Fourth Sunday in Lent
In the words ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not die but have eternal life’ we have one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. The first part is often seen in isolation and lonely places like magnetic posters on fridges stickers on car windscreens or even billboards. Though often seen as a private verse, it carries an inclusive promise for the world. These are words are for the world, not just the private recesses of our hearts.
We see today that salvation comes in unexpected places. The very ones despised by our culture or relegated to second class status by the church, have been chosen to save us. Out of love God sends prophets and messengers. In the first reading, we see how God's messengers were mocked and their message unwelcome. Such messengers are usually unpopular as they call us to care for the least among us. These voices of God’s justice cry out on behalf of children, refugees, dreamers, the hungry, the sick, and anyone who is sidelined because of their status, race, gender or sexual orientation. They are regarded as fools or bleeding hearts or ‘red-tagged’ and dismissed or threatened. Journalists who expose injustice and atrocity often face violence and death; human rights defenders face prison and death; ’whistleblowers’ revealing government corruption are charged; and scientists who warn us about climate change or the dangers of COVID-19.
The readings depict a God who relentlessly reaches out to people. Love is the logic of God’s reign is revealed in Jesus. We are important. What we do is important. We are called to proclaim God’s love and mercy through our words and deeds. When we forgive, the universe changes. When we reach out and touch the heart of another, the world changes. Whenever we offer kindness and service, God’s purposes are being accomplished and nothing is ever the same. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis says that it is true dialogue that allows us to encounter one another despite our differences and pursue the common good. He says, ‘We need constantly to ensure that present-day forms of communication are in fact guiding us to generous encounter with others, to honest pursuit of the whole truth, to service, to closeness to the underprivileged and to the promotion of the common good’ (208). God’s loving presence waits to be revealed in all of creation and in the people we encounter each day. We need to open our eyes to see it. God insists that our world is lovable, so lovable that he gave his only Son for our world and all of us who belong to it.
In What Jesus Meant, Gary Willis tells the story about his son waking up from a violent nightmare. His son was troubled because a teacher in school said that the children would go to hell if they sinned. He wanted to know if he was going to hell. Willis, despite admitting to not having an ounce of heroism in his nature, instantly answered: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.’ If he could feel this way for his son, how much more would God. This is the message of God taking on flesh in the Incarnation. It says that whatever horrors we face or hells we descend to, God is coming with us. This is the meaning of ‘he descended into hell’
The deep and abiding truth is that God loves us as we are and extends into our bruised and hurting world, not some ideal or perfect world. It is a world where the waters are polluted, where rain forests cut down, where the soil is poisoned and where people are hurting. Last week thousands gathered again for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Many have been badly hurt, bruised, exiled and even died after being told they are/were ‘not good enough, ‘not acceptable’ because of who they are. Many have abandoned any belief in a loving God because of people who imaged a God of judgment rather than one who loves this world and all that is in it. We are reminded also that the poor and oppressed have a special place in the heart of God – and because God loves them in a special way, we, as God's followers are called to do so as well. Until we are able to say truthfully that we love those who are different from us in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or religion, we cannot say that we love the world the way God does. God’s attitude towards us is positive. Yes, there is much that is dangerous, sinful, and corrupting as we see war, hunger, greed, deceit, betrayal, life denying activity, human trafficking, infidelity, broken families, murder, accident and sickness, but we need to have eyes for what is good, beautiful, and sacrificial in the world.
How might our belief in this love translate into our everyday living? Could a God who first loved us ever want us to be vindictive, to take revenge, to destroy someone who has committed a crime? As God reaches out to us in love and loves us first, we have to bring ourselves to the point where we can forgive and love even our enemies. Jesus loved and forgave his executioners. That same spirit needs to be brought by US into our society that is capable of being vindictive, hateful and wants to get even. The way of Jesus is different. If we’ve absorbed this truth about how God loves us, we can’t help but carry out works of love in the same way. We are God’s work of art. We are invited to community by building networks of relationships that bring healing, reconciliation and abundant life and dislocate ourselves from networks of relationships that perpetuate injustice, death and alienation.
When John speaks of being born from above he also means thinking and living differently. It is about living in the light which means accepting God’s gracious love. Darkness exists when we live outside that relationship – when we are silent in the face of injustice, violence, greed, selfishness, viciousness, insensitivity, hypocrisy. As intimated earlier, there are forces that do not want us to work together. Where Christ said 'Love one another', those in power talk about making a better world by destroying it; they talk about peace by going to war; they talk about liberating people by killing them. The African American writer and comedian Nikki Giovanni says: ‘In the name of peace, they waged the wars. Ain't they got no shame?’
If we really understood the way of Jesus, the way of God, the way of love, would we have fallen for the deceit that we can bring peace out of war, or love out of hate, or goodness out of evil? We have to try to transform what is going on in our world and follow the way of God, which is the way of love. The way of Jesus is very demanding – but it is the only way. As we continue our Lenten journey, we need to ask ourselves if we embrace God's inclusive vision of the world, or is the world divided into ‘us vs. them’? Will we seek to find ways to challenge our religious and political leaders about their prejudices that hurt and divide people? Do we have the view that God loves Catholics more than non-Catholics? or Christians more than Muslims, Hindus or even non-believers? or the ‘digger’ (Australian solider) more than the Afghan defender of his or her country? or that God is closer to the Israeli than to the Palestinian person? or that God loves those in the First World more than those who live in the Third World or in Third World conditions in our country? Overcoming our prejudices and preconceived notions about people is difficult, but possible. In our lives today, it is so easy to find things to condemn about ourselves, others and the world, but what if we didn’t choose that. What if instead of judging others, we loved others and saw their light and potential, not just the darkness.
Jesus was sent into the world by a big-hearted and loving God who speaks through him to a sinful world, not about condemnation but about believing. This is the most eloquent affirmation of God’s love. Jesus calls us to set aside the blunders of sin and live in the light of this truth. This is a daily challenge not just during Lent but every day of our lives. It was the challenge Jesus extended to Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the dark. May our prayer ever be, ‘God, teach us to love the world like you do! May that love turn night into day?’ We are God’s work of art and created in the image of the One whose breath, language and voice is given to us, despite the discordant movements in our lives towards injustice, violence, domination, greed and abuse of power. God’s word of love was repeated in the birth of a new born baby where God came to us in the most vulnerable and fragile way possible. May it help us to ignore what others consider important in the form of social, status, beauty and wealth. Let us rejoice in this.