4 Lent B – March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Homily preached by the Rev. Canon Linda S. Taylor
Well, the strangest things happen in sushi bars. Have you ever noticed that? Of course you have, if you’ve been there. It’s not just about going there to eat cold dead raw fish. It’s about listening to what’s happening, because some of the strangest things happen there. Some years back, when I was a seminarian, I went to one of my favorite sushi places for lunch, and I’m sitting there, having a good time, enjoying my fish, and these two guys came in and sit down next to me. They’re settling in—they’re greeting each other, and one says to the other, “Well, how ya been doing?” and the other one responded, “Ohm I’m just trying to stay saved.”
What? What? What did he say? “I’m just trying to stay saved.” How does that work? How does that work—trying to stay saved? It’s been a lot of years ago, and I’ve never forgotten that. And I did try to turn off the eavesdropping mechanism, you know, but it did not happen. I discovered later on in the conversation that these two guys were pastors, and they met occasionally, you know, because they were friends, and they talked about their churches and they did stuff. So I’m sitting there as a seminarian, I’m just soaking this stuff up. This is a different life than I’m used to. I could not get rid of that question: what is this all about—trying to stay saved?
This week I got to thinking: Nicodemus would know exactly what they’re talking about. Today’s gospel is another one of those follow-up gospels. The reading just before it is all about Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus. He comes in the night, this man who has been following Jesus, this Pharisee, this man who is a leader of the temple. One of the people who speaks with authority about faith and tradition has been following Jesus—probably way over there—but listening to him and trying to figure out how it could possibly be true what Jesus is saying about being sent for all the people. Because Nicodemus knows the Law. He is an authority on the Law. He knows that the only way to salvation is through obedience to the Law and that whenever everybody is fully obedient, the Messiah will come and things will really get good. He knows that you have to be among the chosen to be saved by the Messiah, and the way you get to be among the chosen is to be born to a Jewish mother. So how can Jesus be coming and saying God’s love is here for everyone? How can this happen? So he comes to him, and this is the only place—in John’s gospel, anyway—that Jesus has a conversation with a Pharisee. He has lots of disputes with them, when they come and confront him with issues, but this man comes seeking knowledge. This is not another trick question encounter. He comes wanting to know what Jesus is talking about and how he can be saying the things he’s saying.
So Jesus begins to explain, and they go back and forth. And then we get to today, and Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he hasn’t quite gotten it right yet. Jesus says, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Everyone.
The rest of this gospel portion goes on to talk about the condemnation that falls to everyone else, and because we are people—we are humans who know we have the right way—similarly to Nicodemus—over the ages the rest of this gospel portion has been used not to draw people together but to separate people. To say this is the truth: this narrow band. If you’re over here, forget about salvation. It’s only if you’re standing in the truth that I have defined that you are saved. Jesus said: God so loved the world that he gave his only son—that we might be saved.
The writer to the Ephesian understood, I believe, what Jesus was saying, because he tells the people of Ephesus in the letter we heard read, that our salvation comes because of God’s grace, through Christ, and that there’s nothing we can do to earn it. We can’t buy it with our good deeds. All we can do is respond to it—receive it—and live out of that knowledge of God’s love and of God’s salvation. We can’t hang on to it, but we can keep being saved, I guess, or stay saved, by living into that knowledge. (Baby in congregation squeals gleefully.) I love that sound! We can live into that knowledge, just like he’s living into the knowledge of being loved. This is a happy kid. He knows he’s safe right now. He has everything he needs. And so do we. We have everything we need, and Jesus came to tell us that over and over and over and over again.
One Sunday last August I went to Allen Temple in Oakland. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. It’s a predominately African-American church. It’s huge; they have like six services a day. A close friend of mine is ordained in both the American and National Baptist churches. She was ordained at Allen Temple, and she was preaching. So she said to me, “Do you want to go with me,” and I said, “Yeah!” She said, “Okay, put on all the stuff, because you’re going to be the friend of the preacher.” So I put on all my stuff—got my biggest cross, you know—looking like I was the friend of the preacher. And I went there, and the service I think was probably about two hours long, and it was marvelous. We sang, they sang, they sang, they sang—it was the music I heard all my childhood, and I was just transported. I kept watching them as they sang. I watched as they responded to my friend Stina’s preaching. I listened, and I just soaked in the knowledge that these people in that church on that day were feeling assured of their salvation. They know that God loves them. They know that God sent God’s son to tell them they’re loved. They also know—and expect—that they’re going leave church a little different than when they arrived—that transformation continues to happen, and that in their worship they are transformed—that they get a little bit closer to God and a little bit closer to each other.
And I wonder if that happens for us. I wonder if we hear these words that we’re saying. I wonder if we hear the words we’re singing. I wonder if we taste the bread we’re eating and the wine we’re drinking. And I wonder if we’re knowing that this is salvation moving in and through us so that we can take it out into the world. We leave transformed—changed—so that we can help transform the world.
God so loved the world—God so loves the world that he gave his only begotten son. God so loves the world that he gives the Christ to be with us—to be present to us—to show us over and over and over again how deeply we’re loved. God so loves the world that he sends God’s Holy Spirit to walk with us in all the days. God so loves the world.
Thanks be to God.