GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
The Fourth Sunday of Lent marks the halfway point through the six weeks of the Lenten season and on this Sunday we turn to one of the most enigmatic and mysterious of Jesus' sayings in all the Gospels. It's his famous saying about the bronze serpent in the Gospel of John 3. And this is another one of those occasions where, as I mentioned before, during the Lenten and Easter seasons the Church will depart from the Gospel of Mark and give us a passage from the Gospel of John instead. So let's look at this passage together and we’ll see that it’s a kind of curious combination of Jesus's most famous statement: John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”; and one of Jesus's most cryptic statements about the Son of Man being lifted up as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. So let’s look through that together and we’ll try to unpack it's meaning. In John 3:14-21 Jesus says this:
And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
Alright, as is usually the case with John there is a lot going on here. This is a dense passage, there really is lots of rich meaning in it. For our purposes here I'd like to focus most of our energies, first and foremost, just on the image that sticks in most people's mind, which is the strange analogy that Jesus draws between the lifting up of the serpent by Moses in the Old Testament and the lifting up of the Son of Man in the New Testament. In order to understand what Jesus is talking about you have to go back to the Old Testament, to the book of Numbers 21, where the story of Moses and the bronze serpent is given. So even though this isn’t an Old Testament reading for this Sunday, I’m still going to take you back there and we want to look at it carefully so we can understand what Jesus is saying in its context. So if you go back to Numbers 21:4-9...
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So Paul begins with God, which is where any discussion of salvation should begin. It should always begin with God. So he says:
God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…
Okay, so pause there. Notice here that the animating reasons — the catalysts, so to speak — for salvation are divine love and divine mercy. That’s why God saves humanity...out of His love for humanity and out of His mercy towards us as sinners.
Now with that said, the next thing Paul does is...notice how he describes sin. He says:
...we were dead through our trepasses…
Sometimes we tend to think of sin as just breaking a rule. Or there’s a commandment — I violated it. Here’s a rule — I broke it. It’s kind of an extrinsic thing to us. But Paul describes sin as spiritual death. We were dead through our trespasses, and then when we became members of Christ, He:
...made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)...
For Paul, being saved is a spiritual resurrection from the spiritual death that was sin that we were all under. Now if I had more time to look at this in depth, you could actually go back to Ephesians 2:1 and following. And you’ll see that the context of the spiritual death that Paul is describing here is not just the individual transgressions that any of us might commit at any given point in our lives, but rather what will later go on to be called the power of Original Sin — in other words, that all human beings are born into this world as children of Adam under the power of sin and death.
In fact, let me just read that verse just so you can see the context here. If you back up to chapter 2, verses 1-4, he says this. This isn’t in the lectionary, but it’s right before this:
And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
And then he picks up:
But God, who is rich in mercy…
So he goes into the verses for today. So notice there what Paul is describing there is not his own personal peccadillos and faults or even just the individual transgressions he might have committed as a Jew trying to keep the Torah...trying to keep the law. No, he’s talking about the sins of all mankind who are by nature — who are born into this world — children of wrath who are under the power of the prince of the air. That’s a semitic way of referring to the power of the devil. So this is really, really important.
The context of the sin that Paul is describing us being saved from, in Ephesians 2, isn’t just our personal sins that we commit, but the state of spiritual death into which all of mankind (all human beings) are born under the power of the devil. And that state of spiritual death into which all human beings are born, the Church will later — under the influence of Augustine — call Original Sin.
Why do I bring that up? Well, because if you don’t understand the sin from which we’re being delivered, you’re going to misunderstand the way we’re saved. So the first thing Paul is doing here is emphasizing that our deliverance from the power of satan and the state of spiritual death that we would later call Original Sin is something that is a pure gift. It’s through grace. You were saved by grace. You were raised from the spiritual death of Original Sin and made one with Christ through grace. It’s not something you earn. It’s not something you did of your own power. It’s gift. It’s a pure gift. It’s charis
in Greek. It’s a gift of grace.
Now, also, in context — although Paul doesn’t use the language here — he elsewhere will link this death and resurrection language to Baptism. In Romans 6, he says:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Romans 6:3)
So just as we died with him, so too we shall be made alive with him...so use of the image of death and resurrection. So how is it that a person is delivered from the spiritual death of Original Sin? It’s through Baptism. It’s through the grace of Baptism.
Although it’s interesting here...Paul doesn’t see the grace of salvation just as being raised with Christ. He actually sees Baptism as a kind of spiritual ascension into Heaven. Because he says there, He:
...raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… (Ephesians 2:6)
Notice he doesn’t say, “One day you will
sit with Christ in the heavenly places.” He said He already
made us sit with Him in Christ Jesus in the heavenly place. That’s kind of a weird thing to think. Most of us do not associate our Baptism with the grace of being made to sit in the heavenly places. But what he means there is this...although we are obviously still here in this world in our body, as he’ll say elsewhere in Philippians:
But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… (Philippians 3:20)
That’s where we belong. That’s where….our citizenship is like a green card or ID card that tells us where our home is. It’s where we belong to.
Okay, so beautiful, powerful passage that Paul is describing the grace — the initial grace — of deliverance from Original Sin of being forgiven and being united to Christ as a resurrection and ascension from the dead, through the gift of grace.
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