March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
On the first day of the United States’ second attempt at an Iraq war, evangelical activist Tony Campolo preached a sermon in which he recommended that the U.S. dump shiploads of free food and medicine on Iraq and then see if Sadaam was still in power a month later. He wasn’t simply being flip, or reckless. He was serious. When asked for his justification for such unorthodox diplomacy Campolo replied, “Mercy. Read Micah 6:8.”
In Micah 6:1-8, after addressing a “controversy” with Israel because of the nation’s unfaithful behaviour, Yahweh tells Israel what is expected of them; that is: doing justice, loving mercy (sometimes translated as kindness), and walking humbly with our God. It is interesting to note the order in which these instructions are given, because, as a people of faith, doing justice and loving mercy begins with walking humbly with our God: A merciful God expects mercy from those who have received this gift from Him. Mercy always begins with God, who passes this gift on to us, and commissions us to be the channels through which this gift is received by others. And this, I think, epitomizes the essence of our readings today.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we are reminded of God’s mercy given generously – freely – to us, and of our vocation as Christians to show mercy to others. One definition of mercy is: kind, gentle, or compassionate treatment especially towards someone who is undeserving of it. In Les Miserables, the story of Jean Val Jean receiving the generous gift of silver candlesticks from the bishop from whom he had stolen some silver place settings is, I think, an ideal picture of mercy: one who received kind, gentle, compassionate treatment toward someone who is, seemingly, undeserving. As we ponder the meaning of mercy, we need to ask ourselves: when we perceive we have been hurt or violated in any way, do we respond with retaliation, or do we respond with mercy.
Paul seems to have a problem with Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians not getting along with one another in the church at Ephesus. It seems there is a lot of retaliation going on; not a lot of mercy. We all know how challenging it can be for everyone to get along with each other, and as we all know, the church is not exempt from such challenges. Of course, it goes without saying, that we never see any of this at St. Peter’s; this kind of conflict is only something that happens elsewhere. All kidding aside, though, I can say with a huge degree of confidence that St. Peter’s is one of the least conflicted parishes I’ve experienced. We’re far from perfect. Of course, there is work yet to be done, but I would say we’re a pretty good work in progress.
So, what does Paul do with such conflict? Well, he doesn’t immediately rush into offering solutions, such as, “be inclusive”; or instructions, such as, “come on guys; just learn how to get along…” Instead, he appeals to the God “who is rich in mercy”, asking the Ephesians to act toward one another as God in Christ has acted toward them.
I read this week that the NRSV includes about 150 occurrences of the word mercy in the Old Testament and the New, and yet this morning the thing I find remarkable is that in scripture, mercy is almost totally a divine, rather than a human, attribute. Paul doesn’t say we are rich in mercy, but rather that it is the nature of God to be merciful. Mercy is always understood as God-given, so just as God is kind, gentle, and compassionate towards humanity who is often undeserving of such mercy, so must we behave the same toward others.
I feel the need to highlight this theological foundation for mercy in scripture because too often we think of religion as – simply – that which God requires of us. Certainly, as noted earlier, God does require us to, “do justice; love mercy/kindness; and walk humbly with our God.” However, the Prophet Micah understood that this is possible only because of God’s mercy toward us. Often the Sunday sermon is understood as the place where we are given our assignment for the week. We have been conditioned to be more interested in what we are required to do than in God’s love which is the foundation for all merciful acts; this is a by product of a people more concerned with ourselves than God. But I’m suggesting that this excerpt from Ephesians begins with assertions about the mercy of God before it secondarily, and then derivatively, says anything about us. There is no motive for mercy other than this is the way God really is, and therefore the way God’s world is created to be.
Today, of course, (particularly in the west) we continue to live in a world that values unbridled power of the strong over the weak; a world that is increasingly disenfranchised from a belief in/relationship with this merciful God. So, to believe, as Paul believed, that the glory of God is revealed in the raising of a humiliated, crucified, suffering servant who proclaimed the kingdom of God for the enslaved and forsaken, is to turn this worldly wisdom based on power over others, upside down.
Yesterday I heard an interview with a young man whose life had literally been saved through the work of Macdonald Youth Services. His dad had committed suicide when he was young, after which he had been groomed and sexually abused over a prolonged period of time, and all this had led him into a life of drugs and crime. Just when everything was about to go completely off the rails, he found himself at MYS in the hands of wise and caring people who worked closely with him to the point that he was able to completely turn his life around. Right when he appeared to be an unlovable teenager, full of hatred and hostility, (some might say right when he was most undeserving) he was loved back into being. During the interview when he was asked where he would be today if he had not been given the gift of this opportunity, he said in no uncertain terms that he would be dead. This is mercy. And Christians believe that this stems from the love of a merciful God. The mercy made known in/ through Jesus recognizes the marginalized not only as those to be pitied (or worst, despised), but also as those to be cherished, served, and adored. Indeed, the God we worship is a God of mercy.
In our first reading this morning we were reminded of a particular story that speaks of God’s mercy. Here the Israelites, yet again, are kvetching, and complaining – bitterly – about God’s plan and Moses’ leadership. (My goodness those people loved to complain!) And when they are punished with an infestation of venomous snakes and pray for forgiveness, Moses prays for them and God – because He is a merciful God – provides relief for their suffering. God instructs Moses to make a snake of bronze and hang it high on a pole, so anyone suffering from snake-bites can look at it and be healed.
In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus taking this as an image of himself – nailed to the cross in the sight of, and for the sake of, the whole world. This God of mercy has taken the evil which was and is in the world, deep-rooted within us all, and has somehow allowed it to take out its full force on Jesus. When we look at him hanging on the cross (or ‘lifted up’, as John says here and several times later in the gospel) what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing that God – through Jesus on the cross - has lifted us out of this pattern of sin, preparing us to live a new resurrected life. (Much like that young man from Macdonald Youth Services.)
This is the action of a merciful God where we are given the opportunity to see what God’s own love looks like. When Jesus died on the cross, that was the full and dramatic display of God’s own love. The cross is at the heart of John’s amazing new picture of who this God of love, this God of mercy, is.
But evil isn’t then healed or removed as it were, automatically. Precisely because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. As N.T. Wright says, “You might as well try to teach a snake to sing.” All we can do, is to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love – God’s saving mercy – to trust him, and allow that gift of love/mercy to infuse who we are and the way we live.
When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he does not urge them to be merciful toward one another before he notes that for Christians, Jesus is God’s definition of the word mercy. Jesus is the very definition of one who is kind, gentle, and compassionate, especially toward those who are undeserving. Peter, Judas, the criminal hanging next to Jesus were recipients of this gift of mercy, and I think we all may agree that they were not exactly deserving of this gift.
When it comes to who we are and what we are to do we are able to say more than simply, “Jesus showed/shows mercy and so must we.” If God isn’t merciful toward the ungrateful and the selfish, then how can we explain the first century church in Ephesus? Or any church? Jesus is notable, not only because he was merciful, but because Jesus was, is, and continues to BE the mercy of God. Mercy is the by product of a community that is shaped by the love of Christ.
And so Paul reminds the Ephesians of their indebtedness to God to do for them that which they could not do for themselves. Saved by the gracious mercy of God, they are to respond to others as God has responded to them – in mercy. Saved by the gracious mercy of God, we are to respond to others as God has responded to us – in mercy. Let us in gratitude come to Christ’s table, the great merciful table, and here receive the grace we need to go forth and show – make visible - some of the mercy to others that a gracious God has shown toward us.