Biography. Perhaps one could be written titled The Bible As Ink-Blot, after the order of the Rorschach projective test.
No matter how intentional or disciplined we may be in bringing critical scholarly skills to bear upon our efforts to interpret scripture, in the hope of doing so with considerable objectivity, we inevitably bring, to a greater or lesser degree, the filter of our own life experiences along with our particular biases and prejudices to these efforts. One of the hazards of preaching, therefore, is that as much or more may be revealed about the preacher than about the God the preacher seeks to proclaim.
Which brings us to the story and commentary found in the opening paragraphs of the third chapter of the gospel of Christ according to John and, in particular, to the words of one of the most, if not the most, known verse in the New Testament: “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.”
The story begins with a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee, ruler or leader of the Jewish community, and a teacher (apparently multitasking is not a new phenomenon). We cannot be certain what prompted Nicodemus to seek out Jesus. Likely he had heard of, or had actually witnessed, some of the signs and wonders, the miracles of healing, that had created such a buzz in the region. Perhaps he had heard, or heard about, some of the unusual, even radical, things Jesus had been saying about God, God’s kingdom or reign, and about how people were to relate to God. Impressed by what he had seen and heard, Nicodemus understandably would want to meet such a person and get to know him, find out what made him tick. and, who knows, maybe throw his lot in with him.
On the other hand, maybe not, given that Jesus had recently created quite a stir when he went on a house-cleaning rampage of outrage in the temple over the plight of the poor and the vulnerable who were being bamboozled and exploited in the name of religion. Another side of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” was suddenly on display, as he upended the value system of a corrupt collusion of political and religious forces that had the common people by the throat. After all, we can’t have a meddlesome troublemaker like that threatening the apple cart of the status quo, now can we? So Nicodemus might have been on a fishing expedition to get more of the goods on Jesus, perhaps by Jesus’ own words, so as to justify his being brought up on charges and disposed of.
In any event, what seems to have happened eventually is that Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. But not just yet. In his conversation with Jesus, he seems confused as Jesus speaks to him, in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense, about the necessity of being “born again” or “born from above” if one were to experience a viable relationship to God. Locked into a rigid literalistic mind-set, Nicodemus did not know what to make of the metaphor Jesus was employing to point out the radical nature of the change required for one to emerge from the darkness of the evil a person is in bondage to and live a new life in the light of God’s truth and justice.
Tragically, in some instances, the designation “born again” has been co-opted by those who use it to parade their piety, lord it over those who don’t see eye-to-eye with them, stay locked in their cells of certitude and in their friendly confines of literalism and legalism, with the result that the meaning of this revolutionary notion of being “born again” is diluted, defanged of its power, and subsequently reduced to little more than a bumper sticker. Honk if you love Jesus.
Thankfully, there are others for whom the term “born again” does mean a radical change of both direction and behavior in life that results in the transformation of addicts into adherents not only to sobriety but to service, the self-absorbed into the self-giving, the racists into reconcilers, the greedy into the generous, and the indifferent into instruments of justice and peace in the world—all in the spirit of the one who stated that the kingdom of God can be experienced by those who no longer pride themselves in knowing it all and who are now open to what they realize they need: namely, the forgiving grace of God.
The crux of what Jesus meant by being born again or born from above is found in verses 14–17. I use the word crux deliberately, for the reference here is clearly to the cross and the crucifixion that Jesus would eventually suffer on it.
Reaching back into history, the scripture references the plight of the Jewish people wandering in the wilderness after having been liberated from their bondage in Egypt. According to the narrative in the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, God got fed up with their whining and complaining, and a plague of poisonous snakes infested their environment, bringing death to many. Their leader, Moses, intervened with God on their behalf. Upon instruction from God, Moses had a bronze replica of a poisonous snake fashioned, which he lifted up for all to see, so that anyone bitten by a snake, by looking upon the replica, would nevertheless live.
Using this vivid metaphor, the Gospel writer states that just as that bronzed serpent lifted up in the wilderness was a sign of God’s compassionate love, so Christ lifted up on a cross was and is a similar sign, for Christ on the cross is God’s love incarnate for all the world to see how far God is willing to go to redeem and heal its brokenness and our own.
A number of years ago, a well-known comedian, Eddie Cantor, told of an experience he had when he was doing a benefit to aid sick children. In the midst of one of his routines, he noticed a little girl in a corner at the rear of the hall. She was seated on a step, elbows on her knees and her face and head in her hands. He went to her, knelt down in front of her, looked into her tear-filled eyes, and said, “You look so sad, darling. Is there anything I can do for you?” Eddie Cantor said that the little girl looked at him and uttered two of the saddest words he had ever heard. She said, simply, “Love me.”
It seems to me that those words represent the cry of the human heart. No matter how perverse, how evil, how confused, how rebellious, or how lost the human heart may be at times, down underneath all of the emotional and spiritual disarray lies the longing for love that assures that we matter and that, in spite of everything—including our very fear of love itself—we are deemed worthwhile even in our unworthiness. Christ lifted up on the cross is God’s answer to that cry of the human heart.
Years ago, the songwriter Cole Porter, in one of his compositions, asked the question, “What is this thing called love, this funny thing called love?” The love of God, embodied in Jesus on the cross, is a love that is curious about our welfare. It asks, “How are you? How are you doing?”—and means it. Lately, when anyone asks that of me, as many do in their kindness and care for me, I sometimes answer, “I’m doing well, thank you. I’m just doing it a bit more slowly these days.”
In the second chapter of Genesis, God inquires after Adam and Eve, who were being banished from Eden as a result of their disobedience. “Where are you?” God asks, not in order to clobber them for messing up, but in order to clothe them, because it would, as it were, be cold outside the garden in the real world of trial and tribulation. God’s curiosity was God’s loving care for and commitment to their ultimate welfare, “care” being the root meaning of the word curious. Christ on the cross is God’s care for our ultimate welfare, which is the heart of God’s love.
The love of God, embodied in Jesus on the cross, is for the whole world in all of its rich diversity. It allows for differences and is not confined to a select elite who happen to make the cut. Unlike our own love at times, it is neither parochial nor conditional. It includes everyone, and everyone includes those whom we may want to push to the rear of the bus and to the margins of society because they are not like us. God’s love includes the oddballs we may cross the street to avoid. Truth to tell, it is Jesus and God who are the oddballs from our perspective sometimes, what with their strange notions and outrageous behavior, insisting that love, God style, includes the unlikely and the unlovely.
God’s love on the cross is the love that seeks us, comes to us, and pursues us like Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, no matter how we might fear getting caught up in it—for once caught by God’s love, things may not always change, but we will. One of my favorite stories comes from the early life of Alexander MacLaren, Scottish Baptist preacher during the turn of the last century, whose distinguished career in the pulpit of Union Chapel in Manchester, England, spanned forty-five years. When MacLaren was a young lad, he got his first job in the city of Glasgow, a good distance from where he lived. On the first day, his father walked the distance with him over the rough moor that lay between the two places. His father instructed him to return home at the end of his work week. All through that week young Alec fretted and worried about that walk home and the prospect of traversing in the dark the forbidding terrain of the moors. Filled with foreboding, he started out, whistling in the dark to keep up his courage. The farther he went, the more frightened he became. Suddenly, he later reported, he saw up ahead of him the figure of someone coming toward him out of the foggy mist that had settled over the moor, and he was terrified. “Then,” said MacLaren, “I realized it was the figure of the grandest man on earth. He knew I must have been frightened, but all he said to me was ‘Alec, I wanted to be with you so badly that I came to meet you.’ Then shoulder to shoulder, my father and I walked over the moor toward home, and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.” The love of God, embodied in a cradle in Bethlehem and on a cross at Calvary, is the love that seeks us and comes to us long before we ever think about seeking and coming to it.
Then there’s this: the love of God embodied in Jesus on the cross is the love that forgives when it would have every right to condemn and get even. It’s not that there should not be consequences; it’s not that there should not be justice. But the urge to punish is a powerful and pervasive part of the DNA of our humanity, and the cry of justice is all too often a cover for the thirst for revenge. Embedded in God’s love, in a way that it would not be God’s love without it, is God’s forgiving grace. What sometimes troubles us more than feelings of guilt and a sense of shame is the terror of being unforgiven. When I become my own prosecuting attorney, my own judge, jury, and executioner after realizing I have hurt someone, failed in some way, or violated someone else’s integrity or my own, it is easy for me to sentence myself to life in the prison of my own self-loathing. But God so loved the world—and that includes you and me—that God gave a second opinion. Jesus on the cross is God’s second opinion that trumps our first opinion of ourselves when we mess up in life. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God is not out to get us. God is out to love us, accept us, and offer to us forgiving grace. As one woman said to me, after having gone through the dark night of the soul, laden down with the burden of her guilt and shame:
When you know you are forgiven,
you aren’t alone anymore. And
when you aren’t alone anymore,
you don’t have to be afraid.
And when you don’t have to be afraid,
you don’t have to hate. And when
that happens, it’s like being born again.
One of the dearest and most delightful memories I carry with me is of an afternoon a little over twenty years ago when my then-four year-old granddaughter and I spent time together. We read children’s books, played games, giggled and laughed, talked, and sang silly songs. After about an hour, she suddenly jumped up and planted herself in front of me and with a face-splitting smile said, “Papaw, I love you!” And then, throwing her arms wide apart, she shouted with great enthusiasm, “This much!”
Christ on the cross was God saying to the world, to all people, to you, and to me, “I love you. This much!”