On March 7th just before the snowstorm came in, Rev. Catie preached a short homily based on the week’s lectionary texts for an ecumenical Lenten vespers service hosted at the Congregational Church of Needham. Ecumenical Lenten and Holy Week activities are co-sponsored by First Parish, the Congregational Church of Needham, First Baptist Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Needham. Rev. Jim took a video of the homily, and the text is below.
Psalm 137: 1-6 (NRSV)
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.”
John 3:14-21 (NRSV)
“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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have 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 people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Just before our Gospel reading, Jesus is yet again bothered by a local Pharisee, Nicodemus. Jesus is desperately trying to explain to this literalistic man what it means to be born again of the spirit — to which Nicodemus asks how it’s possible for a grown person to climb back into the mother’s womb to be “born again.” He doesn’t quite get it, and Jesus, frustrated, tells him he is ignorant to what is happening on earth and what is happening in the realm of the Divine.
And then, there is a long dualistic passage about how some people choose the light and choose Jesus, and others choose evil and are already condemned. In most Bibles, including my own, this passage is attributed to Jesus himself, as a final harsh lashing of Nicodemus for his ignorance and unbelief.
“For God so loved the world that [God] gave [God’s] only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. Those who believe… are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed.”
As a Unitarian Universalist, I struggle with a text like this. It’s a scriptural non-starter. But, then, in one of my biblical commentaries, I was reminded that ancient Greek did not include punctuation marks — text simply ran together, and so translators must choose where sentences begin and end, which clauses pair with which others, and where to put quotation marks. On this specific scriptural passage, John chapter 3, one commentator — feminist Johannine scholar Dr. Adele Reinhartz — notes we don’t know when Jesus stopped speaking and when the narrator began. The Gospel of John is not without major theological commentary from the narrator — its beginning about the Word being with God and being God is a relevant example. For me as a Unitarian Universalist to engage productively with this text, I am going to consider our Gospel reading tonight as the narrator’s commentary.
And, what that means to me is that the author of the Gospel of John did truly believe that Jesus was brought into the world to be “given up,” and without Jesus’s sacrifice — without God’s sacrifice — we would all be condemned. In this theology, God’s love is expressed through sacrifice, sacrifice of a Beloved One for the benefit of all, so that “the world might be saved.” In the Johannine theology, we must choose or be chosen for such salvific grace.
In the universalist tradition of my faith, much hinges on a different interpretation of God’s and Jesus’s sacrifice, from Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 5 — Paul wrote, “just as one [person’s] trespass [speaking of Eve and Adam] led to condemnation for all, so one [person’s] act of righteousness [speaking of Jesus] leads to justification and life for all.” Humanity could never achieve divine perfection, ever since we first evolved, first were placed, on this beautiful Earth — but through the selfless, generous, painful sacrifice of Jesus, all are offered forgiveness and life.
And so, the author of John and St. Paul were at odds with each other about the expanse of salvific grace, but agree that without Jesus’s undeserved and agonizing death did “save” us. That does seem to be a through-line of the diverse New Testament stories and theologies. To me, such atonement means that Jesus’s arrest in the middle of the night, beatings at the hands of Roman soldiers, and torturous death on a cross should not be repeated in our world today, because Jesus died in that way to show us how wrong it was, to shock us into compassion, to call us to a better way of living together.
Because we know what happens when such violence and loss breaks into our lives. As it said in the Psalm,
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.”
We can imagine Jesus’s mother Mary and his other women followers weeping like this a short distance from the cross as he hung, dying. We know in the present day such grief and pain could be transformed into redemption, and just as easily can distort and corrupt our values. Later in that same Psalm, in a descriptive rather than prescriptive fashion, the author begs for God’s vengeance against those who enacted the genocide and forced migration of the Jewish people:
“O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!”
Jesus’s life and death were meant to free us, both from suffering itself and the cruel, even evil, reactions we can have when cruelty and evil are visited upon us.
Yet, time and time again I hear exhortations to model our lives after the end of Jesus’s life: that sacrifice and deprivation are a path to the Holy; that God must have a larger plan when a person is killed by violence, disease, or disaster; that pain and suffering are part of the light of the world. We are asked to forget our anger and grief, put it aside for some “higher purpose.” Have we not heard or perhaps even said something in line with this theology that raises up suffering as good as we “give up” for Lent, as we struggle to understand three deaths of young women in our own town, as we honor the activism of the surviving students in Parkland, Florida?
“It’s for a higher purpose.”
If Jesus went through all that he went through for us to be saved, why do we still excuse and even seek suffering as though that’s the part of his life he wanted us to model?
In an article titled as a question, “For God So Loved the World?”, scholars and Methodist ministers Rev. Drs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Ann Parker denounce this version of living by Jesus’s example by explaining its practical impact: “The imitator of Christ, which every faithful person is exhorted to be, can find herself choosing to endure suffering because she has become convinced that through her pain another whom she loves will escape pain. The disciple’s role is to suffer in the place of others, as Jesus suffered for us all. But this glorification of suffering as salvific, held before us daily in the image of Jesus hanging from the cross, encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves. Children who are abused are forced most keenly to face the conflict between the claims of a parent who professes love and the inner self which protests violation.”
Furthermore, I know we can’t really rid ourselves of grief and anger for “God’s plan,” as though God would plan to have us suffer. When we begin to believe that we have to follow the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus with our own suffering and sacrifice, the grief and anger comes out in other ways — like the Israelites in Babylon, wishing for the death of children, or the Johannine early Christian community, condemning the Pharisees for eternal suffering for the hardships they brought on the Christians. Obviously, God does not want for us to suffer or for our values to be distorted by our suffering.
Rev. Drs. Parker and Brown offer a different way of understanding Jesus’s death. They write:
“Jesus’s death was an unjust act, done by humans who chose to reject his way of life and sought to silence him through death. The travesty of the suffering and death of Jesus is not redeemed by the resurrection… Suffering is never redemptive, and suffering cannot be redeemed.
“The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence. God’s grief is as ultimate as God’s love. Every tragedy eternally remains and is eternally mourned. Eternally the murdered scream, Betrayal. Eternally God sings kaddish for the world.
“To be a Christian means keeping: faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death.”
I know last week, Rev. Kate [Carlisle of the Presbyterian Church in Needham] reminded us that we are just fine if we can’t keep our Lenten, sacrificial promises. I’m not here to say that spiritual practices like fasting or refraining from certain or all speech are bad for us. But I wonder what it would look like if all followers of Jesus around the world held at the center of their practice “God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation” instead of Jesus’s suffering and death. I wonder what our Lenten practice would look like if, after weeping, we demanded change instead of retribution. I wonder what not accepting a single sacrifice — not one more gun death, not one more child laborer, not one more deportation, not one more gas leak or oil spill — I wonder how we would be different if we didn’t accept one evil thing more, but instead lived into the theology that Jesus already saved us all and now it’s up to us to make earth like heaven.
I pray such a time may come to pass. Blessed be, and amen.