Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings

Today’s Gospel reading starts halfway through a conversation Jesus has been having with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to visit him at night. Nicodemus has been struggling with what Jesus has been saying about the need to be born again from above in order to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus knows that Jesus has come from God, and so he perseveres.

Whatever difficulty Nicodemus might have had with understanding Jesus, there was at least one thing that Jesus said that left an impression on him. Later, when a group of chief priests and Pharisees are trying to have Jesus arrested and have just cursed a crowd of people for believing in him, Nicodemus reminds them that their Law requires that they give everyone a hearing before judging them. Perhaps Nicodemus hoped that Jesus would have the same effect on them as he had on Nicodemus, if only they would listen to him.

Nicodemus had heard Jesus say that God did not send his Son to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The world was in a mess then, and it’s in a mess today. Jesus did not come to find out who to blame. He came on a rescue mission, to lead us all out of the mess we’ve made together.

If only we were more willing to be led. Jesus did not come to judge and condemn us, but he did deliver a judgement on the remedy for our condition. Jesus brought the light of God into our world, but we must allow that light to shine on us if we are to learn to see by it. It wasn’t enough for the Israelites in our Old Testament story to have the bronze snake in their midst. When they were bitten, they needed to actually look at the bronze snake if they were to live.

There are many ways of dying before our physical death. When we live by the principles of this fallen world, the author of the letter to the Ephesians tells us, when we live only by our natural inclinations, we stifle our souls and eventually they die. If we live long enough in the darkness, obeying the demands of human self-indulgence and our own whims, we learn to hate the light for what it will expose, even to our own gaze, about who we become.

Jesus did not come to judge us, but sometimes we condemn one another and even ourselves. Nevertheless, God is rich in faithful love, we are assured in the letter to the Ephesians, and God loves us with great love, even when we are dead in our sins. In his goodness towards us, God desires to bring us to life again and again with Jesus, for God is extraordinarily rich in grace.

In his Pastoral Prayer, Aelred, Abbot of the medieval Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx, says: Lord, look at my soul’s wounds. You see [the sins in my soul], Lord, and I would have you see them. Woe to the souls that want to hide themselves from you. They cannot make themselves not to be seen by you, but only miss your healing …

Trusting in God’s mighty mercy and in God’s merciful might, Aelred hopes in the lovingkindness of his Lord. He brings his soul to God, for healing by a good physician, or for correction by a kind master, or for forgiveness by a forbearing father.

The letter to the Ephesians continues to assure those who have received the gift of salvation from God by faith that they have become God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up their way of life, a way of life that now leads them beyond living for themselves alone. Such people, Jesus told Nicodemus, bring the truth of their lives out into the light, so that what they are doing may plainly appear as done in God.

And so, little by little, salvation comes into our world, through welcoming and hospitable individuals and communities that seek to lead a life worthy of the vocations to which they were called, in the words of the letter to the Ephesians. We each have our own vocations, individually and collectively, which together form the great diversity of ways in which God’s love is brought into the world.

And so, with humility and gentleness, may we patiently support one another in love, taking care to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds us together.

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