Scripture Readings: Second Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
This Sunday’s Gospel passage is part of the dialogue of Jesus with Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee and religious leader, who had come to Jesus expressing a sincere, though partial and imperfect, belief. Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2).
While we might think of Pharisees as opponents of Jesus, Nicodemus is an example of a Pharisee who is open to hearing Jesus and actively seeks out Jesus in a desire to know who he is and what he is teaching.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he should experience a new birth in order to come to a life of deeper and richer faith. This is an invitation to enter fully into the Kingdom of God, realized perfectly in Jesus Christ. What was true for Nicodemus is also true for us, with the goal of having life and having it in abundance, by following the Lord who is our Shepherd.
Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus the content of the true life of faith and its consequences for those who wish to embrace the message. The teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus as recorded in Saint John’s Gospel can be divided into three main sections or themes.
First: Faith in the crucified Christ results in eternal life.
The remote origin of this first theme can be found in the fourth poem of the Suffering Servant of God, from the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 52, verse 13. There we read: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.”
The “raising up” theme was part of the preaching of the early Church, as can be seen, for example, in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, verses 32-33; also in Acts, chapter 5, verse 31.
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God…he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). And: “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
The lifting up of Jesus has been understood as not only his being lifted up on the cross at the crucifixion, but also at the resurrection of Jesus and his going up on high at the Ascension and exaltation in glory forever.
Even at his crucifixion, Jesus exercised a rule over all, because from the cross Christ revealed fully God as salvific love, and continuously invites all to receive the gift of salvation. The Gospel passage forming the basis for this belief are these words of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). On the cross Christ became ruler of all who accept the invitation and believe in the saving power of God.
The lifting up theme also has resonances with a passage from the Book of Numbers, chapter 21, verses 4 – 9. There we are told that Moses in the desert raised up on a pole a bronze serpent as a sign of the power of God, whereby the Israelites who were bitten by the poisonous snakes as a punishment for murmuring against God, could look on the bronze serpent with faith and be saved. In the Book of Wisdom, chapter 16, verse 6, the bronze serpent is called a “symbol of deliverance.” Once again, the uplifted Christ is the sign of deliverance and salvation, so that all who look to him with faith, believing in him, will be saved, that is, possessing eternal life.
Second: The crucified Christ is the revelation of the love of God
This theme given to Nicodemus flows from the fact that the origin of our salvation lies with God who sent his Son out of love for the human race. Furthermore, behind everything, there is to be found the love of God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus: “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” (John 3:16-17).
God’s love embraces the whole world, including those who truly love God, those who never think of God and those who reject the love of God. Everyone is included in God’s infinite love. As Saint Augustine expressed the idea, “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.”
Third, The twofold response to the revelation of the love of God
In response to the revelation of God, Who is love, lifted high on the cross, rising from the dead and ascending into Heaven, one can respond in two ways, either with belief or with unbelief. Perhaps we have all had moments or times of a tendency in one direction or the other, toward belief or unbelief.
Perhaps we all struggle with the explicit invitation of Jesus to follow in his footsteps, unsure of or insecure about how it will all turn out. In addition, we ponder about what the personal cost will be for my daily life and my involvement in the things of God.
The tensions we face in our spiritual journey, especially regarding the extent or depth of our faith, should not surprise us in the least. I presume they are a part of every believer’s life. Moments such as Lent are intended to help us re-focus on the essentials, as well as on the reality of the brevity of this life.
As I am now 68 years old, I strongly presume my earthly sojourn is more than two-thirds finished! That should have a bearing on how I plan to live the remaining years, in the light of Christ, but also accepting the reality of my less-than-perfect response and love for the God who has called me and loved me from all eternity. Facing reality is no reason to be discouraged, of course, but cause for being realistic and never giving up the attempts to believe, hope and love God and neighbor.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB