A Sermon Preached on The Fourth Sunday of Lent
(following the Julian Calendar used to calculate Easter in Greece)
April 11, 2021, at 11:00 am
for an Online Service with The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete.
The readings were: Numbers 21:4-9 (the serpent of bronze); Psalm 107.1-3, 17-32 (“Those who go down to the sea in ships”); Ephesians 2:1-10 (God made us alive together with Christ); and John 3:14-21 (the Son of Man must be lifted up).
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
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. John 3.16
Let us parse this well known verse.
The words are familiar, but we may not be reading them the way the author intended.
The Son here is Jesus of Nazareth. We already know from the first verses of the first chapter of John’s gospel that the Word is divine, and is God, and the Son here is the Word made flesh.
God here means God the Father. So we see the first person of the Holy Trinity giving the second person of that same Holy Trinity to the world.
Giving in John means the incarnation, the Word being made flesh, so that we can see the glory of God. When Jesus speaks, when he heals, when he turns water into wine, and when he drives out demons, we are seeing the glory of God in the human being called Jesus. When Jesus is lifted up in his crucifixion, it as similar to the bronze serpent that was also lifted up, and was held to have healing powers.
Love in the gospel of John means that selfless offering of oneself. It is not an annihilation of one’s self. It is a sharing that transforms a person, that adds to one’s life, that completes you.
“Only,” in the term “only Son,” refers to the unique relationship Jesus has with the Father. We are told that we can only know the Father through the Son. Jesus, then, is a special revelation, apart from the revelation given to us in scriptures or in nature.
The world in John’s gospel is not all of creation, but the human world, which can respond to the Son who is given.
Belief is mainly a response to seeing the glory of God. It is not so much giving acknowledgement to a proposition as it is to respond with trust and worship. It is fundamentally relational, and should be understood as full of praise and thanksgiving. It is rooted in the Incarnation, in the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, as well as what Jesus taught and what he did, and how we read the Hebrew scriptures in relation to him and how we see the history of the church and humanity since then.
Perish could also be translated as “lost.” It refers to what happens when one sees the light of God in Christ, but rejects it. One is lost to God, to the true nature of creation, and one’s place in it.
Eternal life in John does not refer to heaven, but to the life of the divine, in which we can share. Obviously, God does not live the way we do, as biological creatures, so this is an analogous meaning. But the Biblical witness is that God is the life-giver, the one who breathes life into the primordial human being named Adam. Jesus says elsewhere that he came to give life, and that those who have it might have it in abundance (John 10.10). Faith in Jesus, responding to his glory, and trusting in him gives us access to this eternal life, this life of God. It is not something that is “pie in the sky” but something we can access right here and now. The fullness will come later, but we can begin now.
This is reinforced by the passage in Ephesians which states:
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
We are alive now. We have already been lifted up into the heavenly places with Christ. In the times to come we will see what the riches of that heavenly, eternal life are. And all of this is the free gift of God, given to us in Christ Jesus, not on the basis of anything we do, but out of absurdly generous, forgiving, desperate and spendthrift love.
How Big is God’s Love?
Consider the revelation of God in creation.
- Up until the 1920s it was thought that there was only one galaxy, our own, the Milky Way, which is in itself an amazing sight. But we now know that there are 200 billion galaxies. TWO HUNDRED BILLION. Each one of those galaxies contains billions of galaxies. The small ones, dwarf galaxies, have only a few billion. Some massive elliptical galaxies have over one hundred trillion stars. The number of stars in the Universe is beyond human imagination. That’s how much God loves you.
- The earth we walk on, the bodies we have, every living creature around us, and the planets and even the Sun – all were forged out of the material of stars that exploded billions of years ago and then, under the force of gravity, came together again to make our solar system and this planet earth. Except for hydrogen and helium, all the elements were created in the hearts of the sun using fusion, at 16 million degrees. That’s how much God loves you.
- It is thought that on earth there are some estimated to be between 8 and 8.7 million species. This includes everything from the bacteria that turns goat’s milk into yogurt to the bugs living in your intestine and helping you to break down your breakfast. They are the fish at the bottom of the ocean withstanding massive pressures, and birds that fly eleven km in the air. They make cute pets and ferocious apex predators. Of these 8 million or so species, only about 14% of these had been described by biologists. This incredible diversity – that’s how much God loves you.
- The human brain is the most complex thing on earth. There are 86 billion nerve cells in the average human brain, giving us the capacity to speak, to work, to dream. While we have made great strides in understanding the brain, we really have no idea how this conglomeration of nerve cells allows things like consciousness or language to emerge. And yet, this 1.3 kg lump of flesh has given rise to the drama of a Shakespeare, the compassion of a Florence Nightingale, the brilliance of an Albert Einstein, the mysteries of Agatha Christie, the depravity of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and the ordinary love of a parent for a child, or exhilaration two people who have just discovered each other. That’s how much God loves us.
As Christians, as a people journeying to Holy Week and the narratives of the Passion of Christ, we believe that God loves us so much that in Christ Jesus he was reconciling the world to himself. We believe that in Jesus we see the Father, and that in his death and resurrection we have already died to sin and death and are raised to eternal life. That’s how much God loves us. May we respond with faith and praise.