Texts: Numbers 21:4b-9 ; Psalm 98:1-4 ; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ; John 3:13-17
In the name of Jesus, who has come from God to teach and to save. Amen.
It’s Homecoming Sunday – welcome home! Depending on who you ask it’s now fall. I know, it’s not official until the autumn equinox after next weekend. I’m in no hurry to call an end to summer, but fall-ish things are happening. Students and teachers have returned to school. Vacations are behind us. Nights are cooling down and there have been dead leaves on the ground for the last few mornings. And we are here celebrating the home that St. Luke’s has been for many of you, and for many in our neighborhood for over one-hundred years.
One of my favorite new things this fall, in terms of things going on around the church, is that I’m teaching a confirmation class. Actually, calling it a class might be stretching the term. I’m giving private confirmation tutoring to Lynda Deacon, who has the dubious honor of being the only student in the class. I’m really enjoying it – Lynda probably less so, since I give homework. One of the things we’re doing is reading the gospel of John together and, in fact, this week we’re working on chapter 3, so this morning’s gospel reading is a preview of this Wednesday’s class.
It’s really fun to study scripture with a high school student! Lynda’s taking world literature this semester at Taft High School, so I can ask her questions like, “what genre of literature does this passage sound like” and she can answer, “that’s an epic poem” or “that’s a first person narrative.” She’s really good at close reading and text analysis. In the first two chapters of John alone we’ve identified language that’s poetic, traces of a creation story, and miracle stories that establish the gospel writer’s perspective on the life of Jesus and the church that grew up around his ministry.
This morning’s gospel passage calls for the kind of close reading we’ve been practicing in confirmation class. It includes one of the most famous verses of scripture in the whole New Testament. You see it painted on posters at football games and street fairs. John 3:16,
“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.”
It’s so familiar you may even be able to quote other translations by heart. I know I immediately hear in my head, “whosoever believeth in him…” and I didn’t even have a King James Bible in my home growing up.
Good students know that to fully grasp the meaning of a text, you have to look at its context. You have to ask questions of it. What’s going on in the paragraphs before and after? Who is speaking and who’s being spoken to in the story? Who is the intended audience for the text?
In this case the passage comes in the middle of an exchange between Jesus and a Jewish rabbi named Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come in the middle of the night to try and understand who Jesus is and what he is trying to accomplish. They are engaged in a back and forth debate, and over and over again Jesus intentionally uses words that have more than one meaning to explain the significance of his ministry. Nicodemus misses Jesus’ point, latching onto the most literal meaning of the text, and leaves confused.
Here’s an example. Look back at verse 14 in your bulletin. It reads,
“And 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.”
This verb, “lifted up,” is the Greek word hypsoo. It’s a clever word that means two things at once. It’s both the physical act of lifting something up, like the staff that Moses raised in the wilderness or the cross that Jesus is hinting at; but it also means “to exalt.” Not unlike the psalm text we sang today with its refrain, “I will lift up my voice and sing!”
Here Jesus gives us a clue to the meaning of our celebration today. I’m talking now about our celebration of Holy Cross Day. I’m sure you’ve gathered from the hymns we’ve sung and the texts we’ve read… we’re talking a lot about the cross. Jesus references the story of Moses and the serpents we heard read from Numbers. Paul tells the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified…for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The cross is a stumbling block for many of us. We may love it the way we love the tune to an old familiar hymn, or the way we love a family picture on our bookshelves. We love the associations we have with it, the associations we have built around it. We can wear it around our necks or on our lapels comfortably with pride, but what does this mean?
The cross doesn’t exist in history just as the place God showed the world how much God loves us. The cross was the place anyone, anyone who defied the government – anyone who committed a crime, the place anyone might be sent to die. It was a symbol of corrupt power and tremendous suffering. It was the hangman’s gallows. The electric chair. Nothing you would lift up in song or exalt.
It was a stumbling block for the apostle Peter, who we heard two weeks ago saying to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” It has been foolishness to the world ever since.
In the first few centuries after Jesus death people laughed at a religion organized around a savior who lost the battle with empire and ended up on a cross. They called the resurrection a fairy tale told by fanatics who couldn’t accept their own failure.
In later years, as the church began to hold the kind of power in the world that Rome once held over Jesus and the Jews who were his family and friends, the church lifted up the cross as a sign of victory over people and places. The cross lost its sense of foolish wonder when it was painted on shields and carried into wars.
We are challenged in thinking about the cross to let it be both things at once: a sign of God’s presence in the middle of violence, torture and suffering – and, God’s triumph over these things. The real stumbling block is this: that God’s triumph does not escape pain and suffering, in fact – it is only by joining us in the middle of suffering that God breaks its power.
We can understand this on a personal level. You may know what it feels like to have a migraine, or a tooth ache, or an illness that persists. You may know what it feels like to be depressed. Pain and suffering like this focuses our attention on ourselves, on our immediate experience of life. It isolates us, and makes it hard to notice that there are people around us who needs us or who want to care for us.
The world suffers like this as well. We are caught in the net of our hurts and our sufferings. We act as though we are alone in these things. We forget that others need us, that others want to care for us. We do this in our homes, our neighborhoods and in our nation. We become so absorbed in our suffering that we disconnect from the needs and the experiences of the world around us.
It is into that kind of suffering that God joins us. God does not avoid it or escape it, God shares it with us and by doing so God breaks the power of hurting hearts and broken communities and national tragedies to separate us from one another.
For this reason, because the cross represents God’s immanent presence in the middle of suffering, it is a powerful sign of healing. Not just as a symbol to ward off death or disease, but as a sign of how far – what distances – God will cross, and would have us cross, to reconcile people and nations for the sake of abundant life here and now.
As we celebrate Homecoming Sunday, we are challenged to think about the ways that God turns our ideas of home inside out, just as God turned the symbol of the cross inside out. For Christians the churc
h isn’t a home we can keep to ourselves, but one that must always have its doors open to the world. The church, like the cross, is a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
This is why we engage in acts of mission, why we feed our neighbors or open our doors to people recovering from addictions. This is why we make safe places for children to learn and play and make music, why we invite others to come and make us a home for their work. Because life in Christ, which is the life of the baptized, the believer, is a life of sharing in the needs of the world – joining in the world’s pain and struggles. We do this together in the place that God has made our home, at the foot of the cross where God’s mercy meets the world’s need.